Some animals, it seems, got the wrong end of the deal when it comes to having a simple life. Twice every year, a bird that isn’t a great deal larger than your hand flies all the way from southwest Tasmania to the southern coast of Victoria.
The brilliantly-plumaged Orange-bellied Parrot, Neophema chryogaster, is just one example from a group of animals that is known for its awe-inspiring global trips. Most birds, however, are not in the perilous state that Orange-bellied Parrots are in.
One hundred years ago, Orange-bellied Parrots were far more common than they are today. A pair of monogamous parrots would raise their first young in their first year of life, which are born with an ingrained sense of where they have to fly just a few months later. Adult parrots would leave their breeding range, consisting of much of Tasmania, in February and fly over the rough waters of the Bass Strait to reach their wintering grounds. The young, having just learned to fly, would follow a month or two later.
Low, scrubby salt marsh typified the wintering areas and could be found from near Adelaide to central New South Wales, as could the parrots. Presently, these behaviours still can be seen but on a far more limited scale than they used to be as the years go by.
With a total population of about 50 individuals, the Orange-bellied Parrot is certainly one of the most threatened birds on the planet. Although their breeding range is well-protected within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, their wintering range in the salt marshes of southern Victoria is shrinking fast.
Now essentially limited to small fragments of habitat outside Melbourne, the Orange-bellied Parrot is literally running out of places to live. Further threats come in the form of trapping for the live-bird trade, loss of genetic variation, and predation from introduced species. This species is not in good shape but, fortunately, Australians care deeply about their wildlife and are making big efforts to save it.
Hundreds of volunteer birders over the years have contributed observations of the Orange-bellied Parrot which, in addition to the work of ornithologists, have been responsible for a rich understanding of the problems the parrots face. Since the overall number of parrots was determined to be quite low, captive-breeding efforts were intensified to create an insurance population.
Breeding habitat in Tasmania has been protected due to the creation of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and efforts to destroy the remnant wintering habitat in Victoria have met with community outcry. More people have become aware of the species in recent years and really want to see the bird be around for their children and grandchildren to enjoy.
In late May, I visited Victoria with the hope of seeing a wild Orange-bellied Parrot. I went to their main wintering area with an experienced guide who had permits to observe the birds, though he couldn’t promise me any sightings based upon their rarity. We walked on dikes passing through ponds with salt-marsh edges, hoping to see a bird or two perched in a tree.
After several minutes, we paused next to a large pond to drink some water. I heard some birds calling in the reeds by the pond, but thought nothing of it. Before I knew it, five birds flew out as my guide shouted, “That’s them! Those are the OBP’s!” I looked up to see five small, dark shapes flying rapidly towards a nearby field.
At that moment, it hit me. I had just seen 10% of the wild population of these birds and, were it not for the dedication of the Australian birding community and the work of ornithologists, such an opportunity would have been impossible. I hope that the Orange-Bellied Parrot survives its current challenges and provides spectacular experiences for others in the future, while fulfilling its natural role within two very different, but very important, Australian ecosystems. If those involved in its conservation now continue with their dedicated work, it can.
Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team (1998) Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Plan 1998-2002. Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment, Hobart.