Swift parrot sightings encouraging for critically endangered species

Swift parrot sightings in Port Macquarie-Hastings encouraging for critically endangered species

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Birdwatchers are on the lookout for a rare flock of critically endangered swift parrots that have made a neighbourhood in Port Macquarie a temporary feeding ground.

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Nectar feeding parrot: A Swift Parrot in forest red gum at Port Macquarie in June 2018. Photo: Liam Murphy.

Nectar feeding parrot: A Swift Parrot in forest red gum at Port Macquarie in June 2018. Photo: Liam Murphy.

BIRDWATCHERS are on the lookout for a rare flock of critically endangered swift parrots that have made a neighbourhood in Port Macquarie a temporary feeding ground.

Birdlife Australia estimates there are less than 750 swift parrots left in the wild.

The species only breeds in Tasmania but flies across Bass Strait to forage on flowering eucalypts on Australia's mainland.

If conditions are dry, the birds will fly further afield to find sufficient food. They can congregate as a flock at sites where food is available.

They'll spread out from Victoria through to northern NSW and into southern Queensland.

Birdlife Australia is conducting its biannual monitoring of the swift parrot and regent honeyeater with the first survey period ending this weekend (June 6) and the second commencing on July 17 through until August 29.

There are 1200 monitoring sites with each survey period conducted over a six week period.

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The data collected by BirdLife Australia aims to address critical knowledge gaps about swift parrots and regent honeyeaters - much of which can be directly or indirectly linked to the impacts of habitat loss and climate change across their distribution.

As well as monitoring and research, BirdLife Australia is campaigning to stop the destruction of swift parrot habitat in New South Wales and Tasmania. The organisation fears the critically endangered species could be extinct within 10-15 years if habitat loss continues.

Mick Roderick, NSW Woodland Bird program manager for BirdLife Australia, said the sighting of flocks of up to 60 birds in Port Macquarie is promising and presents just under 10 per cent of the estimated population gathering in one location.

He said ongoing survey data will hopefully affirm connections between the types of food sources and number of parrots in specific locations.

"It's one thing to have two or three swifties turn up in an area, but the exciting thing about having a flock is that's their normal behaviour," Mr Roderick said.

"Other parrots such as rosellas and lorikeets are usually found in twos and fours. Up to 60 swift parrots flocking together is a good size. The promising thing is there are enough of them in one area to form a flock and this might mean there could be more than the 750 we estimate are left."

Swift parrots spend the winter on the mainland and return to Tasmania to breed. Breeding is also fraught with predatory danger from sugar gliders who invade the nest and eat eggs after also killing the incubating female bird.

Sugar gliders are an introduced species in Tasmania but have not infiltrated offshore island habitats such as Bruny Island.

"Those islands are the number one important places for swift parrots to breed but unfortunately there are also forestry interests on what is essentially a predator-free habitat," Mr Roderick said.

So what makes places like Port Macquarie so appealing for the swift parrot?

Mr Roderick said anecdotally, they are seeing more swift parrots seeking out lerp as a food source.

Lerp is the sugar and protein rich protective coating produced by small leaf insects called psyllids.

"Swift parrots go nuts for lerp," Mr Roderick said.

It seems the birds are seeking out this as an alternative food source, with coastal regions having a higher proportion of psyllid activity, as a way of combating competition from other species such as rainbow lorikeets.

"What swift parrots are eating in regions could be the interesting thing that comes out of our surveys and for that data to be meaningful, we need to repeat the same methodology when collecting the data."

Members of Hastings Birdwatchers with Ken Monson, Peter West and principal of The Nature School Catherine Oehlman on the lookout for the swift parrot at Innes Lake.

Members of Hastings Birdwatchers with Ken Monson, Peter West and principal of The Nature School Catherine Oehlman on the lookout for the swift parrot at Innes Lake.

The Hastings Birdwatchers group has been a part of the swift parrot search survey for several years and have spotted them primarily in the forest redgums and swamp mahogany surrounding Innes Lake in the Charles Sturt University precinct of Port Macquarie.

Data collected over the years has plotted swift parrot activity in clusters at Lakes Cathie, Wauchope, King Creek, Dunbogan and Ellenborough as well as other scattered locations across suburban Port Macquarie.

Spokesperson Ken Monson said it has been interesting to monitor the return of bird species at each stage of regeneration post bushfires.

Volunteers are using a five-minute, 50m survey technique over 30 sites in Port Macquarie-Hastings to collect data.

"What we have been doing is listening for the bird sounds and which direction they are heading in. We know there are a lot of flowering trees down at Lake Cathie," he said.

Students from The Nature School have been immersed in learning about swift parrots as they study the treetops directly over the school grounds.

Charlotte Judd, Phoebe Levi, Zachary McKenna and Samaya Jordan have all been challenged to think critically about the inter-connectedness of all living things and how changes impact the environment.

"Swift parrots are endangered because of habitat loss," Charlotte explained.

"They usually nest in old tree hollows, but it takes a very long time for a tree to have a hollow and usually it's been cut down before gets old enough to get one."

Phoebe said competition from sugar gliders in Tasmania is also having a significant impact on swift parrot populations.

Samaya Jordan said it is exciting to be able to spot the birds on the tree crowns over the school late in the afternoon as they rest.

Zachary said the birds have a unique call and to have so many flocking in one location is promising for the endangered species' future.

To find out more about the swift parrot search program go to Birdlife Australia's website.

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