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  • Writer's pictureKaia Colestock

At the edge of extinction

The critically-endangered orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) is a small, endemic parrot to Australia. It breeds solely in roadless southwest Tasmania, then migrates across the Bass Strait and winters on the coast of southern mainland Australia. As of 2017, there were 14 individuals left in the wild. As a last-ditch attempt to revive the population, the parrots are being bred in captive breeding programs in six different zoos and sanctuaries. The captive program is currently housing another 300+ individuals as “insurance” against extinction.

Orange-bellied parrot habitat is incredibly site-specific. They nest in eucalypts bordering on button grass moors, usually within 18 miles of the coast. Wintering sites are salt marshes along estuaries and lagoons, typically within 1.5 miles of the coast. Habitat loss and degradation is the main reason for decline in the population. They are also heavily predated by sugar gliders, which will eat the eggs, the chicks, and even the adult females. The population is selecting for more males. Of the 74 orange-bellied parrots that returned to Tasmania this year, 43 were males, 31 were female.

A close cousin to the orange-bellied is the swift parrot (Lathamus discolor), with many of the same challenges and stressors on the population. They have also become critically-endangered for many of the same reasons.

We had a day trip planned to take a small plane out to the southwest corner of Tasmania to see these parrots. Sadly... our flight to Melaleuca was cancelled due to potential bad weather. No storms ended up materializing, so it was layered disappointment. Hopefully these amazing creatures will still be on this planet when we return.

Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania

As an alternative, we spent the day driving out to the southeast corner instead to Eaglehawk Neck. On our way back that afternoon, we pulled over to get directions sorted out. A man and his wife had stopped on the other side of the road just 60 seconds prior to our arrival. The man bent over the double yellow line and picked something up. We were just about to drive away, and Elias leaned out the window and called back to the man, "Is that a musk parrot?" The man looked confused and didn't respond, completely focused on what was in his hand.

"I don't know."

We turned off the van and came over. As I walked closer, my heart dropped.

"Is this swift parrot?" the man asked. He and his wife were locals. They had some knowledge of the fauna in the area and they didn't want to believe what they were seeing.

I nodded with a pained look on my face. Evidently the parrot had flown straight into their windshield just moments before we arrived. The woman in the driver's seat couldn't get out of the car - she was too distraught. We examined the bird further to make a final ID confirmation, and placed it gingerly on a hillside adjacent to the road.

We stood still quietly contemplating our own thoughts. This species breeds in Tasmania, then migrates north to the southern edge of mainland Australia. They move around this time of year when food becomes available and they have to feed juveniles. Swift parrots are also under extreme pressure from sugar glider predation on top of everything else. This part of Tasmania was the last place we expected to find one, and this wasn't how we wanted it to happen.

The couple soon left, and Elias and I stayed behind to digest what had happened. Then I suggested, "What was one swift parrot doing way out here? Maybe we should wait and see if the flock circles back. There must be others."

So we waited.... and waited.

Just about to write it off as a fluke, we jumped back in the van and put the transmission in gear. A bunch of parrot-like chatter rose up out of nowhere, and Elias was on it with his owl ears. Sure enough, a group of swift parrots were chattering and socializing just feet away from where the bird was struck. We managed to snap a few poor shots before the flock took off again minutes later and moved away from the area.

Swift parrot, Tasmania

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