Thursday, May 30, 2019

The survey experience in 2003

Arnold Morales, a visitor from the US, volunteered for some Western Ground Parrot surveys in 2003.  His account of the experience is a reminder of what those early surveys were like. It is a bit shocking to read that using the GPS to mark the starting point of a walk into the bush was not standard practice. Arnold, with an electrical engineering background, also envisaged the need for an Automated Recording Unit (ARU)and its salient characteristics about 5 years before the research team began to investigate this possibility. Now ARUs are invaluable tools in monitoring and survey of Western Ground Parrots.

This account first appeared in a Friends of the Western Ground Parrot Newsupdate in 2004.

A volunteer’s story

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Brenda Newbey, a friend, learned that I planned to visit Australia for several months and invited me to participate in searches for the elusive Western Ground Parrot (WGP). The searches would require camping in the bush, morning and evening treks to various locations, and a bit of paperwork. I saw the invitation as an opportunity to see and live in the Australian wilderness, to meet Aussies, and to help the environment, and I immediately volunteered. Brenda offered to teach me everything I needed to know, but I don’t think she realized how little I knew.

I knew little about camping or living in the bush, I knew little about birds or how to count them, I didn’t know much about Australia, and I didn’t know what to expect. My preparation consisted of Bausch and Lomb 10x50 binoculars and a military-issue survival knife, and I learned later that I didn’t need either.

Living In The Bush

My first trip to the bush was a personal disaster. I borrowed a 1-person tent from my brother, Robert, that he had bought in the U.S. during a visit. He had not used the tent, so I assumed it was OK. It wasn’t. It was too small, and it leaked along the seams. One rainy night I woke up and felt water on my feet. I tried to keep my feet dry by bending my knees, but the water kept creeping toward me. Meanwhile, a couple of mosquitoes had entered the tent through a break in the net zipper and were driving me crazy, and a horde of mosquitoes were queued up on the outside of the net waiting to attack. I eventually fled the tent and waited for daylight in Brenda’s Suzuki. Lesson learned – I soon bought a top-quality tent, a comfortable sleeping bag, and a self-inflating air mattress, and I started keeping the door net completely zipped while I slept.

Water, I learned, is a problem in the bush. It’s like living on a boat. There is never enough water to use freely. The challenge, I figured out, is to have enough water by using as little as necessary to stretch the supply. I eventually realized that dishes don’t really have to be well-rinsed after washing, that human beings don’t need daily showers to survive (three days is my limit), and that clothing can be worn for more than one day without serious adverse effects. Within a few days I began to consciously conserve water, especially when bathing (start at the top and work down), but Brenda set the standard for water consumption and was always concerned about my water use. So, I eventually began to take field baths while she was asleep or away  from camp – another form of survival.

Thanks to good planning, food was not a problem -- we enjoyed good hot food every day, complete with wine or port. One night we made damper in the campfire, with beer and a handful of raisins. Real gourmet dining, bush style.

I eventually learned to manage OK, and even enjoyed a few conveniences. I could not always get ABC radio with my Walkman but my electric toothbrush never let me down, and I drank hot coffee every morning. I was content. 

Learning About Western Ground Parrots

There’s really not much to learn about WGPs because remarkably little is known about them. They live only in a few well-defined areas near the south coast of Western Australia, but nobody is really sure. They fly only near dawn and dusk, but nobody is really sure. They are declining, but nobody is really sure. In fact, very few people have even seen a WGP. I think the only things that we know about WGPs with certainty  are that they exist, and that few remain. The rest is rumor, but nobody is really sure. At least, so it seems to me.

My assignment would be to count WGPs in various locations -- once at dawn, and once at dusk. I first had to learn to identify WGPs, and that was the difficult part. Unlike ideal children, WGPs are heard but are seldom seen. This meant, of course, that the bulky binoculars that I had transported half way around the world were useless, and that I had to learn to identify WGPs by their call.

Fortunately, Brenda had a “training” audio tape that would make me an expert. Well, not quite.

The tape contained a WGP “rising” call, and several “level” calls. The rising call was very distinctive and was easy to identify. The level calls were not very distinctive and were similar to calls of other birds (and a cricket, I would later learn). My only hope was to hear rising calls in the bush, so I asked whether the WGPs typically used rising calls or level calls. Nobody knew (of course). I felt doomed but proceeded in the hope that somehow I would figure out who’s who in the bush.

At first, I accompanied Brenda. She taught me how to use a GPS, how to log calls, when to begin listening, and when to cease. These “mechanics” were fairly easy to learn. Unfortunately we heard no “classic” WGP rising calls during these training sessions, heard many level calls that probably weren’t WGP calls, and a very few level calls that probably were. I couldn’t distinguish between the “probable” and “not-probable” calls, and I still felt doomed.

I then went out on my first solo “listen.” I knew I couldn’t identify WGPs with certainty, so I established a policy of logging all calls that sounded like WGP calls and annotating the uncertain calls with question marks. Of course, all of my logged calls had question marks. This was a bit of a copout that shifted the burden of identification to Brenda, who would later grill me about the calls and would identify the probable WGP calls herself. However, my call logs sometimes confirmed calls heard by others based on call times and directions, so I felt I was contributing to the group effort.

A Few Problems

One morning I had difficulty getting a GPS fix. My GPS coordinates drifted all over the place and I thought that the unit was not operating correctly. Later that morning I checked with others and learned that they all had similar GPS problems. Coalition forces were attacking Iraq at the time and someone suggested that the U.S. may have been de-tuning the GPS satellites for security reasons. I didn’t think so because President Clinton had established a policy of not tampering with GPS satellite operation. Later I read that the U.S. had shut down GPS satellites in three orbits for security reasons, so even in the isolated Australian bush we were affected by events in Iraq.

Three of the ladies went together to a new search area one day and selected a departure point that apparently served as a kangaroo rest area. All of a sudden they noticed that they were covered with ticks and proceeded to desperately take off their clothes. The tactic apparently worked because only one tick was later found on one of the ladies.  There was a report that kangaroos were seen running from the area in shock at the sight, but it was never confirmed.

Another volunteer, Anne Gadsby, had the misfortune to stall in the middle of a pool of water during a transit to a new camp. This was a minor tragedy because Ann’s car was fairly new and was very well maintained, and muddy water seeped into the passenger compartment. We managed to tow the car out of the water (Shapelle waded into the deep water and connected the tow rope; I took photos), and Ann drove on to the new camp and quickly recovered from the ordeal. The story has a good ending because CALM very generously paid to have Anne’s car carpets cleaned.

One evening I walked alone through 1 km. of bush country off  Poison Creek Road in Cape Arid National Park, deployed my equipment and waited. Soon I began hearing a stream of what sounded like WGP level calls. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds of calls, and I could not log them all. I returned to camp, reported what I’d heard, and insisted that an experienced person (Brenda) return to the spot the next day to confirm what I’d heard and to identify the source. I knew that something was there, but I didn’t know what. The next evening several of us returned to the site and listened. They were back – dozens of calls. We all furiously scribbled report entries, but I noticed that Brenda stopped after a few minutes. She obviously knew something that I didn’t know, but I doggedly continued logging calls for another 30 minutes or so. When we regrouped Brenda told us that the “calls” were generated by crickets or cicadas that mimicked WGP calls. So now I had spurious cricket calls to worry about – it seemed like biological warfare to me. Sorry, team. But at least we were the first (we think) to encounter the cricket in that part of the coast.

Another evening I was dropped off in a new listening area, moved several hundred meters into the bush to my assigned listening spot, and once again deployed my equipment and listened. I was just about to call it a night when I heard a clear classic WGP call in the distance, followed by another. In fact, the calls sounded exactly like the calls I had heard on Brenda’s training tape. I told Brenda about the calls when we regrouped, and she told me she had played the tape about the time I heard the call. But because of the distance and hill between us, she thought I may have heard a live WGP responding to her tape. We calculated the distance between us and decided to test whether I could have heard the tape. We drove near the area where I had heard the calls and positioned ourselves on either side of a hill separated by the calculated distance, then Brenda played the tape while I listened. I did hear the call, so we reluctantly concluded that I had earlier heard the tape, not a WGP. We had wasted at lot of time an effort only to prove that I had been fooled by a tape recorder, but we at least confirmed that sounds and calls can travel very long distances in the bush. .

A Couple of  Successes

One evening the group deployed near in shore from Cheynes Beach. All was relatively quiet until dark, when a noisy swarm of unidentified birds flew onto the bush near shore. They landed all around us and seemed to be everywhere. Nobody knew what they were, and arguments and discussions raged. The birds, whatever they were, were simply not supposed to be there.

Later that night Brenda and I drove back to the area to search for the birds. We parked and immediately heard a group a short distance from the car, but the birds became quiet as we approached and another group seemed to start calling a bit further away. This continued for a while. We would hear the birds just a little further in the bush, they would quiet as we approached, then we would hear more birds a bit further away. We finally decided to thoroughly search a clump of vegetation where we were certain we had heard birds but finally gave up after 20 minutes or so of probing. We reluctantly decided to return to camp and heard another group of birds near the car as we approached – the very place where we had started our search. These birds were making us look like idiots.

The next day I developed a plan to identify them. I knew that the birds flew in after dark, so instead of chasing them on the ground I decided to wait for them and take their photo with my digital camera as they flew in. The plan was simple. I would listen for the birds, take blind shots in the darkness in the direction of their sounds, rely on the camera flash to capture them, and hope. However, I didn’t properly prepare the camera. I forgot to disable the camera red-eye feature, so the camera generated two flashes per picture, and I didn’t replace the camera disk, so I had disk space for only about six shots. Despite the poor preparation, I managed to capture one of the birds in the corner of one of my blind shots and was able to zoom in on him nicely. From the photo and the sounds they were making, the birds were identified by Sarah Comer as Great-winged Petrels. They were unexpected over land and  were thought to be engaging in pre-breeding behaviour.

During the last day of my last WGP expedition I felt a bit frustrated. I had not heard one call during my many “listens” that I was absolutely sure was a WGP call. As I began my final listening assignment I thought it would be nice to finally hear a loud, clear, classic rising call that I could definitely attribute to a WGP. Nice, but not likely in this new area where no WGP had ever been found, and statistically almost impossible. But it happened.

I heard two clear, loud rising calls from the same direction minutes apart. When I met Brenda I first asked her whether she or anyone else had played the training tape. No, she told me. Then I told her about the calls that I had heard and asked her if she had heard them. No, she replied.

I couldn’t understand this. Brenda was listening no more than a couple of hundred meters from me and I had heard the calls from her direction, but she had not heard the calls. Brenda listed the calls as valid, but I wanted confirmation. Brenda and I were scheduled to leave that day but everyone else planned to stay a couple of more days, so I asked Shapelle to listen in the area again. She did. She deployed five listeners in the area the next day and three heard the call, including Shapelle. So on my last day I was fortunate to have heard the eastern-most parrot ever heard. The longitude is now known as the “Arnold” line, at least by me and my brother (who suggested the name).


OK, I have a technical background and I’m biased. But I’ve concluded after a lot of stumbling that a bit of technology would really help us study and assess the WGP.

My first clue was the GPS. I had never used a GPS before my visit to Australia and was taught only how to turn it on and read the coordinates. Eventually I figured out that if I marked my starting point and told the GPS to take me to the starting point, the GPS would tell me the distance I traveled from the starting point as I walked. This helped me get to my assigned locations because without this GPS feature I didn’t know, for example, when I had walked 800 meters into the bush. The best I could do was try to visualize the length of eight U.S. football fields – not easy in the wilderness. Marking the starting point also gave me GPS steering information back to my starting point – a feature that saved me from getting lost a couple of nights. (This is now standard practice)

My second clue was the bird ambush with my digital camera. After the ambush I realized that a set of night-vision goggles would have allowed us to see and identify the birds at night as they flew. With the goggles we may have even been able to see WGPs in flight.

My third clue was use of two walkie talkies that I had brought to Australia. Brenda and I used them to coordinate our “listening distance” test. After the test I realized that giving a walkie talkie to each person in the field, all tuned to the same frequency, would have helped us coordinate our search efforts and would have allowed anyone that required assistance to ask for help. They are essentially line-of-sight devices but would be ideal for the typical flat WGP terrain.

My fourth clue were many hours I spent listening for WGPs. I eventually realized that remote audio devices could do the job. They could be programmed to listen during specific periods of the day (around dawn and dusk), and could incorporate filters that pass only WGP call frequencies, eliminating most unwanted sounds. They could be used continuously throughout the year, and could be moved periodically for wide coverage. More sophisticated devices could be developed that, for instance, respond only to specific WGP (or other bird) call characteristics.


To my surprise, CALM sent me a $160.00 check for my volunteer efforts. I was proud of the check and the 1-yr. park pass they gave me, and I reluctantly deposited the check in my bank account. I felt that I should have paid CALM for the opportunity to volunteer -- the experience was that good. 

I met and worked with wonderful people, I saw the Australia that few visitors see, and I have many fond memories of my WGP trips. The sight of kangaroos in the wild (usually in pairs) was a real thrill. So were the sunsets that I captured on my camera. So was the shore at Cape Arid. So was my first taste of damper. So were many other sights and experiences that come to mind almost randomly.

I told myself when I volunteered to search for Western Ground Parrots that I would not simply tag along as a tourist but would contribute in every way that I could. I think I did OK,  but I’m certain that I received much more than I gave.

Arnold Morales, March 2004.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

First Western Ground Parrot information brochure side two (minus contact details)

Below is side two of the first information brochure which became available in 2004. At that stage we were unaware of the turquoise blue feathers at the leading edge of the wings. These can only be seen in flight or when the bird is displaying with wings extended. (See blog post July 22, 2016.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

First Western Ground Parrot information brochure

Below is half of the first information brochure about the Western Ground Parrot which became available in early 2004. It was folded into three so that the front showed the central panel with the photo and the request 'Help find me'. That photo was one of only two coloured photos of a live bird that was available at the time! 

Much has changed in the 13 years since then regarding distribution so the map is inaccurate now. No Western Ground Parrots have been found at Waychinicup since 2004, and none has been found in Fitzgerald River National Park since 2012. The population number is still estimated at fewer than 200. Wildfire and predation are definitely serious threats - the word 'possibly' would not be used nowadays.

The tail feathers were painted from feathers found where a bird had been taken and plucked by a predator in Fitzgerald River National Park.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A nestling and a missed opportunity

Following are extracts from the report "Western Ground Parrot nest search at Waychinicup September and October 2001". A nestling was located but due to the lack of knowledge about what a nestling would sound like, the opportunity for following up was lost. The surveys were from 6 to 13 September and 4-17 October. Communications were not as easy in those pre-Google days as now.

BOC is the Bird Observers' Club.

Note: Another predator known to be common near the swamp was the feral cat. The dry season could have allowed cats to encroach on the islands which in a wetter year would be protected by being ringed with water.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Roost sites, territory, and number of birds

From "Western Ground Parrot nest search at Waychinicup September and October 2001".

The map below (Fig. 4) shows the roosting sites of three pairs of Western Ground Parrots at the time of the surveys (September and October 2001). The roosting areas were 1.2 - 2 size and approximately 250 - 300 metres apart. Each roosting site was an 'island' slightly above the general level of the swamp and with a wider range of plants than the sedges of the swamp floor. The dense sedges of the swamp floor are about 0.75 metre above ground, and the dense vegetation of the roost sites stands to about 1.5 metres above the ground.
A fourth and similar island, near the lake, was not being used as a roost site.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Nest search at Waychinicup 2001: call data (3a)

The table below shows that the duration of calling was more than twice as long in October as in September. The number of calls was only 20% higher in October.

The map (Map 6)shows the positive listening points in and near the swamp (south-west of lake).


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Nest search at Waychinicup 2001 (Part 2: coverage and distribution)

                                       playback trial, part of the segment (approximately half to two thirds) was
                                 played. After waiting three