Interim Night Parrot Habitat Statement
Purpose: This Interim Habitat Statement is intended to provide a description of the key attributes of Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) habitat as understood as of December 2020.
This information is derived from Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK), historical accounts, and recent data and observations derived from two-way science, which combines Indigenous and western scientific approaches.
Contributors: Simon Nally, Steve Murphy, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) Indigenous Rangers, Paruku Indigenous Rangers, Birriliburu Indigenous Rangers, Nigel Jackett, Gareth Catt, Nicholas Leseberg, Allan Burbidge.
Night Parrot Landscape Ecology and recent records
This interim habitat statement is intended to illustrate examples of potential and known Night Parrot habitats and to identify ecological and edaphic factors that may influence habitat suitability. It is likely that habitats and factors other than those discussed here are equally important to the conservation of the Night Parrot.
Vertebrate population dynamics in arid Australia are believed to be influenced primarily by the nature of ecological refugia (e.g. food, soil moisture, vegetation structure, waterholes, break-aways and rocky hills), predator refugia (hot/low rainfall areas where predator numbers are low, islands that predators have not reached), and fire mosaic (increased plant species diversity and vegetation structure) (Dickman et al. 2011; Morton 1990; Byrne 2008; Letnic & Dickman 2008). The influence of these types of factors on vertebrate distribution has also long formed part of ITEK of country, not least because efficient hunting has relied on both personal research by Aboriginal land managers and knowledge passed down through generations as part of Tjukurpa/Manguny (Dreaming) (KJ rangers pers. comm. 2020; Paruku Rangers pers. comm. 2020; Brown et al. 2019, Burbidge et al. 1988).
Habitat is the locality or the environment where an organism lives (IUCN Glossary, accessed 2020). The habitat types described below primarily relate to features associated with ecological refugia and fire mosaic noted above. An equally important aspect of habitat is the level of fox and cat predation occurring across these features – the second factor noted above. Although current habitat suitability may be diminished by the current level of predation pressure applied by cats and foxes, habitat value to the long-term survival of the species is not extinguished by predation levels that currently prevents occupation by night parrots.
Recent records have occurred in locations where there is an absence of or low levels of cat and fox predation. This reinforces historical reports that associate Night Parrot declines and local extinctions with fox and cat predation (Murphy et al. 2017).
Recent records of the Night Parrot by Paruku, KJ, and Birriliburu Rangers and others (Davis & Metcalfe 2008; Jackett et al. 2017; Murphy et al. 2017; Michelmore and Birch 2020) have occurred at locations where productive habitat (such as ephemeral grasslands, herb-fields or samphire, gilgais, run-on areas, floodplains, or salt lake systems), is interspersed or juxtaposed (at a scale of tens of square kilometres) with old-growth, dense hummock-forming spinifex broken up into fire-isolated patches by ironstone, rocky bars, salt lakes or samphire flats, within 50km of free water.
It should not be assumed that the habitat associated with these recent records represent the entirety of habitat combinations on which the species relies for survival. For example, there is good reason to suspect that habitats such as lateritic rises, limestone deposits, deep reticulated sands etc could offer many of the same requirements for night parrots relating to productivity, fire patterns etc. For example, stony lateritic rises support vertebrate populations possibly due to the continuity of high-quality water availability increasing access by plants to nutrients (Southgate et al. 2007).
Night Parrot habitat requirements
A night parrot requires access to reliable food sources, shelter for breeding, and protection from predators and the elements, and access to either free water or water-rich plant foods. The resources must have qualities that provide for social interactions and occur at a scale appropriate to support population processes. The spatial configuration of habitat types providing for these needs is likely to be important in determining suitable landscapes for sustaining night parrot populations. As night parrots may fly from tens to hundreds of kilometres in one night, the scale at which habitat should be considered should be in the order of hundreds of square kilometres.
Night Parrot habitat types
Habitat for night parrots includes areas where the following features are present or juxtaposed in the landscape. Key sources relating to recent observations are included.
Food resource habitat: Areas that are likely to be of relatively high vegetative or seed productivity such as run-on areas, floodplains, salt or clay pans, salt-lake margins (Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa Indigenous Rangers 2020), and other relatively productive areas such as those associated with paleo-drainage systems (Martu rangers pers. comm 2020; Murphy et al. 2017). Such productive areas may be of variable size including collections of patches that are only a few square metres in area, salt lakes and pans of a few hectares to floodplains extending to hundreds of hectares. They are generally characterised as being relatively fertile, may have high floristic diversity (Murphy et al. 2017), and may provide either permanent or ephemeral food resources in the landscape for a range of arid-zone vertebrates. Night Parrot populations may rely upon episodes of resource pulses within such habitats across areas from tens to hundreds of square kilometres in size. Systems that include catchments that extend into reliable rainfall zones may provide key refugia or promote relatively secure or sedentary occupancy.
Breeding and roosting habitat. Areas that can support multiple to many occurrences of dense roosting habitat such as old-growth dense hummock-forming spinifex, thickets of lignum, or dense shrubby samphire. This type of habitat is often associated with vegetation that is broken into fire-isolated patches by bare soil, rock, salt-lakes or other barriers to fire. The patch sizes may be small (e.g. single isolated spinifex hummocks on ironstone soils) or medium-sized (e.g. a fire-isolated island of square kilometres of old dense spinifex surrounded by rocky ridges or salt lakes). The temporary loss of dense roosting habitat as a result of fire does not diminish the potential value of such areas as habitat to the Night Parrot.
Flyways: Areas between the habitat types identified above through which night parrots traverse. This includes many of the habitats surrounding or forming mosaics with the above habitat features. In Western Australia, recent records indicative of flying night parrots have primarily occurred in drainage lines (Nigel Jackett, 2020, pers comm.), and may be indicative of preferential use of these areas as flyways. In Queensland, habitats associated with fence and vehicle collisions include sparse Mitchell grass, burr-daisy, and chenopods on bare gibber (Boles et al. 1991; Boles et al. 1994) and low rises of bare gibber with sparse grass and shrubs (Cupitt & Cupitt 2008). These occurred in a landscape varying from river and creek drainage systems, surrounding dune-fields, forb–grasslands on mainly ironstone gravel-covered plains, low ranges and low dissected tablelands supporting sparse shrublands, undulating stony clay plains supporting Mitchell Grass, and Gidgee (McDougall et al. 2009). Flyways may be some distance from spinifex – Boles et al. (1994) noting a distance of at least 4km for one record. Flyways may be used by night parrots for local sedentary movement in the order of tens of kilometres (Murphy et al. 2017), or over greater distances to access more distant resources or for migratory movements.
Water: Permanent or ephemeral sources of free water (Kimberley Land Council / Paruku Indigenous Rangers 2020; Birriliburu Rangers pers. comm. 2019; Jackett et al. 2017; Davis & Metcalfe 2008), or areas where high soil moisture ephemerally or permanently support vegetation that offers a source of metabolic water for vertebrates (Kearney et al. 2016).
Gastrolith sources: Areas where stones of appropriate quality may be ingested to aid in food digestion, such as ironstone plains or rocky breakaways (Murphy et al. 2017).
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