Logging has devastated more than half of an endangered native bird's protected nesting colony, because of a bureaucratic bungle by the Department of Sustainability and Environment.
The blunder was discovered when a botanist alerted the department, triggering an audit that ended the logging.
As few as 150 superb parrots still breed in Victoria, in a handful of nesting colonies around the Barmah State Forest near Echuca.
A century ago superb parrots could be seen as far south as Plenty, but are now mostly found in NSW, where about 6000 survive.
To stop the birds' numbers dwindling any further, nesting trees are supposed to be protected from logging by buffer zones of at least 100 metres, and their locations are a tightly guarded secret to keep the birds safe from poachers.
But the department's north-east regional director, Kevin Ritchie said staff forgot to check maps before approving a new logging coupe in March 2003.
"The logging operation intruded into the protection zone for superb parrots, because that (protection zone) hadn't been recorded in the Coupe Information System, and the forestry officer who would normally have known to check the maps was away ill," he said.
As a result, from February to June this year loggers felled almost 6000 tonnes of river red gums in about 60 per cent of one of the largest superb parrot nesting colonies in the forest.
In mid-June, when logging was halted because of wet weather, botanical consultant Doug Frood visited the forest.
"I was stunned, because this was one of the best remaining stands of old growth red gums in Barmah and it had been severely impacted," he said.
When a department staff member investigated Mr Frood's complaint on June 29, he realised that the loggers had been allowed deep into a 35-hectare protected zone.
The parrots are due to arrive in the Barmah forest for their annual four-month breeding season within weeks, during which time all human disturbances are banned.
But when The Age visited the forest this week, a clean-up of the area appeared to have hardly begun.
At least five large logpiles were scattered through the woods and the ground was covered with sawn debris, including dried-out tree canopies the size of tennis courts, and 15-metre trees lying next to their stumps.
Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Corporation chairman Lee Joachim was particularly upset by the number of old growth trees left to rot on the ground.
"Most of these have got no timber value at all. They'll be lucky to be used for firewood or woodchips," he said.
Mr Ritchie admitted the area could become a fire hazard if not cleared out before the parrots arrive. He hopes the work will be done this month.
The department is hiring a superb parrot specialist to investigate and will overhaul its logging approvals process.
Logging will soon resume in the area, after the State Government this week closed tenders for another 4000 tonnes of river red gums to be cut in the Barmah State Forest, along with 3000 tonnes from the nearby Gunbower Island State Forest.
That worries some local environmentalists and bird lovers, including Birds Australia's Chris Tzaros: "Superb parrots are one of most elegant and graceful parrots we'd have in this country … the more we keep chipping away at the edges of where they can live, the closer they get to extinction."