Monday, September 07, 2009

The rare orange-bellied parrot (left); Ric Ressom monitors numbers of the bird
at Codrington. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

HE call usually comes in April. They've been spotted fluttering through King Island, a small squadron heading across the strait. Numbering fewer than 150 worldwide, these little birds are rarer than the Siberian tiger. After their buffeted flight through the winds of the Roaring Forties, they scatter thinly along the mainland coast - as they once did in their thousands.

Some travel east to Gippsland, others gather on the wetlands of Werribee. A dozen or so fly west to the Portland area where Ric Ressom, having taken the alarm-raising phone call, picks up his binoculars and prepares to wander the marshes near the Yambuk wind farm.

For the next four months or so, Mr Ressom and fellow observer Helen Phillips will stand sentry among the reeds, monitoring the numbers of Australia's rarest bird - the orange-bellied parrot - making sure its dwindling numbers don't fly into the blades of a wind turbine.

''Despite what some people say, they're not stupid,'' Mr Ressom says. ''They seem to know to stay clear. Even so, you don't want to take chances.''

Last year, the turbines at Yambuk were shut down twice, when the observers alerted the wind farm operator Pacific Hydro, that a number of the parrots were feeding in the vicinity.

Pacific Hydro, which has established three of four planned wind farms in the Portland region, runs the monitoring program to fulfil its environmental protection obligations to the State Government.

The company is also a funding source for a Greening Australia project to expand salt-marsh habitat for orange-bellied parrots, one of the most endangered bird species in the world. The area is now rich with beaded glasswort, the parrot's preferred food.

The result is that the wetlands around the Yambuk turbines have become an orange-bellied parrot hot spot. Of all the sightings on the mainland last year - recorded by a network of about 100 Birds Australia volunteers as well as government and privately funded observers - the biggest group, nine birds, was seen near Yambuk 30 times.

''They're not to easy see,'' Mr Ressom said. ''They're pretty cryptic.

''Their alarm call [a repeated, hard-edged buzzing] is the best indicator … we flush them to see what numbers we've got. Once one bird takes off, the others go with it.

''They're easily spooked and will climb to a great height with a tinkling sound … or they'll fly low across the water with the reeds behind them. They're very crafty in the way they avoid detection.''

It's ironic that the parrot has found sanctuary near Yambuk, given the bird is probably best known for nearly shutting down a wind farm development at Bald Hills in Gippsland three years ago and was also named as a potential threat to the planned desalination plant at Wonthaggi.

Former premier Jeff Kennett blamed the bird for ruining his plan to relocate the Coode Island petrochemical plant (in truth, scuttled on economic grounds).

''The bird's been used as a political football for many years … yet it hasn't been responsible for blocking a single development,'' says Glenn Ehmke, Birds Australia's mainland recovery co-ordinator. ''Even at Bald Hills, [former Environment Minister Ian Campbell] did block it [the wind farm] at first, but went back on it very quickly.''

What's so special about a bird that could easily hide in a school shoe? Along with the swift parrot (also under threat), the orange-bellied parrot is one of only two parrots in the world that is fully migratory - meaning its entire population makes the perilous run across Bass Strait each year from its breeding grounds in southern Tasmania.

Aside from the parrot program, Pacific Hydro employs dog handlers to do monthly surveys for any birds and bats killed at its three Portland wind farms. Mr Ressom is also kept on through the year to monitor the impact on raptors. Says Pacific Hydro's Emily Wood: ''Our obligations for this kind of monitoring finished two years ago, but we have continued to do it as it gives us reliable information.'' On that note, Birds Australia has no complaints.

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