Monitoring the superb parrot in Canberra

On 22nd September, I joined Dr. Laura Rayner from ACT Parks and Conservation Service to prepare for a superb parrot (Polytelis swainsonii) monitoring project in Throsby, ACT.

I was so lucky that superb parrots arrived in Canberra earlier this year so I got the chance to see them—Laura told me they arrived in October last year. Our field day was also the first day Laura saw the superb parrots this year so she was also excited.

Figure 1. male and female superb parrots (from Technical Report: Superb parrot breeding in northern Canberra by Rayner et al., 2015).

Existing threats

The superb parrot is listed as a Vulnerable species in the ACT and federally. According to Laura, a combination of  threats has impacted this species.

Habitat loss

95% of their habitat (grassy woodland) has been cleared in Australia and there are not many hollow-bearing trees in the grassy woodland for them to nest and breed. It is even more difficult to find deep hollows with a small entrance to keep the predators out.


There are many birds of the similar size to the superb parrot like the eastern rosella that compete with them for hollows. When the superb parrot arrives at its breeding ground after winter, many of the suitable hollows would have been taken by resident species. And the superb parrot is not an effective competitor.


There are many predators like goshawks, possums and gliders that eat the eggs and nestlings of the superb parrot.

Emerging threats from urban development

Superb parrots are threatened by development such as the new suburb of Throsby in the ACT (Figure 2). Laura has been working in a monitoring project in Throsby for three years and 2017 is the first year after the development. She said soon there would be more houses, people, cats and dogs, and the impacts of these changes on superb parrots remain unknown.

Apart from the direct impacts, there could be indirect impacts. Some bird species like cockatoos favour urban environment due to water availability and other species such as the rainbow lorikeet favour nectar-rich planted trees and shrubs. As urban development may attract some bird species to this grassy woodland, there might not be enough suitable hollows for superb parrots.

An offset area

The area we went to became part of the Throsby and Kenny Broadacre offset areas in 2015 (Figure 2). Laura said that the impacts of the development of the new suburb have been minimised before the offsetting as the development area was halved with the consideration of superb parrots, golden sun moths and the overall ecological values of the region. The offset area therefore aims to balance the residual impacts of the development. In addition, the offset is part of the Gungahlin strategic assessment, which connects Mulligans Flat and Goorooyaroo Nature Reserve. Thus, this offset is expected to achieve more ecological gains.

Figure 2. A map of the Throsby and Kenny Broadacre offset areas created by ACT Environment and Planning Directorate

Monitoring research  

In her research, Laura monitors the superb parrots to see whether they can find suitable hollows and nest and breed effectively in the study site to determine whether the development of the new suburb has an impact on them, and whether the offset is effective in conserving this species and the ecological values of this area.

Our fieldwork

We saw about 6 superb parrots at the site and a female superb parrot had already found a nest, which suggests that superb parrots could use the site after the development but Laura still needs to monitor them to see if all of them can nest and breed.

We put strings in the trees where the superb parrots had nested in previous years and the trees where they were likely to nest. We needed to put the string on the branch that was higher than the hollows in the tree, so later Laura could put ropes in the tree and climb the tree to put cameras in the tree to monitor the nesting and breeding of the superb parrots. We used a slingshot and a throw bag to put strings in the trees. Laura said it was easier to use a slingshot, but a throw-bag worked better if she needed to aim for a high branch. Laura said it could usually take 15 minutes to 2 hours to put the string on the right branch. We spent almost the whole day putting strings in the trees. Sometimes there were birds on the tree we were trying to string and that made it more difficult. No one wants to shoot a bird! Laura said it was really hard for beginners to succeed but because she was a wonderful teacher, I succeeded once using the slingshot. That was exciting! We also prepared the monitoring cameras by changing the batteries and the camera settings (Figure 3).

Figure 3. change the batteries and the camera settings

However, Laura did not climb the trees to put the cameras in the trees that day because her manager called and said risk assessment was required. But I put on the climbing harness and I also tried to carry the bag with the cameras and other equipment in and that was really heavy. It would be so hard to climb the tree with the bag on.

Laura also needs to put bands and transmitters on superb parrots to track their movements as she did last year. She said she had been worried about disturbing the birds, but they were relatively tolerant to this disturbance and all went back to the nests after this process last year.

Figure 4. a beautiful superb parrot tail feather we found at the site


‘They aren’t meant to be caged’

Laura told me I could never let anyone know about the exact location of the nest trees of the superb parrot. It is sad to know that some people want to make profits using those beautiful birds. But it is good to know that the ecologists are trying their best to save our nature. Thanks Laura for allowing me to help in the monitoring project of this beautiful species!


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Click to access Breeding-ecology-of-the-superb-parrot.pdf

About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
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