IN SEARCH OF THE ‘DISAPPEARED’

Portrait of Keith Woodley by Tony Neilson
Portrait of Keith Woodley at Miranda Shorebird Centre
New Zealander, Keith Woodley – dreaming of the shorebird Holy Grail. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

A Conservation Champion in North Korea

(Part one of a two-part exclusive interview by Natural Images founder, Tony Neilson.)

 Why would any sane person want to go bird watching in a secret and repressive regime whose nuclear ambitions threaten our very existence?

Enter the tall, bearded and bespectacled Keith Woodley – a New Zealander who is among those who see North Korea as the possible source of a kind of wading bird Holy Grail.

Manager of the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre near Auckland, artist and part-time author, Woodley is one of very few foreigners to have been granted access to the ‘hermit kingdom’ to check out the shorebird situation.

Spring in the step

And after three visits in three years (during good April-May tides), he has come away with a spring in his step and an optimistic air.

“So far, we’ve found at least six sites in DPRK of international importance,” he told Natural Images. Those are sites supporting more than one per cent of a population [flocks around 22,000 at each site]. The species are mainly dunlin, eastern curlew, far eastern curlew, bar-tailed godwit and probably Eurasian curlew. But that’s just the start of it.”

Shorebirds feeding in North Korea
Red knots, bar-tailed godwits and dunlins (small, foreground) at a pool in North Korea. Photo: Adrian Riegen

With global wader numbers in free-fall – mainly through massive land reclamation and habitat destruction along the Chinese and South Korean coastlines of the Yellow Sea – there is the ever present hope among bird researchers that the ‘disappeared’ may just have moved elsewhere.

The lost legions

If they have survived the hand of man, where on the much-studied East Asia-Australasian Flyway could they be? Woodley says there are some possibilities, but he admits the chances of discovering the ‘lost legions’ are remote – in all respects.

There is not necessarily any major ‘new’ population in North Korea; they’ve probably always been there.

After numerous multi-national surveys with the help of Chinese and South Korean colleagues, Woodley says the shorebird situation along most of the coast of China and all of the coast of South Korea is well known.

Huge sand shoals

“Thus, it is highly unlikely there is a mainland [China/South Korea]coastal site holding a considerable shorebird population that hasn’t been found.

“That said, there is still a question mark over some huge [unstudied] sand shoals in the Yangtze Delta that may be holding a lot of birds.

“But the big gap is North Korea. If you study the satellite images there are huge areas of mudflats all along that coast. And there was always the suspicion they were holding lots of birds.”

Kiwi birdwatchers with scopes in North Korea
Keith Woodley (third left) with other New Zealand researchers and local officials on survey in North Korea. Photo: Adrian Riegen

The potential for a major shorebird population in the DPRK is due entirely to its social and economic backwardness. There is some reclamation, but Woodley says it is nothing when compared to the habitat loss in China and South Korea.

Unmodified habitat

“There is a lot more unmodified habitat in North Korea, and if the birds are able to find those mudflats, it may yet prove the safety valve [to extinction for some species].”

The next stage in the New Zealand Wader Study Group’s plan to determine if the DPRK has become a sanctuary for new or displaced shorebirds is now being finalised.

Having established that there are regular flock movements between China and North Korea, the next objective is to determine the extent of the transience.

A simultaneous survey in each country is scheduled for 2018 – global conflict permitting. “If we can pull it off, there will be a team on each side of the border, counting on the same tide cycle.”

Close-up of eastern curlew eating a crab
Critically endangered in Australia, the eastern curlew has been seen in good numbers in the DPRK. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The Bohai mystery

Woodley says another tantalising aspect of the research work in North Korea could help solve a mystery associated with decimated red knot populations in the Bohai Sea on the China coast.

The Broome-based Global Flyway Network led by Chris Hassell has established over about nine years that Bohai is the most important site on the flyway for red knots. “Maybe half the surviving global population has been [refuelling] there, but their favourite stopping-off place is in the midst of a massive industrial development,” says Woodley.

So if the Bohai site accounts for about half the remaining knot population, where do the rest hang out on their way to and from their northern Arctic breeding grounds?

“There may be a site off the shoals of the Jiangsu Coast of China,” says Woodley. “But it still could be that there is a massive site in North Korea supporting those numbers of red knots. And to us, that really is the Holy Grail.”

If not? “Even surveying most of the North Korean coast confirming that there isn’t such a site for red knots would be important information.”

The hermit kingdom

So how did the Kiwi researchers get into the hermit kingdom in the first place?

“During previous surveys at a reserve near the Chinese port city of Donggang, our group would often see birds leaving the mudflats and flying across the river to roost in North Korea,” Woodley recalls.

“A lot of the birds remained on the China side but there was a steady pattern to North Korea. We would look across to this other, strange country and think, gee, what if we could get in there and have a look?

Controversial politician

And thanks largely to the efforts of a controversial politician, then New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, the ornithologists got their wish.

Peters raised the shorebird subject during an official visit to Pyongyang in 2007, and the response was positive. An initial group of three New Zealand researchers ‘went in’ in 2009 and surveyed wetlands at Mundok, northwest of Pyongyang.

They found “interesting” shorebird populations. But through funding and various representation problems there wasn’t another visit until 2011. By then the East Asia-Australasian Flyway Partnership involving governments, NGOs and organisations such as the Miranda Trust, had been formed.

Flock of red knots at Miranda wetland
Keith Woodley’s ‘patch’ at Miranda still has good red knot stocks. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The step change

For the Kiwis, that brought a step change in the level of their engagement in China and elsewhere, and the chance to formalise their visits to North Korea.

In 2014, Woodley and three other New Zealanders went to Pyongyang for three days and signed an agreement between the Nature Conservation Union of Korea and the Miranda Trust for a work program over the next five years.

Woodley says the Kiwis are the only foreign wader researchers to have gained access to North Korea. “Foreigners of any sort are few and far between there.

“The DPRK considers itself a country under siege, so their coastline is very sensitive. But we need to be on that coastline to count the shorebirds, so there is always a lot of paperwork and ‘mindering’ going on.

“But it is a bit of a privilege to be there and you’ve just got to go with what’s required,” he told Natural Images.

(In Part II of this exclusive interview (being posted in May), Keith Woodley talks about transmitters, corruption in South Korea, the Miranda Trust and his new book, ‘Godwits – Long Haul Champions’.)

©Natural Images 2017

The Conservation Heroes

Migratory waders in the shallows on the Cairns Esplanade
Migratory waders in the shallows on the Cairns Esplanade
Great knots, curlew sandpipers and godwits regularly roost on the Cairns Esplanade. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

A WORLD OF HIS OWN

John Crowhurst: the bird ambassador

The word went out some years ago: Crowhurst’s dead!

But just as the London press of 1897 ‘exaggerated’ the death of Mark Twain, so it is with John Crowhurst, OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia).

The man known to scores of local and international birdwatchers as the ‘bird ambassador’ of the Cairns Esplanade is definitely still with us.

In fact, he will soon (27 February) celebrate his 80th birthday. Albeit, John is now a resident at the Regis Nursing Home in Cairns where he is battling health and mobility issues.

John Crowhurst sitting close to his beloved library of bird books
‘The Ambassador’, John Crowhurst at home with his books after a spell in hospital.

Heavily reliant

When Natural Images interviewed him a while back he was still in his own unit, but just out of hospital and heavily reliant on his good birding buddy Andy Anderson. (That relationship continues.)

“They think I’m dead, you know,” John said while shuffling slowly around his book-lined front room on a walking frame – rather poignantly, wearing his ‘Stop Extinction’ t-shirt.

The ‘they’ were some of the many tourists and visiting birders with whom he corresponded over a lot of years. “I was a bird guide and also wrote regularly to people about the birds. Then the correspondence dried up and I learned that many of them thought I was a gonner.”

Head gardener

John’s exposure to the birding fraternity was at its peak when he was the Cairns council’s head gardener responsible for the Esplanade – then regarded as one of the best locations anywhere in the world to easily observe migrating wading birds at close quarters.

Mature rufous owl front-on from below
Rufous owl hangouts around Cairns would have been on John Crowhurst’s beat. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

“I was given a lot of time by the council to help people interested in the birds. As soon as I saw somebody with binoculars I would approach them and see if I could help,” he recalled with obvious fondness.

“Rather than a gardener, I became a sort of birding ambassador. It started out at two hours a day but eventually I was fulltime helping people with the birds.”

A hidden phobia

Sadly, the ambassadorial role was not to last. John had a phobia that he didn’t know existed until in his early 60s, when a big cyclone began forming offshore from Cairns.

The news terrified him and so he took to his bed. When he woke the next day he was ‘paralised’. “I just froze with fear and literally couldn’t get out of bed. I suffered a complete nervous collapse and eventually went down to Sydney for a year to recover.”

Consequently, he took early retirement and from that point immersed himself in his growing collection of bird and natural history reference books – hundreds of them.

Peace of mind

“Most of his 1200 books are now with him in his room at the nursing home,” says Andy Anderson. “That stabilises and protects his peace of mind, although one of his Parkinson’s medications caused him severe paranoia for a while.”

To stop him worrying about his beloved books being stolen, the most valuable ones were stored by Andy until the medication was changed and the paranoia subsided.

The comprehensiveness of John’s collection is illustrated by an experience from Andy’s days as a professional bird guide. “A Florida-based client wanted me to show her the birds of Siberia. I was in Boston at the time and went to the public library to get two well-known books about Russian birds, but they didn’t have them.

A triangle of godwits in Cairns shallows
Godwits feeding in the early evening tide off the Cairns Esplanade. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Million manuscripts

“That library [the Boston Public Library includes 250,000 rare books and a million manuscripts] is three storeys and each one is almost half a block.

“But I knew there was an alternative – John will have them in Cairns! And he did – both of them!”

Crowhurst says he acquired most of his wildlife knowledge from reading books and magazines. “I don’t have a computer and don’t really even know how to turn on the television.”

When we spoke to him, he was hoping to be back on his feet so he could go bird watching and refresh his mind about their calls. “I used to be good at that – if you don’t know the calls you can’t be a good birder – but my skills aren’t what they used to be.”

‘My world is my library’

Did you travel a lot? “I went to PNG three times but that’s about it… My world is my library. Grab a book and I’m there. I have a good imagination and that helps. When I am surrounded by my books or I’m working on a journal, I am literally in a world of my own.”

Frail now and with a patchy memory, Crowhurst thinks his bird knowledge (legendary in some circles) is much more from reading than watching. “As a birder I didn’t consider himself even good. But I knew a lot of the birds and became a professional guide for a while.”

Although rarely seen in public these days, John Crowhurst is certainly not forgotten by local and overseas birders. Meet one of a certain age who has been to Cairns and chances are they will ask if you know the tall, raw-boned man called John ‘something’.

(Footnote: John Crowhurst wanted to donate his collection of books and journals (big green ledger books of carefully placed magazine articles and news items) to the library at the Cairns Botanical Gardens. But they apparently declined.)

Story and pictures: ©Tony Neilson

Rear view of Cairns birders on their Esplanade bench
John Crowhurst was a regular at the birders’ bench on the Cairns Esplanade. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The Conservation Heroes

Sue Shephard on a red dirt road looking for golden-shouldered parrots
Sue Shephard on a red dirt road looking for golden-shouldered parrots
Sue Shephard on golden-shouldered parrot monitoring duty along the main road north near Musgrave. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

THE GUARDIAN ANGELS

A farming couple’s devotion to the golden-shouldered parrot

(This page is dedicated to a select few we call our ‘Conservation Heroes’. Rarely household names, we think they are deserving of greater recognition for their work in the protection of the natural environment and clever use of natural materials.)

Our first ‘hero’ is a softly spoken, unassuming farmer and reluctant celebrity from Cape York in far north Queensland. But when it comes to her beloved golden-shouldered parrots, Sue Shephard and her husband Tom are guardian angels.

Mature golden-shouldered parrot in full colour
The brilliantly coloured male golden-shouldered parrot. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Golden-shouldered parrots (GSP’s) are endangered and have ‘critical priority’ status with the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP). Once found throughout Cape York Peninsula, they are now restricted to two populations totalling around 2500.

They have been the subject of widespread trapping and smuggling, and continue to suffer heavy annual losses from predation by butcherbirds and goannas.

But the DEHP says the major cause of the GSP’s precarious state is modern land management practises. Since European settlement, there has been a reduction in the number of intentionally lit fires and late dry season burning programs in far north Queensland.

Altered habitat

“Research suggests that this [departure from traditional Aboriginal techniques] has resulted in a contraction of parrot numbers and distribution due to alteration of habitat. Appropriate fires are required to keep the grasslands open and promote wet season food availability,” the DEHP says.

Sue and Tom Shephard run Artemis Station – a 120,000 ha all-cattle property at Musgrave (central Cape York). Managed by the Shephards for 100 years, they know a thing or two about the correct use of fire in the area for sustainable grazing and conservation of endangered wildlife.

Tom’s interest in golden-shouldered parrots started as a boy – long before anyone realised they were in trouble. When out mustering cattle he would see them fly from their termite mound nests as he rode by.

The parrot trade

In the 1950s, GSP’s were ‘discovered’ by bird collectors who would pay thousands of dollars for a pair. Trappers soon followed and by 1970 when Tom and Sue were married, the parrot trade around Musgrave was in full swing.

“A good pair would fetch over $4000 in the market,” Sue recalls. “It wasn’t locals doing the trapping. They were people from ‘down south’. One notorious collector who took a lot of birds always turned up with a cop in tow … and when the [authorities] started to cotton on to what was happening, and set up roadblocks, it was no surprise that he knew where there was an escape road.

Corrupt operation

“It was a pretty corrupt operation and he never got caught to my knowledge. But I believe he died when he was run over by a tractor,” she told Natural Images with undisguised pleasure.

“If you talk to any bird breeder in Germany or Holland, or other parts of Europe they all know the man I’m talking about.”

Female golden-shouldered parrot exiting termite mound nest
Female GSP emerging after chick feeding at her termite mound nest, Cape York. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Sue says the parrots sold to European buyers have done well and are kept in excellent conditions. “There might even be more in captivity over there than we have in the wild in Australia,” she offers with a hopeful half-smile.

“To this day we have regular visits from the European breeders who come to Artemis and want to see the parrots and how they nest. Big mobs of them come over and they donate money to help keep the parrots in the wild. They are very interested in the birds.”

Conservation agreements

In 1999, the Shephards signed conservation agreements that resulted in a large part of their property being designated a Conservation Agreement Area. Called the Artemis Antbed Nature Reserve, the 2116 ha area has been fenced and managed to integrate pastoral activities with conservation of the GSP.

Despite the Shephards’ best efforts on the land management side, the birds are far from home and dry. In fact, they are probably under a greater combination of threats than ever.

“Their habitat and the climate have both changed hugely,” says Sue. “The savannah country up here in the north of Australia has ‘thickened’ and that’s to do with grazing and fire.

Burns before the ‘wet’

“The parrots like early burns [August] before the ‘wet’ and when the grass is really thick. They are what we call ‘cool’ burns and the seeds will be left on the ground. The birds also like a burn straight after good rains [100 mm] so it burns off the shoot on the seed that’s just germinated. Then they can eat that.

Sue Shephard in the bush with binoculars looking for GSP's
Sue Shephard alleges corruption behind parrot trapping. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

“They pick at flowers and grass shoots occasionally but it is mainly grass seed they want.”

Grants and donations from visiting birders and photographers have enabled the Shephards to maintain a series of feeders in the bush for when seed is scarce – strategically positioned near wood swallow locations.

When really hungry the GSP’s will feed on the ground all day – sometimes without their usual alertness to danger. Which is where the wood swallows come in. They sound the alarm from on high when predators are in the vicinity.

Constant threat

Sadly, the life of the golden-shouldered parrot is one of constant threat, not least from ever-present pied butcherbirds. “They watch the nests and basically ‘farm’ the chickens [chicks],” says Sue. “They wait for them to fly out and bomb [kill] them straight away.

“I try to find the most vulnerable locations and intervene where I can – long enough anyway for the chickens to escape. But it doesn’t always work.

“It is common to find dead birds in the nest with holes in their skulls from where the butcherbirds have pecked them and tried to drag them out and the chickens have got back in again.”

Surviving bushfires

In other respects, the GSP nesting system is particularly effective, especially when it comes to surviving bushfires. “Also, the adults don’t ever have to sit on the chickens because they are insulated in the mound. You could put a raging fire past the thing and the temperature inside doesn’t change.”

According to the DEHP the mounds (also known as antbeds) are rarely occupied more than once by the GSP. That may be because of nest parasites, or because the mounds repaired by termites are difficult to excavate.

But Sue disagrees with the agency. “If it is a really big one they will use the same antbed up to five times before it becomes unhygienic.”

Termite mound with side hole to GSP nest
Australia’s golden-shouldered parrots nest exclusively in termite mounds. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Territorial ferocity

Another threat is innate: the territorial ferocity of the males and the vital importance of water. “If you have two watercourses you will have two dominant males, but if there is only one source of water only one male will dominate.”

Sue has an uncanny ear for the GSP calls and can detect them above the noise of a quad bike or a ute. “I guess I should be pretty good at it by now,” she says in her usual matter-of-fact way. “I’ve been looking at this bird since 1972. I don’t hear the other birds – just the golden-shouldered.”

In regular demand

Which is probably why she is in regular demand through the breeding season to show birdwatchers, photographers and researches where to find the spectacular Psephotus chrysopterygius in in the vastness of Artemis Station.

Asked to name her biggest contribution to the survival of the birds, Sue was typically modest: “I just monitor them. I don’t think I do much to influence their survival. I just know what’s happening.”

What about disappointments? “You get wild when you monitor a nest from day one and then see the chickens predated at the last minute. That’s nature.

“But then there will be a real surprise. Like the pair that produced seven chickens [usually 4-6] and the mother got killed two weeks into feeding them. Amazingly, the father fledged the lot.”

Story and pictures ©Tony Neilson

(Footnote: Artemis Station is in central Cape York about 450 km north of Cairns. Tom and Sue Shephard won the Queensland Landcare Conservation Award in 2007. Sue has email but says she never checks it. To book a site at the station camping ground or arrange to see the GSP’s phone (07) 4060 3264.)

Contact us: tonywneilson@icloud.com