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

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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