I love this time of the year, when the air is crisp and the buds on the winter flowering gum trees finally spring open and start dripping with nectar. It also signals the start of the Swift Parrot winter migration season. This is when the grassy woodlands and box ironbark forests of the Riverina region are at their very best, filled with honeyeaters galore that have travelled vast distances to feed on this energy rich nectar at a time when there is generally not much food around. The forest canopy shakes with the movement of small birds flitting from tree to tree sipping nectar from small white and red flowers.
However, thanks to Australia’s boom and bust weather cycles, finding these patches of nectar each year is not a simple task. Although, it is very obvious that birds are much better at it than us given they are always there before we even know about it! With such a highly variable food supply, many birds have to search and locate food in different places between years, resulting in dynamic movements across broad landscapes. Unfortunately, we currently know next to nothing about these movements and this is something that Wildlife Drones is in the process of changing for the critically endangered Swift Parrot.
But the first thing we needed to do was find where the Swift Parrots were going to be this year. So, in the pitch black we crept out of bed and into our frost encrusted cars to get to our first survey sites before the dawn chorus starts. Then as the sun slowly raised its head above the horizon, the uppermost branches of the forest lit up with golden light and the bird song gained momentum. But these birds are different, they are resident birds that feed on insects and live here all year round. So, on we move with gloves and beanies helping to brace against the cold while we keep our eyes peeled for flashes of red and green, and our ears open for the bell-like ringing or soft chattering calls of Swift Parrots.
With only small patches of habitat left within the agricultural landscape we dart as quick as we can from patch to patch in hope that the next will reveal our migratory visitors. But after travelling more than 1000 kilometres and searching all the readily accessible habitat on public land, the Swift Parrots remained elusive.
On our last day we continued our search on a pastoral property in the Humula Valley where some patches of habitat have recently been protected for conservation as part of a NSW Environmental Trust Saving Our Species Project. This patch was different to all the others we had visited on the trip. Finally we had found those trees bursting with life and laden with flowers that look like a golden crown. Hundreds of honeyeaters, both large and small, dived into the branches, plunging their long beaks into the sticky flowers and getting their fill of nectar.
As we stepped out of the car to take a closer look, a flock of 10 Swift Parrots flew straight overhead! They’re here! We found them at last! We climbed up to the top of a nearby ridge to peer directly into the canopy of huge old White Box trees buzzing with birds hoping to find them feeding. As we searched and listened, another flock of 25 birds flew overhead and off into the distance to their foraging site for the day.
Now we’ve found their winter home for this season, our next challenge is to figure out where and when we can catch and tag these birds that live among the tree tops so we can track their movements with Wildlife Drones.