It’s late evening, approaching Parrot O’Clock, in the parched country southwest of Winton in outback Queensland, and Nick Leseberg’s two colleagues are using binoculars to scan the spinifex. That’s wishful thinking, surely: in three years of intensive fieldwork here, studying the night parrot for his PhD, Leseberg has seen this most elusive of birds fewer than a dozen times.
How can a striking green and gold parrot be so hard to spot? Because it’s nocturnal, ground-dwelling, shy and very rare. In 2013, when one was photographed and filmed on this 56,000ha former cattle property, it was the first time since the 1870s that a live specimen had been studied. Bush Heritage, in a bid to protect what was then the only known population (they’ve since been found in WA, too) snapped up the property and turned it into the Pullen Pullen Night Parrot Reserve.
It’s easy to become an expert on night parrots, laughs Leseberg, because “no one knows much about them”. Nearly everything that’s known about the population at Pullen Pullen – which he puts at 30 birds, tops – comes from dozens of audio recorders set up around likely habitats. Early on, it was discovered that precisely half an hour after sunset every night (“You can set your watch by it,” he says), the night parrots exit their roosting tunnels inside the spinifex and spend a few minutes calling to each other – deet-deet, like a muffled bell – before flying off to spend the night foraging. Researchers call this brief window of insight into their world Parrot O’Clock.
Leseberg, who enrolled at the University of Queensland after 12 years in the RAAF as an air traffic controller, has been a fanatical birder since boyhood. Now 39, and with three kids under five, the only time he gets to indulge his passion is on field trips, when he’s away for weeks at a time. His wife Jane, a lawyer, tells him jokingly: “Enjoy yourself!” And he does. “We usually wait for Parrot O’Clock on a hilltop with a beer in hand, watching the sunset,” he says. “It feels more like a holiday.”