Camper's shock discovery after photographing rare swift parrots in remote forest

With less than 750 swift parrots in the wild, camper Billy Rowe felt privileged to have spent time with them over the summer.

A camper who spent the summer eagerly watching a flock of rare birds forage and congregate in a remote Tasmanian forest over the summer faced a shock discovery when he returned home. Looking up the region on a satellite map from Melbourne he could see the area had been systematically logged by the state government’s contractors.

Because the entire swift parrot population is now less than 750, most people have never seen one in the wild, let alone hundreds like Billy Rowe did. “I put myself in a pool of some of the luckiest people to see as many as I saw, which was a dense chunk of the population that was 100 per cent there,” he told Yahoo news.

He describes finding out the forest had been partially logged as “heartbreaking”. “Unless you’ve spent hours and hours, sometimes days and days watching the same pairs of birds it’s hard to imagine,” he said.

A swift parrot on a tree branch at logging coupe SH051I.
A camper spent the summer watching swift parrots in a Tasmanian forest. Source: Billy Rowe

Swift parrots migrate from NSW and Victoria to Tasmania where they feed on blue gum flowers, but over the 2022/2023 summer blooms had been scarce, and so they were flocking around less preferable eucalyptus species. “It was clearly more of a struggle for them that year, and they were forced to return to this area because the rest of the state hadn’t provided for them. So the birds actually have to work quite a bit harder and disperse to actually succeed,” he said.

How the loggers missed the swift parrots

The forest where he photographed the birds has a number instead of a name, because it’s seen as a timber resource rather than a habitat. To the state government logging agency Sustainable Timber Tasmania (STT) it’s a logging coupe called SH051I, which is located close to Meetus Falls near the island’s east coast.

Satellite images capture the rapid removal of forest in logging coupe SH051I. Source: Wilderness Society
Satellite images capture the rapid removal of forest in logging coupe SH051I. Source: Wilderness Society

Rowe claims he alerted logging contractors working in nearby coupes to the presence of the swift parrots in SH051I, but Yahoo has been unable to verify this.

STT began logging the SH051I in July 2023 after it conducted acoustic monitoring and onsite surveys which failed to detect any evidence of the birds. However it did locate patches of Eucalyptus Brookeriana a known swift parrot foraging habitat and these were “retained where practicable” under the guidelines of its Forest Practices Plan.

STT says it only became aware of the birds’ presence the following summer. “In mid-December 2023, Swift parrot activity was observed in the coupe area and in accordance with the Forest Practices Plan, harvesting operations subsequently ceased pending further assessment,” STT land manager Suzette Weeding said in a statement.

The Wilderness Society argues numbers of swift parrots are so low the chances of actually seeing one before logging begins are remote, and this makes STT survey methods "flawed".

Reflecting on the harvesting operation in SH051I, the charity's Alice Hardinge said what was once “crucial habitat” for the species has now been “destroyed”. “It is no secret that habitat destruction is the biggest threat to the swift parrot right now. If we do not protect forests like this now, this iconic parrot will swiftly become extinct,” she added.

Looking up a tree in logging coupe SH051I.
Swift parrots require hollows, which only form after 100 years, to breed. Source: Billy Rowe

International concern about swift parrots grows

Swift parrots have made international headlines in recent weeks after the Tasmanian supreme court granted an injunction, pending a hearing of the legal challenge brought by the Bob Brown Foundation, to stop logging in other forests where the species is known to exist.

Actor and conservationist Leonardo DiCaprio posted an Instagram post to his 62 million followers about the court decision. He also called on the Commonwealth and state governments to end native forest logging across Australia and Tasmania.

Efforts were made to encourage US pop singer Taylor Swift to speak out about the plight of the parrots, with which she shares a name, when she toured Australia. But she is yet to speak out about the bird’s protection.

In February, Liberal premier Jeremy Rockliff announced a controversial plan to harvest even more swift parrot habitat by opening up an extra 40,000 hectares to loggers.

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