Keen Observers

Blue-winged Parrots—are they merely a distraction when you’re on the lookout for OBPs, or an ornithological conundrum? John Peter tries to unravel the truth.

It felt like I had been trudging endlessly through the saltmarsh for hours, on the lookout for Orange-bellied Parrots. Then suddenly, just as I was beginning to lose enthusiasm for the task, a small green parrot burst noisily from among the stunted glasswort, from almost right under my feet. It circled around a couple of times, flying low on fluttering wings, before landing back among the mat of succulent, grey-green vegetation, not far from where it had been flushed. After briefly reflecting on the sighting, I said out loud, “Oh, it’s only a Blue-wing…” and on I trudged once more.

This is a common experience for people searching for the elusive OBP in the saltmarshes of south-eastern Australia. At first glance—and sometimes even after a second glance—Blue-winged Parrots can appear quite similar to the much-sought-after rarity. However, after a brief flurry of excitement, most people—as I did—dismiss the sighting as “just another Blue-wing.” It’s too easy to cast them aside when in pursuit of rarer quarry.

Few Australian birds are treated with such disdain by birdwatchers.

Yet a Blue-winged Parrot is a lovely bird in its own right—olive-green plumage above, yellow underparts and a broad patch of azure feathers on each wing are a subtle yet attractive combination. And if it stays still for long enough, you might even notice the narrow, two-tone band of sky and cobalt-blue feathers above its beak, and maybe even a patch of orange feathers on its belly. Their gently tinkling contact call is less abrupt than the metallic buzz of an OBP. And though they are far more widespread and abundant than their spectacular, Critically Endangered cousins, there is much that we don’t know about Blue-winged Parrots, particularly when it comes to their annual migration.

A quick glance at a map of their distribution shows that on the Australian mainland Blue-winged Parrots are mostly recorded in southern Victoria and south-eastern South Australia. However, they also occur, albeit sparsely and in small numbers, well inland on the dry, open plains of the Murray–Darling Basin in northern Victoria, western New South Wales and eastern South Australia, and sometimes even further afield, sneaking into south-western Queensland.

On the face of it, their pattern of movements seems straightforward—a northern push in autumn and then a southward journey in spring—but it could be much more complicated than that.

Blue-winged Parrots breed mostly in Tasmania and southern Victoria. If you see a Blue-winged Parrot basking in the summer sun, perched on a bare branch or a powerline, the chances are that it’s got a nest-hollow somewhere nearby. Most of the Blue-wings that nest in Tasmania migrate across Bass Strait to winter on the Australian mainland after the breeding season has finished, leaving a handful remaining behind. At least we know that much. However, what they do after they arrive on the mainland is anybody’s guess—and your guess is as good as mine!

We have no idea—or to be more accurate, we have a number of ideas, but we have no idea of which of them is the right one.

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In southern Victoria and south-eastern South Australia, Blue-wings usually inhabit coastal saltmarsh and eucalypt woodlands—woodlands during the warmer months, when they breed, and saltmarsh when the weather cools down. It is unclear whether this reflects a simple change in habitat preference or something bigger.

In autumn, do the birds of the southern mainland merely opt for a change of scenery, shifting habitat within the same region, while newly arrived Tasmanian birds leapfrog them and continue flying north, heading inland?

Perhaps it’s Blue-wings from the southern mainland that migrate to more-northern climes, vacating their breeding range, where they are, in turn, replaced by visiting Tasmanian birds, which gravitate to the saltmarshes.

Or maybe the Tasmanian birds mix with the local populations on the southern mainland, where some birds of both populations stay put, while others band together to head inland.

Clearly there is much to discover.

I like to use my own local seasonal observations like the pieces of a jigsaw, fitting them together to form a bigger picture, but alas, it seems, not in the case of the movements of Blue-winged Parrots. At least with a jigsaw you know what it should look like in the end.

Blue-wings are present throughout the year in Victoria’s south, and, every so often—usually around Easter time—I’ve seen some quite large flocks, roaming around just inland from the sand dunes. I’ve always assumed that these birds have just arrived from Tasmania, on the lookout for a convenient patch of saltmarsh. After all, it seems improbable that birds breeding in nearby woodlands would suddenly congregate in large roving flocks… unless they were massing before heading off to parts unknown to spend the winter.

In winter, the situation is basically a free-for-all. The birds which I regularly flush from the local saltmarshes could come from just about anywhere! And whether they’re locals or blow-ins, do they remain in the same area for weeks or months on end, or do they move between different sections of the coast?

The situation is little clearer in spring, as any parrots whose tinkling calls I hear as they fly high overhead could be locals or birds passing through on the way back from who-knows-where, on the way to who-knows-where-else.

That brings us back to summer, when the Blue-wings loitering in the stringybark woodlands must be nesting there. Although, come to think of it, there’s a chance that they could be non-breeding birds which did not venture back to Tasmania…

So there you have it—nothing is certain about the origin of Blue-winged Parrots, no matter what the season.

Perhaps the next time you flush a Blue-wing from the saltmarsh, even if you really, really wanted it to be an Orange-bellied Parrot, don’t curse it because it is not nearly so rare. Instead, ponder about the journey it has just endured, or perhaps the one it is about to embark on—after all, it is an ornithological conundrum, a mystery just waiting to be solved!

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