A teenage ranger on her first working trip in the Great Sandy Desert has captured ‘Australia’s most elusive bird’ in flight – one of only four such images ever taken of the mysterious night parrot. 

Kimeal Simpson, 17, was with a group of Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) Martu rangers searching for night parrot roosting sites, when they flushed the bird from spinifex grass and she was able to take a photo. 

Less than 30 people are estimated to have seen a live night parrot this century, after the bird disappeared between 1912 and 1979 and then wasn’t seen again until 2005. 

“We got lucky,” Martu ranger Neil Lane said.  

“He flew right past me, I could almost touch him!” 

The night parrot as captured by Kimeal Simpson.

The remarkable encounter follows on from the discovery, via accoustic recordings, of night parrots at FMG’s Cloudbreak mine earlier this year

Martu rangers also captured night parrot calls around Pilbara salt lakes in August of last year. 

The night parrot – known by Martu elders as ngartijirri – is so rare that it is believed there might only be several hundred in existence. 

The very rare night parrot
The super-rare night parrot. Photo: Steve Murphy

KJ rangers, who are supported by a variety of organisations including various State and Federal Government departments and miner BHP, manage more than 14 million hectares in the Great Sandy and Little Sandy deserts. Karlamilyi National Park, the largest national park in WA, is included in the area. 

Assisted by Nigel Jackett from natural resource management consultancy AdaptiveNRM, the rangers battled through some freezing desert temperatures as they listened for night parrot calls and deployed sound recorders around their habitat. 

The night parrot remains a highly elusive creature and finding roosting sites is seen as key to learning more about them and informing conservation efforts. 

“With this project we have a trifecta: the hard-work and commitment of a dedicated Indigenous ranger team, the knowledge of country of desert-born Martu elders, and partnerships with the leading scientific experts in the field. It is this combination that has made the Martu night parrot project a success.” Daniel Johanson, KJ’s Healthy Country Officer, said. 

KJ Rangers install audio equipment in the hunt for night parrots.

In 2015, when respected University of Queensland ornithologist Steve Murphy and partner Rachel Barr captured, tagged and photographed a live night parrot, it created headlines around the world.   

The find was so rare and unlikely that prominent birdwatcher and author Sean Dooley described it as “the bird-watching equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse.” Other “birders” described it as a “holy grail.” 

The KJ rangers’ night parrot search has been undertaken in collaboration with scientists from the University of Queensland and is made possible by a WA Government Aboriginal Ranger Program that is funded by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions. Another not-for-profit organisation, Rangelands NRM, has also provided support. 

Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa delivers a variety of environmental, cultural and social programs and its ranger program has grown to employ 350 people across four Martu communities. The rangers manage populations of the greater bilby, great desert skink and black-flanked rock-wallaby and recently confirmed the presence of the Pilbara leaf-nosed bat.