Opening image: The exquisite swift parrot is critically endangered, with less than 1000 individual birds estimated to remain in the wild. Photo Tim Cooper


We hear the birds before we see them.


Through the canopy high above us, a sharp, rapid fire chi chi chi rings out and, as one, we yank up our binoculars, looking for any sign of movement. Finally, everyone’s eyes settle on one of the protruding limbs of an enormous black gum (Eucalyptus ovata). On a small branch, a tiny, winged figure hops into view, its body a radical colouring of emerald and bottle greens, the head a mix of crimson and blue.


It is a swift parrot—the fastest parrot on earth, and one of the most endangered.


The first bird is joined by second, then another. In a few moments, fleeting in our binocular vision, the trio are off, deeper into Tasmania’s Eastern Tiers, a forested region adjacent to Tasmania’s east coast, midway between Launceston and Hobart. 


The group’s elation at seeing these elusive birds is broken by Charley Gros, one of the guides of this expedition, who speaks quietly behind us. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” he says. “But right where we are is a logging coupe. It is due to be cut down at any time in the coming months.”


Charley is a scientist working for the Bob Brown Foundation. Along with fellow scientist Kasey McNamara, Charley spent most weekends this summer running citizen science surveys in Tasmanian forests where swift parrots – or Lathamus discolor to give them their scientific name – are known to nest.

Charley Gros (left) leads a citizen science group through forest in Tasmania’s Eastern Tiers, surveying swift parrot numbers and nesting sites. Photo Grace Dungey

Recently, coverage in Roaring Journals explored migratory species along Australia’s east coast, such as the movement of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) through Gundjitmara sea Country and the passage of the increasingly scarce bogong moth (Agrotis infusa) along the Great Divide.

While not as grand as the movement of koontapool – the Gundjitmara name for the southern right – and not as abundant as the cloud of bogong moths as they move en masse, the migratory path of the swift parrots equals for sheer stamina and endurance.

These birds, roughly 25 centimetres from tail to beak, depart New South Wales in the late winter or early spring. Once through Victoria, they brave the powerful winds of Bass Strait until they reach the eastern and southern forests of Tasmania where they nest.

Nectivorous – they feed exclusively on the nectar of flowering plants – swift parrots primarily feast in the branches of three eucalypt species: Tasmania’s blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) black gum (Eucalyptus ovata) and to a lesser well-known extent, Brooker’s gum (Eucalyptus brookeriana). Swift parrots also require hollow bearing trees to nest, which, in some cases, may take well over 80 years to develop.

What scientists have found, however, is that these species tend to flower erratically between seasons and locations across the southern state, which makes size of forest cover – and in particular, hollow bearing trees – essential to maintain the breeding and eating habits of swift parrots. In essence, the birds aggregate wherever the flowers are blooming.

The irregular and changeable flowering patterns of blue and black gums means that the birds will inevitably find themselves in a “Permanent Timber Production Zone.” These zones are classified by Sustainable Timber Tasmania (STT) – Tasmania’s state forestry department – which is responsible for the harvest of native timbers.

Of the Tasmanian forest under STT management, a significant portion, such as the southern forests near Hobart and here, in the Eastern Tiers, is known swift parrot habitat.

The swift parrot flies south from New South Wales to Tasmania to nest and breed but is fast losing habitat to Tasmania’s native forest timber industry. Photo Tim Cooper

According to Suzette Weeding, STT’s General Manager Conservation and Land Management, the company’s management approach to the swift parrot involves three key areas of focus: managing and protecting swift parrot breeding habitat, enhancing existing swift parrot breeding habitat and reducing threats to swift parrot breeding success.

“Tasmania has a Reserve Estate comprising of formal and informal reserves across different tenures, around 50 per cent of Tasmania’s land area,” said Weeding. “Of the 864,000 hectares of area recognised as core swift parrot breeding range, 292,000 hectares, or 34 per cent, is in the Tasmanian Reserve Estate.” She said that STT proactively implemented a swift parrot monitoring program from October 2021, in collaboration with “an expert ornithologist.”

However, the Bob Brown Foundation has been concerned for years that ongoing logging will push the swift parrot to the brink of extinction. This was compounded in 2015 when the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the species as “critically endangered” and recommended that all public lands supporting swift parrots be placed under secure, permanent conservation management.

As a result, Charley and Kasey have organised this weekend’s survey to take place in various logging coupes inland from the town of Swansea. The surveys aim to collect data on how many birds are around, their behaviour, and to take note of hollow bearing trees which can provide nesting opportunities.

Following the initial sighting, Charley leads the group further into the bush, through forests that few Australians have ever visited. Much drier than the rainforests of the takayna/Tarkine in the north west – also under pressure from sustained logging – this region is dominated by dry sclerophyll plants. As well as the gums swift parrots are known to seek out, the smaller trees and shrubs include the iconic Tasmanian waratah (Telopea truncate) and dogwood (Pomaderris apetala), with its white flowers littering the forest floor like confetti.

In the pursuit of the “Swifties,” other sights excite the group – one finds a jet-black tiger snake curled up by the track in the sun, another an echidna that forces its way into the undergrowth at our approach. After a hard stretch of off-road trekking, Kasey suggests a break and everyone takes a welcome seat amongst a small clearing.

Here, Charley takes the opportunity to give everyone a brief but important lesson as to where most of this forest’s timber will go if it is cut. The vast majority of it – like the logged mountain ash forests of Victoria – will be woodchipped and sent overseas where it is pulped and sold on again for products such as toilet paper.

Charley also explains that similar to the native forestry industries on the mainland, Tasmania’s forestry industry has been plagued by economic issues over decades, with some figures estimating that STT saw a $454 million dollar loss over 20 years. It is only through a considerable state subsidy the company’s operations have been viable enough to continue.

With economics as an incentive, Western Australia and Victoria have committed to phasing out native forest logging by the end of the decade. There is no indication, however, as to when Tasmania or New South Wales – the final of the four states with active native forestry sectors – will do so.

Eventually, it comes time for the citizen science team to leave this part of the forest. The group walks back, through trails where the red flash of waratah flowers bursts through the dense midstory canopy. Soon after, the group meets up with Doctor Lisa Searle. As a physician, Lisa spends half her year working for Medecins san Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) across the world. She recently returned from providing humanitarian care in Ukraine. For the rest of the calendar year, Lisa is engaged as a campaign organiser for the Bob Brown Foundation, specialising in native forest protection. After she greets us, she leads everyone on the survey to a particular spot in the Eastern Tiers.

Dr. Lisa Searle besides the stump of a giant black gum she tried to save by occupying it in a tree-sit protest. “Half an hour after I came down from the canopy, they cut that old tree down and they just left it here. Why would they do that?” Photo Grace Dungey

We walk into a coupe, a clear-cut area that was logged in November last year. Lisa and others held a vigil here in an attempt to stop forestry operations, with Lisa ensconced in a “tree-sit,” watching events unfold from a platform in the canopy of a swift parrot habitat tree. Lisa walks over to a stump, vast in diameter, and greets it like an old friend. But this isn’t a happy reunion. It’s one of lament. “This is the tree I sat in,” she tells everyone, a hand on what remains. “I was up in the branches for three days and nights, and then the loggers moved in.”

“That same morning, two swifties had landed next to me on a branch in the canopy.” She takes a moment, then continues. “When the police arrived, I negotiated my return to ground and then was directed to leave the coupe. I doubled back and watched on from the surrounding bush. Half an hour after I came down from the canopy, they cut that old tree down and they just left it here. Why would they do that?”

Next to the stump, the trunk lies like a limb separated from its body.

STT did not respond to direct questions as to whether the organisation has a policy of what happens to a tree when activists are removed from it or escorted from a “tree-sit”. Instead, Suzette Weeding explains that “if swift parrots are verified in or near to active forest operations, Sustainable Timber Tasmania determines the appropriate management actions in accordance with recommendations from the Forest Practices Authority – actions could include additional management of specific nesting or foraging trees.”

As we are leaving this final coupe near Lake Leake, word comes in that some unusual activity has been reported in a forested area nearby. The GPS co-ordinates suggest that the logging “hotspot” is in an area outside the zones forecast for STT to harvest in the coming years. Each year, STT identifies which coupes it aims to harvest over the succeeding three years, in a document called the “Three Year Wood Production Plan.”

The group travels to the co-ordinates site and are met with the sight of freshly cut forest. Logs are stacked a storey high and the area once filled with trees is bordered by a train of bright yellow excavators. “This forest was part of the important breeding area for swift parrots,” Charley tells the citizen scientist team. “They logged it before we had the opportunity to survey here. We were not expecting it to be logged in the coming years.”

Logging of forest outside of designated coupes prevents scientists and conservationists from surveying the area beforehand for signs of swift parrots. “Loggers will come in and cut down a section of forest that was not on the confirmed list,” says Dr. Lisa Searle, “to blindside us before we can try and halt operations.” Photo Grace Dungey

Although he is concerned by this revelation, neither he, Lisa, or Kasey appear surprised. “This happens a lot,” explains Lisa to the group. “Loggers will come in and cut down a section of forest that was not on the confirmed list, to blindside us before we can try and halt operations.” The citizen scientist team spends an hour walking the perimeter of the coupe to note if there are any hollow bearing trees, or any further sign of parrots.

But, as Charley points out, it is not just the parrots that suffer with the loss of the forest. There are many other endangered creatures that rely on the forest, such as the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) and the Tasmanian masked owl (Tyto novaehollandiae castanops).

STT did not respond to questioning as to whether penalties are imposed on forestry contractors if they harvest timber from locations outside the zones defined in the “Three Year Plan Wood Production Plan.”

As the sun dips in the afternoon sky, the day of citizen surveying comes to an end and the group has covered as much ground as their energy can muster. Charley gathers the group together for a final debrief. “These places are so significant, and the wildlife is so special,” he finishes. “One of the most important parts of these surveys is just having people out here, connecting with the land, weaving memories in the bush, seeing the wonders of Tasmania and what we might lose if logging continues.”

Lisa and Kasey, standing next to him beneath the canopy, nod in agreement. “People often say to me that they want to help protect native forests, but don’t want to be arrested while conducting civil disobedience,” Lisa says. “We welcome everyone to get involved in our campaign, and we need everyone's help.”

“From painting banners and helping in the office, to coming out with us on citizen science surveys, cooking meals for us at actions and blockades, donating funds and organising fundraising events, the list goes on. If you care about native forests and want to see an end to this atrocious destruction, there are so many ways you can get involved. The forests need you."

You can help save the swifties here.

Opening image: The exquisite swift parrot is critically endangered, with less than 1000 individual birds estimated to remain in the wild. Photo Tim Cooper


God Creates Dinosaurs. God Destroys Dinosaurs. God Creates Man. Man Destroys God. We Create Roaring Journals.

Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories
Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories