Secrets at sunrise

December 03, 2014

Meet the rarest bird in Western Australia - the Western Ground Parrot - and Jenenne Riggs of Riggs Australia - the documentary filmmaker on a mission to help save this critically endangered bird from extinction.

Jennene and her husband Dave have been filming natural history documentaries for over 15 years. They’ve worked with an array of creatures from killer whales to bandicoots. Jennene's latest nature project is a documentary film showcasing the amazing work of volunteers and scientists engaged in the battle to save the critically endangered Western Ground Parrot. Once widespread, there are now only 140 of these little critters left in the wild, found in one location in the remote and rugged Cape Arid National Park in Western Australia.

Jennene's film will be called Secrets at Sunrise - here's the trailer to give you a little taste…and if you feel like helping to save an Aussie species read more of our interview with Jennene below.

Secrets at Sunrise - Trailer from Jennene & Dave Riggs on Vimeo.

What alerted you to the need for a film to be made about the Western Ground Parrot?

In 2013 I produced a documentary ‘Remote & Rugged’ about the incredible biodiversity and natural history of the south coast of Western Australia . It was during the research for this film, that I became aware of the wonderful work that volunteers and staff from the Department of Parks & Wildlife are doing to save the Western Ground parrot from extinction, so I organized to go out on one of their field trips to film a segment.

On my first field trip to Cape Arid National Park, I saw just how determined these people are and was so impressed by their dedication to save this critically endangered bird – they get up at 3am to conduct their morning listening surveys and don’t knock-off until 10pm!!

I thought it was a very worthy project to invest myself in. If I can help raise awareness of their story then hopefully it will help to save the species.

How is it that the Western Ground Parrot has come to be so critically endangered?

The parrot used to be quite widespread in its range across the southern half of Western Australia but since European settlement there are a number of issues that have caused its decline.

Historically, there was a lot of land-clearing of the heathland they inhabit for agriculture and development so that resulted in a loss of suitable places for them to live. Then their remaining habitat has been damaged by wildfire and the surviving populations are exposed to feral cats and foxes.

Feral animals continue to be a major problem for the Western Ground Parrot. Worryingly, they are now only found at one location – Cape Arid National Park on the south coast. There are only around 140 individuals left and if the surviving population is subject to a large wildfire it would probably be the end for the Western Ground Parrot. It really is on the brink of extinction…

Jennene filming Wayne Gill from Department of Parks and Wildlife holding a southern brown bandicoot (Quenda), while Steven Butler looks on (image courtesy of Anna Morcombe)

What are some of the unique challenges you face when filming ‘Secrets at Sunrise’?

There are lots of challenges in filming Secrets at Sunrise - our main subject is an extremely rare and shy bird that's well camouflaged in the heath so straight up that presents an issue! It's almost impossible to see one just sitting there unless they’re flushed out of their hiding place.

Many of the researchers have been working on Western Ground Parrots for five or ten years before they actually see one! Imagine that!! You hear them calling at certain times of the day but it's very uncommon to actually see one. Because of this, the best way to monitor their numbers is to listen out for their calls when they move from their night-time roost to their day time feeding ground (and vice versa). Their ‘peak calling hours’ are an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset, which means you have to adopt to their very unsociable hours. This is a real challenge for me because I actually like sleeping... a lot!

And then there’s the conditions of the location too. Cape Arid National Park is pretty remote, a couple of hours drive from the nearest town get to where the birds are. Most of the tracks are rough, bumpy, boggy bush tracks or 'Yippee!' tracks as I like to call them. 

Depending on the time of year, you’ve also got environmental challenges. In summer it can get scorching hot and there’s no relief in your tent - it's even hotter in there - and the flies can get pretty friendly. One of the camp spots is a few hours drive from the coast so there's no chance of a refreshing midday dip in the turquoise Southern Ocean. You tend to get to about day four with no shower and then things start to get a bit 'on the nose' you know? Not everyone’s cup of tea.

Then there's camping in winter. It’s freezing! Your nose won’t stop dripping while your doing the morning listening surveys and it feels like frostbite's about to claim your fingers and ears. On a recent trip, we had a thunder and lightning storm right over the top of us and a torrential downpour turned the campsite into a swamp. That was a bit of a predicament. Then the mozzies really came out for a feast!

Despite all the challenges, I love being out there and feeling so connected with nature. The camaraderie of the researchers is amazing too. They’ve been doing this for many years now and come from all over the State to participate in surveys several times a year. Some of the volunteers come from interstate and keep coming back year after year because it’s such a special and important thing to be a part of.

What is a typical day like out in the field with the research crew?

Oh, you know…. I get up at 3am, make my way to the main camp where Sarah Comer (Department of Parks and Wildlife) is waiting with a huge pot of coffee (she’s totally addicted), grab my camera gear, jump in the car(s) with the researchers, drive to the listening spot (can be within walking distance or up to half an hour away from camp), traipse off into the scrub in the pitch black (making sure not to trip over any bandicoot holes…) then I find a good listening spot and listen intently for an hour before sunrise. You have to log any Western Ground Parrots you hear (sometimes none) whilst swatting away the marauding mozzies. Then that glowing orange ball peeps its head over the horizon.

Once sun's up, we join the rest of the crew at the grid - a series of different traps in a set pattern in the scrub to survey numbers of other species inhabiting the area. Some are cage traps, some are pit traps dug into the ground and others are reptile nets. Between you and me, emptying these traps is the best part of the job because you get to see these incredibly gorgeous creatures like honey possums, quendas (bandicoots), dunnarts, ash grey mice, burrowing frogs, legless lizards, all sorts of invertebrates and probably my least favourite but most prolific are bush rats… and to be honest, as far as rats go, they’re pretty cute too.

Once the traps are checked we make our way back to camp and have breakfast at 6.30am - when most sane people would be dragging themselves out of bed! Not this crew. During the rest of the day, they soldier on carrying out their other ‘normal’ jobs – cleaning park toilets, checking weather stations, analyzing and entering data, monitoring dieback disease, logging and surveying rare flora etc.

Then, come late afternoon we prepare for the evening listening survey heading back into the bush to listen for Western Ground Parrots for an hour after sunset (again battling the mozzies). Afterwards it's back to camp to discuss the surveying, eat dinner and bed for a few hours before the pattern begins again!

Jennene interviewing Department of Parks and Wildlife's Ecologist - Sarah Comer (image courtesy of Anna Morcombe)

What do you hope to achieve by making this doco?

I’m hoping to show how special and valuable our wildlife, national parks and remaining tracts of native bush are and the amazing lengths that some people will go to, to preserve that biodiversity.

We're in the midst of the sixth period of great extinction and are losing so many animals and plants every year. It’s important to raise awareness of this and get people thinking about their own impact on our natural world. Jane Goodall, the respected English primatologist and conservationist says -

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Some people might think that losing one species is not such a big deal, but it is. Everything in nature has its place and when something is taken out of that equation it has a flow-on effect. We don’t know exactly what impact the extinction of the Western Ground Parrot might be but it will have an impact on the interconnected web of life.

I think some people place waaaay too much importance on economics at the cost of the environment. We rely on the natural world to produce and maintain the conditions on earth that we need to survive. Without those intact natural systems thriving and having resilience, we will not survive as a race. And who’d want to live in a world with no Pandas and Orangutans, or clean rivers and air, or beautiful heathland with Western Ground parrots hiding amongst it? Not me! If I can raise awareness of these issues through this film, then my job is done.

If people want to help get this doco off the ground, can they make a contribution?

Yes, most certainly! We would greatly appreciate any donations and have set up a Pozible fundraising page –

We have a target of $20,000 to kickstart the project but we won’t get any of the pledges if we don’t reach target before the 16th Dec 2014. Individuals can make a pledge to the project in return for a reward. There’s some awesome rewards on offer such as super cute Western Ground Parrot t-shirts, environmentally friendly carry bags, ‘special thanks’ credits in the finished documentary plus the opportunity to appear as an extra in the doco by participating in a survey – how cool is that!

There’s also the Documentary Australia Foundation fundraising page for corporate donors that offers tax deductions on all donations:

We’d like to get this film aired on TV in Australia and overseas so if we reach our fundraising goals we can make this a reality. Hopefully people can see the merit in pledging support for this documentary and gain immense satisfaction in the knowledge they helped make it happen! 

The star of the film - The Western Ground parrot (image courtesy of Jennene Riggs)


Note from Ecolosophy - big thanks to Jennene from Riggs Australia for her inspiring guest blog - if you'd like to read more about Jenenne and the film work of Riggs Australia visit their website or watch their latest documentary The Search for the Oceans Super Predator as screened on the ABC and National Geographic.


3 Responses

Keith Page-Sharp
Keith Page-Sharp

December 09, 2014

I will be writing a letter to Mr Barnett, suggesting that instead of killing Whales, he should place a bounty on feral cats and protecting our endangered wild life.


December 09, 2014

Thanks for sharing this information. I had no idea about the Western Ground parrot being close to extinction. This documentary is a great way to inform people and save these beautiful birds. Great work Jennene! And thanks for sharing Ecolosophy girls :)

Jennene Riggs
Jennene Riggs

December 03, 2014

Thanks so much for having me Tanya & Rose! It’s nice to be acknowledged by like minded people who believe in the importance of saving species, and biodiversity. These incredibly beautiful parrots are so vulnerable but if we can raise awareness of their plight, we might just be able to help save them from extinction, and in the process help a whole swag of other cool critters that are struggling. ~ Jennene

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