Filmmakers Jennene and Dave Riggs have been filming and editing wildlife documentaries for over 17 years, and have worked with a vast array of species in their careers, from dangerous sharks, orcas and crocodiles to gentle dugongs and bandicoots. The pair are currently working on a new documentary about one of the most endangered bird species in the world, the western ground parrot. We caught up with Jennene who told us all about the species and how filming is going.
Secrets at Sunrise promo image with western ground parrot. Credit: Riggs Australia
What is your newest film about?
I’m currently producing a documentary called ‘Secrets at Sunrise’ which is the story of the amazing work that a team of people are doing on the south coast of Western Australia to save some of our most endangered native species from the onslaught of feral animals that predate them, and a whole suite of other threats to their survival. The focus of the film, and perhaps the most vulnerable of all these creatures is the western ground parrot which is Critically Endangered and only found in one location.
Why did you choose the western ground parrot as the topic of your film?
The dire situation with the western ground parrot is symbolic of the global issue of species extinctions and how we are losing so many animals and plants every year. We are in the middle of the sixth great extinction and it’s important to raise awareness of this and get people thinking about their own impact on our natural world.
I first heard about the western ground parrot when I was producing a documentary in 2013 on the incredible biodiversity and natural history of the south coast of WA called ‘Remote & Rugged’. During my research for that film I became aware of the wonderful work that volunteers from the community and staff from the Western Australia Department of Parks & Wildlife are doing to save the parrot from extinction, so I organised to go out on one of their field trips and film a sequence to include in the film.
On this first field trip I saw just how determined these people are and was so impressed by their dedication to saving this critically endangered bird. I could see a remarkable story unfolding, one of camaraderie and friendship despite the challenges of working with this incredibly rare bird in such an isolated location.
Western ground parrot recovery team. Credit: Jennene Riggs
Why is the western ground parrot so endangered?
The western ground parrot was never prolific in numbers, but it used to be quite widespread in its range – on the coastal plain from north of Perth to east of Esperance on the south coast (a distance spanning over 1000km) but since European settlement there are a number of things that have caused its decline.
Historically throughout their heathland habitat there was a lot of land clearing for development and agriculture, resulting in a loss of suitable places for them to live. Then much of their remaining habitat has been damaged by wildfire, which further reduced suitable habitat and exposed the surviving populations to predation by feral cats and foxes. There were thought to be only around 140 individuals left, although that was before a devastating series of wildfires tore through their habitat in October and November 2015.
What does the future look like for this endangered bird species?
There is hope! Several years ago some parrots were taken into captivity and these birds have now been transferred to the Perth Zoo. Specialist staff there are working to try and encourage them to breed, and if they’re successful, this could form the basis of a captive breeding program which might enable the reintroduction of western ground parrots into areas they’ve disappeared from in the wild.
Can you tell us more about the film?
My main character in the story is a strong female leader – Sarah Comer – the regional ecologist at Department of Parks and Wildlife. She’s amazing…a dynamic and tireless optimist, determined to see this species and its environment survive and thrive.
There are lots of challenges in filming Secrets at Sunrise – obviously our main subject is an extremely rare bird, so straight up that presents an issue. Coupled with that they are also very shy and secretive. Many of the researchers have stories of how they’d been working on western ground parrots for five or ten years before they actually saw one! Imagine that!!
Because of this, the best way to survey their numbers and monitor them is to listen out for their calls when they move from their nighttime roost to their daytime 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 their very unsociable hours.
Jennene Riggs and Anne Morcombe filming. Credit: Sarah Comer
Then there are the conditions of the location too. Cape Arid is very remote, a couple of hours drive from Esperance (which itself is an eight hour drive from Perth – the states capital city). The tracks they drive along to get to the birds are rough, bumpy, boggy bush tracks.
Jennene walking along one of the tracks to filming location. Credit: Riggs Australia
Depending of what time of year a survey is, you’ve also got environmental challenges. Obviously in summer it can get scorching hot, and there’s no relief to be had sitting in your tent, its even hotter in there. The flies can get pretty friendly then. You get to about day four of no shower out there, and then things start to get a bit on the nose.
On the opposite scale of that is camping in winter. It’s freezing! Your nose won’t stop dripping while you’re doing the mornings listening surveys and it feels like frostbite’s about to claim your fingers and ears. One trip I filmed we had a thunder and lightning storm centered right over the top of us, and a torrential downpour turned the campsite into a swamp.
It sounds very challenging! What has been your favourite part of filming so far?
Despite all the challenges, I love being out there and feeling so connected with nature. The bond between the researchers is amazing as well. They’ve been doing this together for many years now and they get volunteers from all over Australia and the world coming back year after year to participate and help survey the wildlife because it’s such a special and important thing to be a part of.
As part of the story I’ve also been filming the team conduct ongoing surveys of other species inhabiting the area, and this is secretly the best part of the job because you get these incredibly gorgeous creatures like honey possums, bandicoots, dunnarts, ash grey mice, burrowing frogs, legless lizards, all sorts of invertebrates, and probably least favorite of all but most prolific are bush rats… and to be honest, as far as rats go, they’re pretty cute.
Ash grey mouse. Credit: Jennene Riggs
The main outcome I’m hoping for with this film is to show how special and valuable our wildlife, national parks and remaining tracts of native bush are, and the lengths that some people will go to in preserving that biodiversity. Some people might think that losing one species from the environment 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. 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!
I’m lucky to have had the support of the Friends of the Western Ground Parrot, who are just as determined as I am that this film is made and broadcast to as wide an audience as possible. They’re a not-for-profit entirely devoted to raising awareness of the wgp and raising funds to help continued efforts to save it from extinction. It’s been fantastic working with them, and inspiring to see their tireless dedication to the cause.
I’d like to think filming is nearly complete, but this story is constantly evolving so we’ll just have to see what happens!
Watch the trailer for Secrets at Sunrise
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Discover more parrot species on Arkive