Hunt for elusive night bird on screen at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra

Cris Kennedy


A bird that’s presumed to be extinct sparked a filmmaker’s quest around the world.

The hunt for the night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) has been the Ahab against the white whale story of the bird-watching world for the past century, and the personal goal of Canberra filmmaker Robert Nugent for the better part of the last five years.

The elusive nocturnal bird discovered in some of Australia’s remoter locales was described by John Gould in 1861, but had disappeared by the end of the 19th century and assumed extinct.

Before video evidence of a live sighting was confirmed in 2013, local documentary filmmaker and academic Robert Nugent had started a filmmaking quest to trace the history of the bird’s documented locations that would take him from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, and throughout Europe.

His film Night Parrot Stories it screens on Saturday, March 19, as part of the upcoming Art Not Apart Festival.

“It’s often called the Thylacine of the air,” Robert Nugent says of the Night Parrot, “and over the years it has been a great excuse for people to go on epic, but unsuccessful, journeys of discovery.”

The 1970 Miles Franklin Award recipient Dal Stivens’ book A Horse of the Air is named for the Indigenous term for the bird, and its central character Harry Craddock is driven mad along his search for it.

The night parrot’s mythical nature has inspired much great literature, including John Kinsella’s 1989 collected verse, Night parrots, and a similarly-titled collection of verse from Dorothy Porter in 1984.

Artist Mandy Martin’s 2015 exhibition at Sydney’s Delmar Gallery enjoyed the Night Parrot title too, but Nugent says the biggest artistic reference he heard on his cross-country journey was, of course, the Monty Python parrot sketch.

“Yes, I did bump into those jokes quite a bit along the way,” Nugent says.

Casting himself in the role of explorer, and with funding from Screen ACT and Screen Australia, Nugent set off on two great journeys.

The first took him along the Tropic of Capricorn, from Queensland to the West Australian coast, visiting the MacDonnell Ranges, the Gun Barrel Highway, along the path of rumoured sightings, including the site of a couple of unfortunate road-kill specimens.

This leg of his journey ended with a surprising piece of fortune at Willuna near the Carnarvon Ranges.

“[I was] driving down the main street of Willuna, looking lost. These two Aboriginal women came up to me and asked, ‘Are you looking for the night parrot?’,” Nugent recalls.

“There must be a look people get in their eyes.”

Nugent also travelled to the dusty museums and science collections of France, Germany, Hungary and England, where many of the earlier specimens ended up.

Nugent refers to himself as a “refugee from Sydney” who moved to Canberra following his university days, and while he has since hacked away in the halls of the ANU at a PhD looking at the Anthropocene, his resume also includes the 2007 film End of the Rainbow and 2011’s Memoirs of a Plague.

For End of the Rainbow, Nugent followed the dismantling of a gold mine’s infrastructure in Indonesian Borneo and its installation into a new community in West Africa.

The entertainment industry’s bible Variety called Nugent’s film an “entertaining and sometimes touching look at displacement and difficulties in adapting to change”, and Nugent continues to pursue those themes in his later films.

Night Parrot Stories looks at the mashing together of cultures, old and new, Western and Indigenous, their ways of collecting information, and also of occasionally losing that information.

“There’s a lot of whimsy in it, but also sadness and loss,” he says.

“It speaks to many of the anxieties we have about extinction, and this time we live in.”

He presents a range of ethnographic approaches, and along the way enlists many of Canberra’s wealth of ornithological talent. Local identities ornithologist Julian Reid, and former head of CSIRO Ecosystems Sciences Steve Moreton appear in the film.

Nugent spent much of his filming time as sole director and crew, but his film enjoys the sound recordings of Will Sheridan, Sam Petty’s sound design, and Hilary Balmond’s editing.

Does Nugent himself actually capture the night parrot on film? I won’t give that away, but Nugent is philosophical about his Odyssean journey.

“A bit like these urban-legend sightings of the Thylacine,” Nugent says, “it is one of those flashes in your life that convince that you’ve seen something out of the ordinary.”