This long-form story, by Top End writer and photographer David Hancock, was published in the latest edition of the Cosmos print magazine, released this month. To read more stories like it, head to our shop for the full issue.
Up in Australia’s Top End, more than a decade of Indigenous land management has gradually restored the Arnhem Land plateau. David Hancock visits its rocky outcrops and spinifex grasslands to document the reappearance of a small, elusive bird once thought on the verge of extinction. Its rediscovery has ignited the imaginations of Western ecologists and First Nations people alike.
Ecologist Cara Penton and photographer Kelly Dixon had trekked through tough, stone-country terrain in western Arnhem Land to a clearing among the spinifex. There, they put down a small, portable speaker connected by Bluetooth to Penton’s mobile phone.
As they retreated to the shadows, the speaker emitted a confluence of chirps and tweets.
“We really didn’t expect to see anything,” Penton says of the day, in 2022. “Then two birds scuttled out from the rocks. They were so curious and colourful, hopping about inspecting the speaker; it didn’t take long before they realised they had been tricked and hopped back to the security of the rocks.”
It was a seminal moment for the scientist and the photographer: their first sighting of the bird Bininj Aboriginal people know as yirlinkirrkirr.
“That was the … only time I have seen yirlinkirrkirr in several years of working with Bininj people and wildlife on the Arnhem Land plateau,” Penton says. “I really look forward to the next time; it is such a beautiful and charismatic creature.”
Robust and long-tailed, and bedecked in bold chestnut, black and white feathers, yirlinkirrkirr (pronounced “yirl-in-git-git” in Bininj Kunwok language of western Arnhem Land) is an ornithological needle in a geographical haystack.
Also known as the white-throated grasswren, yirlinkirrkirr (Amytornis woodwardia) was thought to be on the verge of extinction at the dawn of the 21st century. During the 1990s there were sightings of the bird along the Arnhem Land escarpment between Katherine, about 330 kilometres south-east of Darwin, and Maningrida, 370km east of Darwin, but numbers declined as wildfires and feral animals (mainly cats) increased in the region.
The Arnhem Land plateau or “Stone Country” – known to Bininj as Kuwarddewardde – borders Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks. It’s an ancient and forbidding landscape of layered sandstone cut deeply by gorges and crevasses. Bininj people have lived here for more than 35,000 years, taking advantage of the waterholes and springs, seasonal creeks and rivers, and abundant plants and animals. Records of their lives and those of the plants and animals that share this country adorn the walls and ceilings of thousands of rock shelters.
Since 2009, when Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) were first declared in and around Arnhem Land, Indigenous landholders have resumed management of much of yirlinkirrkirr’s home range. Changed burning practices and the determination of Bininj to rediscover and protect many threatened species has assisted the bird’s gradual return.
Other culturally important and endangered creatures in the region include the black wallaroo (Macropus bernardus), black-footed tree-rat (Mesembriomys gouldii), Arnhem Land rock-rat (Zyzomys maini), fawn antechinus (Antechinus bellus), northern brushtail possum (Trichosurus arnhemensis), northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus), nabarlek (Petrogale concinna), short-eared rock wallaby (Petrogale brachyotis) and pale field-rat (Rattus tunneyi).
The relative stability of Kuwarddewardde afforded plants and animals protection from fire and flood over the millennia and allowed them to evolve in relative isolation. Many species, including yirlinkirrkirr, are found nowhere else on Earth.
In the past, while there was interaction with people on nearby lowland areas (often at periods of great abundance, such as magpie goose season), some clan groups rarely left the plateau, moving between waterholes and places of shelter and ceremony, exploiting niche food sources and trade networks. They burned as they travelled, establishing a land management system based on cycles of renewal and regeneration.
The plateau’s harsh terrain ensured Bininj were among the last Indigenous peoples to be affected by European society, and their links to traditional lands remain unbroken today.
But colonisation had an immense impact on the First Nations people of Australia’s north. Many Bininj left their traditional lands, often in family groups, to work in buffalo shooting camps, missions and mines. They returned home infrequently or settled at church missions. Diseases introduced by Europeans, such as influenza and smallpox, took a terrible toll. By the end of World War II, only a handful of clans resided permanently on the plateau, and widespread traditional land management practices had declined.
Without the Bininj’s constant care – and with the infiltration of feral animals such as buffalo, horses, cattle and cats – western Arnhem Land changed considerably. Fuel built up and uncontrolled fires, rare in traditional times, raged; many blazes were left to burn themselves out or be doused by wet season rains.
Bininj began to return to the plateau in the 1970s as part of a homelands movement, led by those wishing to resume their traditional lifestyle and take responsibility for management of familial estates. Small outstations linked by dirt roads and sandy tracks are now sprinkled throughout Kuwarddewardde and other parts of Arnhem Land.
Indigenous Protected Areas have become a way for the Australian Government to grow the National Reserve System and support traditional landowners; there are more than 80 IPAs scattered across Australia encompassing more than 85 million hectares – an area about twice the size of Switzerland. The Warddeken IPA (just under 1.4 million ha) covers much of the Arnhem Land stone country and is managed through a network of Indigenous ranger groups employed by Warddeken Land Management (WLM).
It has taken Bininj more than 10 years to bring the overgrown landscape under control through a program of prescribed burning that mimics traditional methods. Working with Western scientists and using helicopters, vehicles and incendiary devices, they have developed a fire abatement scheme that has become the model for government-approved savannah burning that generates income from carbon credits. It’s this income, along with philanthropic contributions, that substantially funds their land management and cultural programs.
Eyes on country
Constant wildfires are largely a thing of the past in western Arnhem Land, and Bininj are now focused on how to bring back native species, particularly small mammals (known as mayh) and birds whose habitats were scorched in previous times.
“There was a period where we went crazy throwing matches – in a good way – because everyone was so excited to be back on country,” says Terah Guymala, a senior landholder and board member of WLM. “But we know not all country needs to be burned. We need to think about who is in this country as well. Our animals – kangaroos, reptiles, all species – need grass to hide or make nest, to breed and all that. They need it.
“No one looked after this country for a long time and all the animals started disappearing when the wildfire went through, chasing them and killing them. By the time we came back, their numbers were getting really small. That’s what all the old people noticed – they said it wasn’t like that back when they were here.”
In 2016, Bininj embarked on an ambitious program to complement their renewed burning regime. WLM employed scientists to manage a long-term camera study to discover which animals remained in Kuwarddewardde and where they lived. Since 2016, rangers have travelled to remote parts of the IPA to set out cameras and monitor wildlife. It is one of the largest privately funded wildlife monitoring programs in Australia.
According to Penton, WLM’s ecology manager, the program was designed to last at least 10 years. Hopefully it will go on for decades.
“Monitoring isn’t sexy,” she says. “There is a lot of government funding for specific threatened species projects, which might be for 18 months or so, but the commitment to long-term monitoring is incredibly difficult. This project has been sustained by Bininj themselves, through reinvestment of savannah carbon credits.
“The environment works on long ecological timeframes – you can’t see changes in a couple of years, even [in] this project where you are only looking at presence or absence. I think, as humans, we don’t like waiting.
“To invest in something for such a period of time without seeing results is difficult to do, but there really is no other way. That’s what monitoring is – looking after something and evaluating it over a significant period of time.”
Each year, teams of rangers travel to 120 sites in 20 clan estates to strap cameras with motion sensors to trees or star pickets. The cameras are left out for five-week periods.
Penton and WLM ecology officer Erica Smith consult extensively with traditional owners before work begins and, over the course of a year, more than 50 rangers are involved in field work and image processing at three IPA ranger bases. Images of species are identified by Indigenous experts and scientists, labelled and placed in a bilingual database.
Information in the form of bilingual maps is given back to clan groups so traditional owners know what animals are recorded on their country. The data is important for planning future land management programs, particularly burning.
“When we did fire consultation this year, we put some of those species on our fire map, so when having discussions about fire we could protect certain habitats,” Penton says.
“It is really important that information comes back to landowners. For a project to have such strong support after seven years, it is making sure the information goes back to the right people. As well, it informs rangers about their work and looks at that big-picture scale. Those results go through to the board of directors who develop a plan of management to ensure we are achieving the strategies we set out to do.”
The camera monitoring has been successful for some species but not others. Sadly, no northern quolls have been recorded to date – but it doesn’t mean they’re absent from the IPA, despite a dramatic downturn of the species in nearby Kakadu and other parts of northern Australia, including the Kimberley.
“We found the black wallaroo has a positive association with long unburned habitat,” Penton says. “This could reflect their ecological requirement, or show the interaction between fire, feral herbivores and feral cats. For example, we know feral cats will hunt in fire scars for a long time after a fire passes through an area.
“If an area experiences a lot more fire frequency … cats find it easier to move through; the same with buffalo – it reduces the complexity of vegetation by removing shrubs, by removing grass. New grass comes up after fire and animals are going to suppress the new grass by feeding.
“In the Top End, this landscape has been managed with fire for tens of thousands of years, so these species have evolved with fire, but now with the introduction of feral species and [a period of] removal of Bininj from country – and removal of their fire management – then with bringing fire management back, the interaction with the environment has been completely changed.
“That really is the crux of monitoring and why it’s important. How we change our fire management going forward.”
Call and response
An unexpected result of the monitoring program was finding more yirlinkirrkirr, which prefer long unburnt areas of grassland.
The bird is significant to Western science because it’s vulnerable; to Bininj people it’s a part of culture – it’s in their songlines and stories from old people. Some were discovered in places where Bininj songlines say yirlinkirrkirr would be found, rather than places that modern habitat modelling pointed to.
The bird, which generally lives in pairs or small family groups, is a poor aviator. It typically hops about and might undertake short flights from one area of cover to the next, so it can’t easily escape fire.
“Everyone is pumped for this bird,” says Smith. “Yirlinkirrkirr has really brought a lot of excitement to the communities, to the rangers, to us and people who visit the IPA.
“I think a lot of the excitement came from the consulting process from the very start. The traditional owners got to fly around in helicopters and point out where they had seen them in the past, or where the songlines suggested the bird might be.
“When we actually found the bird, it was a really joyous time for people. People are happy, people want to protect it and people want to get out on country and try to find more. It’s been a great tool to teach the importance of having different fire regimes on country.”
The search for yirlinkirrkirr has expanded into other methodology – rangers conduct call-back surveys when they walk through country by stopping regularly to play the bird’s distinctive call, a mixture of complex trills and chirps, with an alarm call characterised as a sharp “tzzzt”. Solar-powered song meters are strategically placed across the plateau, and rangers use AI algorithms to extract the song of yirlinkirrkirr.
“We found birds down around Jawoyn country, in the south, and they are in some places in Kakadu but we believe the best potential habitat is here, across the stone country,” Smith says. “We just need to track down exactly where they are.”
The monitoring program has also detected cats in all parts of the IPA.
“Cats are really difficult to deal with on such a large scale,” Penton says. “The best way may not necessarily be by reducing the number of cats but reducing the impact they can have.
“If an area has more complex vegetation their hunting efficacy goes down … If you can manage your fire and suppress or manage feral herbivore populations you can have more complex vegetation and landscapes.”
Penton and Guymala agree the monitoring program has benefits far beyond locating and preserving endangered species.
“The co-benefits are getting people out on country, accessing ancestral homelands, building up the professional development of Indigenous rangers in collecting data, creating data and storing data where, in this new age, data is gold,” Penton says.
“It’s not just putting out cameras together; we are going through the process of this analysis together. We are trying to evolve and do this in a meaningful way together – sometimes that is more Bininj way, sometimes more balanda [European] way. That process weaves in and out and around each other.”
Guymala says western Arnhem Land is being revived by Bininj people who have re-established ancestral contacts with the land and creatures like yirlinkirrkirr.
“This is where our stories are, where the oldest thing is connected to you,” he says. “It is all written down here. This is our home and we still call it our home. We want our kids to learn, to manage and to live in this country properly and also bring this Western education and Bininj education together – because we want them to survive in two worlds.
“They are singing about the animals and the fire, so they are picking up culture. They can only do this here and it is very important because we want our kids to continue living like this. When we go, we want them to be really strong and standing on their own feet.”