I haven’t got a picture of this locally-breeding migrant Red-backed Kingfisher Todiramphus pyrrhopygius with a small lizard, their favourite prey, in it’s improbably disproportionate bill…but I’m working on it. While resident throughout much of the country year-round, they appear to move away from this region for the winter and return to breed once the summer rains have set in.

Luurnpa (the Warlpiri name for the Red-backed Kingfisher) dig their hole-nests in the river- and creek-banks and around the township of Yuendumu they often use the walls of the levee banks built up from the large drains built around the town to prevent seasonal flooding of the town area.

At this time of year they are a common sight in town and out bush and are easily identified by their massive bill, or if unsighted, by the repeated, slightly mournful, piping call. They also have a harsh, scolding defensive call around the nest and the nestling makes an uncanny, metallic grating noise from the (relative) safety of it’s hole-nest that when you first hear it it can be quite unnerving…until you work out that it is coming from a baby bird in a small hole in the side of a creek-bank.

The Luurnpa (also Lurnpa) is well-known to Warlpiri people, who, as with many bird species, target the nestlings as a food source.

Lurnpa, karnalu ngarrirni – ngulaji ka nyina – nyampurrajuku – warntikirlinya. Lurnpaji. Mulyuju larrilpi nyanunguju warntikirli. Ngulyawana ka nyina. Ngulyanga ka nyina; wilypirirla ka nyina. Lurnpaji. Kuyunya kalu ngarni ngulaji – lurnpaji. Karnalu ngarni kuyu. Kurduju. Jiraparnta karnalu ngarni ngurrju. Marumaru – pinkirrpaji maru – warntikirli. Palkaji.

Lurnpa is what we call those same ones, the light coloured ones, that are around here. The Kingfisher has a sharp-pointed beak. It lives in a burrow and also in hollow trees and logs. The Kingfisher is a meat-eater. We eat the young of the Kingfisher.

The country near to the homestead at Mount Doreen Station, just north-west of Yuendumu, is known as Lurnpakurlangu (place of the Lurnpa).

The Kukatja and Walmatjari peoples (and others) live in country on the western edge of the Tanami Desert that also borders the Great Sandy Desert to the west and the Gibson Desert to the south. Their country is several hundred kilometres to the north-west from Yuendumu and many live in the township of Balgo, which is near to a Red-backed Kingfisher site that has great local religious significance.

The Kukatja name for the locality of the Balgo township is Wirrimanu, a synonym for Luurn, the Kukatja name for the Red-backed Kingfisher.

In her book, A World of Relationships: Itineraries, Dreams, Events in the Australian Western Desert, Sylvie Poirier, a professor from the Universite Laval in Canada, documents her years studying the dream-scapes of the people and places of the vast expanses of the western deserts of central-western Australia.

Of the Luurn in and around Wirrimanu, Poirier says that Luurn is a Tjukurrpa (dreaming) that has (at pp. 75-7:

…left its imprints and ancestral power in the vicimity of Wirrimanu and also covers a considerable geographical distance is Luurn, the Kingfisher, and the (Marwuntu) novices who accompany him…That Tjukurrpa is of prime importance to the groups of the region, since it represents one expression of a major initiation cycle, Tingarri, a Law bequeathed to them by Luurn and other ancestral beings.

Poirier notes how Luurn and the Marwuntu left his marks on the country across the north-west, covering a broad swathe of country rich in linguistic, geographical and cultural diversity and also created important economic and cultural markers in the land as he travelled:

Luurn guided the Marwuntu in their initiatory travel to the south-east, towards the Lake Mackay [a site of considerable importance as a breeding area for shorebirds and, when full, an important ‘stop-over’ for migratory shorbirds] area. From the accounts heard in Wirrimanu, they left from the East Kimberley and journeyed south, leaving many traces of their passage along the way. A few kilometres west of Ringer Soak, at a place called Ngurruring, the Marwuntu painted themselves with red ochre and left some behind; the place is to this day an important deposit of red ochre. They passed near Wirrimanu. Wirrimanu means ‘the passage newly shaped by Luurn to guide the Marwuntu. A large cliff is the windbreak they made for the night. Nearby, a subtle hollow in the ground is Luurn’s footprint, clearly directed towards the south-east. In the middle of the hollow, a series of black, round pebbles were left there by Luurn.

According to some informants, Luurn’s Tjukurrpa continues beyond Tjikarri towards Ayers Rock, where his travels ended.

Poirier’s accounts of the continental scale of the Luurn’s travels are just one of many similar stories that link people, culture, land and birds (and other animals and natural forces) that can be found the length and breadth of Aboriginal Australia.

I will spend a large part of this year travelling the country speasking to Aboriginal and Islander people about their bird knowledge for a book to be published in 2010. While I’m travelling I look forward to posting a lot of tales from the road about the people I meet, the birds and other things I see and the places I go.

Me – I can’t wait…