Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be invited by the crew from the Mimal ranger group to travel up to south central Arnhem Land and spend a few days with a group of traditional knowledge holders and Aboriginal rangers at the small outstation known as Barrapunta (previously Emu Springs) 90 or so kilometres north-east of Bulman. I took two days to drive up—and two days back—from Alice Springs, the last few hundred kilometres to Barrapunta on the dirt along the Central Arnhem Road.

It was a great chance to present and discuss some of the work we’ve been doing on birds and fire in the Top End and to also have a more general discussion about the utility, application and development of ethno-ornithological knowledge and practices in Arnhem Land in particular and Australia more generally.

The following is taken from a post at the Mimal Land Management website that was published on 12 July 2017 with the title “Spreading our wings with birds.

A workshop to share knowledge and stories about birds saw Indigenous rangers from across Arnhem Land come together with scientists at Barrapunta.

The “Talking Birds” workshop involved senior landowners and Mimal, Warddeken, Jawoyn, Arafura and Wardaman joining with scientists and researchers, linguists and ecotourism providers.

“It’s about sharing knowledge two ways – Indigenous knowledge and western science – to hear old stories, share names and think about ways to look after birds better,” Mimal chairman and Barrapunta landowner Alfred Rickson said. “By sharing knowledge we see how things have changed from a long time ago and remember names of birds in different languages.”

Over two days, the workshop covered a wide variety of issues. The rangers shared techniques for monitoring birds, including using camera traps and special apps that enable them to identify bird calls.

They talked about work being done to know more about rare and threatened species as well as explore economic benefits that birds could bring to the region.

Laurie Ross is a photographer who specialises in taking enthusiasts into the bush to see rare endemic birds that are difficult to find.

He told the group there is a strong market for bird tourism in Arnhem Land, describing how he has successfully partnered with Manmoyi outstation landowners to host people from all around the world who are eager to catch a glimpse of a bird they won’t see anywhere else.

Stories about hawks that hunt with fire also excited many in the group, with stories of how the Black Kite or Brown Falcon sits at the fire front, then swoops down to pick up a burning stick, then take it to a place to start a new fire. When rangers are trying to stop wildfires, those birds can be really cheeky.

The bird is known as karrkkanj and its special hunting techniques are told in song, which Dalabon elders Dudley Lawrence and Maggie Tukumba shared around the campfire.

ANU Professor Nick Evans says he spent time with Dudley and Maggie in Weemol after the meeting to find out more about this special fire bird.

Karrkkanj is a term for the Black Kite but can also be applied to two other raptor species, the Peregrine Falcon and the Brown Falcon,” Professor Evans explains. “The Peregrine Falcon can also be known more specifically as ngalmirlangmirlang and the Brown Falcon as wunwunbu; these are said to be husband and wife. Karrkkanj is also ritually significant as the one who founded the Lorrkkon mortuary cycle – the practice of initially placing bodies on tree platforms after death, then holding a Lorrkkon ritual a couple of years later when the bones have been picked clean by birds, so that they can be placed for safekeeping in a hollow Lorrkkon pole carved with clan designs.”

Talking about birds got people excited, with much knowledge, language and stories shared.

There are plans to hold a similar meeting next year.

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The following is from the Mimal land management website and the Mimal Facebook page. They also have a YouTube channel.

Mimal Land Management is an Indigenous owned and operated organisation focused on bringing benefits to country and culture for Dalabon, Rembarrnga and Mayili landowners and people of south central Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

The name Mimal is derived from the Dalabon word for fire in the landscape. Fire is one of our most important tools for managing country and keeping it healthy.

The Mimal Land Management area sits at the geographic centre of Arnhem Land, about 250km east from Katherine.

It covers an area that’s nearly as big as Kakadu National Park. The main communities and homelands in the area include Bulman, Weemol and Barrapunta (Emu Springs). About 300 people reside in Bulman and Weemol, which is located 312km north-east of Katherine on the Central Arnhem Highway.

Our country is made up of different types of ecosystems that support many different plants and animals – from Ruwurrno & Rorrobo (Grassy plains) to Badno & Ngalwad (Rock country), from Berrhno & Mininyburr (Woodland and Forest) to Djula & Wah (Freshwater country). Across the area are special places that have important meaning to our people, including rock art sites to places linked to our dreaming.

Mimal’s mission is to build strong relationships between Mimal, landowners and the community is the foundation for our future. We’re committed to effective communication with landowners to keep their support strong and growing stronger. We’re open for business and value support and partnerships that underpin our core values. Mimal has strong leadership in its board of directors and has employed experienced staff and consultants who share Mimal’s vision.

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Group photo by Laurie Ross Bird & Nature Photography