The sun is just rising over south-central Cape York as the team of Bush Heritage ecologists and Olkola Aboriginal Corporation Land Managers set off from camp.
Facing them is a sprawling network of savannah grasslands, melaleuca swamps, open eucalypt woodlands, creeks, rivers and lagoons. This is the home of the Olkola people and one of their totems, the beloved Alwal or Golden-shouldered Parrot.
Together the team is methodically working its way through more than 100,000ha of terrain in search of Alwal nesting sites. These nests are not found in the canopies overhead – but in the large, cylindrical termite mounds that protrude from the earth, like statues.
It’s tough-going. Alwal was once found over most of Cape York Peninsula, but is now restricted to two populations on the Peninsula, covering less than 2,000 square kilometres.
Today it's listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species and classified as endangered by the Queensland and federal governments. It’s estimated that there are less than 2,000 Alwal remaining.
“It’s internationally recognised that this little bird is in trouble,” Bush Heritage Ecologist Allana Brown says, surveying the landscape closely. “There’s an ecological and cultural responsibility to look after Alwal.”
A long legacy of change
One hundred and fifty years of changed land use has altered the natural and traditional fire regimes of the landscape. The result has thickened the woodlands, which is disastrous for a ground-feeding bird.
Abundant shade stunts the growth of Alwal’s food sources (grasses) and increases woody cover, which makes it harder for parents to spot predators, such as the Pied Butcherbird. This ambush predator feasts on chicks before they’ve even learnt to fly.
But new, critical threats are emerging. Remote cameras recorded a feral cat raiding an Alwal nest, a menace identified as a low threat in the original recovery plan. Meanwhile, feral cattle and pigs use the termite mounds as scratching posts, destroying potential nesting sites.
Bringing Alwal home
In the past decade state and federal government has progressively returned seven former pastoral properties to the Olkola people. The return to country was a landmark occasion for Olkola, who quickly turned their attention to restoring traditional land management practices and saving Alwal.
Now, through a partnership between the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation and Bush Heritage Australia, a concerted effort is underway to “bring Alwal home”.
“We’ve got the science to back us up. We’ve got Olkola’s cultural knowledge and understanding of country to back us up. We know what we have to do – we just have to raise the funds to do it.”
– Allana Brown, Bush Heritage Ecologist
“So far this year, our main job has been to undergo a full population census of the Morehead River area,” Allana says. “We’ve surveyed over 100,000ha of core Alwal habitat.”
The work is guided by a five-year recovery plan that builds on research completed by Professor Stephen Garnett and Dr Gabriel Crowley. Initial work will focus on re-introducing traditional fire regimes, feral animal management and monitoring the population in the Morehead River area.
The work is also supported by Sue and Tom Shephard, well-loved owners of a neighbouring station, who have spent 25 years working to protect Alwal. Allana is unequivocal when it comes to the success of this project.
“Although there’s a lot that we need to do, this is the start of a new trajectory for the population, and we're confident that we’ll be successful,” she says.
A sacred bond
Mike Ross is the Chairman of the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, whose Land Managers are working in partnership with Bush Heritage to save Alwal. The connection that he and Olkola have to Alwal is obvious in Mike’s voice.
“We love this little bird. It’s our totem species and we need to save it,” he says.
According to the Olkola creation story, Alwal originated from the depths of the Morehead River. As it freed itself from the mud and swam to the surface of the river, the sun’s filtered rays hit Alwal’s wings, marking it with its brilliant blue and gold colours.
“The Alwal never forgot where it came from. I really believe that.”
“It was so important to get back on country,” Mike says. “That was the first step. And now with the help of Bush Heritage we are saving Alwal for future generations.”
“The health of Alwal reflects the health of Olkola people, so if we start to lose these birds it affects the whole Olkola community.”
A little bird in big trouble
Initial survey work conducted by the Olkola Land Managers and Bush Heritage Ecologists has delivered concerning results. Just 53 active nests have been found so far, less than half the total number found in the last survey 7 years ago. Funding is needed to expand the team’s work, which will deliver new fire regimes, feral animal control, monitoring and scientific research.
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