Olkola at the helm

Published 10 Sep 2018 

The re-formed Golden-shouldered Parrot National Recovery Team, led by Olkola Elder Mike Ross, is providing fresh hope and optimism for the bird’s future.

Bush Heritage ecologist Allana Brown with Olkola Elder Mike Ross. Photo by Brian Cassey.
Bush Heritage ecologist Allana Brown with Olkola Elder Mike Ross. Photo by Brian Cassey.
Olkola Ranger Ashaley Ross stands next to a slim grey termite mound almost twice his height. “This is one of the tallest I’ve seen,” he says to the group of 14 or so people gathered around him.

Surrounded by savannah woodland trees of about the same height and colour, the mound seamlessly blends into its environment. It is a part of this country, just like the gold-and-turquoise parrot that calls it home. About a quarter of the way up the termite mound, Ashaley points out a small, round opening – the entrance to a Golden-shouldered Parrot nest.

A male Golden-shouldered Parrot. Photo by Geoffrey Jones/Barra Imaging.
A male Golden-shouldered Parrot. Photo by Geoffrey Jones/Barra Imaging.
Known as Alwal to the Olkola people of Cape York, the parrot used to fly over these savannah woodlands and grasslands in huge flocks. But today, its numbers have dwindled dramatically, and there are thought to be fewer than 2,000 left in the wild.

Ashaley and the others have come together on Olkola country for a meeting of the newly re-formed Alwal National Recovery Team. The meeting is significant for two reasons: it's the first time in 15 years that an official recovery team has been convened for this beautiful bird; and it's also the first time that an Aboriginal person, Olkola Elder Mike Ross, has chaired any threatened species recovery team.

Having Mike lead the team is a huge win for Alwal. The parrot is the totem of the Olkola people, and they have a deep understanding of its habitat and ecology garnered over tens of thousands of years.

“It’s exciting for us. We know the country and we know how important it is to look after our totem,” says Mike.

The team has 10 members in total, including representatives from five Traditional Owner groups and Queensland Parks and Wildlife, species expert Dr Gay Crowley, neighbouring pastoralist Sue Shepherd, and Bush Heritage ecologist Allana Brown, who is also the Recovery Team’s Deputy-Chair.

Sue Shephard and Ecologist Allana Brown with Alwal feeding stations.
Sue Shephard and Ecologist Allana Brown with Alwal feeding stations.
Working together, the team will devise a plan that draws on Aboriginal traditional knowledge, cultural understanding and Western science; making it a new model for recovery teams. As the Olkola Alwal Project Manager, Ashaley will be heavily involved in the plan’s on-ground implementation.

“I enjoy being out on country - setting up monitoring cameras, searching for Alwal, taking [vegetation] plots and things like that,” he says. “I feel a sense of freedom, and I belong here. It’s really good.”

Already, Ashaley and other Olkola rangers, with support from Bush Heritage, have identified key threats to Alwal’s survival and are working to control them.

Last year, for example, remote monitoring cameras captured images of a feral cat raiding one of Alwal’s nests, providing the first evidence that feral cats prey on the bird. A joint project between the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, Bush Heritage and the University of Queensland is now investigating new ways of controlling feral cats on Olkola country.

Rangers have also been working to protect Alwal from natural threats, including predation from Butcher Birds and Goannas, and annual food shortages.

Olkola Alwal Project Manager Ashaley Ross.
Olkola Alwal Project Manager Ashaley Ross.
For the past two years, they've set out supplementary seed in predator-proof feeders during the wet season. Immature birds are particularly vulnerable during this period and can die of starvation because grass seeds germinate resulting in a lack of seed available for eating. Changes in fire regimes have also resulted in the loss of open grasslands; the parrots preferred habitat.

Without the natural disruption that fire causes, ti-tree and other shrubby growth has encroached on the grasslands, providing added cover for Butcher Birds and Goannas. To combat this, rangers are reinstating both natural and traditional fire regimes.

At the heart of all this work, one consistent theme emerges as being critical to saving Alwal – having Olkola people on country, caring for their totem.

The Bringing Alwal Home project is supported through funding from the Australian Government's National Landcare Program, the Queensland Government’s Everyone’s Environment Program and the Scully Fund.

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