Indigenous rangers and scientists working to conserve endangered white-throated grasswren in Arnhem Land

Indigenous rangers and scientists working to conserve endangered white-throated grasswren in Arnhem Land

In one of the remotest parts of Arnhem Land, Indigenous rangers have made an exciting discovery that has given them confidence their efforts to control wildfires are paying off.

They have found a number of endangered white-throated grasswrens, which are on the federal government’s priority list of 20 Australian it is hoping to stop becoming birds.

Two weeks ago, Warddeken Indigenous ranger Terrah Guymala was extremely excited to hear the call of the bird he had been searching months for.

“The white-throated grasswren is the western name, but in Bininj we call it Yinlinkirrkkirr, and this Yinlinkirrkkirr, it’s a really important little bird that lives in the Stone Country,” he said.

The ranger group is working on a project with a non-profit organization Territory Natural Resource Management, which has received federal government funding to work out where the endemic white-throated grasswren still survives.

The team has been playing bird calls to find the wrens.(Supplied: Kelly Dixon, Warddeken Land Management)

The birds only live in the Stone Country of Arnhem Land and similar areas in Kakadu and Jawoyn country near Katherine.

Territory Natural Resource Management ecologist Dr Kelly Dixon said the species had been disappearing because of hotter, more frequent bushfires and an increasing number of a feral cats.

“This species has declined and disappeared from several of the locations from which they were once reliably found… [including] near Gunlom Falls in Kakadu, Plum Tree Creek, [and] There was quite a dense population near the East Alligator and that has happened over a decade,” she said.

Two small birds perched on a flat rock on a sunny day.
Scientists say the wrens’ habitat could also be threatened by climate change. ( Supplied: Dr Kelly Dixon, Territory Natural Resource Management)

The white-throated grasswren is particularly vulnerable because it depends on areas of spinifex grass that haven’t been burnt by bushfires for about five years, and because it mostly hops around, rather than flying.

So to try to find it, the rangers analysed which parts of the 1.4 million hectares of Arnhem Land that they manage had been least burnt.

A small bird perched on a flat rock on a sunny day.
A white-throated grasswren in Arnhem Land.( Supplied: Dr Kelly Dixon, Territory Natural Resource Management)

Then, Warddeken ecologist Cara Penton said, they walked around playing the birds’ song.

“Every minute or so we play the birds’ call and see whether it will come out and respond,” she said.

“The first day wasn’t very successful, but on the second day we were playing the calls and they actually came out so quickly.”

A group of seven people standing next to each other and looking at the camera, with most dressed as rangers, in the bush.
Territory Natural Resource Management staff and Warddeken rangers were excited to discover the species in the area.(Supplied: Kelly Dixon, Warddeken Land Management)

Finding the birds was a great relief to Indigenous ranger Terrah Guymala.

It has demonstrated to his ranger group that the work it does – burning a patchwork of firebreaks into the landscape, reducing bushfire fuel loads, then fighting wildfires each year – to reduce habitat damage and the release of greenhouse gas emissions – is working.

“When we saw two birds I was so excited and said ‘there should be more here’. Then we saw six and I said, ‘this is really good, they are growing in number’,” he said.

“So that means we are managing this fire the proper way.”

Two small birds perched on a flat rock on a sunny day.
The birds have cultural meaning to the Nawarddeken people.( Supplied: Dr Kelly Dixon, Territory Natural Resource Management)

Mr Guymala said, to the Nawarddeken people, the threat of losing species like the wrens would mean not just losing biodiversity, but also the cultural stories bound to them.

Four female rangers sitting on a rock in a bush environment, on a sunny day.  They're smiling at the camera.
Rangers say the discovery shows their fire management practices are working.(Supplied: Cara Penton, Warddeken Land Management)

“We are really happy to see them back on this landscape and back where they belong because the connection is there, with our spirit, with us, with the land, and with the story, with the songline, with the dance,” he said .

Ms Penton said the partners were worried that the hot scientists and frequent bushfires climate change have forecast for Australia were going to keep making their work harder each year.

“Managing that in the face of climate change is going to be a really huge challenge for us,” she said.

“The Warddeken rangers fought over 50 fires last year and we know that’s going to increase in the future, and so it’s going to be really important for us to be able to resource our ability to fight those fires.

“Really that’s the main thing that needs to be supported.”

A small bird perched on a rock on a sunny day.
The species is only found in West Arnhem Land. (Supplied: Kelly Dixon, Territory Natural Resource Management)

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