The Laughing Kookaburra (Dacela novaeguinea) [top] is perhaps Australia’s best known bird, known not so much for its looks but for its famed “laugh”. Before television took over the delivery of filmed news, movie theatres usually provided two full length movies and a short news program. The Laughing Kookaburra’s image and laugh introduced the Australian edition of Fox Movietone News which produced 2,300 editions in its life from 1929-1970. The competition to Movietone News was Cinesound Review which, unlike Movietone News, featured only Australian items. Cinesound Review’s opening logo was the Red Kangaroo.
The Laughing Kookaburra is found all the way down the Eastern Coast of Australia with a small extension into South Australia and an isolated population in South West Western Australia.
In Queensland and northern New South Wales populations of the Laughing Kookaburra overlap with the range of the Blue-winged Kookaburra (Dacelo leachii) [above].
But from the lower Gulf of Carpentaria westwards around the Deep North as far as the Tropic of Capricorn in Western Australia you will not hear the familiar laughing call of Dacela novaguinea. Instead you will hear a call which the leading guide to Australian birds (Pizzey and Knight, ninth edition) still describes as “appalling”. Further, they add to their description: “…a guttural ‘klock, klock’, developing into a cacophony of mechanical squawks, screeches in chorus.”
As a long term denizen of the Deep North I must say I feel a little resentful of P&K’s damning of the Blue Wing’s call … we prefer to call it “unique” rather than “appalling”.
The Blue-winged Kookaburra is known as Karldurrk in the Kundedjnyenghmi dialect of Bininj Kunwok.
Oddly the Laughing Kookaburra carries the species name “novaeguinea”, but is not listed as found in New Guinea. It is D. leachii whose range extends through the Torres Strait and into New Guinea.



Bininj Gunwok tongue twister

Once a Kuninjku speaker (Australian language, western Arnhem Land) and I were looking at a rock painting of a sole fish called bembem in Kuninjku. It was up very high on a wall in a rock shelter on the Arnhem Land escarpment. It made me wonder how anyone could have managed to paint on a wall some 4 metres from the floor of the shelter. I had the following conversation with my uncle Nabulumo:


Baleh ka-yime bu birri-biduni birri-bimbuni bembem namekke?

How did they climb up and paint a picture of that sole fish.


Dabbarrabbolk birri-bidbohbidbom bembem birri-bimbohbimbom.

The ancestors used to climb up and paint pictures of the sole fish.

When he finished uttering this sentence we both laughed our heads off. It was a great Kuninjku language tongue twister.

Despite having a russet streaked belly, this raptor is known commonly as the Black Kite (Milvus migrans). It’s found almost all over Australia and frequently hunts along the fronts of grass fires. In the Kundedjnyenghmi dialect of Bininj Kunwok it is known as Buludjirrk. There are many reports from both indigenous and non-indigenous observers who have seen this bird pick up sticks which still have one end alight and fly off to drop the stick into dry grass, sometimes to get a fire across a creek or these days a track or road. I dream that one day I may get pictures of this happening! But how cool is a bird that uses fire as a tool for organised hunting? Very cool.

When the last member of the Barradj Clan died about 20 years ago she bequeathed her traditional lands to Dean Yibarbuk, who she regarded as her closest blood relative since they had a grandmother in common. Dean, the older guy with dreadlocks, is a senior ranger and expert in indigenous knowledge whose own father’s country is in lowland country on the Liverpool River floodplains. Early in 2014 Dean brought his family and some of Warddeken’s rangers on an expedition to survey some of the rock art sites in the country for which he now has management responsibility. From the ranger base at Kabulwarnamyo the survey party was choppered into the Kunbambuk location and spent five days finding and recording rock art. Some 21 separate sites were found, with more than 300 separate images recorded. The pictures ranged in age from the oldest styles of more than 20,000 years BP to the post contact era. Only one post contact era painting was found and we concluded that this marked a time when the bands on Barradj country went down to lowlands where feral buffalo had spread widely. From the late nineteenth century into the 20th century rugged Europeans and local Aboriginal people worked together shooting buffalo and preparing their hides for sale. The plateau country is beautiful country but not bountiful in easily hunted meat. The single post-contact image at the top here is a picture of the hind leg of a buffalo, showing the meat and bones and at left the cloven hoof. Dean and I concluded that people who had been down amongst the buffalo camps brought news of the readily available red meat back to the Barradj band at Kunbambuk. To make their point they drew this lifesize representation of just one leg from a buffalo. It seems that after this image was painted people gathered their possessions and went down to the buffalo camps. This probably happened early in the 20th century. People worked in the buffalo industry and were often paid with tobacco and soon developed nicotine addiction. Elders say that it was addiction to tobacco and ready availability of a variety of other trade goods that caused depopulation of the plateau. Since about 1970 people have been coming back to resettle the plateau. In the lower pictures Dean and young ranger Gavin Phillips have raked flammable grasses and leaves away from the painted shelters and have burned off. If left unburned, spinifex and other materials can accumulate and then a fire ignited by lightning can do serious damage to the paintings.

The Whistling Kite (Haliaster splenurus) is another raptor that is found in all Australian states. It’s also found in Papua New Guinea and Vanuata. As the name suggests it has a distinctive shrill whistling call. The slightly untidy bird in the lower picture is a juvenile, I believe. The Whistling Kite is a common bird of the Western Arnhem Land Plateau where it is known as Marram.

The White-Bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) is a magnificent bird found in all states of Australia and also in India, Papua New Guinea, parts of Asia and the Solomon Islands. It is often seen soaring in majestic circles but when it sights potential prey it can quickly switch to power dive mode. Those powerful talons easily lift medium sized fish or waterbirds from the water. It spans up to 2m, with females a little larger. Not quite as big as the Wedge-tailed Eagle. In Kakadu National Park and on the Western Arnhem Land Plateau it is known as Marrawuddi.