Perhaps, just perhaps, one day I will be in the right place, at the right time and with the right lens on my camera. But until then I will have to rely on words and this painting on paper by Billy Yaluwangka to share the remarkable story of Buludjirrk, the Black Kite (Milvus migrans) — the hawk than hunts with fire. In North Australia if you find wildfire you’ll find Buludjirrk there— swooping into the smoke and ashes to pluck lizards and insects off the ground or take the insects in the air. Often there are dozens wheeling around a fire front, along with whistling kites and other avian carnivores. It’s decades now since I first heard Aboriginal people tell me how Buludjirrk doesn’t give up when a fire is stopped by a natural firebreak — a river or creek, or these days sometimes a road or track. I’m not sure how many firsthand accounts I’ve heard, but it’s a lot. I haven’t seen the act of fire starting by Buludjirrk but I come close to it. We had been fighting a fire west of a creek on the Arnhem Plateau and from a helicopter I saw the fire pull up on a wide creek. We went off to deal with another front and came back to find the fire across the creek — travelling into the wind, not a case of sparks blown across the creek. Of course, there were plenty of black kites on the scene hunting as usual. Billy Yaluwangka tells the story of Buludjirrk in his picture. The hawk grabs a stick which is alight at one end, flies across the firebreak and drops the stick into grass. If he’s lucky he’ll have a new happy hunting fireground. Veteran birder and blogger Bob Gosford also has been fascinated by the story of the firebird of the north. Here’s a link to his blog on that subject in Crikey. And just maybe, one day I’ll be there with a camera.

Billy Yaluwangka was born in 1952 and was one of 25 children whose father was the remarkable indigenous painter Mandark — a man who refused to be drawn off his country and into the assimilationist “settlements” of Arnhem Land. Billy drew from a deep well of indigenous knowledge of matters spiritual and physical, tutored by his father and the old man’s four wives. When I took these photos in 1979 the family was living in bark shelters south of Maningrida at a place called Birba. Billy and his wife Brenda followed tradition and the inside of their bark house was covered in simple but powerful paintings executed with white clay and charcoal on the stringybark sheets. Foolishly, at the time, I didn’t ask Billy to identify all the subjects in his paintings. However, when I look carefully at them now, I am sure one is of a wallaby that hasn’t been seen for several decades and may well be locally extinct. The wallaby is Wularla, the spectacled hare wallaby (Lagorchestes conspicullatus) which has a circle of orange fur around it’s eyes — a very clear diagnostic. The birdwatcher in the family (Jan) believes the bird at the bottom to be a peregrine falcon. Sadly, I can’t ask Billy. He died about 10 years ago.