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.
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.