Thursday, 19 April 2018

Cocopara National Park; a little beauty

In our part of the world, every Easter (and at other holiday times) large numbers of our fellow Canberra citizens head east to the coast. We're not keen on crowds, so this year we opted to go west instead, through the woodland remnants of the deep soils of the South-west Slopes region to the edge of the great Western Plains, which effectively roll flatly on until they reach the Indian Ocean, almost 3000km away. Our goal was to spend three nights camping in Cocoparra National Park, in a low range near the irrigation town of Griffith in the Riverina region.
Our Cocoparra home for three days; despite it being Easter there were never more than two or three other
camps in the Woolshed Flat Campground at any time, scattered over a large area.
This is a low rainfall area, and it has been a particularly dry summer, as the photo suggests.
Griffith (and Cocoparra) are at the end of the red arrow.
When the (notoriously gloomy, as reflected in his diaries) Surveyor-General John Oxley entered the land of the Wiradjuri people in June 1817 he was, predictably, not impressed. Of the plains, supporting dry woodlands and mallee shrublands, he commented: “There is a uniformity of barren desolation of this country which wearies one more than I am able to express.” Of the view from the ridge of Cocoparra (which he called Peel's Range) he opined: “I am the first white man to see it, and I think I will be undoubtedly the last.” He continued that theme when, to mark the king's birthday, they planted oak, apricot, peach and oak seeds in the range (well, he was an surveyor, not a horticulturalist) and he sniffed that the act was "to serve to commemorate the day and situation, should these desolate plains be ever again visited by civilised man of which, however, I think there is little probability". Perhaps not someone you'd invite twice to dinner.

I can't judge whether they were civilised people, but Europeans certainly did come and settle, albeit some 50 years later, taking up the land surrounding the range as huge grazing properties, which were later subdivided into wheat farms in the early 1900s. Meantime, not far to the west, a massive irrigation scheme, planned in the late 19th century and activated in the early years of the 20th, was transforming the plains, bringing water from new distant reservoirs on the Murrumbidgee River. The rich soils lacked only water, and with that they now produce huge quantities of grapes, citrus, stone fruits, olives and vegetables. 
Looking west over the plains from Cocparra to the McPherson Range, at the foot of which lies Griffith.
Black Cypress Pine Callitris endlicheri dominates the foreground.
The two ranges comprise 350 million year old sandstones and other sedimentaries, laid down on an inland floodplain.
Folding and uplifting have raised the ranges above the much newer soils which filled the basin between them.
Fortunately for us, none of this affected the Cocoparra Range much; there was some opportunistic grazing, but in general the slopes and gorges were too rough for stock. In acknowledgement of this (plus, we hope, because of the undoubted biodiversity values of the range) it was declared a national park in 1969, nearly 50 years ago. It covers only 8300 hectares, though is supplemented by the 4600 hectare Cocoparra Nature Reserve adjoining to the north (a nature reserve is dedicated wholly to conservation and research, not passive recreation, which is a function of national parks). 
Welcome to Cocoparra National Park!
As I suggested earlier, it was dry while we were there; average annual rainfall is only 400mm anyway, but there have been only 25mm so far this year, and only about 5mm since the beginning of February. Normally the rain is divided pretty evenly between all 12 months. The trees and shrubs and resident animals are quite capable of dealing with such conditions, but there was almost no flowering and very few herbs. As we would expect, the vegetation on the hills is very different from that on the lowest slopes and valleys. As seen in the previous photo, Black Cypress Pine is an important component on the hillsides and ridges.

Black Cypress Pine, Jack's Track.
This is one of our favourite walks in the park, which starts on the exposed slopes and ends by descending
into the gorge of Ladysmith Glen; several of the photos here were taken on that walk.
(And just after this photo I was concentrating so much on the trees and possible birds that I managed to
completely overlook the Eastern Brown Snake - generally listed as the second most venomous snake in the world -
that was crossing the track. Fortunately for all concerned I failed to step on it, but Lou, immediately
behind me, was less than sanguine about the episode, which I can fully understand...)

Currawang Acacia doratoxylon. This tall spindly wattle forms dense stands on ridges in particular.
It is also known as Spearwood Wattle - which is the meaning of the species name too - presumably
for a recorded use by the Wiradjuri.
Dwyer's Gum Eucalyptus dwyeri. One of the red gum group, which grows almost
exclusively in rocky situations. In particularly harsh positions it will grow as a mallee form -
ie a multi-stemmed shrub sprouting from a subterranean lignotuber.
 On the deeper soils different trees predominate.

Mugga Ironbark Eucalyptus sideroxylon, with White Cypress Pine Callitris columellaris on the left.
The deeply fissured bark is impregnated with kino, and as it dries out becomes immensely hard.
There are a few dozen species with this characteristic scattered across eastern Australia.

Bimble Box Eucalyptus populneus. This lovely tree is characteristic of the NSW western plains, and
north into Queensland. The shiny rounded leaves give rise to the species name, meaning 'poplar-like'.
And in the few creekbeds - which are dry most of the time - are found the ubiquitous River Red Gums Eucalyptus camaldulensis, which dominate every stream line in inland Australia.
River Red Gums in Jacks Creek Gorge (also known as Ladysmith Glen).
This is a lovely little gorge; I've seen it with substantial pools and calling frogs, but more often I've seen it as we did this time, with no surface water, though the gums are tapping into the water below the sand. I always pause at the lookouts above the gorge before descending.
Looking down into Jacks Creek Gorge (Ladysmith Glen).

Crumpled sandstone layers on the opposite wall.
The creeper on the rocks is Wonga Vine Pandorea pandorana, Family Bignoniaceae.
The lovely tube-shaped flowers of Wonga Vine (from a previous visit).
Remarkably, this species is found in most habitats in all mainland Australian states, and beyond to
New Guinea, Vanuatu and Indonesia.
Peregrine Falcon roost (and possibly nest) in the gorge. I've seen them send the local Galahs into
frantic panic here, but they didn't appear this time.
Which brings us to a few of the birds of Cocoparra; most of the following were taken around the camp ground.
Bar-shouldered Dove Geopelia humeralis.I was surprised to hear the distinctive "let's go to schoooool" call
as soon as we arrived, and the pretty doves were all around.
'Surprised' because this is much more a coastal and northern species, though they turn up sporadically inland.
Male Mulga Parrot Psephotellus varius, one of our loveliest parrots (in my opinion at least!)
and found throughout much of Australia's drylands.
Ringneck Parrot Barnardius zonarius, above and below.
Another parrot with a very wide inland range, and several distinct subspecies.

Jacky Winter Microeca fascinans, one of the fly-catching Australian robins,
though without the usual red or yellow undersides it is not always recognised as such.

White-browed Babbler Pomatostomus superciliosus, the smallest of the four Australian babblers
(there is also one in New Guinea). I love these bold raucous highly sociable larrikins bouncing across the
ground and cramming into a roost nest. They used to be placed with the old world babblers (hence the name)
but are now put in their own family, with just the one genus.
Female Splendid Fairywren Malurus splendens. The family was swarming across the campground in the early
morning (see the angle of the sun), but she insisted on staying between me and the sun.
The male had already moulted out of his glorious breeding plumage.
Speckled Warbler Pyrrholaemus sagittatus, in Deane's Wattle Acacia deanei.
White-eared Honeyeater Nesoptilotis leucotis, gleaning insects above our camp.
Wedge-tailed Eagle Aquila audax; this beauty was perched by the road as we drove
out of camp on the first morning.
It was a good three days, starting with the sun warming the nearby low sandstone cliff...

... ending with the rising moon and stars shining through the Bimble Box...

... and getting up at night under the Southern Cross.

Camp out soon if you can possibly do so - most of us do far too infrequently for our own good. And if you can possibly drop in on Cocoparra sometime, that would be doing yourself a favour too.

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Flabmeister said...

No photo of the snake? Shime!

Ian Fraser said...

Well there is one, but for one reason or another it's out of focus...