About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

Tjoritja/MacDonnell Ranges; our rugged heart

I write this in quarantine in chilly Canberra; like thousands of others we are isolated at home for two weeks as a result of having been in the same general area and time as someone who later tested positive. No complaints, we've all got to do our bit, but we'd much rather be travelling, so I'm going to indulge instead in putting together a two-part blog on one of our very favourite parts of Australia, the ancient and sublime Tjoritja. They were renamed the MacDonnell Ranges by the doughtiest of early European explorers here, the Scot John McDouall Stuart in 1860. (MacDonnell was the South Australian governor at the time.) There is a gradual move towards reinstating the old Arrernte name, at least as an alternative, though I don't anticipate a general take-up among 'whitefella' Australians in the near future. However it is intended that the European name be eventually phased out. The ranges are divided for convenience into the East and West MacDonnells, the pivot being the fascinating and troubled town of Alice Springs.

As mentioned, this is a two-part blog, with some of the plants and animals of the range featuring next time. Nonetheless I'm finding that this is a longer post than usual, possibly because I have more time than usual on my hands at present, but also because of the scope of the topic.

Two views of the Western section of Tjoritja, from the Larapinta Road which runs west from
Alice Springs along the range. One of the most scenic sealed drives in the entire continent.

A more distant view of western Tjoritja across the plains from Ewaninga, south of Alice Springs.

A somewhat unusual perspective, from the north, from the Gary Junction Road.
Note that a permit is required for this road through Indigenous land.

Tjoritja marked in red; map courtesy Wikipedia.
Alice Springs (just 'Alice' to her many friends) lies in the narrow section
in the middle of the range.

The range runs west-east, as seen in this shot from Google Earth. Only the western section is
substantially protected as a reserve, and that is where most visitors go. The range extends
further to the the east than I've shown here, but access is relatively limited beyond that.
The numbers represent the places discussed and illustrated below.
1, Redbank Gorge/Yarretyeke; 2, Mount Sonder/Rwetyepme; 3, Glen Helen Gorge/Yapalpe;
4, Ormiston Gorge/Kwartatuma and Pound; 6, Ochre Pits; 5, Serpentine Gorge/Ulpma ;
7, Ellery Creek Big Hole/Udepata; 8 Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye;
9, Simpsons Gap/Rungutjirpa; 10, Emily Gap/Yeperenye; 11, Corroboree Rock;
12, Trephina Gorge/Alherrkentye and John Hayes Rockhole/Atneperrke.
The drive west from Alice is initially along the Larapinta Drive (Larapinta is the name of the river we know as the Finke). The Larapinta Trail on the other hand is a magnificent 220k walking track along the full length of the ridgeline of the western range. On the first part of the drive there are ranges on both sides of the road. The hard cap overlaying other materials is obvious along here, preventing this ridges from eroding away.

The geology of Tjoritja is complex and very diverse, though the predominant rock in
most places is iron rust-stained red quartzite, which features in many of the photos that follow.
The first gorge to visit is Simpsons Gap/Rungutjirpa, less than 20k from Alice - and very many people do visit, so you'd do well to get out there early if you can! It's a very short easy walk along the creek to the lovely little gorge; you can often see Black-footed Rock-Wallabies and Dusky Grasswrens along here before the hordes descend. However, as already explained, I'm leaving the animals and plants of Tjoritja to their own post, next time.
Red quartzite in the walls of Rungutjirpa gorge,
and in nearby outcrops (below in the early morning).

There are short sign-posted walks at the entrance station (Ghost Gum walk) and on the drive in (Cassia Hill) which are both scenic and provide a good introduction to the plants.
The magnificent view from Cassia Hill and (below) a closer shot
of the two lovely Ghost Gums Corymbia (or Eucalyptus) aparrerinja;
more on them in the next post, but if you can't wait, follow this link
to a full post on them.

The next stop west on our itinerary is the equally well-known Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye, a remarkably narrow slot-like gorge, accessed by a pleasant walk along the creek.
Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye; I find it very hard to get the light right here!
Unlike all the other gorges this one is privately owned (by the local Western Arrernte community).
There is a small entrance fee, but well worth it.
Shortly afterwards Larapinta Drive swings off to the south-west to Hermannsburg and ultimately to Watarrka/Kings Canyon. We continue on Namatjira Drive (for the great Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira from Hermannsburg) along the fringe of the range to Ellery Creek Big Hole/Udepata. This is another lovely site which is prone to being crowded and noisy at times, as it's one of the few places here where we can swim, though it's startlingly cold. There's also a camp ground. Worth a try though, there are also quiet periods!
Udepata in a more peaceful moment.
When it's like this the bird life is  usually busy here.
Serpentine Gorge/Ulpma is about 100k from Alice. The access road is usually OK for a two-wheel drive, but not if it's been raining. However it's likely to be a lot quieter than the gorges near to Alice, which for us is a real plus. The gorge provides the only permanent water in the vicinity. The walk from the carpark is easy, but can be a bit exposed if it's hot. To my surprise I don't have a photo of the actual gorge - sorry! - but next time I can offer you a couple of plant and bird shots from here.

The Ochre Pits, a little further west, are much easier to access and while no gorge is involved, the walk follows a dry creek bed featuring low colourful cliffs on one side. The ochre has been extracted by the Arrernte people for thousands of years for artistic and ceremonial purposes.

The spectacular rocks alone make this walk worthwhile.

Away from the creek the track passes through superb mature spinifex;
it was here that I saw my first Rufous-crowned Emuwrens, Australia's smallest bird,
many years ago. And I've never seen them in Tjoritja since.
By now Mount Sonder/Rwetyepme is a dominant part of the view ahead. It's within the range but looks very much like an isolated ridge mountain. It one of my favourite anticipations when visiting the centre. Just looking at it gives me a frisson of excitement that I can't really explain. A framed print of an Albert Namatjira print of it has pride of place in our dining room. Here are a couple of views from different angles and in different moods. 
An early view of Rwetyepme from Namatjira Drive.

A closer, sharper view.

A less familiar view of Rwetyepme!
Rain and cloud on a dry landscape.
 After 135k we come to perhaps the highlight of the western ranges, Ormiston Gorge/Kwartatuma and Ormiston Pound. Access is easy and the carpark is usually busy. You can easily enjoy a lovely pool just five minutes away by a wheelchair-accessible path, or the beginning of the gorge 500 metres further along the creek bed. However if you can do so, you should really plan to do the 8.5k loop walk that climbs gradually up to a splendid lookout over the Pound, then descends to the plains of the Pound and returns via the Gorge. It is one of my favourite day walks in Australia and I've done it several times.
Near the start of the walk, looking back to Ormiston Creek
where it starts. The spinifex-covered hills are typical of the route.

Looking back to Mt Sonder as we climb and it appears over the ridge behind us.

Looking down into the pound from the lookout.

The Pound from within. This was a particularly dry year.

Inside the gorge we are walking along the sandy creek bed initially,
sometimes climbing over spectacularly coloured tumbled stones.
River Red Gum saplings generate in the bed and White Cypress Pines and
Ghost Gums grow on the cliffs.

Once we get to the long, very deep pool it's a bit of a lottery. Sometimes - perhaps mostly -
you can just walk past it, but I've also seen it so full that a lot of rock scrambling was required.
Last time I was there though it was so high that the walk through the gorge was closed,
but I don't imagine that happens very often.

Nearby, but south of the road, is Glen Helen Gorge/Yapalpe, where the Finke/Larapinta River flows south through the range. It's a lovely little gorge, which always seems to have a lot of bird life, with a low key (but high cost) lodge comprising motel, campground and restaurant/bar alongside. It has recently changed hands, so I can't comment further on what it's like now.

Magnificent cliffs with fascinating folds and sediment layers across the
river from the lodge.

Dramatically eroding cliffs above the gorge.

The Finke/Larapinta River within the gorge is impressive indeed;
above turbid after rains, below clear, as it is most of the time.

A short walk back along the entrance road leads to a superb lookout across the plains and the River Red Gum-lined Finke/Larapinta River to Rwetyepme. It's especially fine in the evening.
Evening looking across the Finke/Larapinta to Mount Sonder/Rwetyepme
from the entrance road to Glen Helen/Yapalpe.
Finally, 156km from Alice Springs, we turn onto the access road to Redbank Gorge/Yarretyeke, a real delight and worth the drive. There is a lovely campground in open woodland of Gum-barked Coolibah (Eucalyptus intertexta) and an attractive walk along the creek for a kilometre to a permanent pool in a narrow gorge. 
Gum-barked Coolibah woodland (in the rain), Yarretyeke campground.
Ghost Gums on the lip of Redbank Gorge.
Walking into the gorge.
Permanent pool in the gorge.
Idyllic really. Except...
We had a very unfortunate encounter with a Dingo which, while we were walking to the gorge, tore a hole in our tent and ransacked food boxes, escaping through another hole on the other side (I suspect we disturbed her). In order to (hopefully) avoid the sort of breath-takingly acrid abuse we were subjected to on the Alice Springs ABC web site when the story we'd got out that we'd talked to the parks service and suggested signs advising people to not leave their camp unattended, let me clarify. All our fresh food was in a fridge and was untouched. All other food was in sealed containers in lidded boxes; she was simply ransacking speculatively. Obviously people had been feeding her; we, needless to say, were not. I've been camping for decades and the only other animals I've known break into a tent are mice (through the floor) and a goanna (once, through a mosquito net). Ah well.

With that we'll now head back to Alice Springs and drive east to have a look at the equally superb, but less-visited, eastern part of the range. Just out of town on the Ross Highway are the adjacent Emily and Jesse Gaps, known collectively as Yeperenye for the important caterpillar designs on the cliff shelters. There is no restriction on seeing or photographing these. The gaps are right by the road and are popular picnic areas, and lovely spots.
Yeperenye paintings on the lower walls of 'Emily' Gap.

Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve, 42k east of Alice and right by the highway, is a tiny 7 hectare reserve surrounding an impressive grey dolomite outcrop, which is of great cultural significance to men of the Easten Arrernte people. The nature of this significance cannot be shared with outsiders, and visitors are asked to keep to the track which circles it, and definitely not to climb the rock. I find it interesting that I can't find an Arrernte name for the site, and assume that even this is not for sharing with outsiders. It's well worth a stop, for the rock itself, and for the rich spinifex grassland around it.
Corroboree Rock.
Ghost Gums and spinifex on the hills near Corroboree Rock; a grand land.
For me however, the highlight of a visit to the East is Trephina Gorge/Alherrkentye, featuring a beautiful wide sandy creek bed lined with River Red Gums and starkly beautiful rocky landscapes above it. A lovely picnic area and camp ground are in delightful woodland. The walk up onto the low plateau, and eventually down into the creek and back along it to the picnic area, is one I never tire of.
Climbing up to the plateau from Trephina Creek, at the start of the walk.
What a backdrop!
Red quartzite outcrops high above the creek.
Looking down on the broad bend in the creek. The track
descends to the creek behind the tall outcrop in shadow in the back left.
A beautifully lit River Red Gum in the creek, and Mulga (Acacia aneura)
on the harsh rocky slopes above.
The walk back along the creek provides some welcome shade on a warm day,
though the sand can drag on the feet!
Finally, on the way out, before the highway it's good to divert to the John Hayes Rockhole/Atneperrke, though only if you have a 4WD with reasonable clearance. The pretty rockhole is near-permanent, though when we were there last the land was dry and the water levels were low. Still worth visiting though!
The rockhole is usually more impressive and inviting than it was then,
though it was doubtless of great value to local wildlife in those dry conditions.
The shady red rock-strewn gorge.
So, the magnificent Tjoritja, a national treasure. Most of us aren't going anywhere for a while yet, so armchair travelling might be a comfort - I find it so. When you do move again in Australia, I'm sure that sooner or later central Australia will be on the list. Don't miss the more famous Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Watarrka of course, but also don't rush past Tjoritja. It's worth at least a couple of days of your time.
Moonrise in western Tjoritja.

for some plants and animals of the range

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This will mean one email every three weeks at the current rate of posting. 
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Thursday, 5 August 2021

Turtles and Tortoises; the real old-timers

These wonderful animals have been around in pretty much their current form for at least 200 million years. Two hundred and twenty million years ago the first turtles separated off from the other reptiles and have been doing their own thing ever since. It was another hundred million years (would you like a moment to think about that?) before a recognisable crocodile, the other notable vertebrate group which has been around for a very long time in its modern form, made an appearance and doubtless began preying on turtles.

Yellow-spotted River Turtle Podocnemis unifilis, Manu River, Peruvian Amazonia.
For a turtle, the shell's the thing. It comprises a plastron below and a carapace protecting the back. It took them the first twenty million years to get it right, but they had plenty of time and got there in the end. The plastron developed first, to protect swimming proto-turtles from attacks from below. The carapace evolved after turtles came ashore. Segments of ribs and spine were 'borrowed' to form the bony carapace - which is still fused to the ribs and spine - while the plastron developed from the shoulder girdle and breast bones, plus special floating 'dermal bones' found in the belly skin of ancient reptiles including crocodiles. Extensions from the plastron connect the plates at the sides. The bony shield was then eventually covered with tough keratin scales called scutes, based on reptile skin. Modern freshwater and marine turtles have land-dwelling ancestors.
Yellow-spotted River Turtle again - they are seemingly everywhere in the Amazon.
Carapace, plastron plus side extensions, and scutes are all obvious here.
Note too the broadly webbed and strongly clawed feet, plus the nostrils on the very
tip of the nose, for breathing while staying otherwise submerged.
Let's get the 'tortoise or turtle' thing out of the way now, before we get in deeper. It's pretty much a furphy really but there's confusion in Australia in particular because we use the terms differently from elsewhere. Traditionally we've pretty much reserved 'turtle' for the big ocean-going turtles, and 'tortoise' for everything else including the numerous freshwater species. I'm guessing that usage derived in the 19th century from English ancestors, but it may have been home-grown. It is likely that the absence of land-dwelling tortoises here influenced this too. In either case in modern-day Britain as well as elsewhere in the English-speaking world 'tortoise' is reserved for club-footed purely land-dwelling animals and everything else is a 'turtle'. That preference is starting to gain traction here too and it's how I'll be using it today.
The turtle world, comprising the Order Testudines for the record, is indeed divided into two, but not like that. As in many other groups of animals and plants, it looks as though this dichotomy had its origins in the times when the world was divided north and south, though it is probably not that simple. For our purposes it is only significant that one Suborder (the Pleuridines, or side-necked turtles) is solely southern today, in Australia, South America and Africa. As the name suggests, they tuck their neck away sideways into the shell where it fits neatly in front of one front leg.
Eastern Long-necked Turtle Chelodina longicollis. Its front is to the left,
and the folded back neck can be seen above my thumb. I've moved very many
turtles (mostly this species) off roads out of harm's way but be wary - they ungratefully
defend themselves with a foul-smelling secretion which you do not want on you or
your clothes!
The other Suborder (the Cryptodines, or hidden-necked turtles) pull their heads straight back in, between their front legs, folding their neck neatly into an S-shape. This, as you may imagine, requires a very different skeletal and muscular design, and the separation between the groups seems to go back to the Jurassic, 150-200 millon years ago.
The Malay, or Southeast Asian, Box Turtle Cuora amboinensis, here at Sepilok,
Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, is an example of the hidden-neckeds. Its short neck
is pulled straight back into the shell when threatened. It is found throughout
southeast Asia. Many species of box turtles are threatened in the wild both
by the demand for wild food in China, and the depredations of the
US pet industry.
However this group also contains all the tortoises and sea turtles, and is found on every non-frozen continent (and ocean) except Australia. Well, not quite. There is one species in Australia, the ancient and unique Pig-nosed Turtle Carettochelys insculpta found in a few Top End rivers, and in New Guinea. It is the only surviving member of its entire family, though fossil relations are widely known. It closest relations seem to be the soft-shelled turtles of Africa, Asia and North America.
Pig-nosed Turtle, Melbourne Aquarium. Unlike any other fresh-water turtle it has
flippers like a sea turtle. Its nostrils are at the end of a long snout, hence the common name.
It is still not well known to science, though of course Indigenous Top Enders have long known it well.

The six species of great sea turtles also belong in this Suborder. They have lost the ability to retract their head, though other factors place them in the group of hidden-neckeds. Their plastron is smaller than that of other turtles, and joined to the carapace only by ligaments. Perhaps their substantial size - carapace length across the species ranges from 70cm to over two metres - enables them to dispense with some protection. And of course they have flippers to enable them to cross vast ocean distances.
Green Turtle Chelonia mydas basking ashore, Galápagos.
By 90 million years ago huge turtles seemingly related to modern leatherbacks were feeding on squid in northern seas. The ancestors of other modern sea turtles arose about ten million years later.
Green Turtle, Galápagos. Adults feed on sea grass beds in shallow water.
However Green Turtles cover huge distances - up to 2500km - to breed,
and can be found across huge areas of the world's oceans where
temperatures are above ten degrees centigrade.
Females determine mating, which takes place in the water.
Green Turtles mating, Galápagos.
After that she comes ashore to dig a hole in the sand and lay up to 300 round white leathery eggs, 40-50mm across, which she buries. The youngsters hatch at night after 8-10 weeks and all head for the water, though few successfully run the gauntlet of predatory birds and crabs. Perhaps only 1% of hatchlings survives to maturity, but if they do they may live for 80 years.

Green Turtle tracks, Lady Elliott Island, Great Barrier Reef.
Within their huge range, Green Turtles are at their most abundant in the
Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean.

Tortoises, totally land-dwelling animals without any foot adaptations to swimming, all belong to the Family Testudinidae, which is found everywhere except Australia (and of course Antarctica), especially in warmer drier environments.
Angulate Tortoise Chersina angulata, above (Bontebok NP, southwest South Africa)
and below (Augrabies Falls NP, northwest South Africa).
This very attractive tortoise is a South African endemic.

Angulate Tortoises from the drier inland, like this one, tend to be
darker and plainer, but I also wonder if age is a factor in this one.
This, being the only member of its genus, has no close relations.

The lovely Leopard Tortoise Stigmochelys pardalis, despite its apparent similarity
to the Angulate, is not closely related and is much more widely distributed, from
the Horn of Africa to eastern South Africa. Like all tortoises and turtles,
to my knowledge, it buries its eggs in soft soil.

Red-footed Tortoise Chelonoidis carbonarius, crossing the Transpantaneira Highway
in the Pantanal, south-western Brazil. Most tortoises are grazers but forest-dwelling
species like this one also eat fruit, invertebrates and carrion.

Interestingly, the famed Giant Tortoises of the Galápagos belong to the same genus as this, and their ancestors floated - either alone in the open ocean or on floating vegetation rafts - across the Pacific where they came ashore and their descendants gradually grew into giants. This is possible because tortoises can go months without eating or drinking. The same happened to produce the only other living giant tortoises, of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean (and formerly the Mascarenes), though their ancestors sailed from Madagascar. Indeed until recently there were many giant tortoise species on islands including Malta, Cuba, the Bahamas, the Canaries and Madagascar, but humans destroyed them all. 

Western Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise Chelonoidis porteri, Santa Cruz, Galápagos, munching on grass.
In (the few) moister parts of the archipelago they can rely on this luxury, but elsewhere cactus
flesh and fruit are important food sources.
Until recently it was assumed that there was just one Galápagos tortoise species, but 12 living ones are now recognised, with another two or three recently becoming extinct. The islands rose sequentially from the ocean as they passed over a volcanic 'hot spot'. The oldest islands were colonised first, and later provided new colonists to younger islands as they arose.

One interesting aspect of these giants is the consistent existence within species of 'saddlebacked' and 'dome-backed' shell forms.
Saddlebacked form, Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz.
At that time different species weren't recognised. The shell rises to the front,
allowing the head to be raised.

Dome-shaped shell on a Sierra Negra Giant Tortoise C. guentheri
crossing the road on Isabela Island.
Saddlebacks tend to be smaller and live on lower drier islands. The dome-backs inhabit higher wetter habitats. It is suggested that the saddlebacks, in a more demanding situation, can reach higher to access tall cactuses, while the dome-backs can easily get enough grass low down. It has also been proposed that the adaptation may allow competing males to stretch higher to intimidate rivals and attract females. In this case it would be an advantage for the smaller animals to be able to reach high. It seems to me that the two explanations are not mutually exclusive.

The tortoises and sea turtles tend to get star billing in this group, but in terms of numbers the more modest freshwater turtles are predominant. Family Geoemydidae, which includes the box turtles we met earlier, has some 70 species across Europe, Asia and North America, with a smaller and presumably relatively recent incursion into South America.
Black River Turtles Rhinoclemmys funerea, here below the bridge at
La Selva Research Station in Costa Rica, are restricted to central America.
Which brings us back to the side-necked turtles, which (apart from the Pig-nosed Turtle) are the only ones we have in Australia; here they all belong to the Family Chelidae. This is an ancient Gondwanan family which first appeared some 100 million years ago and is restricted to Australia, New Guinea and associated islands, and South America. They are carnivores, using long necks and fast reactions to catch fish and small crustaceans. For courtesy I'll start with a couple of South Americans; we've already met the Yellow-spotted River Turtle in the genus Podocnemis but we didn't see its spots before - here they are!
Yellow-spotted River Turtle, Yasuní NP, Ecuador.

South American Snake-necked Turtle Hydromedusa tectifera Iguazu Falls, Argentina.

Our common local turtle is the Eastern Long-necked Turtle Chelodina longicollis, abundant in local waterways and dams. It's often encountered crossing roads, especially on a sunny day after rain, looking for new territory or a somewhere to lay eggs.

Eastern Long-necked Turtle, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra.
The long neck is evident here. They hunt by ambush, combined with a potent
'gape and suck' strategy. As the mouth gets close to the prey, it suddenly
and powerfully opens, creating a powerful suction action.
Elseya is a genus of six Australian species, plus three in New Guinea, known as the Australian snapping turtles (though they are mostly vegetarian, including floating fruits).
Northern Snapping Turtle Elseya dentata Howard Springs, south of Darwin.
It is found across northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Saw-shelled Turtle Elseya (now usually described as Myuchelys) latisternum
Cumberland Dam, inland North Queensland.
Finally, Emydura, the short-necked turtles, of which six are currently recognised in Australia.
Krefft's Turtle Emydura kreftii, Centenary Lakes, Cairns.
It lives in the waterways of east coastal Queensland. The short neck
which characterises the genus is evident in this photo and the next.

Murray River Turtle Emydura macquarii, Melbourne Aquarium.
This is a widespread species in the Murray River basin, including most of NSW,
where it extends to the north coast.

I hope you has as much affection and admiration for these most ancient of vertebrates; but if you don't you've probably not read this far anyway. I find them truly wonderful.


I love to receive your comments and in future will be notifying you personally by email when a new posting appears, if you'd like me to. All current subscribers have been added to this mailing list and have already been contacted.
This will mean one email every three weeks at the current rate of posting. 
I promise never to use the list for any other purpose and will never share it.
Should you wish to be added to it, just send me an email at
You can ask to be removed from the list at any time,
or could simply mark an email as Spam, so you won't see future ones.
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