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, 23 September 2021

Big Bills - That's Cool! Toucans and Hornbills

Believe it or not, there is a point to that title! Both these families of birds have entranced me since I first encountered them on opposite sides of the world. (I began my overseas birding adventures quite late in life, so I saw my first hornbill in 2003, and my first toucan in 2008. Since then, I've just discovered, I've coincidentally seen 24 of each - not enough of course, and I wonder if there'll ever be an opportunity to see more, or even just enjoy the same ones again.)

They belong not just to different Families but to different Orders, so are entirely unrelated. Toucans share their Order with barbets and woodpeckers, hornbills with hoopoes and not much else. What they have in common is their conspicuous great bills, sometimes to the point of being outrageous (though only to our eyes of course!). Toucans are restricted to South and Central America, while hornbills are found throughout Africa and southern Asia from India to New Guinea. Let's meet an example of each to start with.

Toco Toucan Ramphastos toco, Iguazu Falls, Argentina.
This is the archetypal toucan in many people's imaginations, unfortunately parodied
as a cartoon bird in many contexts. I readily concede that it's almost too remarkable to take
seriously, but up close it's extraordinary - the Toco's beak, relative to body size, is the largest in
the entire bird world. It's also the biggest toucan, being over 60cm long and weighing nearly 700 grams.

Female Rhinoceros Hornbill Buceros rhinoceros, Kinabatangan River, Sabah,
Malaysian Borneo. What can one say? This is a truly bizarre animal at first meeting,
and huge, far larger than the biggest toucan, being up to 90cm long and weighing
nearly three kilograms. The casque on its bill is a feature of many hornbills.
Despite being massive in the largest toucans, their beak is also remarkably light. It's a fascinating structure, comprising a network of thin bony struts, containing light spongy keratin (the protein that forms hair, skin and nails).
The obvious question of course though is 'why?', with regard to these extravagant beaks. I'm going to discuss the two groups separately for simplicity, staring with toucans. These are mostly fruit-eaters, though they'll readily take small animals, especially lizards and frogs, as they encounter them. (Many lodges attract toucans with fruit tables, as you'll see in some of the following photos.) They are also notorious nest-robbers, taking both chicks and eggs from hanging nests and tree hollows. Other birds will often attack any toucan that comes near their nest. The large bill does not seem to offer any advantages in picking and swallowing fruit - in fact a toucan has to take any food item in its bill tip and toss it back whole to swallow, so the opposite would seem to be true. On the other hand a long bill gives an obvious advantage in reaching into deep nests, especially in hollows.

Many toucans (like the Toco above) have beaks that are brightly coloured or patterned, and presumably play a role in courtship, though that was surely not the original driving force - and many others have plain-coloured beaks.

Lettered Aracaris Pteroglossus inscriptus, Chapada dos Guimarães, western Brazil.
You may want to click on the photo to see the bills better.
'Aracari' is the name used for the mostly brightly coloured members of this genus; it derives, via Portuguese, from a word from the Tupi language of coastal Brazil, now sadly lost. My guess is that the word referred to a particular species, but it's only a guess.  'Toucan' itself has the same origin, from a word like tukana. (This language also brought us words like 'jacana' and 'jabiru'.)

In 2009 a team of scientists from Canada and Brazil published a paper showing that the Toco Toucan's bill has a vital role as a 'controllable vascular thermal radiator'. In plainer words, the bill has a complex network of blood vessels which can be dilated or constricted at will to promote or control heat loss through the bill. Using infra-red cameras they could see this happening, the heat being 'dumped' from its body to its bill, and thus to the atmosphere. This is a key need for birds which live in the tropics, especially large ones and, like most toucans, spend a lot of time in the exposed canopy. At  low temperatures the blood flow to the beak is closed off, and little or no heat is lost. They conclude that the Toco's bill is 'one of the largest thermal windows in the animal kingdom, rivaling elephants’ ears in its ability to radiate body heat'. So obviously the feeding and display functions are very important in shaping the toucan's bill, but this role of a 'heat dump' is also crucial. (I should say too that in the course of researching this post, I discovered that this idea had been proposed as long ago as 1985.)

Low resolution shot from a video, showing a Toco Toucan dumping heat just before
going to sleep. The yellow is the hottest part, 10 degrees C above the temperature of the
feathers. Courtesy of Wired.
In my next post I'm going to explore ways in which some other animals deal with the need to regulate body temperature, but for now let's get back to the toucans, and meet some more.

Toucans nest in hollows, but their bills aren't robust enough for serious excavation, so they generally use hollows prepared by someone else, often a woodpecker.

Plate-billed Mountain Toucan Andigena laminirostris, Bellavista Lodge north of Quito, Ecuador.
This bird wasn't keen to let me get any closer while it was on its nest hollow.
A less-noticed feature of toucans is their feet, which are zygodactyl, that is the two middle toes grip forwards and the outer two go backwards - you might want to save this for a scrabble opportunity. Or something.
Green-billed Toucan Ramphastos dicolorus, Atlantic forests near Sao Paulo, Brazil.
You can see the foot structure quite well here, I think. You can also see another
toucan characteristic, which is the bare patch of skin around the eye. This patch
sometimes matches the adjacent bill, but not here.
All toucans are forest birds, except for the Toco, which is also found in savannahs and open woodland.
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan Ramphastos ambiguus swainsonii, Milpe Reserve,
Ecuadorian Andes, north of Quito Brazil. This is sometimes recognised
as a full species, but more usually seen as a sub-species of Yellow-throated Toucan.
There are five genera of toucans, all of which I can fortunately introduce you to, meeting more of the family by way of wrapping up this part of the post.

The green toucanets, genus Aulacorhynchus, comprising 11 species of (as you'd expect) small, mostly green, toucans of the mountain forests. Unfortunately I can only offer one here, as I've found them fairly shy and in the canopy - not this one though!

Crimson-rumped Toucanet Aulacorhynchus haematopygus, Mirador Rio Blanco, north of Quito,
Ecuador. This is a little restaurant on the way to the famed birders' mecca of the Mindo
Valley, where birds come to fruit feeders on the other side of a big window.
There are 14 aracaris, genus Pteroglossus. We met the Lettered Aracaris above; here are a few more. They tend to be brightly coloured and large-billed; as you'll see they're not at all averse to visiting feeders either.
Pale-mandibled Aracari Pteroglossus erythropygius, another visitor to the Mirador Rio Blanco
feeders. The characteristic 'teeth' of a toucan bill are obvious here.
Many-banded Aracari Pteroglossus pluricinctus, Wild Sumaco Lodge, on the eastern
slopes of the Andes in northern Ecuador.
Chestnut-eared Aracari Pteroglossus castanotis, Iguaçu Falls Brazil.
(This is the Portuguese spelling of the falls, as used in Brazil. The spelling used
above in the Toco Toucan caption is Spanish, as of course used in Argentina.)
This is a widespread and familiar toucan east of the Andes.
Collared Aracari Pteroglossus torquatus, central Costa Rica. It is found in lowland
forests from southern Mexico to Ecuador.

And lastly, an 'honorary aracari', the gorgeous and unexpected Saffron Toucanet Pteroglossus bailloni. It is so distinctive that it used to be placed in its own genus, but recent DNA work has told a different tale.

Saffron Toucanet, Trilha dos Toucanos Lodge, inland from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
This is one of many species reliant on the perilously reduced Atlantic Forests
of near-coastal Brazil.
There are six of the awkwardly named 'dichromatic toucanets', in genus Selenidera. It simply means that males and females are differently coloured. Here's an example.
Golden-collared Toucanets Selenidera reinwardtii feeding on cecropia fruit,
Wild Sumaco Lodge, eastern Andes, Ecuador.
Female above, male below.
The four mountain toucans of genus Andigena live in the high misty cloud forests of the Andes. I find them especially handsome.
Grey-breasted Mountain Toucan Andigena hypoglauca, El Cajas NP, southern Ecuador.
Finally the big 'typical toucans', genus Ramphastos, a few of which we've already met.
Channel-billed Toucan Ramphastos vitellinus, Chapada dos Guimarães, western Brazil.
This one was being very coy, but I can't leave out that lovely blue face!
Yellow-throated Toucan Ramphastos ambiguus attracted by the same cecropia fruits
at Wild Sumaca as the Golden-collared Toucanets above.
You'll probably be relieved at the news that I'm not going to go into as much detail about the hornbills, but they're too interesting and impressive to ignore, and surely you'll want to hear the answer to the question 'but what about their bills? Heat radiators too?'. The answer is 'yes, but not quite so much'. This work was done more recently, in 2016, by a group of South African researchers who were inspired by the work on toucan bills to see if the same principle applied to hornbills. They studied Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills Tockus leucomelas, a fairly small hornbill of open country, including deserts, from southern Africa. These birds did dump heat from their bills, but not quite as efficiently as the toucans did, especially at lower temperatures. This may be to do with the difficulty of losing heat by panting, which involves evaporative cooling from the inside of the mouth, in humid conditions such as the toucans experience. Hence they are forced to find alternative strategies. A dryland bird (ie a 'dry air' bird) - as long as it has access to water - can easily pant to cool itself. There is also the fact that a hornbill's bill is much heavier than that of a toucan of the same size, and the more solid structure may be less efficient at managing blood vessels than the toucan's spongy one. However the real point is that a hornbill's bill is still a very useful way of dumping excess body heat.
Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbill Tockus flavirostris, Shaba Reserve, northern Kenya.
This is a desert hornbill very similar to, and closely related to, the Southern Yellow-billeds
that the study was carried out on; indeed they were until recently regarded as the same species.
(Needless to say, I don't have a photo of them!)

More recent work (published in 2020 by another South African team) on the biggest hornbill of all reinforced this finding, though in this case the large areas of bare skin on the face and throat were also significant.

The Southern Ground Hornbill Bucorvus leadbeateri, Tarangire NP, Tanzania.
This is an enormous bird, up to a metre high and weighing up to 6kg. They prowl
through the grasslands in gangs, eating any animal they encounter, including hares,
squirrels and tortoises, though most of their food is invertebrates.
The two species of ground hornbills are now put in their own family, but
they are closely related to the true hornbills.

Uniquely, as you may well be aware from various wildlife documentaries, female hornbills seal themselves into a nesting hollow with mud, leaving only a narrow opening to allow the male to feed her, and later the chicks. When the chicks get too big she breaks out, but reseals them inside for safety until it's time for them to fledge.

I mentioned the casques on some species, which apparently act as resonating chambers. These are bony structures, adding further to the weight of the bill. As a result, hornbills not only have very strong neck muscles, but the top two vertebrae are fused for added strength.

Black-and-White Casqued Hornbill Bycanistes subcylindricus,
Entebbe Botanic Gardens, Uganda, one of a genus of mostly large African forest hornbills.
This is a male - the female's casque is smaller.

Silvery-cheeked Hornbill Bycanistes brevis, Mount Kenya, this time a female.
This one is in the  same genus as the previous bird.

Male Wrinkled Hornbill Rhabdotorrhinus corrugatus, Kinabatangan River, Sabah.
One of a group of four hornbills from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
An Endangered species which requires large areas of undisturbed lowland rainforest.

Rhinoceros Hornbill again, Sepilok, Sabah, because just one really isn't enough!
This is the State Bird of Sarawak, also in Malaysian Borneo, but also the national bird
of Malaysia itself. Compare the black-rimmed red eyes of this male with the red-rimmed
white eyes of the female near the start of the post.
Oriental Pied Hornbill Anthracoceros albirostris, a big hornbill found widely
in south and south-east Asia.
Some species have casques that are very modest, and probably do no more than provide some structural support for the bill.

Bushy-crowned Hornbills Anorrhinus galeritus, Sepilok, Sabah.

Crowned Hornbill Lophoceros alboterminatus, Arusha, Tanzania.
 One final observation on hornbills - along with ostriches they are the only birds (as far as I know) to have 'eyebrows', which are really single filament rictal feathers. Presumably they perform the same protective role that ours do, though I wonder why more birds don't have them?

Oriental Pied Horbill, Labuk Bay, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
Click on the photo to see the 'eyelashes' clearly.
And I think it's time to wind this post up - thank you if you've read this far! - with three last non-casqued hornbills from African woodlands, all in the same genus.
Northern Red-billed Hornbill Tockus erythrorhynchus Shaba Reserve, northern Kenya.
Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill Tockus ruahae, Serengeti NP, Tanzania.
What was previously 'the Red-billed Hornbill' has recently been divided into four species.
Von der Dekken's Hornbill Tockus deckeni, Serengeti NP.

And that is the end of this big-billed odyssey! If you've followed this right through, I'm grateful though of course I'll never know. I hope you've found something here that is interesting, or just enjoyable. We've covered a lot birds, countries and ideas, and that's never a bad thing, perhaps especially in these unsettling times.
As mentioned I'm going to return next time to the concept of how some animals deal with the problem of over-heating; I hope you'll join me.
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.
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Thursday, 9 September 2021

Tjoritja; MacDonnell Ranges#2. Some plants and animals.

In my most recent post I rhapsodised (at some length!) over the glorious mountain range that stretches west and east from Alice Springs. We know it best as the MacDonnell Ranges, but to the Arrernte people whose land it has been for millennia it is Tjoritja. That name is being officially adopted as an alternative name for the national park which covers most of the western range, at least in tandem with the English name, but is increasingly also being used in its broader sense. I'll do so here, not to proselytise, but because it doesn't hurt us to remember that there was and is a culture in Central Australia (and elsewhere of course) which gave names to features long before we did. Also I find the name more euphonious than the English one! Enough of that, let's meet a few randomly selected - basically by what I was able to photograph on various visits - plants and animals of the ranges, as a sampler of what you might meet next time you're able to go there. 

As I mentioned last time, Ghost Gums Corymbia (Eucalyptus) aparrerinja are among my very favourite trees, and for me they are one of the top highlights of a visit to the Centre. I was planning to offer only one  photo per species, but with Ghost Gums I find that just a bit too hard. Sorry...

A magnificent old Ghost Gum, centuries old, on the short Ghost Gum Walk at
the entrance station to Simpsons Gap/Rungutjirpa.

I think they're at their aesthetic best however when gleaming white against
red rocks and blue desert sky. This one is doing so admirably on the ridge
at Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye.
For more information and photos I can offer a whole posting on them here.
Other eucalypts - apart from the ubiquitous and superb River Red Gums - are present but less conspicuous. Many of these are low multi-stemmed mallees, growing on harsh exposed sites.
Blue Mallee or Warilu (not sure which language that comes from) Eucalyptus gammophylla
is distinct for its rounded bluish rounded leaves. It's found from central Australia west
into Western Australia on both sand and stone.

Sharp-capped Mallee Eucalyptus oxymitra on exposed stony hills on the climb up
to the Ormiston Pound lookout. It is found only in the Central Australian ranges.
Another tree which is often found above the gorges is the widespread White Cypress Pine Callitris columellaris. (Note that the inland form is often known as C. glaucophylla.)
White Cypress Pine on the lip of Ormiston Gorge/Kwartatuma.
Another tree is often found in the sheltered gorges, though it can live in sandstone outcrops where it can get its roots into crevices where there might be water. This is the Desert Fig Ficus platypoda, a remnant of times long past when the Centre was well-watered.

Here it is growing at the base of the cliff in Simpsons Gap/Rungutjirpa,
close to the water table
However the birds (especially Western Bowerbirds) aren't careful about where they drop the seeds and it remarkable where some figs take root.

'Upside down' Desert Fig, with roots across the wall by Ellery Creek Big Hole/Udepata.
Another relic of ancient times is only found in sheltered gorges; this is the remarkable MacDonnell Ranges Cycad Macrozamia macdonnellii, which only grows in Tjoritja and the immediate vicinity.
MacDonnell Ranges Cycad growing on the wall just outside of
Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye.
Quite a few other plants are mostly confined to the relatively benign conditions of the gorges.

Spear Bush, or Spearwood, or Western Wonga Vine, Pandorea doratoxylon is found
in sheltered rocky sites in Central Australia and inland eastern Australia. It's a climber
like other Pandoreas, but tends to form great tangles. The tough light canes were
hardened and straightened with heat by the Arrernte people (and others) and
used as spear shafts.
Central Guinea Flower Hibbertia glaberrima is the only Central Australian member
of this group which is very diverse and familiar closer to the coast. Another relic species,
it is only found in the shelter of ranges. Growing here in Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye.
Rock Isotome Isotoma petraea on the other hand is widespread in rocky inland
situations. This little clump was growing on the wall of Trephina Gorge/Alherrkentye.
It has very astringent sap - yet another reason not to pick wildflowers!
Olearia stuartii growing out of a rock crevice in Serpentine Gorge/Ulpma.
Like the previous species, this one is found widely in the central and western arid
lands, though not in the south and east. This is typical habitat.
Stemodia viscosa in Trephina Gorge/Alherrkentye. It is distinctively sticky and odiferous and
is another plant found in moist situations, which in the Centre means the gorges.
Curiously there are two other areas of distribution for it, one in the Gulf country
of Queensland, and the other in the Kimberley, both very far away.
And of course there are many plants which seem to thrive in the harsh open areas of the ranges, in full sun and limited water. And some of these are truly beautiful, starting with two wattles and a couple of other shrubs from the tough gravelly slopes of the climb up to the lookout over Ormiston Pound.
Red Wattle ('red' for the bark on the trunk, which tends to be hidden by the foliage)
Acacia monticola. Fairly widespread in the north-western quarter of Australia.
Curry Wattle Acacia spondylophylla; and there is no mystery of the origin of its
common name, as one sniff will demonstrate. A low sprawling shrub of gravelly
slopes among the spinifex.
Variable Daisy Brachycome ciliaris, a widespread tough little herb.
Native Cotton Gossypium australe, a widespread shrub across northern Australia.
It is closely related to (non-Australian) cotton plants, but doesn't produce fibre. It is also
closely related to the similar Sturt's Desert Rose G. sturtianum (the Northern Terriotry
floral emblem) but the 'rose' has smooth leaves and yellow, not red, stamens.
As you'd guess from the flower, it's in the hibiscus family.
Desert Cassia or Punty Bush Senna artemisioides, a widespread and bewilderingly complicated
species with several overlapping subspecies, all with different foliage! My approach is just
to enjoy them and leave the anxiety to the professionals.
And finally, from a couple of other sites.
Native Orange Capparis mitchellii, an attractive small tree growing out of the rocks
above Trephina Gorge/Alherrkentye. Not an orange at all, though it has smallish
yellow fruit, but a member of the caper family.
From the same site, Wire-leaf Mistletoe Amyema preissii growing on a Mulga;
its hosts are nearly always wattles or cassias.
And last but far from least, a striking small tree of the plains.
Corkwood Hakea lorea on the Cassia Hill walk outside of Simpsons Gap/Rungutjirpa.
This hardy species has a huge range across northern Australia and is easy to see
around the edges of Tjoritja
A section of Tjoritja that I didn't mention last time is that immediately surrounding Alice Springs. Just south of the town centre the Todd River/Lhere Mparntwe flows (occasionally!) south through the Heavitree Gap/Ntaripe. The town is on the flood plain, and just north of Alice by the highway is the historic Telegraph Station precinct, a popular destination. Just across the wide sandy Todd from here you can walk into a low section of Tjoritja, and the following photo, and some of the animals ones, were taken there.
A wonderful spread of ephemeral daisies at the foot of the range near the
Telegraph Station after recent localised rains.
Animals of course aren't always as obliging, and as I've mentioned many of the readily visitable sites are often busy with visitors. Our most recent visit coincided with severe drought too. All that said, here is a sample of some of the wildlife you're perhaps most likely to encounter next time you're there.

Mammals will likely be either macropods ('kangaroos', used generally) or feral.

Old Euro Macropus robustus above the Telegraph Station.
His ragged ears are souvenirs of past battles, probably with other Euros.
These powerfully built kangaroos are specialists of the rocky hills and gorges.

Black-footed Rock-Wallaby Petrogale lateralis, Simpsons Gap/Rungutjirpa.
These delightful little wallabies, which seem to flow up and across the rock faces,
were once widespread in ranges through much of the western third of Australia,
but are now isolated in populations in central Australia and in scattered sites
throughout Western Australia. They are not hard to see here in Rungutjirpa, but
only early or late in the day when there are few visitors. Around Alice the ranges near
the Telegraph Station, in Heavitree Gap and above the Olive Pink Botanic Garden,
are good places to try too. More on rock-wallabies here; it's an old post but
still basically sound I think

Dingo, hunting rock wallabies above the Telegraph Station. They are also a very real
threat to domestic dogs here - it's a favourite place for locals to walk, and this has
ended badly on more than one occasion. There is no consensus yet as to what we
should call the Dingo - a fairly unusual situation these days with increasingly
sophisticated genetic tools, but it's only been here around 4000-8000 years (the latter
figure is a recent one, from 2020) and the issue is where to draw lines in the continuum
of evolution. It is either a domestic dog, or a wolf, or a full species in its own right.
More here in an earlier post, but this probably needs some updating.
Listening from a tent to the packs howling at night is thrilling.

Not so thrilling. A huge feral cat hunting in the daytime in east Tjoritja. It was about
100 metres away and utterly unconcerned by us. About the only effective control
in such country is probably the Dingo.
Birds can be busy, especially near water, but many desert birds have little or no need of water (or rather they can get it from their food). A few shots first from the gorges, of birds who definitely need water. 
Australasian Grebes Tachybaptus novaehollandiae in the pool at the start/end of the
Ormiston Gorge/Kwartatum walk. No surprise really - they're found over most of the
continent - but given that they're such poor fliers (they do it at night when it's safer)
I'm always intrigued by how widely they disperse.
Zebra Finches Taeniopygia guttata drinking in Serpentine Gorge/Ulpma.
These delightful little birds are masters of desert survival, but they rely
entirely on dry seeds so must drink daily.
Diamond Dove Geopelia cuneata, Glen Helen Gorge/Yapalpe.
Like the Zebra Finches, these lovely little inland doves need to be near water.
Torresian Crow Corvus orru in Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye.
They certainly don't need the gorges, but those are always attractive,
especially this one with lots of visitors and a food outlet. Torresian Crows have a huge
range across northern and inland Australia, which is expanding as they
exploit human-provided resources.
Pink (or Major Mitchell's) Cockatoos Lophochroa leadbeateri, in River Red Gums
in the bed of the Finke/Larapinta River along Larapinta Drive.
A truly gorgeous cockatoo of the inland, they are another seed eater (though not
exlusively) so are also never found too far from water.

The rest of these were not near water, though at least the pigeon would have to drink daily. The first three were on the very exposed and arid stony hillside which forms the first section of the Ormiston Gorge/Pound walk.

Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera displaying beautifully to his intended, who
is unfortunately out of our sight behind the spinifex. This is a truly lovely pigeon
found widely across arid Australia, wherever the spinifex grows.
Grey-fronted Honeyeater Ptilotula keartlandi in Corkwood (see above). This honeyeater is
found widely in northern inland Australia and readily encountered.

Little Woodswallows Artamus minor, always a pleasure, as the least-encountered of the
Australian woodswallows (which are in the same family as butcherbirds). Though they
are widespread inland around dry ranges, these are mostly remote.
The rest of these birds were along the roadside at the edge of the range.

Grey-crowned Babbler Pomatostomus temporalis. The Australian babblers are unrelated
to babblers of Africa and Asia (more on them in a post here). They are rowdy, highly
sociable larrikins which always brighten the day. They are found widely in eastern and
northern Australia, with an extension from the north down to central Australia. This
northern and central population, with the rufous breast, may yet prove to be a separate species.

Pied Butcherbirds Cracticus nigrogularis are found across most of Australia except the south-east.
They are fierce little predators of small birds, mammals and reptiles and large insects.
They also have, in my opinion, perhaps the most beautiful rich melodious call in the country,
and maybe even beyond.
Female Hooded Robin Melanodryas cucullata; he is strikingly black and white.
They are found across much of the country, generally in woodlands.
Male Splendid Fairywren Malurus splendens moulting into his breeding finery.
This glorious little bird is found across most the southern dry inland.
Invertebrates are of course abundant everywhere, and the arid lands are rich in them. One of the dominant groups in these habitats comprises the grasshoppers and katydids. Here are a few I've encountered in Tjoritja; I'm pretty sure I've got the identifications right, but I claim no expertise here.
Toadhopper Buforania crassa at Glen Helen Gorge/Yapalpe.
I love these lumpy little characters which blend so nicely with the red pebbles.
Australian Plague Locust Chortoicetes terminifera at Glen Helen Gorge/Yapalpe.
I'm almost sure this is right - they are very variable in colour. They weren't swarming at
the time. See here for a fairly brief account of how and why four inland Australian
grasshopper species sometimes become plague locusts. It was one of my earliest
blog posts, but I probably couldn't add much to it now.
Blistered Grasshoppers (or Pyrgomorphs) Monistria pustulifera mating at the Ochre Pits.
An unpleasant name (both common and scientific) for a very attractive little animal.
Large females and small males are normal among grasshoppers.
Slant-faced Grasshopper, Family Acrididae, Simpsons Gap/Rungutjirpa.
Beyond subfamily Acridinae, I can't do better than this; there are many
of this group in and around Tjoritja.

Dragonflies are common around the gorge pools, and I can manage to identify at least some of them. Neither of these is confined to the Centre, and they are found throughout Australia and north to New Guinea and New Caledonia (and Timor in the case of the Percher).

Scarlet Percher Diplacodes haematodes in Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye.
I think just about every rockpool has at least one of these.

Blue Skimmers Orthetrum caledonicum, here at Ormiston Gorge/Kwartatuma,
are likewise pretty ubiquitous wherever there is water.

I'm a fan of cockroaches - the native ones at least. All in-house cockroaches are imported pests, but old Australian cockroaches are numerous and diverse, and in some cases very colourful.

Common Banded Cockroach Desmozosteria cincta, Corroboree Rock.
It is found across the Northern Territory and dry tropical Queensland, mostly associated with spinifex.
It belongs to a genus of arid land and tropical woodland cockroaches.
Where there are insects, of course there will be spiders.
Eriophora biapicata, Glen Helen Gorge/Yapalpe. One of the very impressive orbweb
spiders. The genus only contains ten species, but these are scattered across every
vegetated continent except Europe. A close Australian relative is a familiar garden dweller.
And there my ability to put names (rightly or wrongly) on my invertebrate pics dries up. However I think the remaining few are too attractive to ignore just for the want of a name. I hope you agree.
A bug ie a member of the huge Order Hemiptera, which are characterised by long sucking mouthparts.
This appears to be a shield bug, of the subgroup Heteroptera, but there are thousands in Australia
so I'll leave it there and just admire it. We met at Trephina Gorge/Alherrkentye.
A very striking iridescent wasp on the wall of Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye.
I'm tempted to suggest it could be a flower wasp, Family Tiphiidae, but I'd be guessing!
I love this tiny weevil on a beautifully contrasting Dodonea (native hop) fruit -
it chose the setting! Given that there are some 50,000 species of weevils - compare this to
around 36,000 known living birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians combined - I don't
feel too bad about not recognising it.
(This family of beetles is the largest animal family in the world.)
And to finish, a frog and three lizards, of three different families - no snakes to offer you though, sorry! Both the gorges and the spinifex hillsides provide excellent reptile habitat.
Spencer's Burrowing Frog Platyplectrum spenceri in a creek bed along the Larapinta Road.
These frogs are found from central Australia west to the Indian Ocean, hiding underground
during drought and coming to the surface to feed and breed after rain. I'd not normally
expect to see in the daytime however.
Leopard Ctenotus (or Skink) Ctenotus pantherinus, on the exposed rocky hillside
on the first section of the Ormiston Pound walk. This quick skink has a huge range
across the arid inland, and is never far from the sheltering spinifex.
Ring-tailed Dragon Ctenophorus caudicinctus, Corroboree Rock. Another widespread
arid land lizard, always associated with rocky outcrops on which it basks and in
which it seeks shelter. It's very variable in patterning, and in this one the rings
are barely visible.
Young Perentie Varanus giganteus, Corroboree Rock. This was very exciting as it
was the first one I'd seen. It's a goanna and Australia's largest lizard, growing to
more than two metres long and weighing over 20kg. It should be hard to miss then,
but they apparently go into a torpor over the winter months, which is when I'm most likely
to be in the deserts. They are found across a huge swathe of dry Australia, from western
Queensland to the Western Australian coast.
Well, there we are, a taster of some of the many delights of the wonderful range called both Tjoritja and the MacDonnells. Compiling this brought me many happy memories; I hope it did for you too, or has inspired you to visit when the time is finally right. Thanks for travelling with me.

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