About Me

My photo
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, 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.

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.
Thank you!


Deb Carraro said...

Thank you, Ian. Brings back lots of happy memories of our treks through various parts of central australia in past times! I do love the corkwood tree in particular. Love your photos of birds, too.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Deborah, I appreciate you taking the time to respond. It makes me happy to hear that I'm bringing people good memories; it certainly does that for me when I'm putting them together!

Janelle C said...

Thanks for this and your previous post Ian, I really enjoyed travelling to the Centre with you again

Kath H said...

Thanks Ian. It was great to see such great coverage of plants, birds, reptiles, insects and to start to get familiar with the First People's names for landmarks. I checked the plants listed at the Red Centre garden at the ANBG but none of the eucalypts and certainly not the cycad are planted there.

Ian Fraser said...

Janelle, hi there. Ah yes, those were the days! Glad you remember as fondly as I do.
Thanks Kath. Funny, I had a query from the US about whether any of the relict plants I mentioned were propogated and I just looked up the NBG site to check on the cycad too. They've got lots of Ficus platypoda though! The habitat of the RC garden would be wrong for these plants, which need a more sheltered situation.