An Afternoon (and Night) in the AU Bush

In the USA you would have to be in rural New Mexico or Arizona, probably on federal land, to find the empty spaces that are so very common in Australia. There are tens of thousands of square miles (actually square kilometers) of roadless, empty-of-humans, mulga-covered, hot & dusty, and sometimes flooded back land. The Australian Outback is incorporated into huge cattle stations; where 1000 hectares per cow isn’t enough. The soils are often red from iron oxidation and the moniker The Great Red Center applies to a huge portion of the continent. The iconic views of this area are seen in the Olgas and Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), but the emptiness is often flat and runs from horizon to horizon. It is just marvelous.

 The Olgas (Kata Tjuta) are a collection of 36 rounded rocks left behind as the overlaying mountains eroded away. They are conglomerate in nature and look like huge molded lumps of puddingstone. They rise almost 1800 feet above the surrounding landscape and are almost totally without vegetation.

Uluru, Ayer’s Rock, is a remnant of the same mountain formations that once covered the entire center of the continent. It is easier to envision these formations as uplifts of sedimentary rock rather than remnants. Uluru still has a pathway, with a rope to hold onto, on one end but the local Aboriginals prefer that the rock not be climbed.

The sinuous MacDonnell Ranges mountains are similar in origin. The image to the left (over one of the sewage lagoons outside Alice Springs) shows one end of the low esker-like range on the left and another on the right with the Heavitree Gap in the middle. The “mountains” of the MacDonnell Range have gaps spaced along their length. They are surprisingly rugged for smallish geologic structures; but remember they are the remnants of huge mountains that once loomed over this area.

The above was a bit of a digression; I want to spend some time with the features of the Murray River drainage along the southern edge of New South Wales where it abuts Victoria. Fran and I were in Deniliquin, a farm town that services a rather large surrounding area. It looks like a medium-sized town but is really a small town. We have very similar situations all through our mid-west and west. We drove through town a few times and ate dinner at a place that seemed like a Grange Hall more than a restaurant. The food was fine and the people were, as usual, very pleasant and accommodating. We were welcome (and welcomed) everywhere in Australia.

The afternoon in the bush was the prelude to an evening and then night in the bush. We were out at about 6:00am and (with a two hour break in mid-afternoon) were out until after midnight. Nothing can beat eighteen hours of birding; what a great day. The afternoon was focused on sand hills habitat and then we went on to a eucalypt woodland unlike anything we had seen before. It was to be simply a fantastic day.

On the way out to the west of Deniliquin we stopped at a creek and flooded roadside verge where there were a dozen of more Spotted Crakes and a couple Spotless Crakes as well. It was odd to see a patch of cattails growing in what looks like a desert. Obviously the water remains in this area, despite sunshine and succulent plants throughout, pretty much year round.

The Bearded Dragon lizard is a widespread reptile in Australia. I’ll do a blog page on reptiles some day, but this one was at the cattail swamp area where we had lots of crakes and it seems appropriate to include it here a change of pace for the non-birders.

The dry area that we finally ventured into was a foot or two lower than the level of the gravel road and was vegetated with a shrubby eucalyptus trees and rather lush grasses. As moisture is not permanent here, the fallen branches decay very slowly and we worked our way through and around this woodland for a while. There were several honeyeaters and a few wood-swallows as we walked. Finally we looked ahead about thirty-five yards into the broken stub of a tree; the cutest bird in the world looked back! We thought it might be a doll or a kid’s teddy-bear, but it was an Owlet-Nightjar. This is one of Australia’s special birds; rather widespread actually but thin on there ground and not easy to locate and see. We were thrilled.

The image of the Owlet-Nightjar is not great as we didn’t want to approach too closely and the bird was (obviously) aware of us. So I clicked a few long range images and this is what I got. The face looks like a cute mammal more than a bird.

Australia has been without land contact (excluding Antarctica) for over 50,000,000 years and there are lots of endemic plants, birds, reptiles, and of course marsupial mammals that occur no where else (or perhaps the islands to the north) on earth. The marsupials exploded and survived without competition from the more efficient (? – maybe just more predacious) placental mammals. It wasn’t until there arrivals of humans and the dingo that things really began to change on this remote island continent.

Another common bird group throughout Australia is the complex of the Fairy-Wrens. There are several that are called species and lots of populations and geographic forms that only show the difficult work that taxonomists are faced with. Yes, DNA has helped create relationship-groups but DNA shows a flow of genes more than a series of discrete steps and where to draw a line in genetic similarities is still subjective.

The kangaroos, wallabies, pademelons, and tree kangaroos are all hopping marsupials adapted to the varied habitats of the region. Tree Kangaroos are now found only in the Australian tropical forests (but are more common in Borneo and Papua New Guinea). The others are all found throughout the country. The kangaroos are the largest in stature and the Red Kangaroo is the largest of them all. The image below is of a large buck Red Kangaroo and a couple smaller grayer females that we happened on way while we were out in the middle of nowhere. The male was stunning in size and deportment. The females are called “blue-flyers” because they are faster than the males and the gray fur is often a slate-blue color.

Red Kangaroos, like all kangaroos, have to move their legs as a pair. These big guys can cover 25 feet in a single hop and reach speeds of more than thirty miles and hour. The males can stand (when upright) at over six feet and will often weigh more than two hundred pounds. They are the world’s largest marsupial and yet would be dwarfed by some of the fossil kangaroos that have been unearthed. A Red Kangaroo can live to over twenty years old in the wild; though they are shot as pests if they wander onto ranches or are too common along roadways. They are the Australian equivalent of our insurance company’s white-tailed deer as there are great numbers of roadway strikes involving all sorts of kangaroo-types in Australia.

The Red Kangaroos stand six foot tall and sometimes more. They eat grasses and are thus disliked by ranchers; but they are stately and impressive.

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