Desert devils and rescued wildlife

The highlight of March was easily a long weekend road trip down south. The weather was sterling, and so with a car stocked with snacks we took off down the Stuart Hwy.

Thorny Devil, Stuart Hwy south of Alice Springs, NT

Barely an hour south of Alice, the hawk-eyed Chris Watson spotted Thorny Devil crossing the road. We pulled off onto the verge and helped the little guy reach the sand dunes safely. My first sighting of Moloch horridus in the wild was elating. They have been my favourite lizard species for as long as I can remember and it has almost been a running joke that I haven’t seen one in the wild before. 

The Shark Bay fact sheet claims they grow up to around 20 cm long with females usually larger than the males, and our little guy (lady?) would have been getting close to that. Watson thought he was one of the biggest Thornies he’d ever seen, and Watson (the Wildlife Spotting Wizard) has probably seen more than his fair share. 

Grim-faced Thorny Devil, Stuart Hwy south of Alice Springs, NT

Thorny Devils have a ‘false head’ on the back of their neck that is really just a big lumpy set of spikes. When approached by a predator, they dip their head, presenting the ‘false head’ for attack instead. Our specimen was missing one entire side of its ‘false head’, suggesting it had survived a pretty serious attack.

But the reason I love these stern little lizards so much is their particular adaptation to living in the desert. Their skin is almost entirely covered by conical spines, often with smaller spikes sprouting off the larger ones. But each of these spines is ridged with tiny little channels called hydroscopic grooves. So, when the Thorny is standing on any moist surface, or there is enough moisture in the air to form dew, the water rises up these grooves by capillary action, the same process that draws water up from the soil to the top of the tallest trees. The water collects into tiny rivulets that lead directly to the Thorny’s mouth. It is almost like they drink with their skin! An amazing example of evolutionary adaption. 

Natural habitat of the Thorny Devil, Stuart Hwy south of Alice Springs, NT

Thorny Devils only eat ants, and really only a few particular species of ant. I have heard an unfortunate number of stories of tourists ‘rescuing’ Thornies from the roadsides and taking them out of central Australia. Away from their natural habitat, they then starve without their specific food source. Thornies are often seen on the road because their beautiful patterns and colours contrast with the dark road. They can move surprisingly quickly if they need to, but not compared to a car hurtling towards them at 130 km/h. So, if you do see one, please help it off the road, but don’t give it a lift to Darwin or Adelaide!

We next stopped at The Breakaways and the Gibber Plain near Coober Pedy. The Breakaways are stunning. The lookout is well positioned to overlook some of the more prominent rock formations. We were lucky enough to have arrived during rain and as it cleared, a rainbow adorned the already gorgeous view. Sadly, the sky was also thick with flies, so we quickly jumped back into the car and headed to the Gibber Plain.

Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat joey

Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat joey

This flat ‘desert pavement’ was not quite what I had expected. Pebbles and small rocks spread out as far as the eye could see, with dry grass and tiny scrubby bushes the only vegetation, rippling in the waves of heat haze. But somehow the ground was soft. The soil between the pebbles was so fine, it was like walking in talcum powder and we left deep and detailed footprints wherever we stepped. 

Aside from the flies, it didn’t seem like there was much life out there. But, just like a Magic Eye, it took a moment to get my eye in. There were quite a few different birds flitting around amongst the rocks and appearing out of the grass. The superstars of the Gibber Plain, the Gibberbird (Ashbyia lovensis) and the Cinnamon Quail-thrush (Cinclosoma cinnamomeum), put on a remarkable display. 

Red Kangaroo joey

Mouth clamped shut, breathing shallowly through my nose to avoid inhaling flies, we crept across the plain to where a pair of Gibberbirds perched proudly on any tiny ridge or rise. Calling continually to each other, and I suppose any other birds that may have been in the area, the birds moved frequently. But they generously gave us many precious moments to snap off a few pictures each time they paused. 

The Cinnamon Quail-thrush flushed from a nearby bush as we drove past, and for once it was me that spotted the movement first. On the look out for anything else new, I asked pointing to a bird out in the open. Watson identified it for me instantly and virtually pushed me out of the car to get some pictures before it hid again. Although the heat haze plays havoc with autofocus, I was lucky enough to get a couple of pictures of it signing. A pretty bird, with very striking markings I think.

We continued south and stopped in to visit with some friends who run a wildlife rescue centre. They were nursing a number of Red Kangaroo joeys as well as a Euro joey and a Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat joey. While all the joeys were impossibly cute, the wombat was just adorable. Completely unfurred, he already had his long nose whiskers and sharp claws.

Channel-bill Cuckoo juvenile, Alice Springs, NT

It was a long drive home, but it was an excellent weekend of camping and exploring new places and seeing new animals. So it was a bonus to come home to another new sound, an immature Channel-billed Cuckoo. 

As predicted, the Cuckoos had parasitised a crow’s nest and two crows were desperately trying to stuff as many of the remaining Golden Drummer Cicadas down the throat of the comparatively huge fledgling Cuckoo as they could. The plaintive cries of the juvenile Channel-bill were continuous and compelled the crow parents to follow their instinct to feed the baby, even though it clearly wasn’t theirs. 

The crows, intelligent birds as they are, would not feed the Cuckoo while I was out and about with my camera. They just sat nearby and watched me intently. The Cuckoo, on the other hand, was reasonably incautious, and posed beautifully for a portrait. The most obvious distinctions between the fledgling and its biological parents were the lack of red eye ring and a paler bill in the juvenile. I felt quite privileged to have been able to witness almost the entire life cycle of this bird in my own backyard!