Meet the birds, bugs, and beasts
you might encounter in the outback
Despite the often harsh climate, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is home to hundreds of different animal and bird species. One of the best things about a visit here is to see some of this wildlife in their natural habitat. The National Park has 21 species of native mammals, 178 species of birds, 73 species of reptiles and literally thousands of invertebrates species including ants, spiders and bugs.
Some of the most commonly known and found are listed below, but for a more comprehensive look at what you could see while you're here, stop by the Visitors Centre located near the Town Centre in Ayers Rock Resort.
This seemingly harsh landscape plays host to over 200 different bird species, whether dwelling here year-round or offering seasonal appearances along their migratory route. Keep your ears open and eyes peeled, as you may come across the following species of birds on your adventures through the National Park and as you move around the Resort.
Five tips for successful bird watching in the Red Centre:
- Schedule bird watching trips for either the early part of the morning or at dusk
- Natural and man-made watering holes and wetland areas are terrific spots to monitor birding activity. Also keep an eye out for food sources such as flowering shrubs.
- Listen for birdcalls and other markers indicative of bird presence.
- Study the many species you are likely to encounter prior to going out into the field.
- Play it safe when venturing into the outback - observe National Park guidelines, adhere to designated walking trails and carry adequate water and other supplies.
The Crimson Chat is a small bird with a short down-curved bill. Adult males are dark brown above with a brilliant red crown, breast and rump. They have a black mask around the eye and a white throat. Adult females and juveniles are much paler, brown above with a white throat and pinkish below. Chats, unlike most small birds, walk rather than hop, and are most often seen on or near the ground.
Bright blazes of red, often on the ground or perched on shrubs - these are usually miititi. When there are plenty of small insects and caterpillars to eat, these birds are prolific and very obvious. But they are nomadic and will move on when conditions are poor.
Crimson Chats are found in semi-arid and arid regions mainly dominated by open shrub lands, dunes, plains or grasslands.
The Black-breasted Buzzard is a large dark raptor (bird of prey) with a very short, square-tipped tail. Long feathers on the nape may be raised in a short crest. White ‘bull’s eye’ marks are seen under the wings, which are long and ‘fingered’ in flight. The breast is sandy-brown in light-phase birds or dark brown and black in the dark-phase. The tail is short and the wings are longer than the tail when the bird is perched. Females are larger than males. They soar high and, when flying low and hunting, often rock or sway from side to side. This species may also be called the Black-breasted Kite.
Black-breasted Buzzards are found in lightly timbered plains, open country and tree-lined waterways through inland Australia and in semiarid or arid regions.
The Grey-fronted Honeyeater is a medium-small pale grey-brown honeyeater with a distinctive yellow tuft behind its eye. It also has yellow to olive wing patches and tail panels. It is pale grey below, darker olive brown above and has a long curved black bill. Young birds are paler with more yellow colouring and a yellow gape (open bill). It has a fast, undulating flight and is seen either singly, in pairs or small flocks in flowering trees and shrubs.
The Grey-fronted Honeyeater is found in a wide range of wooded habitats, usually near water. It is often found in mangroves and woodlands or dense forests along waterways. It can also be found in mallee, spinifex woodlands, low dense shrublands, heaths and saltmarshes, as well as in monsoon forests or rainforests in the Top End. It is common in parks, gardens and street trees in urban areas as well as on farms and in remnant vegetation along roadsides.
Very much a “birdwatcher’s bird” only experts find them easily and even then careful scrutiny is needed to separate them from the other two species they often associate with, the Chestnut-rumped and Inland Thornbills. The plain grey breast, a feature they share in common with both Chestnut rumped and even juvenile Inland Thornbills in some places, is easy to see, but the diagnostic streaked crown is not. A couple of their calls are quite distinctive, but much of the time they sound remarkably like either Chestnut-rumped or Inland Thornbills.
The Slaty-backed Thornbill prefer mulga with a varied shrub layer such as Acacia, Cassia, Eremophila and Dodonea which unfortunately are regarded by some people as “woody weeds”.
The breeding plumage of the male is predominantly blue, varying from cobaltblue in the east of its range to violet-blue in the west. It has black bands at the base of the tail (absent in the violet-blue birds), across the breast and from the beak, through the eyes to join a band across the back of its neck. Its crown and cheek patches are paler blue. Wings and long tail are brown with a blue wash. His beak is black and his legs and feet are browngrey.
In non-breeding plumage, called eclipse, he is very similar to the female, being pale brown above and buff to white underneath although he retains the blue wash on wings and tail. The female does not have the blue wash on her wings, but does have a reddish-tan line from beak to eye that extends into a ring around her eye. Her beak is reddish-tan.
These birds live in arid to semi-arid areas, in mostly dense shrub lands or woodlands of acacia, and mallee eucalypt with dense shrubs.
The Spinifex Pigeon measures from 20 - 24 centimetres (8 to 9.6 inches) and has plumage that is rusty-coloured and blends into the red soils of the arid areas. They also have a bright red facial patch around the eye with a ring of black and grey facial patches. The pigeons have black striations on their wings. The sexes are difficult to distinguish. Their flight is low and fast, often flipping and gliding in the flight. Their call is a high-pitched coo or a deep “coo-r-r-r”.
The Spinifex Pigeon is permanently found in the arid areas of north-western, northern, eastern and central Australia. Generally they live in stony areas with low woodlands and spinifex grasses. They are nomadic and terrestrial. They are often found in pairs or groups.
One of the prettiest sights of the Australian bush are the flocks of grey and pink Piyar-piyarpa wheeling across the blue skies. Piyar-piyarpa are a type of cockatoo and are seed-eaters, able to crack though seed shells with their massive beaks. Out here, their looks and wild boisterous behaviour will captivate you.
Waterholes among the red rocks are the best places to look for these pretty little birds. Firetails are finches and therefore seed eaters that must drink. Small flocks fly down to sip water from the rocky edges of the waterholes. The brilliant fiery upper tail is most visible in flight.
High above you soars the magnificent walawuru, the wedge-tailed eagle. Look at its tail. You can see how it received its English name. It uses thermals of hot air created by the desert heat to rise to great heights where its keen eyes scan for food.
It kills animals up to the size of small kangaroos by gliding down and striking them about the head with its massive talons. Yet despite their killing ability, walawuru prefer easier meals of carrion.
Crested Pigeon "Tongue Pump"
Aralapalpalpa are common around the Resort. They feed on grass seeds on the ground and like most seed-eaters, must drink regularly. Unlike most birds that drink by dipping their beaks and sipping, Aralapalpalpa poke out their tongues and pump up the water. Listen for the metallic whistling sound of their flight.
This lizard looks frightening but the spines, though sharp, are harmless. The only thing that need fear them are the several types of ants that form its diet. The thorny devil sits beside an ant trail and snaps up each ant that passes.
The Ngiyari can drink with its feet. It places them in a puddle and water moves up by capillary action along grooves to the corner of its mouth.
Nocturnal Desert Skink "The End of the Tail"
Skinks are the most abundant of the lizards at Uluru-Kata Tjuta with about 29 species found here. They have shiny scales and most will drop their tails when attacked. The twitching tail attracts the attacker, allowing the skink, minus tail, to sneak away. The tail later regrows. The Tjakura makes a burrow with an entrance under a shrub or grass clump. Unlike most skinks, it can be active at night.
Kuniya is a large nocturnal snake that can grow 2.7 metres. It lives in burrows on the sand plains and will take over burrows made by more efficient diggers - ones with feet and claws. Imagine tying to dig a burrow with no hands or feet and you'll see why these snakes look for prebuilt homes. Kuniya suffocates its prey of small mammals with its coils before extending its jaw to swallow them. It's not poisonous and not a threat to people.
At two metres long, the Ngintaka (Perentie) is Australia's largest, and the world's second largest lizard - only surpassed by the Komodo Dragon of Indonesia. Adult perenties have few enemies as they can defend themselves with a lashing tail, slashing claws, sharp teeth and a scary hiss! It's a fearsome predator to small animals, seizing them with curved teeth and shaking them or bashing them against objects to kill them. Fortunately they leave people alone.
Liru means poisonous snake in one of the Anangu languages. Liru features prominently in the Tjukurpa creation stories. There are eight different types of Liru at Uluru-Kata Tjuta. Most are small and mildly venomous. But beware of the largest Liru, the Mulga or King Brown Snake. It is very dangerous. If it bites it hangs on, injecting large amounts of toxic venom. Mulga snakes have their place in nature, eating other snakes, rodents and lizards. They hunt by day and on warm nights.
Spinifex Hopping Mouse
Tarkawara, or spinifex hopping mice, are one of the animals you're most likely to see if you wander along tracks around the Resort at night. Their long legs, tufted tail and hopping gait are distinctive. Tarkawara are family animals, living in communal burrows. They like the cool damp underground air that helps them preserve valuable moisture. Tarkawara do not drink water but get all the moisture they need from the seeds and plant shoots they eat - strategies that help them survive in a harsh dry environment.
Rufous Hare Wallaby
The Mala is a small wallaby that lives amongst spinifex, digging trenches or burrows beneath the hummocks to escape the summer heat. Once common, it disappeared from Uluru and Central Australia after European settlement. Changing fire-burning patterns created unsuitable habitat; this, along with introduced predators, probably caused its disappearance. Anangu are keen to reintroduce it once the environment has recovered and introduced predators are controlled.
The Mala is an important part of the Uluru creation stories known as Tjukurpa. You'll hear about the Mala Tjukurpa on the Mala Walk regularly led by rangers in the Park.
Although only the size of a small guinea pig, Murtja is one of the top predators of the spinifex country. It searches at night for prey of rats, mice, reptiles and large invertebrates. The young are carried in the mother's rudimentary pouch or ride on her back when they grow older. Imagine being a mother and having to chase after active prey with that heavy load. Murtja spend their days in burrows with lined nesting chambers.
Pitjantjatjara: Papa Inura
The dingo is the largest land predator in Australia. Scientists believe it descends from Asian dogs arriving in Australia about three and a half thousand years ago, possibly on boats of Asian travellers. It became a camp dog for Aborigines and also spread into the wild. Papa inura is a hunter but also scavenges dead animals and even feeds on insects and plants. Papa inura cannot bark but their howls sometimes penetrate still desert nights.
Many Australia city dwellers know brush-tailed possums. They like to nest in tree hollows or house roofs, but both of these are in short supply at Uluru. Wayuta once lived here in the few large trees, in caves and even in termite mounds, but they have now disappeared. As they are an important Tjukurpa animal, Anangu and Parks Australia hope to reintroduce them.
The enduring symbol of Australia is the kangaroo. The deserts of Australia have the largest - the Malu - with males two metres long from nose to tail tip. They bound across the open plains. At a top speed of about 60 kilometres an hour a big red male can leap eight metres horizontally and three metres vertically. Hopping is actually an efficient way of travelling. Try it - but for best results you would need the long legs, the balancing tail and the rhythm of a kangaroo. Females are smaller and often a blue-grey colour.
While mammals, reptiles and birds may be hard to see, ants are everywhere. They often have well-travelled trails. No one knows exactly how many species live Australia's arid zone but they probably number in the thousands. Like termites, they're an important part of the desert ecosystem. They are a source of food for some animals, such as the Ngiyari (thorny devil) and Tjilkamata (echidna), and they, like termites, aerate and turn over the soil. Some species help to spread seeds.
Flies have a bad name. They can be annoying, spread disease and remind us of horrible sights and smells. But they do have their place. They and their maggot young clean up dead animals and other rotting matter. Flies also provide food for many other animals. And some are even pretty. Look closer next time.
Katydids are often heard but not seen. As they are a good meal for other animals, they employ camouflage to match their favorite food plants. Related to grasshoppers, if discovered they can jump with strong hind legs. Their strong plant-cutting jaws are a last line of defence, at least against spiders and other animals their own size.