The cheapest and most convenient flight from Sydney to Cairns was on Jetstar, the low-cost “sister” carrier to Qantas. Jetstar is a distinctly “no frills” airline. The gate agents weigh your carry-on to see if you have exceeded the strict 7 kg limit; if you have, hefty penalties apply. There is no entertainment or Wi-Fi on the flight, but you can get water – if you pay extra for it. Despite the relative lack of amenities, I had no complaints about my Jetstar experience. The gate agents and flight attendants were polite and professional, the plane was new and clean, and we touched down in Cairns (pronounced like “Cans” if you’re an American) right on time.
Cairns is a bustling tourist hub of about 150,000 people right on the coast in Far North Tropical Queensland. At about 17 degrees south latitude, it experiences sweltering, wet summers and warm, drier winters. We had perfect weather (highs in the low 80s and dry) most days. Cairns is a popular birding destination in its own right, and also serves as a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef (to the east), Daintree National Park (to the north), the Atherton Tablelands (to the southwest). The city is flanked by pristine rainforest on several sides.
After we picked up our rental car, we headed straight for the Cairns Esplanade, the walking path that runs for several miles along the water from the city center to a productive patch of mangroves at its northern terminus. Although the austral summer (e.g. winter in the Northern Hemisphere) is much more productive for shorebirds along the Esplanade, we still managed to rustle up Pied Oystercatcher, Black-fronted Dotterel, Far Eastern Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, and the ubiquitous Masked Lapwing.
Other highlights were Torresian and Sacred Kingfishers, Varied Honeyeaters, a Pacific Reef Heron, and a relatively shy Mangrove Robin. We would return a couple more times to the Esplanade, picking up Beach Thick-knee and several other species.
After strolling the Esplanade (well, I strolled; Neil intermittently power-walked and peered through his telescope intently) we decided to head down to Etty Bay to search for the largest bird in Australia. The Southern Cassowary is a rare resident of tropical rainforests in northern Queensland and New Guinea. Adults can reach 6 feet in height and weigh nearly 200 pounds. Although it cannot fly, the cassowary is not a bird to be trifled with. It has powerful legs and a dagger-like toe that can eviscerate would-be predators or hapless birders.
As we approached Etty Bay, I picked up on some subtle signs that cassowaries might be close by.
As we rounded a curve, I caught a glimpse of a large black and blue shape near the edge of the forest. “Whoa! Did you see that?!” I hollered at Neil. His eyes remained on the road and his foot on the accelerator. He calmly replied, “yep.”
I gave him a hard look. “It was a large statue of a cassowary, right?” he responded. The car drove on around another curve. Panic was rising in my chest as I blurted, “That was not a STATUE of a cassowary! That. Was. A. Cassowary!” Neil spared a glance at me, took in my wide eyes and open mouth, and decided that I wasn’t pulling his leg. The car fishtailed as Neil deftly made a U-turn at speed, and we were hurtling back down the winding hill. When a mammoth dark shape appeared on the right, Neil pulled the car off to the side of the road 25 meters away. We took a good long look at the cassowary. It gave us a glance, and then went back to lounging near the forest. We carefully got out of the car and crept a little closer, mindful to stay a respectful distance away.
The cassowary remained nonchalant, the sunlight gleaming off its horn-like casque. Its brilliant blue neck extended and then pulled back, its pink wattles swinging in the breeze. For ten minutes we just marveled at it. Neil snapped some terrific photos. We returned to the car, buzzing, and continued onwards towards Etty Bay to see if we could find any other cassowaries.
The beach at Etty bay had picnickers, volleyball players, and beachcombers. I doubted we would run into any other cassowaries down here. Until I saw a footprint in the sand.
A very large footprint. With three toes. Raising my binoculars, I scanned again. My eyes alighted on a dark shape stepping out of the rain forest. It was coming towards me. I backed out of the way as the prehistoric monster sidled by. It was not coming for me after all. It was headed directly for…
an unattended picnic basket. Deftly removing a tea towel covering the food, the cassowary proceeded to pull out a huge bunch of bananas. In a flash, it ripped off a banana, threw it in the air, and swallowed it whole. Seconds later another followed, and then another. It was six bananas in when the owner of the picnic basket arrived and tried to shoo the cassowary away. The cassowary stood up and stared at the woman, as if to say, “really, what do you intend to do?” It then proceeded to eat the rest of her bananas, poke around in the basket to see if there was any other ripe fruit, and then slowly amble away.
After having our fill of cassowaries (we spotted an immature bird on the way out), we returned to Cairns. At this point, I was starving. Neil asked if I liked pies, “Because, if you do, I know a place.” The ‘place’ turned out to be a gas station with a Pie Face fast food chain inside. Let’s just say that after we sampled their “food,” there were only two smiles in the car as we pulled away.
Returning to Cairns, we decided to follow up on a hot lead. A pair of uncommon Rufous Owls was being reported in a park… which turned out to be immediately adjacent to our hotel – the Reef Palms! It took us a couple of tries to catch up to them, but eventually we had smashing looks at the owls both in the evening twilight as we watched them court each other and during midday in their roost tree. You couldn’t quite see them from our room, but you could catch a glimpse of them from inside the hotel at the bottom of the stairs.
They were truly magnificent. We ended up having great luck with owls on this trip (with five species seen well and another heard only), but these might have been my favorites.
Getting ready for bed that night, it was hard to imagine that I had actually woken up in Sydney that morning, 1500 miles away. “Surely we can’t keep up this pace for the entire trip,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep. I was wrong.