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Cairns and Cassowaries

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.

Kuanda Rainforest

Kuranda Rain Forest, just outside of Cairns

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.

Barron Falls

Barron Falls, just NW of Cairns

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.

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

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.

Cassowary Sign

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.

Southern Cassowary

Southern Cassowary – photo by Neil Hayward

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.

Cassowary footprint

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…

Cassowary Picnic Basket

Cassowary Loots the Picnic Basket – photo by Neil Hayward

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.

Pie Face

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.

Neil looking at owls

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.

Rufous Owls2

A Pair of Rufous Owls

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.

 

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Triumph and Disappointment in NSW

Although it was cold and dark the next morning when we left the hotel, a rosy glow was already gracing the eastern sky.  I was anxious to get going, but first Neil needed to finish fighting the barista at the local coffee shop.  “No, a LARGE cup,” Neil insisted.  The barista put back the 8 oz cup and picked up a 12 oz one.  “Don’t you have anything bigger?” Neil asked as he craned his neck to see around the side of the espresso machine.  “Ah, mate, you want a JUMBO cup,” replied the tired looking man behind the counter.  “Yes, that’s exactly what I want!” Neil exclaimed.  “Yeah, we don’t carry Jumbo cups,” the man responded.  “They do make ’em, though: 16 ounces – it’s like half a liter!”  Neil gave me an exasperated glance as he handed over his bank card.  I chuckled under my breath as he grabbed his flat white and we headed for the car.  Soon we were hurtling west on the M5 motorway towards my second-favorite birding spot in New South Wales, the Australian Botanic Gardens at Mount Annan.

The ABG is a naturalist’s delight.  It has more than a dozen specialty gardens spread out over 1000 acres.  Between the visual beauty and the rich diversity of bird life present, I totally forgot to snap photos of the place!  We ended up spending over five hours there, and racked up 54 species including 9 species of honeyeaters.  One of my favorites were the Bell Miners, which live in dense colonies and give a loud and persistent “BLINK” call, not unlike a bell.  There are some interesting theories explaining why Bell Miners live in colonies.  One is that they “farm” psyllids, a group of insects which feed on eucalyptus.  The young psyllids, called nymphs, form a sweet, sugary shell called a lerp to protect themselves.  The miners sometimes eat the lerps but not the nymphs themselves, and chase away other forest birds which might eat the psyllid nymphs and adults.  There is even some evidence that colonies of Bell Miners can cause whole stands of eucalypts to die when the psyllids that eat them multiply relatively unchecked.  This phenomena is called Bell Miner Associated Dieback.

While I did not get any photos of the Bell Miners, their nosy cousins, the Noisy Miners, visited me at the cafe and tried to steal my scones.

Noisy Miner

Noisy Miner wants my scones

After some fortifying scones and a flat white, we returned to the Banksia Garden in search of the Swift Parrots.  Swift Parrots are critically endangered, with perhaps only 2000 individuals remaining in the wild.  They breed in Tasmania and migrate to mainland Australia in the winter.  Uncommon anywhere, they are especially rare in this area of New South Wales.  However, a small flock of them had been seen intermittently for the last week or so feeding on the Banksia flowers in the southwest corner of the park.  After half an hour amongst the Banksia, we caught a glimpse of a parrot flock blasting through the trees.  These green streaks were indeed quite swift as they wheeled and twisted in a tight group through the canopy, and it was hard to get a good look at them.  They finally settled in the treetops, and we got brilliant scope views of some 25 Swift Parrots (more than 1% of the global population!).  They were the ninth parrot species for the day, joining such other beauties as Australian King Parrot, Crimson & Eastern Rosellas, Galahs, and Red-rumped Parrots.

Soon enough, the Swift Parrots zipped away to check out another corner of the gardens, and our attention was drawn to a brightly colored songbird across the trail.  I re-directed my scope just in time to see a magnificent male Variegated Fairywren in full alternate plumage.

Variegated Fairywren

Variegated Fairywren – photo by Neil Hayward

“Bird of the trip,” I whispered to Neil as he snapped away with his birding camera.  People often ask me what my favorite bird is, and I never had a good answer before.  Now I do: it’s that particular male Variegated Fairywren in the Banksia Garden of the ABG.

After we had our fill of parrots, honeyeaters, and fairywrens, we started working our way towards the exit.  At the north end of the gardens, we stopped by the lakes and picked up a group of Buff-rumped Thornbills and a very handsome male Rose Robin.  Driving home on the M5, we were feeling quite satisfied with our day.  We wanted to turn in early because we were scheduled to get up hours before dawn the next morning for a pelagic birding trip out to the deep ocean off the coast of Sydney.  Near our hotel however, we were graced with an unsettling omen: a white car with a “no birds” logo emblazoned upon both doors.

No birds

But why not?

The car turned out to be a prescient warning.  When Neil checked his messages back at the hotel, we received some unpleasant news.  The weather offshore was quite rough, with high winds and deep swells.  Our pelagic trip had been canceled.  I was devastated.  We had adjusted the timing of our whole trip to coincide with the July pelagic trip out of Sydney.  I was hoping to spend the next day seeing albatrosses, petrels, prions, and shearwaters.  Now we were left with an extra, unscheduled day in NSW.  What to do?  We spent a little time searching the internet for a backup plan, and decided to spend the day at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, about 45 minutes north of Sydney.

Ku-ring-gai Chase is a huge protected area, almost 60 square miles.  We started at the Chiltern Trail, where we ran into a delightful local birder named Robert Griffin, with whom we spent the next two hours.  Highlights of the Chiltern Trail included White-cheeked, White-eared, and Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters.  Later on we stopped at West Head, which was spectacularly beautiful but not tremendously birdy.

Neil at West Head

Neil at West Head in Ku-ring-gai Chase NP

We made a stop at Warriewood Wetlands on the way back to town, and ended the day at Long Reef Aquatic Reserve, a finger of land that extends into the Pacific Ocean just northeast of Sydney.  At the ocean watch near the tip, we watched a dozen Black-browed Albatrosses bank and soar over the waves, circling over the cormorants, gulls, and shorebirds roosting on the offshore islets.  It was not nearly as good as a pelagic trip, but I didn’t leave Australia without seeing at least a few seabirds.

Long Reef Aquatic Reserve
Long Reef Aquatic Reserve (those specks are albatrosses)

We returned to Miranda and packed up our things.  We had an early flight out to Cairns the next morning, our first taste of tropical Queensland.  Four days in NSW had netted us 125 species; not as many as we would have seen had our pelagic trip run, but not too bad for mid-winter in the Sydney metro area.

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