Cairns: Strange Birds in a Strange Land

Stormwater pipes with reptile baffles, or Wicked Witch of the East?

Continents are like people, I suppose. Leave them alone for long enough and they start to go a little crazy. Witness Australia: this remarkable land, once part of a vast supercontinent called Gondwana, has been left to drift on its own for millions of years… and what a strange diversity of life has arisen on this raft! From a single opossum-like ancestor has evolved everything from Tasmanian devils to sugar gliders. The bird life, too, is absolutely out of this world: from cockatoos to honeyeaters and kookaburras and whipbirds and, of course the formidable emu… it’s a bit of a naturalist’s paradise.

We arrived in Cairns a few weeks ago, binoculars in hand, hoping to spot some of the fauna of the tropical rain forest we’d been reading about. (It’s pronounced Canes, more or less. You will never, ever sound more Canadian than when you say Cairns with the hard R.)

bird royal spoonbill in the water
That’s a royal spoonbill.

In order to get to the jungle, we needed to walk along the beach for a stretch. And what a walk it was. Imperial doves called down from flame trees as wood swallows dove overhead. Ahead of us, giant white shapes shuffled and jostled along the water’s edge. Australian pelicans! They’re absolutely huge. I was accustomed to the white pelicans of Canada; these guys have much more black in the wing, giving them an elegant profile in flight. They take advantage of a great variety of habitats here, including temporary pools far out in the desert. This looked like prime real estate for them, along the edge of a mangrove forest, and they relaxed and preened and dozed in the morning sunshine. I started photographing them from a half a mile away, afraid I’d flush them up, but they barely looked up as I got closer and closer.

strange Australian pelicans
Aussie pelicans

I’d been shooting the pelicans for some time before I looked down and saw a wee feathered thing darting around in front of my feet. it was a dotterel, one of the tiniest of the little plovers of the world. It looked like a miniature killdeer with a huge red eye, and while it wasn’t particularly shy, it was manic and I found it quite a challenge to get a shot of it standing still.

tiny Black-fronted dotterel, a strange little bird
Black-fronted dotterel

Far ahead, I spied another group of resting shorebirds, and this one really caught my attention: there’s not too many tall wading birds with that incredibly long, straight bill. For several years now I’d been reading about the bar-tailed godwit, a tall and robust sandpiper. Some industrious researcher has been tracking their migrations, and discovered they make the longest non-stop flight in nature. They breed in Alaska and Siberia, and when the spirit moves them in autumn, they take to the skies and make a beeline (godwitline?) all the way to Australia and New Zealand. Without stopping, without sleeping, without refuelling. It’s an incredible feat, when you think about it.

bar-tailed godwits, migrating birds resting
Godwits. Very, very tired godwits.

The godwits were dozing along the shore. I’m not sure when they had arrived, but they looked exhausted. Their feathers were worn and ruffled, and a few of them struggled to keep standing. I scanned the group and wondered about the members of the flock who hadn’t made it, dropping into the deep Pacific from exhaustion. As I moved my binoculars from bird to bird, I found one with a band around its leg. One of the study birds! I pulled out my phone to jot down the numbers, but the godwit promptly squatted down, hiding the band, and refused to get up again. My contribution to godwit science would have to wait.

Onward we walked, past signs warning us that this was saltwater crocodile country. They’re the largest reptile in the world, and have the most crushing bite known to science. Measured in Newtons, their bite exerts about the same pressure as a mid-sized sedan sitting on your chest.

saltwater croc warning
Watch out for the salties.

Finally we arrived at Cairns’ amazing botanical garden. It’s a huge, sprawling property, taking you through wetlands and palm forests and under giant, towering paperbarks (Melaleuca) and gum trees. Poking about in the understory were outrageous-looking Australian brush-turkeys, their neon red heads announcing their presence from a distance.

brush turkey, a strange bird of Cairns
Brush turkey

A little harder to see were the orange-footed scrubfowl, skulking about in the shadows. These characters build giant nests of compost—I mean seven metres across—and leave their eggs inside them. When the chicks hatch, they’re independent and ready to go, from the instant they leave the nest. It’s a good thing too: Mom and Dad don’t stick around to take care of them.

scrub fowl
scrub fowl

We were hoping/not hoping for an encounter with a cassowary. These ostrich-like birds live only in the deep rainforest of Australia’s north country, and are notoriously intolerant of people. Australians are good storytellers, and I’ve heard more than one tale of cassowaries charging through the understory to attack human interlopers. They can do a fair bit of damage with their powerful claws, apparently. Fortunately or not, this particular bird eluded us. For now…

As I type this I’m sailing northward again, bound for another encounter with the bizarre wildlife of Australia’s tropics. We’re heading into the Daintree this time for an overnight expedition. If you don’t hear from me again, it was probably a cassowary.

Wish me luck.

Eastern curlew. Definitely not a cassowary.

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