The Wet Northern Queensland

We just came back from Northern Queensland, targeting three areas: Cairns, Kuranda, and Cape Tribulation. Our trip spanned March 10-17, which is near the end of the wet season. We had a few near planning mishaps: the Daintree ferry was out of operaton the previous week and heavy rains made many roades impassable. Thankfully, by the time we needed to use these roads, the flooding had receded.

Cairns

We spent two nights in Cairns.

We went to the Jack Barnes Mangrove Boardwalk after picking up our rental car. It was a great way to stretch after our flight. There are two walks, both providing wonderful views of the mangroves, crabs, and mudskippers.

We found this colourful crab in the mud of the mangrove forest floor.

Possibly because we did these walks in the middle of the day, we didn’t find many birds. We did get one new one: Pacific Golden Plover, feeding in the small field next to the start of the shorter walk. However, had we come earlier, we might have missed the crabs because of the higher tide.

Pacific Golden Plover is the one new bird we did see. It can be identified by the golden flecks in its plumage.

The only downside to the Jack Barnes walk is that the parking lot is seedy, with an abandoned car and random smokers.

We went to the Esplanade next. Despite being crowded, we found some birds. It was high tide so we didn’t see any shorebirds, but we saw Nutmeg Mannakin in the grass, a Great Egret feeding with two Australian Pied Oystercatchers, and Varied and Brown Honeyeater.

Varied Honeyeater was a new species for us. Spotted in its usual tree.

The next day we went to the beautiful Cairns Botanic Garden at 7AM. We took a walk around the freshwater and Saltwater Centenary lakes. The freshwater lake is known to be a site for Little Kingfisher, and we thankfully saw one. We also saw a few wetland birds including Radjah Shelduck, Great and Little Egret, and….Pacific Black Duck. We got a quick view of a Black Bittern flying into a cosy hiding spot on the Saltwater lake.

The Cairns Botanic garden is absolutely worth a visit, but it’s important to go early in the morning before 8AM, especially on weekends. Otherwise, it gets very crowded.

The Brush Turkey is very easy to see in Northern Queensland, including the Botanic Garden in Cairns. It is one of three Megapodes in Australia, the other two being the Orange-footed Scrubfowl (my favourite) and the endangered Malleefowl (never seen it, despite trying).

After the garden, we took a break and then returned to the Esplanade, this time for shorebirds. These waders are one of the main reasons to visit Cairns in the wet season.

This Bar-tailed Godwit is one of many shorebirds that visit the Esplanade for snacks before their long migration to the Northern Hemisphere.

We saw quite a few shorebirds: Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Terek Sandpiper, Greater Sand Plover, Red-capped Plover, and Great Knot. Also, there were many crabs in the mud and we saw a Terek Sandpiper snacking on one. It is amazing how some of these birds are getting ready to fly thousands of kilometers to their breeding grounds.

Eastern Curlew has a huge bill for probing the mud!
The beautifully patterned Nutmeg Mannakin is an Estrilidae finch that we found twice on the Esplanade! Look for its cousin the Chestnut-breasted Mannakin in higher regions like Kuranda and the road to Mareeba wetlands.

Cassowary House in Kuranda

The next day we left early for the Cassowary House, named after one of the coolest birds in the rainforest: the Southern Cassowary. On the way, we stopped by Cattana wetlands. Unfortunately for us, it was closed. Also, you might as well skip Yorkey’s Knob completely, which is a site recommended in Dolby and Clarke’s book (this book isn’t really clear on the wet season vs. dry season all the time).

So, despite Cattana being closed, as we arrived to the gate, we saw a Black-necked Stork fly over. We also walked past the gate anyway and found a couple of birds including Eastern Koel and Nankeen Night Heron.

Eastern Koel, seen at Cattana wetlands.

Back to the Cassowary House: it’s a unique place for seeing Cassowaries. We didn’t see Cassowaries on our first day there, however. We arrived a little early, and not wanting to tax our hosts, we drove further along Black Mountain Road and explored the side roads.

Look at that huge Lace Monitor!

On our walks, we saw Macleay’s Honeyeater, which turned out to be quite common, along with Mistletoebird, Dollarbird, Rainbow Bee-eater, Emerald Dove, Brown Cuckoo-Dove, a Lace Monitor (lizard), and a ton of butterflies.

Dollarbird was one of our target species, and we only saw it once.

We stayed in the ‘Catbird Cottage’ at the Cassowary house, though I never saw Catbird (so sad). All throughout this trip, we prepared our own meals instead of eating out, and the Catbird Cottage included basic cooking facilities including an electric frying pan, hotplate, fridge, microwave, and electric kettle. Perfect.

The Catbird Cottage is a good place to stay for serious birdwatchers. Wait, are we serious birdwatchers? Gasp.

One thing you have to be prepared for however is that this is the middle of a tropical forest and sometimes you’ll find spiders and insects around. I don’t mind them much, and I was actually excited to take a few photos of tropical spiders.

I found this in a frying pan in the process of cooking dinner. Don’t worry, this friendly spider is not poisonous and has really beautiful patterns on it.

The Cassowary House is popular with birders. In fact, a nice couple stayed in the main guest house for one of the nights we were there. They had hired Alan Gillanders as a guide. On the afternoon we arrived, they kindly invited us out to go birding with them. Alan is very knowledgable and started pointing out all kinds of birds we had not yet seen and bird calls we had not yet learned to identify. He also has a keen interest in other animals and plants. Although we generally bird by ourselves, we enjoyed his expertise and I would recommend him to anyone looking for a guide.

On our full day while staying at the Cassowary House, we visited Pickford Road that leads to the Mareeba wetlands. The wetlands themselves were closed, but our main reason for visiting was a chance to see the Bustard, as I found out before leaving that it had been spotted here. Sadly, we didn’t see the Bustard but we did see the Chestnut-breasted Mannakin. But even that we later saw back near the Cassowary house.

A Short Stop in Kuranda

Being a little sad about not seeing the Bustard, we needed a change of pace and visited the Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda. They have an amazing collection of butterflies, both live and pinned. There is also a laboratory there that does research on the butterflies. The work they are doing there is pretty cool, but we didn’t have a good experience because it was just too crowded. I suggest going first thing in the morning or else finding another time where there are fewer visitors.

You can get some additional shots of butterflies in the Butterfly Sanctuary. In the Sanctuary, it was easier to use a 100mm macro lens, whereas outside I preferred my 300mm lens for butterflies.

Also, the live butterflies in this facility are actually from the surrounding area and can easily be seen in the wild, so if you have a car there is not much point in going here just for the live butterflies. Their pinned collection is actually very awesome, however.

This butterfly was seen in the wild.
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The Cassowaries

We returned to the Cassowary House to have one of the most awesome wildlife experiences ever: watching a family of Cassowaries (2 adults, 3 juveniles) just being Cassowaries for about an hour. The adults mated several times, which should appear in Emily’s video coming soon. Adult Cassowaries have an amazingly funny way of drinking water (the chicks drink in a similar way but it is more exaggerated in the adult): they bend their huge necks into the water and then throw their head back as the water drains down their throat.

The female adult cassowary is bigger than the male and very brightly coloured.

Cassowaries have cool personalities. We also saw an Australian Brush Turkey come in—after the Cassowaries had left—to eat the fruit pieces in Cassowary poop.

The long claw shown here on the strong foot of the Cassowary can slice you open, but the Cassowary is a gentle creature and will not harm you unless you get in its way.

We took a few pictures of the Cassowary family, and then just sat on the forest floor observing them for most of the time. Seeing these Cassowaries was certainly one of my top three wildlife experiences, ever.

Near the Cassowary House is also a good place to go spotlighting. We didn’t find the Sooty Owl, but we did find some unusual insects.

I have no idea what this is…some kind of huge centipede?

The inland route

We took the inland route from the Cassowary House to Cape Tribulation. This route passes through several interesting habitats. We took a detour down the road to Mount Carbine to find the Bustard, which supposedly were resting on East and West Mary Farms roads. This was a tip that Phil, Sue, and Alan recommended to us. I wasn’t feeling too hopeful about the Bustard because we already dipped on it on Pickford Road. Additionally, when we arrived it was nearing 1PM, it was hot, and the roads looked like this:

Now, the Bustard is the only one of its order in Australia, though there are over twenty different Bustards in the world. Anyway, the Bustard is a pretty cool bird. The male inflates a huge throat sac that actually drops to the ground as a mating display. So, I was really hoping to see it.

In fact, we actually already saw the Bustard in captivity at a breeding program in Serendip Sanctuary. Wild Bustards also exist in Victoria, near the south-western part of Wyperfeld National Park, though we didn’t have time to try and find them there when we visited Wyperfeld (we did get Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo there, though).

Anyways, back to this tip. We drove to the East and West Mary farm roads. I wasn’t sure how far it was, so I got a little irritated driving around this area. On top of that, when we got there, all the fields looked deserted except for an Australian White Ibis. We were hot and it looked like we weren’t going to find any Bustards. The first time I got out of the car to scan the fields with binoculars, I did find a large brown feather on the ground that I think must have been a Bustard feather. That gave me a smidgen of hope about the Bustard.

We found no Bustards on East Mary Farms road. I was pretty much resigned to not seeing Bustards at that point, but Emily convinced me to go down West Mary Farm road, and we drove all the way down until the fields became forests. Still no Bustards. However, on the way back, Emily spotted a few resting in the shade!

Finally!

A Bustard enjoying the shade.

Cape Tribulation

There is a ferry that operates from 6AM to 12AM taking cars across the Daintree river. From there you can access Cape Tribulation. We stayed three nights here at the Jungle Hideaway Hotel in the ‘Jungle Hut’.

The Jungle Hut has basic cooking facilities including a barbecue with a side burner that can be used to cook with pots and frying pans.

We appreciated the eco-sensitivities of this hotel. For instance, the room has enough power to charge batteries and operate lights, but it does not have a refrigerator or air conditioner. However, the proprieter Rob will allow you to swap water-filled bottles in his freezer for your Esky.

Cape Tribulation itself is a cool place and is a little more remote than the typical small town. It doesn’t have a treated water supply and locals drink pumped creek water. And although there are tourists, very few of them visit the beach in the wet season because there are ‘stingers’ in the water, so most of the beaches are almost always deserted.

You can walk all day along this beautiful beach with few or no other people in sight. Sometimes there are even shorebirds like Pacific Reef Egret, Whimbrel, Plovers, and other birds to be found.

Look out for little delicate crabs that run around on the beach, in and out of their nest holes, which in turn are surrounded by little sand balls from the crabs’ excavations.
We found this Whimbrel enjoying Kulki beach in Cape Tribulation.

It is not hard to bird north of the Daintree river if you visit Jindalba boardwalk, which is actually one of the best birding sites we found on the whole trip. We tried it twice and found:

  1. Southern Cassowary, including a juvenile crossing the road
  2. Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher (both times), adults and juveniles
  3. Victoria’s Riflebird
  4. Noisy Pitta, scurring across the forest floor just after a rain
  5. Wompoo Fruit-dove, excellent view
  6. Possibly Brown Cuckoo-Dove, though we definitely nailed it in Kuranda
  7. Spectacled Monarch
Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher is perhaps the most colourful kingfishers that can be found in Australia, and is a wet-season migrant. It is easy to spot at the Jindalba boardwalk at the start of the walk. This one just finished beating and eating a lizard.

Another thing you can find in Cape Tribulation along the Marrjda boardwalk is the Bridled Honeyeater. This honeyeater has a very restricted range and it’s best found around Cape Tribulation. Aside from this boardwalk, there is a sidewalk along the road about 30km north of the river and it can be found in the trees there sometimes.

Cape Tribulation is one of the best places to locate Bridled Honeyeater in the wet season.

The walking trails north of the Daintree were the best ones we experienced on this trip. The extended part of the Jindalba trail is the best. It is a little more rough than the average trail with fallen trees, mud, a couple stream crossings, and very few people. Even though the wet season is the low season for tourism, it’s best to go before 8:30AM on these walks to avoid large tours and crowds.

This Cassowary juvenile was wondering whether to cross the road. Make sure to drive slowly near Cassowary crossings. They have a hard enough time as it is without having to worry about reckless driving!
Although we saw the Wompoo Fruit-Dove in Kuranda at the Cassowary House, the best view we got was in a tree just outside the bathroom at the Jindalba walk.

Daintree River Cruise

So, we took a 9:30AM Daintree river cruise one morning. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to take an earlier one. Part of our motivation for taking a cruise is that we had a truly amazing cruise in Kakadu on the Yellow Water. Unlike Yellow Water however, on which birds can be seen at any time of day during the dry season, on the Daintree we just saw Spangled Drongo during the entire cruise. We also wanted to see Papuan Frogmouth, and while the pilot pointed out possible roosting sites, we didn’t see it here or anywhere else.

You can see Saltwater Crocodile on the Daintree, though. For this, it’s actually best to go during low tide (not necessarily first thing in the morning). We did go during high tide and we did see some baby crocs, though.

We saw this baby Saltwater Crocodile along with a few others through a dense thicket of mangroves.

The End

On the last day, we did one last walk at Jindalba and took the coastal route home. We actually saw a new bird on the way back near Yule point: a huge Osprey flew right over our car. We stopped and thankfully it came back for a few more shots.

We had a few extra hours in Cairns when we arrived, so we went to the cemetary for the Bush Stone-curlew. We found dozens sitting in the shade near the north-eastern end of the cemetary.

This Bush Stone-curlew thinks it’s a flower vase.

Finally, before returning our rental car, we took one last walk on the Jack Barnes boardwalk and said goodbye to the Pacific Golden Plover, crabs, and a Shining Flycatcher.

I think this crab was sad to see us go. Just look at that humongous claw!

Now we’ve seen Darwin in the dry season and Cairns in the wet season! In my opinion, this is a good way to do it because Kakadu would have been really muddy in the wet and Cairns would have been too touristy in the dry.

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