Birding Down Under: Cairns

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Birding in northeastern Queensland was a bit like a Dickens novel—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… .” The best parts are easy to list—friendly people, tropical beaches, verdant forests, balmy breezes, exotic species. We were there for a week—I could have spent years.

The worst of times is more a reflection on my lack of birding skill, rather than anything particularly wrong with the region. You see, I’m a very visual birder—I need to see the bird to identify it. And there were all these leaves in the way! I kept hearing the most amazing bird calls, but even after hours of squinting and craning my neck, I could not see the actual birds. And without the birds, I had no idea what bird I was hearing.

Moreover, it was difficult to get decent photos—this part of Queensland is covered with tropical rainforest. The birds were either high in the towering canopy on hidden in the forest gloom below. (You may remember that I took as many pictures as possible so I could identify the birds later.)

Finding birds on the beaches was much easier. There’s nothing for them to hide behind, although that applied to the birder as well. There were few people , just signs warning me about the crocodiles. And the stingers (box jellyfish). And the dangerous currents. Still, I’m a beach person (in spite of living in Colorado), and I was overjoyed to be standing there looking out at the endless parade of breakers, or a quiet inlet surrounded by mangroves, gulls wheeling overhead.

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hathead-qld-australia_lah_0537We also noted the presence of extremely venomous snakes, and carefully kept to the middle of the trails. Unfortunately, no one warned me about the bull ants. Most ants bite, and that’s bad enough. These monsters also have a stinger and venom, just as a bee or wasp does. Using their mandibles to get a good grip on your skin, they bend around and jab you! It’s incredibly painful. Did you hear me scream?

In spite of these challenges, birding Queensland was an incredible experience. I want to go back. Now.

We flew into Cairns, a small coastal city on the northeast corner of the continent, and rented a car. My initial impression of Cairns was that it resembles a low-key Hawaii. Yes, there are touristy shops and restaurants, and plenty of businesses offering trips to the Great Barrier Reef, but they didn’t intrude on the small-town feel of the place. It’s a lovely destination for someone wanting to kick back and enjoy the tropics.

I spent one afternoon on the esplanade scanning the adjacent mudflats for sandpipers and other shorebirds. The ever-present threat of crocodiles kept most people out of the actual mud, so the creatures that live there were free to thrive unmolested.

The city is full of parks, including a lovely botanic garden. My favorite, however, was the  Cattana Wetlands. Once used for growing sugar cane, and as a sand and gravel mine, the extensive area has been replanted with native forest vegetation. Six freshwater and saltwater lakes are accessible from the extensive walking paths. Strategically placed blinds offer the ideal place to scan for Green Pygmy-Geese, ducks, and other waterfowl.

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I was even treated to several Comb-crested Jacanas darting here and there over the water hyacinths leaves.

More birds perched on the tall trees or hunted for bugs in the lush tropical foliage.

I could have spent all day there, but the rain finally chased us home.

There was plenty to see and do right in town, but I also wanted to explore the surrounding national parks. With Cairns as our headquarters, we took day trips further afield. More on that next month.

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Photos, from top: Beach north of Cairns, ditto, sign (Brown Snakes are extremely venomous), Eastern Curlew, fiddler crab, Green Pygmy-Geese, Comb-crested Jacanas, Scaly-breasted Lorikeet, Trumpet Manucode, Yellow-bellied Sunbird, Black Butcherbird.

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