I had been to North Queensland before, and on that visit had seen a whole raft of exciting birds in a very short time, but I had missed seeing a cassowary, and so was returning now, in January 1997, to try for it again, as well as to see some other species I'd missed first time round.
I landed at Cairns airport and headed south in a hire car. The population of cassowaries that had inhabited Mt Whitfield, just north of Cairns, where I had tried to see them two years before, had become extinct some months earlier with the death of the last bird. The fate of this population is typical of what has happened to the species in Australia. This species, the Southern Cassowary, along with the other two species of cassowary, is secure in New Guinea at present, although word is that logging concessions are presently being sold for large areas of lowland New Guinea, so this security may not last much longer. However the species has never had a large range in northern Australia, and its habitat has become increasingly fragmented. Before white settlement the bird ranged from the coastal forests through the lowlands and up into the mountain forests in a seasonal movement. But nowadays large areas of northern Queensland have been cleared for sugar-cane and other agriculture, and although large areas of forest remain, there are few areas where coastal forest grades into lowland forest and into mountain forest -- consequently the carrying capacity of the land for cassowaries has declined. The Mt Whitfield population had become isolated and the last birds were killed by dogs -- another hazard for the species. Finally, as if all this were not enough, feral pigs eat cassowary eggs and chicks, and many birds are killed on roads, as they cross from one patch of forest to another.
So I was heading south for Mission Beach, a little resort town on the coast about 100 km south of Cairns, which is now the most reliable place to see the species, on account of the large area of lowland rainforest still extant and the fact that this forest abuts coastal vegetation, a rich source of food for the birds. However even in this optimum habitat it is thought only fifty or birds remain.
The weather was very hot and humid and rain was threatening, the sugar cane was flapping limply in fields along the coastal highway and I enjoyed seeing colourful flocks of Chestnut-breasted Manikins flitting along. Other birds around were White-breasted Woodswallows on every power line, and White-rumped Swifts, hawking over the fields. This is the only species of swift to nest in Australia, and the only bird in the world known definitely to use echo-location in its pitch-dark nesting-caves.
At length I reached the Mission Beach turn-off and headed towards the town. The road passes through a large State Forest before it reaches the town, and a little way into the forest is Lacey's Creek, one of the best spots to find cassowaries. I parked the car at the car park and headed off on the rainforest walk on the north side of the road. Cassowaries have been seen here, even on the tidied up circular walk with information boards, but there were none around for me. In fact the only birds around now, at midday, were several Purple-throated Sunbirds, the old world equivalent of Hummingbirds, flitting around flowers. Other wildlife was a consolation though -- I observed a small Rat Kangaroo foraging on the forest floor, and at one point on the trail you can look down into a pool and see turtles and various kinds of fish.
After this I decided to go on to Mission Beach, 5 km down the road, to check out recent sightings of cassowaries at the Information Centre. When I got there I was told that I had been in the right place, Lacey's Creek is definitely the best place, "you just have to be lucky." Not feeling very lucky I left and wandered around the town and beach regaling myself with the birds there: Orange-footed Scrubfowl, members of the megapode, or mound-builder, family, like enormous chickens scratching around the caravan park and the fringe of pandanus and palms along the beach; Metallic Starlings, bright and glossy with their colonies of great hanging nests, each new one hanging from the mass of previous years' nests; Helmeted Friarbirds, enormous honeyeaters, with their loud trumpeting calls; Torresian Imperial Pigeons, large, handsome, white and black pigeons, with a fast, eager flight; and brightly-coloured Rainbow Lorikeets, shooting rapidly hither and thither in small flocks.
But the afternoon was wearing on and it was time to return to Lacey's Creek. This time I decided I would park 2 km down the road, where a footpath emerged on the south of the road -- I decided I would walk down this path and come out opposite the car park, then, by which time it would be evening, walk down the road for a last shot at the cassowary that day. The reason for this strategy is that the footpath, I could see on the map, crossed several creeks, a favourite cassowary haunt, and in the evening cassowaries are often seen crossing roads.
I began to walk and noticed that there was more bird-life about now, in the late afternoon. The forest was resounding with the monotonous hooting of never-seen Superb Fruit-Doves (they hide in the highest canopy and are wonderfully camouflaged). Graceful Honeyeaters were investigating flowers -- small olive-green birds with a yellow cheek spot and long curved bill. A large Black Butcherbird was skulking in a cane-thicket, and a series of mewing and harsh notes indicated the presence of a Spotted Catbird, located after much searching. If there were more birds around, unfortunately there were also more mosquitoes, and the humidity of the day was even worse in the thick forest. I soldiered on, and the path went up and down, through relatively open rainforest on ridges, down through dense palm and cane thickets in the creek-beds. My glasses were misting up every twenty meters, and I was conscious that soon the path would be coming back out on to the road.
I was descending a slope through a thicket of saplings when suddenly the feeling flashed through my mind: "There's a cassowary nearby." I was convinced, and surprised I was convinced, because I never normally have premonitions or anything of that sort. And indeed I thought I was wrong, because when I scanned carefully through the thickets either side of path there was no lurking shape to be seen. I took another ten steps and the path turned and opened out into a largish clearing and there, on the other side, large as life, was a cassowary!
I immediately ducked back behind the bend and squatted down to observe the bird. It hadn't noticed me, or hadn't reacted anyway, and it continued in its feeding on a patch of ground covered in large black tree-fruit. I was amazed at it, it was big, almost as big as an emu, but much stockier, with great thick legs. As it moved its plumage swung like a Maori grass-skirt, and made a dry rustling noise. The very bright red and blue of its face and neck was a surprise too, and so too the scarred and battered, horn-coloured casque on its head. I raised my binoculars gradually and looked at it through them; every separate hair-like feather on its body was distinct. I looked at its big brown eye and saw a discernible expression, though I wouldn't like to say what it meant. The minutes ticked by as I gazed on.
Eventually, after probably fifteen minutes, I began to think: "well, perhaps I better be moving on." Then something I hadn't thought of crossed my mind -- my path led through the clearing right passed the bird, and these birds have a reputation for being dangerous. Only the previous year at Mission Beach a lout set his dogs on a cassowary, and the bird, ignoring the dogs, charged him, knocked him down and kicked and pecked him to death before anyone could do anything to help. I wondered how this bird would react to me. I stood up and moved forward and the bird noticed me with a start and a sort of angry cough. I moved forward very slowly, conscious that a floppy hat and a pair of binoculars are not much protection against an angry ratite. I edged around the opposite side of the clearing from the bird, and the bird edged around the opposite side of the clearing from me. At length I got to the far side and took the path away from the clearing; it turned directly after this and went down some steps to a creek. Over the plank bridge I mounted the opposite bank and looked back to see, through a screen of saplings, that the cassowary had returned to the seeds and had gone back to feeding.
And so I returned to the car, elated at having seen a cassowary, and even such sights as a small flight of Double-eyed Fig-parrots flashing by failed to distract me from my elation.
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