That Elusive Bird


 

Southern Cassowary

 

There was never a chance that I was going to get another picture as good as this one, taken two years ago. When a poor creature is captive in a cage it has precious little chance to escape the attention of a lens. It’s so sad to see a magnificent bird like this in a zoo.  We could maybe argue that no critter should ever be separated from its natural environment but surely it is particularly cruel if an animal naturally wanders over an area of up to 2.5 sq km. as the cassowary does. They are found only in North Queensland and Papua New Guinea and are listed as endangered.

Wild cassowaries can be difficult to find. There are just a few thousand in Queensland, spread across the north of the state from Mission Beach to Cape York. Google estimates between 2-4000, depending on which article you read. Needless to say, I’d set my heart on seeing one. Would we succeed? The trick is to keep going back to the places they have been recently reported, which means going into the rainforest.

 
 

 

This is fascinating in itself. In the area north of the Daintree River there are boardwalks which enable one to wander right into the heart of the rainforest.

 
 

 

The Marrdja Boardwalk, on an elevated platform, even takes us through mangrove swamp. Mangroves grow in the areas between high and low tide.

 
 
 

 

At low tide mangroves are dark and eerie places, the nodules on the ground are their roots.

 
 
 

 

At high tide it’s a different world, full of glittering reflections. Fish come in with the water and can be seen swimming through the mangrove roots and trunks.

 
 
 

 
 
 

 

Cassowary poop on the boardwalk.

We must be getting closer..

Cassowaries seek out the fruits which fall to the forest floor, swallowing them whole to digest the pulp and excreting the seed intact. They are in effect farming the rainforest for food, sowing the seed for the benefit of the next generation. This is a good strategy not just for the birds but also for rainforest sustainability and diversity, making the cassowary a keystone species.

There are even forest seeds which require the digestive process of the cassowary to help them to germinate. Primed for growth the seed is then suitably deposited, complete with a handful of general fertiliser added to the planting hole. What could be better than that?

 
 
 

 

Orchids grow high in the trees

 

Then, on the Dubuji boardwalk a little farther up the coast, I thought I heard rustling deep in the vegetation alongside the path. And was that a glimpse of a black feathered rump?

Cassowaries can grow to 2m, taller than me. They are solitary creatures and don’t take kindly to being provoked, especially if defending chicks. A vicious claw on the middle toe is enough to eviscerate a man. Or woman. It pays not to get too close.

We held back, in silence. Until..

 
 
 

 

..emerging into a clearing created by an almost dry creek bed, a cassowary and three chicks.

 
 
 

 

They stayed in full view for over ten minutes. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Light levels in the forest are extremely low making photography difficult, especially in the shadows where the birds were.

Like their relatives the emus elsewhere in Australia, it is the male cassowary which incubates the eggs and raises the chicks. The female leaves the nest shortly after the eggs have been laid, relinquishing all responsibility. Sounds fair to me. She may even go on to mate with other males, turning the tables on the traditional male/female roles in the animal kingdom.

 
 
 

 

The purpose of the ‘casque’ on the top of the head is unknown but it continues to grow with age so may be an indicator of dominance. There is also evidence to suggest that it may help the cassowary detect the low sounds made by other birds. Or it may just help protect the bird’s head as it pushes through dense undergrowth in the forest.

 
 
 

 

And if all that were not enough, we even saw cassowaries walking down the road. Twice!

 
 
 

 

The birds are true flexitarians. They won’t turn down the opportunity of carrion if they come across it. But it’s a dangerous game. Cassowaries have been killed in encounters with road traffic. My heart was in my mouth.

 
 

 

Safely back to the forest. Phew.

Nine cassowaries over two days. Four adults, five chicks. I think I can settle for that.

 
 
 
 

2018-12-02T11:33:16+00:00December 2nd, 2018|Tags: |

42 Comments

  1. justjilluk December 2, 2018 at 11:44 am - Reply

    Wow!!!!!

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 10:50 am - Reply

      Yes indeed!

  2. jkitt750 December 2, 2018 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    I am so envious! What a fantastic trip you are having. Thank you for sharing your pictures and story. I have learned a little more about Australia and have been stimulated to add it to future travel destinations.

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 10:55 am - Reply

      Hi John. I couldn’t recommend Australia highly enough but then I am biased, I love the country. It is so diverse you can’t help but find a part of it that gives you everything you want.

  3. derrickjknight December 2, 2018 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    Marvellous record of the trip of a lifetime. Well done

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 11:02 am - Reply

      Thanks Derrick. No shortage of things to write about, struggling to do it on an iPad makes it hard. I’m full of sympathy for your technical woes!

  4. wherefivevalleysmeet December 2, 2018 at 3:49 pm - Reply

    Well done for having the determination to find the cassowaries in their natural habitat. They really are very extraordinary birds. At least I now know the clues to watch out for should I ever be somewhere that they are found.

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 11:06 am - Reply

      They are wonderful to watch. In reality quite nervous but perhaps more so with the chicks in tow. I never felt threatened by them but we kept well back.

  5. smallsunnygarden December 2, 2018 at 3:53 pm - Reply

    If you listen closely, perhaps you can hear one long sigh of delight from the other side of the world… This is fabulous! If I might ask – what camera are you using? It surely must be something fairly light to carry while hiking through mangrove forest?!

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 11:14 am - Reply

      The cameras we usually use.. Mike’s Nikon DSLR and my Nikon bridge camera. The photos are split between the two. The boardwalks through the forest are really easy, even through the mangrove swamp. I’d have loved to do some more serious hiking but our time in Queensland coincided with a record breaking heatwave, it was just too hot!

  6. plantbirdwoman December 2, 2018 at 3:59 pm - Reply

    Wow! Those pictures are amazing. Such an intriguing landscape and bird.

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 11:19 am - Reply

      Absolutely. This is evolution at its best. The bird and the rainforest in a partnership which benefits them both. But how delicate the balance is. One can’t survive in its current state without the other.

  7. Alison December 2, 2018 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this fabulous experience. So delightful to see them in the wild.

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 11:20 am - Reply

      It was an experience I will never forget. I hope!

  8. ginaferrari December 2, 2018 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    Wow! I can sense your excitement running through this post. I was excited and I hadn’t even heard of these birds before. They are magnificent.

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 11:24 am - Reply

      They are Gina. It was such a privilege to see them.

  9. Jenni December 2, 2018 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    I really appreciate the background information you provided about cassowaries. I’m sure I’ve seen them while watching nature shows with my children, but I wasn’t aware of their endangered status. They are magnificent.

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 11:26 am - Reply

      The local community have really got behind protecting them which is wonderful to see. Plus we saw so many chicks. I hope this is a sign that the population is recovering.

  10. janesmudgeegarden December 2, 2018 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    What handsome birds they are with those glossy feathers, iridescent necks and natty head dresses. I’m so glad you managed to see them at such close quarters and share them. I found your post fascinating. I wonder if you’ve been affected by the heat wave which has caused so much damage and heartache in Queensland.

    • Jessica December 3, 2018 at 11:38 am - Reply

      Thanks Jane. It was very hot, that’s for sure. Three days at 40C+, a record for the region. The most dramatic experience was a thunderstorm such as I’ve never seen before. Two rattan armchairs on the deck, plus a sofa (!) were swept away by the wind and ended up in the shrubbery. My heart goes out to all those who have suffered a more serious loss.

  11. Chloris December 2, 2018 at 8:57 pm - Reply

    Oh how amazing, what a treat to see these beautiful birds in their natural habitat and to get such good shots of them. What adorable chicks.

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 8:10 am - Reply

      Yes, very special to see them roaming free in the rainforest. They are easily spooked but can’t be that unused to people given that they wander quite close to populated areas, on to the boardwalks and, in one video I remember seeing, right into someone’s house!

  12. Christina December 2, 2018 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    Wow! I’m so pleased you shared your experience with us. I hadn’t heard of this bird but I can understand why you were so keen to find one. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 8:14 am - Reply

      Thanks Christina. Some great sightings so far, hope it continues!

  13. Charles December 2, 2018 at 11:22 pm - Reply

    Oh dear, I found them unfinished and ugly! Not my favourite bird at all. I have jogged with ostriches, did not like them much either, dangerous and mad, me I am more of a peacock person. I agree there is something about seeing something in its native habitat but the C bird is not for me.

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 8:29 am - Reply

      Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. Emus today. Although when one is bearing down on you at speed I must admit they are quite scary. Thankfully it wasn’t after me at all, another emu attracted it more.

  14. germac4 December 3, 2018 at 3:00 am - Reply

    Fantastic Jessica … I have only ever seen one ( sitting down) & to see the babies is such a bonus… especially crossing the road..👌👏 looks like a great trip so far!

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 11:17 am - Reply

      It’s been fabulous Gerrie, I do so love this country!

  15. Kris P December 3, 2018 at 4:36 am - Reply

    Your focus and persistence was rewarded – well done! Great photos too, even though the light wasn’t ideal.

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 11:21 am - Reply

      I’m struggling with the camera a bit at the moment, I’m not sure quite why. It maybe that I’ve been using a monopod in an attempt at more stability. But having only one leg it may add in movement where I don’t want it.

  16. Mary December 3, 2018 at 9:34 am - Reply

    Your excitement at finding the Cassowaries is palpable and understandable; I’m so glad your patience was rewarded with so many sightings. Wonderful photos.

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 11:24 am - Reply

      I couldn’t believe my luck! On our previous trip to Queensland we spent just as long in the rainforest and didn’t see one.

  17. Sam December 3, 2018 at 11:31 am - Reply

    Oh my goodness! That’s fantastic! What an incredible encounter – I’m so glad you saw them. Thank you for sharing your super photos. Hope the rest of your trip is as exciting 🙂

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 11:27 am - Reply

      At some point my luck will run out. I hope not yet! Thanks Sam.

  18. Sue Garrett December 3, 2018 at 11:43 am - Reply

    I know what you mean about zoos but if they didn’t carry out breeding programmes some species would have become extinct

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 11:30 am - Reply

      Yes, I agree. But the cassowaries must be doing well enough judging by the number of chicks we saw. And they looked so miserable last trip when I saw them cooped up.

  19. Heyjude December 3, 2018 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    Oh,I am soooo jealous! I did go walking in the rain forest around Mission Beach several years ago, but failed to see a single Cassowary. Mindst you I was also afraid of coming face to face with one knowing their ability to rip out one’s guts! Great photos and lovely to see the little ones too.

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 11:37 am - Reply

      I had exactly the same mixed feelings. And yet as soon as I saw them I felt quite comfortable, as I hope they were with us. Perhaps they knew we posed no threat. I don’t think they would have stayed around for so long otherwise.

  20. CherryPie December 3, 2018 at 11:42 pm - Reply

    Fabulous photos of the elusive bird 🙂

    • Jessica December 4, 2018 at 11:38 am - Reply

      Thanks Cherie. We were lucky. Right place, right time.

  21. Cathy December 10, 2018 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Such fun, reading your posts!

    • Jessica December 11, 2018 at 9:18 am - Reply

      Thank you Cathy 🙂

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