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Birds on the byways of Cairns, Australia

29 Sep 2009  For people who like to find their own way to see the land and its flora and fauna.
4.5 of 5 stars based on 5 votes

This list describes some of the best of our 10 days of driving and bush walking in search of birds around Cairns, in tropical Australia. While many tours are available and the area has several wildlife parks and aviaries, they cost money and are no match for the satisfaction of our own discoveries.

  • Explore locations featured in this Trip List: Daintree, Mission Beach
  • Category: Other
  • Traveler type: Active/Outdoors
  • Appeals to: Tourists
  • Seasons: Fall
  • 1. Cairns Esplanade

    On our first day in Australia, walking this waterfront park and boardwalk proved to be one of the best places to see local birds. Moreover, the scene changes from day to night, high tide to low. Australian White Ibises picked about in the shallows and onto the grass. Among them a Royal Spoonbill stood out. Rainbow Lorikeets streaked from tree to tree in chattering away in small flocks that in the evenings grew into large, some which were so concentrated that they made conversation impossible anywhere near the host tree. Walking back one evening, we were surprised to find a large Beach Stone-curlew walking along with us. He had been picking over the remnants of barbeques. Black and Brahminy Kites were overhead, when we looked for them. But the unquestioned highlight of the Esplanade is the Australian Pelican, a group of which congregates regularly at a creek mouth within yards of the boardwalk. This is a large bird ungainly on land, like a ship on the water, and incredibly graceful in the air. They descend in stately circles then glide in so low over the water that they actually have to gain altitude just to flap their wings. Walking almost anywhere in Cairns was rewarding: Masked Lapwings call loudly from every grassy area, Mynas and Magpie Larks are ubiquitous, charming Peaceful Doves rest on branches, and in the fruit trees you can spot Austalasian Figbirds and Helmeted Friarbirds. In fact, we didn't even have to leave our apartment to watch these. At dusk, the scene changes: the Lorikeet flocks start to settle down the for the night just as enormous Flying Foxes take wing from the parks and begin picking through fruit trees all over town. And the pageant goes on.

  • 2. Cairns Botanical Gardens

    At the city's botanical gardens, a small acreage on the edge of town at the base of Mount Whitfield, seemed full of bird song, although the singers are often hard to spot amidst the tall and heavy foliage. In search of solitude, we drifted up the trail up Mount Whitfield, which starts nearby (you can get a walking map in the gardens's gift shop). The trail was steep but the early viewpoints and the Cassowary warning signs drew us on until we found ourselves at the top of the mountain exhausted and almost out of water. Our reward was not a Cassowary, but many Australian Bush-turkeys, a bird of interesting habits that sounds like something much biggers as it scratches at the forest floor. The same can be said for the Orange-footed Scrubfowl, a Coot of the woods. After I stepped over a snake, we wished we had not forgotten our walking sticks (which we took on every walk thereafter). When we finally reached the foot of the trail where it emerges behind the Botanical Gardens, the striking song of the Black Butcherbird made us forget the soreness. We finally spotted the singer along the creek there.

  • 3. Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve

    Down a dusty dirt road west of Mareeba, one with some sharp dips for the creeks, we came upon a beautiful wooden chalet situated on the edge of a lake. This lake, a larger lake a few kilometres away, and the surrounding open woodland and savannah belong to a nature reserve. The chalet, however, is a commercial enterprise dedicated to wildlife viewing, particularly birds. A personable guide, "Chook", was present and immediately drew us over to view an Emu male and his six chicks. This male was treading warily since his former mate was stalking around nearby, booming occasionally. Chook explained that it was free to visit the lodge and spot birds from its long deck (and look over its displays, buy coffee or lunch, or buy books and maps) and $10 per person to walk any of the trails. There are four of these of varying lengths, and we chose the longest: about 6 km return to another lake. Given the length of the trails and the harshness of the environment, Chook asks all walkers to sign in before heading out on a trail. At the chalet, but especially on the trails, our occasional sightings were extremely rewarding: a noisy flock of Grey-crowned Babblers had us guessing their identity for a long time. Lone blue Forest Kingfishers stood sentinel along the lake edges. Square-tailed and Black Kites drifted by in the distance. We flushed some Brown Quail from the grass. On the lakes, big Black Swans drifted about accompanied by ducks and Magpie Geese. At the primitive bird blind at the other lake, I only heard the bird I came to Australia to see AND hear, the Laughing Kookaburra. What a wonderful sound! On the way back, we glimpsed the incredible crimson wings of a flock of Rainbow Bee Eaters. For these rewards, we had to walk a long way through the open bush, which was blistering hot and parched. A good hat, not just any hat, is essential. Between the birds, the variety of the landscape and its oddities such as dry gullies and the massive Spinifex Termite mounds made our visit here more than worthwhile.

  • 4. Daintree
    Daintree, Daintree Region

    Once you cross the Daintree River on the car ferry, the rainforest closes in, right over the road, in fact. In this environment, birds are more easily heard than seen. We tried every one of the four or five forest boardwalk/trails between the river and Cape Tribulation (the end of the sealed road). We were fortunate to arrive before the crowds that spill out from the many bus tours that visit these walks and we were rewarded with the varied and constant sounds of cicadas, Wompoo Fruit-Doves in the canopy, and distant creatures we were unable to identify. To our surprise, we heard and then spotted several little Noisy Pittas on the forest floor, along with more Scrub Fowl. A couple of Emerald Doves pecked about in the car park. We encountered a Boyd's Forest Dragon trying not to be seen on a tree trunk at eye level. No Cassowaries, though. On the excellent Marrdja walk, we waited a long time at the edge of the creek hoping for a kingfisher. A Forest Kingfisher eventually flashed by. I wish this bird announced itself as loudly as our Crested Kingfishers at home. Out on the long beach near Cape Tribulation, we scanned the forest edges for movement. A flock of Pied Imperial Pigeons flew over, then a majestic White-Bellied Sea Eagle. At a rocky river mouth, a Beach Stone-Curlew complained loudly about our presence. As often happened on these walks, we came away thinking we had seen little, but on more careful reflection, we realized that we had.

  • 5. Maryfarms

    On a tip from Chook at Mareeba, we drove out to Maryfarms Roads (East and West), ordinary country roads just off the Peninsula Developmental Road to Cooktown (a good map shows them). This was the place to see the unusual Australian Bustard. And we did, our first sighting being just opposite the farm gate with the arch displaying the name "Bustard Downs". Here we saw a male and its less impressive mate strolling in a field. He was curious and came closer to look in that distinctive Bustard style: head held high, beak up, and motionless, like a disappointed art critic. A Black Kite came down low and swooped at the Bustard a few times, which gave us a chance to see the Bustard put on an brief aggressive display, which involves inflaming its neck to about three times its normal size. This is apparently one aspect of its spectacular mating display. By the time we had driven each road to the end (about 3 km each), we had seen about 8 Bustards, most very close. Ours was the only vehicle in sight the whole time and the sky was high and clear.

  • 6. Tyto Wetlands

    Driving two hours south from Cairns to walk around a small nature reserve might seem hard to justify, but the Tyto Wetlands at Ingham proved to be well worth it. This small reserve is just outside town, but it is a rich environment with a variety of landscapes and a choice of easy short or long walks. The visitor centre at the highway entrance (which doubles as a regional tourism office) is superb: well-staffed with friendly volunteers, full of information, and pleasantly situated. The township is still building here, adding a marsh boardwalk and another building. The wetlands are a few hundred metres beyond. The walk in took us by fields full of grazing wallabies and ponds guarded by Darters, Pied Cormorants, Little Cormorants, and Little Black Cormorants. We chose the long walk right around the perimeter of the central network of lakes and ponds. There is a lovely bird blind on the marsh and gazebo on a hillock, where the shade was welcome. It was here that we saw our first of many flocks of the Tyto's signature bird: the Crimson Finch. Beautiful. But for uniquenss, it is hard to beat the Comb-Crested Jacanas, those light-footed and colourful lily-pad walkers. As we walked, we kept a sharp lookout for Brown Snakes, of which the staff had warned us. Fortunately, the trails are wide and grass cut short, probably for this reason. Around the water, we spotted the lovely Black-Winged Stilt and Wandering Whistling Ducks, with their long necks. Magpie Geese and White-Necked Herons abounded. Back in the forested east end of the reserve, a Whistling Kite patrolled low over the tree tops. The Tyto is also known for its Grass Owls, but it was the wrong time of day to see those. Nevertheless, what great sightings for such an easy walk. And, unlike many Queensland tourist destinations, this public facility is free to all.

  • 7. Eubenangee Swamp

    The map shows this swamp as a national park on the back roads just north of Innisfail. But there were no signs at all on the highway and we had trouble finding it. After 45 minutes driving back roads (we ended up approaching from the wrong direction, the south) that threatened to peter out, we finally encountered a roadworks flag man near where we though the swamp should be. "Can you direct us to Eubenangee Swamp?" we asked. "You want to go to a swamp?" he replied, sweat dripping down his face in the 30-degree heat. "Nope, nothing like that around here; best go up to Babinda." We thanked him and drove on. 200 metres down the road we crossed a little bridge and saw a car park and a large sign: Eubenangee Swamp! Needless to say, this large area of low-lying forest and wetlands is not well developed. The trail in to the view point was not long, but it was awkward: a narrow track through forest along the edge of a deep creek that according to the signs might host crocodiles. After a kilometre of this we broke out into grassy meadows and ascended a beautiful hillock at the top of which was the most perfect birding viewpoint created: an open hill with a few shade trees and a 360-degree views of swamps and ponds below. From here our binoculars found geese, ducks, a White-Faced Heron, and the wonderful Jabiru (Black-Necked Stork). But the way home proved even better as we followed an alternative track through the grasslands. Here we spotted pairs of Chestnut-Breasted Mannikins and the splendid Red-Backed Fairy Wren. Australia's Fairy Wrens offer so much beauty and personality in such small packages. This swamp is worth looking for.

  • 8. Mission Beach
    Mission Beach, Queensland

    We went to Mission Beach for the same reason as many others: to see a Southern Cassowary. In fact we stayed here several nights and despite all the warning signs on the roads and trails, we saw our Cassowaries in the yard of the B&B at which we were staying. A male with a chick and his cranky female mate. But we enjoyed every second spent watching these birds march imperiously about the yard and gardens. If one had any doubt about the aggressive capability of this bird, it would be dispelled by seeing it jump a metre in the air and hammer on its reflection on the side of a car! Mission Beach, a string of hamlets on the coast, is heavily forested and we walked several trails in search of the Cassowary. Lots of droppings but no sightings, although we did hear crashing in the bush once or twice. The Lacy Creek walk proved to be worthwhile, but kingfishers were absent. To see a Cassowary, the best spot might be across the highway from Lacey Creek. A trail starts into the jungle here and soon encounters a wide creek. Beyond the creek the track dives into real and heavy jungle, but the creek banks would be the place to wait and watch. The birds apparently hang about such water courses (and picnic areas). The Kennedy walking tack was hard but outshone any other track in this area. It took us along the coast to a remote beach. Beyond that beach was a mangrove swamp and then a high headland. Beyond that was an even more remote beach and the Hull River mouth beyond. Here was encountered a Green Tree Snake, large monitors, and Pied Imperial Pigeons in the tree tops. A good lonely walk along a dramatic coastline.

  • 9. Mount Lewis

    Mount Lewis was a long shot. It is a rainforest-covered mountain area accessible only by rough road. There were no facilities, almost no signs, and few views thanks to the forest cover over the road. In our ordinary car, we went only about 5 km up the road before deciding turn back. Apparently, 4WDs take birders the full distance (about 20 km?), but judging from the road, this is not a well-known destination. This little adventure was worth it just to experience the sounds and smells and slit views of the mountain rainforest. Our quiet patience was rewarded by the sight of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos soaring across the valley and roosting in nearby tree tops. There may be much more for the hardier and better informed birder to see here. Undaunted we drove on to Abbatoir Swamp, which was more like a large reedy pond set amidst a small section of fenced cattle range. The short walk to the bird hide took us along a boardwalk slightly above a herd of young cattle, bulls in fact. Of birds, there were few to see, but we did return to our car to find a Yellow-Bellied Sunbird arguing with his reflection in the window. Like a hummingbird, the Sunbird has a long and delicate beak. Also like a hummer, this little guy did not back down from an apparent challenger.

  • 10. Granite Gorge

    Worried that this would be an overpriced and well-trodden "attraction", we approached Granite Gorge with caution. In practice, this meant driving in along back roads from the south, rather than the more heavily used route from Mareeba to the northeast. We were forced to drive slowly along the dirt tracks and this gave us an opportunity to appreciate the dramatic sun-baked landscape and spot an occasional bird. Here, at the edge of grassy scrub fringed by open forest, I heard AND saw a Laughing Kookaburra. Quest fulfilled. Granite Gorge is private property run as a camprground and small visitor centre arranged at the top of a dramatic tumble of granite boulders and formations sculpted by a creek dropping off the tableland and sloping gently down into a broad valley. For about $5 each we were permitted to hike down through the rocks. But the main attraction for most is to feed the Rock Wallabies, which abound just steps from the visitor centre. We bought the food and fed them and it was a lot of fun. Even though a tour bus showed up, there were lots of wallabies to go around. And 99% of these visitors did not venture beyond the feeding area. We did and almost paid for it. The "trails" are poorly marked with white painted dots too far apart to be of much use. We got lost in the warren of defiles and boulders, and started to recall the movie "Picnic at Hanging Rock". To reinforce our desire to go back, we surpised a large snake in a cleft. It came out to have a good look at us--not shy at all. Of course, we had a good look too. According to our books, hastily consulted back at the car, it was either an Eastern Brown Snake (very nasty) or a Carpentia Whip Snake. Thank goodness I always carried my walking stick and made sure it preceded me into any questionable foot fall. The rocks radiated heat like an oven. Thristy and tired, we found our way back and recovered by feeding more wallabies. All in all, a dramatic place. At the campground they had some Galahs and Cockatoos in large cages, if you are interested.