Stalking the Giant Cassowary

Back in October, Eric and I were about to cross a busy intersection in Townsville when a white SUV rounded the corner on which we stood. In the three seconds before it vanished into the traffic, I glimpsed a large, colorful decal and the words “Birdwatchers’ Cabin, Atherton Tablelands.”

Well, I know a sign when I see one, and thus, the second week of December found us sitting on the deck of the Birdwatchers’ Cabin, drinking wine and reveling in a blizzard of birds. The Atherton Tablelands is a 4,360-square-mile plateau—that’s four times the size of Rhode Island—located in the Great Dividing Range, the mountain range that separates Australia’s east coast from the desert interior. With scenic stops and two-lane roads, the 215-mile drive northwest from Townsville took 6 hours in our rented car.

The Tablelands is blessed with waterfalls, rainforests, lakes, trees, rare plants and animals, and birds, birds, birds. Having been in Australia 18 months, I’ve already added upwards of 160 species to my life list. Here was my chance to notch up still more, especially the southern cassowary, a giant, flightless bird akin to the ostrich and emu that lives only in the tropical rainforests of northeast Queensland. Standing up to 6’ tall, with shaggy black feathers, a horny helmet (casque), a red double wattle and a vivid blue neck, a southern cassowary would be hard to miss. Our hosts, Christina and Thomas, advised us that one had strolled through the property only a few days before our arrival.

Birdwatchers’ Cabin, Atherton Tablelands. I left a copy of my novel Sanctuary for the cabin’s bookshelf.
The view from the deck

From the start, plenty of birds appeared to amaze and delight us. Feeding stations are just feet away from the deck, and we had only to set out the seeds, fresh fruit and nectar supplied by the cabin to attract eager diners. Flocks of tiny red-browed finches and squawky, scarlet-headed Australian king-parrots devoured the seeds, while eastern spinebills and several species of honeyeaters crowded around the nectar feeder. The spinebill and honeyeaters have curved bills like hummingbirds, but they are larger and do not hover. Australia does not have hummingbirds at all.

Australian king-parrots hogging the feeder
Little red-browed finches sneak in when they can.
Hurry up with my dinner!
*Bridled HoneyeaterLifer!
*Macleay’s honeyeaterLifer!

Other birds making an appearance around the cabin included sulphur-crested cockatoos, peaceful doves, a brown cuckoo-dove, a koel, and the Atherton scrubwren, which exists only in this small corner of the world. Not forgetting the spectacular Victoria’s riflebird—oh my gosh, what a show! If you’ve ever watched a David Attenborough bird program, you know the glossy black male riflebirds perform a stunning courtship dance in which they fan out their wings and sway, the better to display the brilliant turquoise patch across their chest. We watched two brown juveniles practicing at a distance, then caught one of the males in the act. What female could fail to be impressed?

An adult male Victoria’s riflebird struts his stuffLifer!

It wasn’t only birds we saw in the vicinity of the cabin. Small kangaroos called pademelons came to claim the banana peels we left on the ground for them after sticking the bananas on the fruit station. Wielding a red-lens flashlight, we caught a nocturnal striped possum visiting a feeder on a tree trunk. One morning at sunrise, we spotted a large grayish-brown lump high in the branches of a tree. A koala? Except the lump had a long, dangling tail. Correction, two tails. No, quick, get the binoculars…three. Through the foliage we made out the shapes of three Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos—large, medium and small—descending the trunk: a mom with last year’s joey and this year’s joey, the latter only a few months old. This is another rare species found only in the Atherton Tablelands. Who knew kangaroos lived in trees?

Pademelons are pint-sized kangaroos, on average 2.5′ tall.
Striped possum – Not everyone sleeps at night
We were lucky to spot this gray lump, a trio of Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos
*Two of the three Lumholtz‘s tree-kangaroos

We spent two full days on our nature quest, spying water birds from a blind at Hastie’s Swamp, hiking around Lake Barrine, visiting the Lake Tinaroo dam and Curtain Fig Tree National Park. This is what I love about birding. You can do it anywhere, anytime, alone or with friends. It’s great exercise and adds an extra dimension to a hike in the woods or a stroll on the beach. A pair of binoculars and a field guide are the only equipment you need. Or dispense with the binoculars, set up a bird bath or feeder in your backyard, and just pull up a deck chair.

Most of all, it’s a never-ending scavenger hunt to explore new places and add new species, “lifers,” to your ongoing life list. During our voyage, Eric has gone from being a patient companion on my excursions to an able birder. Tipped off by a fellow birder at the swamp, it was Eric who, an hour later, spotted an extremely rare “leucistic” pale-yellow robin at the Curtain Fig Tree. The little bird hopped and bounced away, thwarting any effort to get a photo, and since I already had the species on my list, this variant doesn’t count as a lifer. Avid birders will want to check it out on the Internet, I’m sure.  

Curtain Fig Tree National Park

At the end of each day, we returned to the cabin, restocked the feeding stations, then sat on the deck eating our dinner—wine, cheese, crackers, dips, olives, veggie sticks, fruit—while the birds flocked in for theirs. Though the cabin kitchen is well-appointed with all the mod-cons, a no-cooking/minimal-cleanup cheese platter is our idea of the perfect meal. Eating it on your private deck in a rainforest is even better.

All Together Now…

No cassowary yet, however. One problem is that southern cassowaries aren’t numerous. They live only in the tropical rainforests of northeast Queensland, and only an estimated 1,200-1,500 are left in the wild. Their preferred diet is fallen fruit, and by consuming the fruit and spreading the seeds far and wide in their dung, they perform a vital role in preserving the rainforest plants and trees. Some of the seeds are so large that no other animal can swallow and disperse them. We found a pile of cassowary dung on one of the trails by the cabin, and it was an impressive load.

Still, we had hopes of spotting a cassowary on the drive home. A goodly stretch of the coastline in this area is known as the Cassowary Coast, and we passed at least a dozen road signs alerting drivers to their presence. We detoured to pockets of forest where sightings were reported, including two well-known hotspots, Mission Beach and Etty Bay. No luck. As we reluctantly headed further south, I scanned avidly along both sides of the road. Nope. Sigh.

Calling all cassowaries

A week after our departure, Christina emailed me the following: “We couldn’t believe our eyes when late this afternoon a cassowary strolled towards our house with 2 striped chicks in tow! Doesn’t he know that this time of the year there is hardly any fruit in our sclerophyll forest? It appears to have been “Goldfinger”, a young male, whom we first saw 2 1/2 years ago. This would be his first offspring. He was very skittish and didn’t cross the creek.” (Note: Female cassowaries lay 3-5 eggs between June and October. The males then incubate the eggs for approximately 50 days and raise the chicks alone for 9-18 months. Good work, Goldfinger!)

*Goldfinger and one of his chicks

But a true birder is never daunted, and another visit to the Tablelands is possible. So is encountering the southern cassowary as Corroboree sails further north, whenever that may be. Meanwhile, we ended the trip with 70 bird species, 11 of them lifers, and soaked up the sights, sounds and feels of another amazing part of Australia. Whether on land or sea, I find a tremendous sense of harmony and clarity comes from immersing myself in Nature. Love her, protect her, respect her power. She was here before us. She will be here long after.     

*Photos marked with an asterisk are courtesy of Christina and Thomas, Birdwatchers’ Cabin. We highly recommend a visit: https://www.athertontablelandsbirdwatcherscabin.com.au/