Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Southern Cassowary encounters at Mission Beach north Queensland

The Southern Cassowary is a bird we have never seen in the wild before, so we were keen to see one on this trip, as we would be travelling through their range in northern coastal Queensland. An inhabitant of dense tropical rainforests, and being a rare and wary bird, they are not easy to find. It does come out into forest clearings and cleared areas along the edge of forests and roadsides, especially in the early morning and late afternoon so these are the best places and times to look for them.
The Cassowary is an ancient avian species along with the Australian Emu, African Ostrich, the South American Rheas to which it is most closely related and the extinct New Zealand Moa. I have seen Rheas in the Bolivian Andres at 4,000+ metres and the general shape and jizz of the two species is very similar. They both live in very different environments however.
Most Australian bird species lists are now arranged along taxonomic lines in order of when birds evolved starting with the earliest birds and ending with the most recently evolved species. Hence the Australian lists usually start with Ostrich (an introduced species with some free living birds in SA, hence their inclusion in the list) then Southern Cassowary, the first native Australian species on the list followed by Emu.
The ancient Cassowary has co-evolved with tropical rainforest where there is now a co-dependency. Some fruiting trees rely exclusively on Cassowary to spread their seeds and the cassowary needs the trees for food. So the complex species webs within northern Australian tropical rainforests can be upset if key species such as cassowary are lost from the system.
For more information about the fascinating biology of the Southern Cassowary and other details see the following web sites:
They are large and impressive birds and potentially dangerous, especially when the males, who incubate the eggs and raise the young (as with emus), feel their chicks are threatened. The Cassowary has very powerful legs and each foot is equipped with a dagger like inner toe, which can be lethal to dogs and humans.
The Cassowary is an endangered species in Australia so it is good to see conservation efforts to protect their habitat and also to reduce the chance of them being run over by vehicles on roads. We have seen a lot of signage warning motorists to slow down and watch for these birds. Also signage asking people not to feed them and explaining why feeding them is a problem.
Our first sighting of a cassowary was in a small zoo at the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens. Captive birds however do not count for a life bird list and I do not photograph captive birds as a matter of principle. The first real opportunity to find wild-living cassowary was in the Paluma Range National Park inland from Townsville. Road signage indicated they were about however, no show for us here. The next opportunity was in the Girringun NP inland from Ingham, again, road signage but no cassowary.
While in Ingham we received a report from a family member that a cassowary with chick was spotted by the side of the road near Mission Beach. As we were heading there next, this would be our third chance to find one. The wet tropics rainforest stretches right down to the sea at Mission Beach and once arriving it became apparent that Mission beach might well be the Australian Cassowary capital. There were many signs advising of cassowary conservation areas and a lot of road signage warning motorists of their presence. Also a large number of local businesses have included the cassowary in their name or other features of their business promotion.
On our first afternoon at Mission Beach we decided to do one of the many short walks in Djiru NP, the Licuala (Fan Palms) walk. We found a number of fairly fresh cassowary droppings and they were very impressive being both large and full of large seeds. One could see immediately how this bird spreads the seeds of rainforest giants.
This Cassowary dropping contains some large seeds of a rainforest tree. An excellent information display at Lacey Creek in Djiru NP explains the relationship between the rainforest and cassowary. Some tree species rely exclusively on the cassowary to spread their seeds.
The droppings were a good sign that there were plenty of cassowary in this area.
No birds showed.  However, we decided on a whim to make a short side trip to South Mission Beach on our way back to the caravan park at Mission Beach and as we drove I spotted a cassowary on a mown grass easement adjacent to our road.
There are warnings not to pull up to see these birds, I guess sudden stops could cause a road accident and persistent attention focused on birds by eager tourist could interrupt their daily activities. However as there were no other vehicles in sight we pulled off the road and I took a couple of long shots for the record. As the bird seemed to be quietly walking along the forest edge I decided to cross the road and take a couple of closer shots. The bird did move slowly away and after a few shots it disappeared into the thick vegetation.
Here are a series of three shots based on one photo with progressive enlargement to show more details of this magnificent bird and a shot from the beach at South Mission Beach the destination that took us by the Cassowary.
The Southern Cassowary seen near road on way to South Mission Beach. Note the two long feathers which seem to emerge from what is left of the wing of this flightless bird.

This is a cropped version of the above photo showing more detail. I think this is a female as females are larger and have brighter colour around the neck than males. The female is dominant. If two males meet they will assert dominance and one will back down and leave. When a male and a female meet the male always defers and gives way.

This is an older bird judging by the size of the casque on top of the head. The casque has a horn surface but is internally spongy and not boney. It it thought this structure may have developed to protect the bird's head by absorbing impacts when it runs in the dense dark rainforest. Also note the two long wattles dangling from the neck.

Shortly after seeing the cassowary we arrived at South Mission Beach. This is a view from the beach looking south east with a small island to the left and the north end of Hinchinbrook Island in the distance. Dunk Island is just out of the photo to the left.
Although this sighting on the roadside was clearly exciting and very successful in terms of good photos, grabbed quickly in the “heat of the moment”, this gem of an opportunity was eclipsed the next day by Ms Avithera.
This is her account of her own special Cassowary experience.
We were out on the Dreaming Trail in Djiru National Park, enjoying the rainforest but hearing birds rather than seeing birds. Having decided that the mozzies were too annoying to hang around while Avithera captured a Spectacled Monarch or some such elusive bird flitting about in the dark foliage, I started back to the car to get some repellant. Looking ahead on a straight stretch of the path I realized there was a Cassowary about 50 metres away, coming my way. I stopped, well, froze would be more accurate, and soon realized that there were also two chicks. Trying to move my hands slowly I reached for the camera and, hoping to goodness the settings were all Ok, started snapping.
I remembered all the warning signage I had read about not “approaching” males with chicks and maybe started to hold my breath and wonder what to do. My main thought was to not startle it and miss seeing it at closer range. I felt it knew I was there but was not at all concerned as it just kept bringing its chicks forward. Then my rational brain told me this male is calmly approaching me and so were his chicks, so I just couldn’t help but stand there to see what he would do.
I clicked a few shots and that did not seem to deter them, so I just waited till they were really close and in a sunny spot and clicked again. Mozzies were biting me but (for once) I was prepared to put up with them, not daring to swot or slap, or even shoo them away.
Then I just stood and watched while the male came and stopped within a metre of me, then moved to my right. Even though one of the chicks went past me on the right he seemed reluctant to pass through the one meter space between me and the rainforest. So here I am, probably not breathing, with his amazing head no more than a meter from mine, while he looks around deciding what to do, and looks me right in the eye. He calmly abandoned the possibility of going to my right and maneuvers around me to check out the other side. This side there was also only about a meter to the dense vegetation and he was not comfortable with “squeezing past” me. I was in a dilemma about whether to move and let him through – knowing this would really give him a fright and cause too much disturbance with the chicks – or just stay frozen and leave it up to him to resolve. I did not feel at all threatened, probably because his behavior suggested to me that he was not threated by me.
So he began making a noise to summon the chick which had passed through the gap on my right and then he slowly turned and started heading back up the track looking for a spot to enter the rainforest and proceed in a different direction. With a bit more vocal interaction between the male and the chicks, he assembled himself and them and pushed his way quietly into the rainforest.
Dad and two chicks coming down the Dreaming Trail towards me.

Rather than pass me on the narrow trail dad summoned the chicks to him with a couple of grunts and proceeded to make a detour into the dense forest.
 It took some time for my breathing and heart rate to settle down while it slowly sunk in that I had had a “once in a lifetime” close encounter of a special kind. This magnificent bird and the two chicks had allowed me to experience their beauty in the wild, up close and personal with no fear or confrontation on either side.


  1. Unbelievable you two - just stunning. What an experience? And, if you'll excuse the cliche, thanks for sharing!
    My 'JH folder' is beginning to bulge.)

  2. What a great experience to have.