My alarm clock didn’t wake me up on the morning of July 13th. I was stirred from sleep a little earlier than expected thanks to a shrill scream in the dark, the call of a Sooty Owl. Hardly disappointed to have a life bird shrieking just outside my window, I sat in bed and listened to the owl and other nocturnal noises for about half an hour before starting to pull my things together. After roaming the grounds of Kingfisher Park one last time in the predawn hours, I checked out, packed up, and set out for the day.
Wet Tropics Treasures
According to most authorities, there are 12 species of birds which are endemic to the Wet Tropics, found nowhere else in the world except for this area of rainforest in northern Queensland. In my first few days exploring Australia, I had already encountered Bridled and Macleay’s Honeyeaters, Pied Monarch, and Victoria’s Riflebird. The other remaining 8 birds were all upland specialists, living only in the high elevation woodlands of the region. Mount Lewis, a forested peak rising above Julatten, is home to all of the local endemics, and I felt good about my chances to track down some of the missing birds.
Mount Lewis Road is a winding, gravel path that gradually ascends the slopes towards the upper elevations. The rains of the wet season can make the route treacherous or impassable, but at the time of my visit in the austral winter I found it in fairly good condition. I eventually reached the grassy clearing that marks the start of the trailhead, and I set off down the track to search for my quarry. It didn’t take me long to find a few Atherton Scrubwrens, taking care to separate them from the more widespread Large-billed Scrubwrens that favor the lower elevations. I had concerns about locating the specialty bowerbirds, since my trip was too early to catch the males at their display sites. Fortunately, I picked out a Tooth-billed Bowerbird quietly foraging in the canopy, and a series of raspy, croaking vocalizations led me to a female Golden Bowerbird calling back and forth with another hidden individual. I would’ve loved to see the dazzling male or the skyscraper-like structure he builds for his mate, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to range-restricted species during a short, last-minute trip!
One by one, the other Wet Tropics endemics joined my life list. Gray-headed Robins were abundant and adorable, hopping about through the understory on their long, spindly legs. I briefly spied a Fernwren gathering nesting material among the roots of a fallen log, and a pair of Chowchillas rummaging in the leaf litter showed off their unique sideways-scratch foraging move before scurrying out of sight. I later heard them singing their rollicking song on my way back to the car park. Mountain Thornbills chittered to one another as they flitted from branch to branch, and finally the sharp, abrupt call notes of a Bower’s Shrikethrush echoed through the trees. Success! A full sweep! I’d also seen a handful of other good birds, including Yellow-throated Scrubwren and White-throated Treecreeper. What’s more, the only terrestrial leech that I encountered was a tiny fellow that I discovered in my pocket before it managed to latch on. All in all, a pretty solid morning in the rainforest.
Across the Tablelands
After slowly making my way back down to the foot of Mount Lewis, I started south towards Atherton, where I had a motel booked for the night. I turned my attention to waterbirds, knowing there were several sites en route where I could check out some wetter habitats. The first stop, Abattoir Swamp, was just down the road from the Kingfisher Park. The wetlands turned out to be pretty dry and choked with vegetation, so if there were any birds using the sparse puddles I certainly couldn’t see them. The wooded area around the parking lot proved to be more productive, offering White-cheeked Honeyeater and Northern Fantail for my life list. I also got much better views of Bridled Honeyeaters at this location.
Further to the south, I paused at a roadside pullout adjacent to Lake Mitchell. There was plenty of water in the lake, but the distance between the shoreline and the shoulder made a scope necessary. Even from afar, I was able to pick up a handful of new species, including Australian Pelican, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorants, Comb-crested Jacana, and Australian Hobby. After continuing on, I quickly found myself stopping again when I came across a huge congregation of Black Kites circling overhead.
I’d heard tell that Mareeba Wetlands, formerly a must-see location, had been shut down indefinitely as of last year. However, at least one resource mentioned that Pickford Road, which leads up to the now closed gates, was still accessible and worth birding. I decided to take a chance and see what I could find before reaching the turnaround point. The road passed through agricultural fields, low-lying wet areas, and open eucalyptus forest, allowing for great viewing opportunities with a solid array of species. A pair of Australian Bustards majestically striding alongside the path was an immediate highlight. I also found a variety of wading birds such as Straw-necked Ibis, plenty of Masked Lapwings, and my first White-faced Herons. The other lifers observed on the drive were Pheasant Coucal, Golden-headed Cisticola, Double-barred Finch, and Red-backed Fairywren. Several Blue-winged Kookaburras offered wonderful views right at the gate.
A billboard proudly advertising a mango winery convinced me to make a short detour when I returned to the main highway. I love wine, I love mangoes, and the combined product was delicious and well-worth the diversion. I took the opportunity to fill up on petrol before resuming my drive, and the Red-winged Parrot that noisily passed over the pump only served to highlight how wild everyday life in Australia really is. Cruising through the town of Mareeba, I was confused by a flock of huge, long-winged, black birds deliberately flapping their way through the skies. Some sort of raptor, perhaps? I was stunned when I realized they were Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos! No one told me that they were so unlike their smaller cousins! I saw several more congregations of the massive crested parrots on my journey south, along with plenty of Australian roadside species like Magpie-lark, Crested Pigeon, and Black-faced Cuckooshrike.
Even my motel in Atherton delivered a few surprises before the night was through. At dusk, a pair of Coppery Brushtail Possums descended from the trees outside my window. There was a Barking Owl calling in the same area when I returned from dinner, and the wailing cries of Bush Thick-knees could be heard from across the road. I cleared the photos from my camera, updated eBird, and turned in early to prepare for the next full day of excitement.
Hypipamee and Hasties
The following morning, I reached Mount Hypipamee National Park just after first light. Unlike the meandering gravel route that leads up Mount Lewis, the road to this site is a short, paved, direct path right off the highway. The car park itself is surrounded by rainforest habitat, and I enjoyed repeat encounters with several of the regional endemics, including Bower’s Shrikethrush, Fernwren, Pied Monarch, and Gray-headed Robin. Golden Whistler and Brown Gerygone were new additions to my life list on the quick hike to the volcanic crater overlook. I enjoyed decent looks at Brown Cuckoo-Dove when I returned to my vehicle, while Eastern Whipbirds and Pacific Emerald-Doves could be heard vocalizing in the woods.
I paused to read an informational sign about cassowaries and an accompanying warning that the big birds had been seen in the immediate vicinity. When I looked over my shoulder, I found that the posted notices were spot-on. An immature Southern Cassowary was stalking the fringes of the parking lot, searching for fallen fruits. This individual looked slightly older than the one I’d seen in Kuranda a few days prior; its facial skin was starting to turn blue, its eyes were lighter, and its plumage was darker overall. It still lacked the dramatic ornamentation and striking appearance of a full-grown adult, but it made for an incredible start to the day all the same! When the bird retreated into the forest once again, I finally started to retrace my path back down the mountain.
July 14th was a day full of National Parks, with my second stop of the morning landing me at Hasties Swamp. A two-story bird blind overlooking a lake offered great opportunities to view wildlife without disturbing their natural behavior. As soon as I pulled up to the parking area, I was met with a deafening cacophony of high-pitched squeals. Thousands of Plumed Whistling-Ducks were congregating on the near shoreline, which served as a pretty intense introduction to this lifer. I also observed Australasian Swamphens, Yellow-faced Honeyeater, and Swamp Harrier, as well as handful of other new waterbirds. On the way out of the park, I found that the neighboring farm fields hosted a large flock of cranes, mostly Brolga with a few Sarus Cranes mixed in.
I Dream of Monotreme
A brief stop at the Curtain Fig Tree, the top-billing attraction of Curtain Fig National Park, turned out to be worthwhile venture despite the large hordes of tourists. The tree itself was absolutely spectacular, and a faintly heard, buzzy song helped me to pinpoint the elusive and adorable Yellow-breasted Boatbill at the parking lot. Many Australian birds, from the abundant honeyeaters and fantails to regional specialties like riflebirds and logrunners, are members of families which were totally new to me. The boatbill was especially notable, apart from its distinctive appearance, for belonging to a family with only two representatives in a fairly restricted range. This tiny, sharp-looking bird was a welcome find. As tour buses started to fill the car park at the Curtain Fig Tree, I continued east towards Peterson Creek, where one of my most-wanted bucket list animals awaited.
Before you even reach the town of Yungaburra, there are signs pointing you towards the Peterson Creek Platypus Viewing Platform. A wooden deck with a small hide and some informational signs juts out over the water’s edge, and there are usually plenty of hopeful visitors eagerly searching for Australia’s most famous biological oddball. A well-worn dirt trail leads away from the platform, under the bridge, and up the stream. While researching details and destinations for this vacation, I found multiple sources claiming that Peterson Creek is the best site in Queensland, and possibly all of Australia, for observing Platypus in the wild. As a lifelong lover of nature with a particular fascination for weird and unique beasties, the chance to see this incredibly bizarre creature with my own eyes was irresistible. I knew that Platypus are generally crepuscular to nocturnal, so my odds would be much better if I returned at dusk. Still, I had some time to kill before lunch, and I could take this opportunity to check out the area. Setting off down the trail, I let several larger, louder groups pass me as I quietly scanned the water. Once I got away from the noise of the road and the crowds, I spotted promising ripples. A small, furry form broke the surface, with a paddle-shaped tail at one end and a flat, duck-like bill at the other. Mind. Blown.
The Platypus was actively foraging, diving regularly to search for prey and coming back up to breathe and chew. I took a seat on the bank and just watched this impossible animal go about its day right at my feet. It was a truly magical moment. As the Platypus started to make its way further downstream, I decided to resume my walk in the opposite direction. I pointed out my new friend for some other passersby and continued on. I saw two additional Platypus throughout the morning, and the birding was pretty solid, too. Several small groups of Sarus Cranes passed overhead, while Rainbow Bee-eaters hawked insects along the fence line. I spied my first Eastern Yellow Robin, and there were plenty of other songbirds fluttering among the foliage. Back at the trailhead in Yungaburra, I stopped for a celebratory meal at the Platypus Pizzeria Beer Garden; it only felt right to partake in some pizza and beer after my successful search for the restaurant’s mascot!
More Magnificent Mammals
I had several other furry targets to look for in the southern Atherton Tablelands. After a brief post-lunch visit to Lake Barrine In Crater Lakes National Park, I headed towards the Nerada Tea Plantation. This establishment has garnered some acclaim with naturalists for the Lumholtz’s Tree-Kangaroos which live on the property. The arboreal macropods are often readily visible from the main building, so I decided paying them a visit could be productive. Little did I know, Nerada Tea is closed to guests on Sunday, but it didn’t matter in the end. As I approached the gates of the plantation, I was greeted by a collection of cars with a small gaggle of tourists staring up into the branches above. Sure enough, a tree-kangaroo was sunbathing contentedly in the upper limbs. I watched it for several minutes until it descended into the dense cover further down the tree, and I picked up an added bonus when my first Wedge-tailed Eagle soared by high overhead.
I’d booked a room at the Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodges, located near Lake Eacham of the Crater Lakes National Park, and I checked in at the front desk in the late afternoon. The accommodations at this site were impressively cushy, to the point where I wish I could’ve stayed more than one night! The greeter staff shared the relevant details about the illuminated nocturnal feeding platform on the premises, one of the primary draws for visiting wildlife-watchers. Every night, the trees in front of this covered observation deck are slathered with sweet, sticky honey, which draws in all manner of forest-dwelling mammals that are normally difficult to track down. I took a casual stroll down the rainforest trail loop to pass the time, and once darkness fell I secured a front row seat at the illuminated platform. Several other groups of ecotourists soon joined me, and we enjoyed some lovely conversation about the marvels of Australia while we waited for the show to start.
The first critters to arrive came swooping in from the shadows: Sugar Gliders. The parachuting possums scurried up and down the trunks to lap up the offering of food, showing beautifully in the lights of the viewing deck. As the honey dripped down to the roots, ground-dwelling mammals began to emerge to join the fun. Several Long-nosed Bandicoots and a Yellow-footed Antechinus materialized out of the gloom and began feeding at the bases of the trees.
One of the star nocturnal mammals at the Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodges is the Striped Possum. A secretive and range-restricted species, these monochrome marsupials are poorly known and difficult to observe in most areas. Even though the illuminated platform is famous as one of the best sites to view these mysterious rainforest dwellers, for the the first few hours there was no sign of them. I eventually took a short break from my stakeout, and when I returned I found the crowd had dwindled considerably. It wasn’t until around 10 PM that the first Striped Possum came out to play, bounding along the ground with surprising agility before springing up to latch onto a tree trunk. A second individual appeared shortly thereafter, and the entertainment provided by their acrobatic antics and squabbles over food were well worth the long wait.
I’d discussed the subject of cassowaries with several other guests at the Chambers observation platform, and some vacationing locals had recommended checking out Etty Bay. The idyllic beach is located in the Cassowary Coast region, an area of lowland rainforest south of Cairns which serves as one of the main strongholds for the species in Australia. Mission Beach is perhaps the most famous town for observing the giant birds at close range, but my new friends suggested that the closer and less crowded Etty Bay might be a more productive stop. I departed from the lodge at Lake Eacham well before dawn on July 15th, reaching my destination just as first light brought color back to the landscape. On the road up the hill that separates the bay from the town, I finally came face-to-face with full-size, full-glory, full-horn-and-wattles adult Southern Cassowaries.
The birds were apparently a mated pair, slowly working the forest’s edge along the roadside together. The larger female’s towering casque, lengthy red wattles, and brilliant blue skin made her a formidable sight to behold, especially when she stomped over to peer in the open passenger window. I’ve seen a lot of birds in my day, but I’ve never met one so physically imposing before. When I locked eyes with her steely gaze, I was honestly a little intimidated. Sure, all birds are dinosaurs…I know that, but cassowaries don’t let you forget it. I was immediately glad that I took up the side quest to seek out adult individuals. The youngsters I’d met earlier were great in their own right, but this experience was on an entirely different level. Getting up close and personal with these incredible creatures was an instant highlight of my life as a naturalist.
As if the cassowaries weren’t impressive enough to make the early morning drive worthwhile, the seashore sunrise at Etty Bay was jaw-droppingly beautiful.
As I admired the picturesque daybreak vistas, I turned to find that yet another adult cassowary had joined me on the beach. This individual is a well-known resident around the caravan park on the shores of the bay, and she has grown accustomed to sharing this patch of paradise with human guests. I gave the burly bird a wide berth as she scrounged for food along the shoreline, and she offered some absolutely incredible views. It was an amazing opportunity to take note of the finer details on this overwhelmingly stunning creature, including the shaggy plumage of her jet-black body, the spiny wing quills, and the deliberate, dinosaurian pace of her stride. Once she’d wandered off into the forest, I checked out the trackways where she’d been foraging. Her footprints were almost as large as mine, with the mark of her dagger-like inside toe claw clearly visible on each impression in the sand. Wild stuff.
I knew that I had imminent appointments to keep up in Cairns, so I regrettably had to take my leave of Etty Bay. I encountered one more cassowary on the way out of town, a lone male relaxing in someone’s front yard. I reiterate: Australia is not a normal place, and I love the country all the more for it.
My time in northern Queensland was rapidly drawing to a close, but I couldn’t make a single complaint about the adventures and experiences I’d enjoyed so far. My first few days exploring the Wet Tropics had served as a fantastic introduction to this marvelous continent. Nearly all of the target species of gone searching for had cooperated admirably, and I’d come across my fair share of surprise sightings as well. Both of my lifelong dream creatures, the Platypus and the Southern Cassowary, had exceeded even my wildest expectations, offering incredibly intimate encounters with multiple individuals for prolonged periods of time. For a last-minute trip, this adventure had turned out to be a roaring success, and I was only about halfway through my holiday Down Under!