“Could it be?”, I thought to myself, as I drove down into the campground area. “It looks like a dark sign from here, but….. it’s moving ….. Yes, I believe it is!!!!!!!” At long last, I had found that colorful, beautiful-in-its-own way, large, endangered bird of Australia: the Southern Cassowary. In each of 3 trips to Far North Queensland (FNQ - Aussies’ name for this northern area of the state), I had hoped to see one. Daintree Village, Daintree Rainforest - tantalized by the “frequent sightings” comments and road signs displayed along the way in the Rainforest. I scanned the edges of the Daintree River at the ferry. My friend, Margit, in the Atherton Tablelands shared stories with me of the Cassowaries they see from time to time in their area. She sent me to Mount Hypipamee National Park where she’d recently seen a Cassowary family coming and going near the parking lot. All to no avail. So on this, my third trip, I stayed in Kuranda and visited Barron Falls Estate for a meandering ATV ride where Cassowaries frequented their fruit orchards – with a ~95% sighting rate.
But alas, on this day, for this eager fan, it was not to happen. And so I continued my drive down to one of my 2 last options – the first, the town of Mission Beach. I booked into a B&B there, passing all of the Cassowary warning signs along my drive, keeping my eyes peeled left and right, front and back. Nothing. I drove the next day and scanned the beaches where they are known to frequent, and took a hike where they had informational exhibits about, and occasional sightings of, the infamous bird. Still, no Cassowary. As I awoke my last morning of this visit to FNQ, I had one option left enroute back to Cairns airport: Etty Bay. I’d heard from Margit and others that THIS was the place to see a Cassowary. But how many times had I heard that of the other areas? I had booked a late flight out of Cairns to give myself ample time, but still, to say that I was hopeful at this point would be overstating my feelings. But what did I have to lose other than a ~20 minute detour to my drive? So here I was, driving into this tiny little area, essentially no more than a lovely campground on the water (mental note: come back here and enjoy the views when I have more time).
Driving down the descent into the campground, looking onto this lovely beach, I spotted something dark. Again, my initial thought: “Could it be?” But then corrected myself that it must be a sign I just simply couldn’t yet read. Yet as I continued my slow drive, it indeed moved! And so here he or she was – the Southern Cassowary!!! At long last! I parked and watched her walk along the beach, picking up fruit along the ground here and there. This is the bird from which all of the signs warn you to stay back, for fear of attack. Ambling through the campground, she walked past Aussies who acted as if it was just another day at the campground. I finally laughed out loud in front of one Aussie gent, noting my humor in his ‘just a usual day at the park’ demeanor as she walked right past him. He laughed and sat and chatted with me for some time about Cassowaries and the respect for this wild bird which goes on its way, without human bother here. Music to my ears. As with any encounter with wildlife, it’s contextual – don’t feed them and habituate them. Don’t corner them or appear to threaten their young. And so here I was: face to face with this amazing bird as she walked straight toward me, looked right at me ever so nonchalantly, and made a slight right to walk around my car where I sat in admiration. I was elated….touched….emotional. Pinching myself that this had just happened.
Why all of the fuss about the Cassowary? The Southern Cassowary is found only in this part of Australia, and is, sadly, endangered. I’ve heard all of my friends in FNQ lament the birds’ status and challenges. Apparently only 20–25% of their original habitat remains here - habitat loss and fragmentation cited in studies as the primary reasons for that loss. Looking specifically at birds who had perished, the studies found vehicle strikes accounted for 55% of their deaths, and dog attacks another 18% - thus the road signs asking drivers to slow down and keep them safe. Other Cassowary species exist in Papua New Guinea and nearby islands but apparently even less is known about those species. [Read more about the studies and the Cassowary here.]
Meanwhile, I’m still left thinking about that special moment, after long last, when we were eye to eye: does she know how much I admire her species and wish for them a safe and continued success? I’d like to think so….
When have you had the moment lately to reap the rewards of coming ‘eye to eye’ with nature? You don’t have to have endangered species in your backyard to fully appreciate them, and allow those special encounters to ground you, lower your blood pressure, and give you an otherwise more positive outlook. What are you waiting for? ….
As always, please contact your local wildlife rehabilitator if you find a bird or newborn chick, or any animal, in need.