I didn’t think I would be on a mission here by the beach, but it sure turned out that way.
The tropical forests around Mission Beach are one of the last strongholds for an extraordinary, pre-historic bird, the cassowary. Evolution occurs when flora or fauna need to readjust to changed environmental circumstances caused by natural influences, or nowadays by human kind.
In some cases, the change is so radical and dramatic, that some species can’t adjust in time and therefore disappear.
The cassowary is the oldest living bird on this planet. The species hasn’t evolved for the past 60 million years, which in itself is quite remarkable. It didn’t need to. These ancient forests are up to 100 million years old and have always yielded a large variety and quantity of fruits or seeds all year long.
Cassowaries, charmingly nicknamed ‘The Gardener of the Forest’, swallow the fruit whole. The seeds are then dispatched eventually, which fertilises the seedlings and new growth is followed. Not in many other cases is the relationship between flora and fauna so significant and important.
The sudden changes and deforestation of their natural habitat has brought the cassowary close to extinction. Introduced species have a direct or indirect influence of the bird’s survival, as do family pets.
Accidents with cassowary are still common and warning signs are scattered all along streets. But it’s not all is doom and gloom. The importance of this delicate natural balance act has been realised and most people do their best to save these ancient forests and their prehistoric gardeners.
The extremely friendly staff at the tourist office in Mission Beach gave me a few hotspots on where to spot cassowaries. Time and patience was needed whilst walking along the forest floor and care needed to be taken. As ancient as cassowaries are, as dangerous they can be as well.
As soon as the female laid between 3 and 5 eggs, she moves on and leaves dad behind to incubate these large eggs.
She will quite possibly mate with another male, which is a significant factor for the cassowary’s survival. Fathers, that guard and raise their chicks have been known to become extremely aggressive. They corner their opponents and kick both-footed, if they feel threatened. Their T-Rex relic like sharp claws cut through any soft tissue.
The warning signs were not to be dismissed.
‘Djiru National Park’ is named after their Dreamtime landowners. These have cared for this land and it’s flora and fauna for centuries. The cassowary plaid an important role to these aborigines, not only as a food source, but also in traditional rituals and dances. An ancient inspiration of Dreamtime.
I drove to Licuala day use area in ‘Djiru National Park’ as noted one of the cassowary hotspots. A 16km return walk combined this southern point with the northern end. It is a fairly wide track, which can be used with bikes as well. Unfortunately, mine got stolen a few weeks back. I was definitely excited and was hoping, that I would see my first cassowary in the wild. I was sipping on a coffee before setting off and looked along this straight path. I noticed some movement in the bushes not far, what are the odds?
I almost coughed up my coffee when a cassowary suddenly appeared out of the bush and showed itself on this track.
Wow, I was hoping for that to happen, but I surely didn’t expect it.
I swapped the coffee with my camera started following this colourful bird. I believe this was a young girl, she wasn’t very tall. The fact that no chicks were around this cassowary pointed in female existence as well.
She was a perfect model and paused often for very long.
Motionless for minutes she gave me plenty of photo opportunities and allowed me to get closer.
Not too close off course.
Photographic light conditions were tricky with either lots of sun or lots of shadows.
She was fully aware of my existence and gave me a good eye now and then. But she never showed any eccentric or aggressive behaviour towards me. In fact, she appeared very relaxed, knowing that I was stalking her, hiding behind trees every time she paused.
Forest fruit got picked up here and there and some plumage grooming was part of her routine as well.
Those nasty parasites can be annoying. I didn’t mind at all and kept my finger on the shutter button.
She slowly moved along the track, while I kept following her for some time.
Something took her interest in the forest,
as she eventually, turned around and escaped in thick forest. I could see her vaguely for a little while, taking photos was impossible. Nevertheless, I was extremely happy and excited. What an experience. Being able to watch this remarkable bird so close for so long in an open area was just fantastic.
I amaze myself sometimes how on lucky I am. I was hoping she may reappear by the nearby creek but that would have been pushing my luck. That would be just the icing on this forest cake.
Part one of this mission was completed, let’s see what happens tomorrow.