A few weeks in Cairns

To: "Birding-Aus" <>
Subject: A few weeks in Cairns
From: "Dickson" <>
Date: Fri, 30 Dec 2005 14:32:20 +1000
This is not so much a trip report as some disorganised ramblings I felt inclined to share. Hope you enjoy.
I was in Cairns for two and a half weeks earlier this month but didn't have time for extensive birding, given that I was there to do an intensive university subject at the JCU campus. The subject however was ornithology, involving quite a bit of fieldwork in the Cairns area. I was staying in Cairns North two blocks from the Esplanade so I managed to get down there most days. It really is an exception area for birding. The waders are so much closer than at most locations, particularly as the tide comes in or goes out and the birds feed on the limited mudflats close to shore. While on the boardwalk along the southern end of the Esplanade the waders can literally be at your feet - looking directly down on a Sharpies' chestnut crown was pretty cool.
I saw and photographed a Kelp Gull, quite a rarity up here, with only slight traces of immature plumage left, on 4th December, which I gathered had been around for a while, but nothing else exceedingly exciting ... until after our class carried out some fieldwork along the Esplanade, when the mega rarities really started to roll in - although I'm pretty sure sightings such as Ruff, White Tern, Dunlin, Western Sandpiper and Bristle-thighed Curlew can be put down to lack of experience - a good justification for Simpson & Day's recent trend toward hiding vagrants at the back. Although my own wader identification skills are quite poor, helping others in the seemingly simple task of differentiating Whimbrels from Eastern Curlews reminded me that I'm not totally incompetent.
I spent a fair bit of time birding around the JCU campus during breaks. Highlights included emerging from a lecture which included a tutorial on identifying the Yellow-spotted & Graceful Honeyeaters by call and promptly seeing both species, calling, in the same tree 20m from the lecture theatre. There was also a pair of Magpie Larks nesting on a third floor awning on the library and a sighting of an Emerald Dove along the creek flowing through campus. Orange-footed Scrubfowls are very common.
Other field work we conducted included examining provisioning rates at a Metallic Starling colony. The one I worked on was within the grounds of the Cairns airport (the general aviation section), with jumbos taking off on one side, four lanes of traffic on the other and kids throwing rocks at them from below. On the way back to Townsville I was watching a colony in Innisfail's Anzac Park when a Laughing Kookaburra flew in and stuck his head into one of the nests, although he didn't come away with any chicks.
We also conducted a survey (read "had a swim") at Mosman Gorge, spent a day at Mareeba wetlands and visited the Rainforest Habitat at Port Douglas. This is a tourist attraction consisting mostly of giant walkthrough aviaries and the purpose of our visit was to give the class practise at identifying birds - ones which conveniently weren't going anywhere. They have quite a wide variety (I saw 59 species). Although it's no substitute for the real thing I still found it great to admire heaps of nice birds at close quarters. After all I wont be seeing a Chestnut Rail or a Eclectus Parrot in the wild anytime soon. Mareeba wetlands was great - plenty of dry country birds in addition to the waterbirds - although their opening hours don't seem very conducive to attracting birding clientele. They are only open 10am-4pm, 5 days a week and even then only during the dry season. We were there by special arrangement.
Tim Dickson
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