Chasing the Sun for a Cassowary
The Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius), often touted as the most dangerous in the world due to its powerful kick when provoked, is a large, flightless bird native to the tropical rainforests of northeastern Australia, New Guinea, and a handful of islands in the Moluccas. In addition, since the species is popularly kept as a pet or reared for meat by the local peoples, historical trading has resulted in small introduced populations occurring on other islands in the region such as New Britain. In appearance, the bird is covered in shaggy, black plumage, adorned with brilliant blue and red bare skin around the head and neck, and topped off with a bizarre, horn-like casque. Perhaps due to its large size, unique appearance, or purported aggressiveness, it is often high on the target list for any birder visiting northeastern Queensland — it was certainly at the top of mine! The following piece is a description of my quest to see this incredible bird.
Before heading to northeastern Queensland, I exchanged emails with many birders in the region over my possibilities of seeing a Southern Cassowary on a six day trip in November. The overwhelming majority of responses could be summed up as follows: you do not stand a chance, unless you spend several days at one of the lodges in the Atherton Tablelands. With such a response, I had basically written it off as a species I had any chance of seeing. Although realizing that the probability of seeing a cassowary on my trip was quite low, I was not willing to admit defeat and still continued to do my research on where to see one (ebird was invaluable). From the information that I could gather, Etty Bay seemed to offer my best hope, and I scheduled it as a site to visit on my second day in the wet tropics of Queensland along with Tyto Wetlands and Birthday Creek Falls near Paluma.
The second day of my trip soon came — and it was a wild day of birding I will always remember. After seeing a stunning male Golden Bowerbird at Birthday Creek Falls, I briskly made my way down the mountain and headed north towards Etty Bay with only a google map as a guide. By this time of day in November, the pied Torresian Imperial-Pigeons were flying en masse over the highway from the mainland out to islands just off the coast to roost (as a side note, I have seen nearly identical behavior with the large numbers of White-crowned Pigeons that feed near Flamingo in Everglades National Park during the summer months — convergent behavior for two species with a similar niche) as a prelude to sunset. The sun was hanging lower and lower on the horizon, and I had not even reached the turnoff for Etty Bay. Did I just blow my only chance of seeing this incredible creature on this trip? I did not think I was going to make it before dark, until I finally made it to a road junction signed for that location. I made a right turn and kept going through what seemed like several kilometers across level land, then up to another junction where I made a wild guess as to where to turn, and finally weaved up the slope of a mountain…
The only souvenir of my encounter with a Southern Cassowary, by Carlos Sanchez
On the other side of the hairpin turn which marked the beginning of the descent down towards Etty Bay, I was left speechless while I watched a Southern Cassowary casually strolling along the road with only the residual glow after sunset left to observe it. The bird proceeded to walk within feet of the driver’s set of my rental vehicle, giving me absolutely stunning looks before it began its retreat into the dense brush. I took a couple shots with my simple point-and-shoot camera to document the sighting and to keep as a memento of my good fortune. The entire experience lasted maybe less than five minutes before the bird disappeared. I had beaten the odds of seeing a Southern Cassowary in the wild while chasing the sun with only seconds of daylight to spare.