Oh North Queensland, how good it was to see you again.
A short break to refresh the soul, only a week so not many chances to scope out the birdlife.
But Mission Beach delivered – my first sighting of a Southern Cassowary in the wild.
I’d only seen them in captivity before and its always a bit of a gamble to see them doing their stuff at any particular time, on any particular day – even in Mission Beach where sightings are quite common.
But my nearest and dearest suggested a cruise around some back streets and there one was, crossing a road in the distance, the silhouette immediately recognisable from the signs on every street corner.
A tiny window to grab a photo or three and he/she was gone, up a curving driveway and out of sight, but not, I think, out of mind for a very long time.
They’re pretty impressive birds, not as tall as an emu, but bulky, with a I’m-a-gentle-giant-until-you-push-me-too-far type attitude. Their blue necks and red wattles are brighter than I imagined and this one had a curiously divided casque – not sure what that was all about – but those huge toes are impressive even from a distance. This is a Jurassic Park kind of bird; you can see the dinosaur genes in every considered step.
And tough you’d think. But not tough enough to avoid the dogs which take young ones every year. Or cars cruising the roads cutting through their forest homes and which they have to traverse, at their own peril.
Allen Sheather who works with conservation organisation Rainforest Rescue, says three adult cassowaries have been killed in the last three months in the Mission Beach area, another in the Daintree, possibly by people like us who were driving around hoping to spot one. With no accurate data to judge populations, its sadly ironic that the rarity of a cassowary invites its most likely killers.
Ironic too that the tropics which give rise to the rain forest, can also rip it apart, threatening the birds with starvation. Cyclones rip the forest apart, denuding trees of the fruit the cassowaries need to survive.
But somehow, the dinosaur bird hangs on.
Searches in the wake of Cyclone Trevor in the Iron Range rain forest of Cape York, far north of Mission Beach, have found traces of birds, footprints and scats of at least 4 individual birds. And Allen Sheather says the efforts of many conservation groups in protecting both birds and habitat has meant that overall, cassowary numbers remain reasonably stable.
I hope the one I saw survives and breeds and lives on in the eternal twilight of the Australian rain forest. I hope one day I can take my Canadian-born grandchildren to Mission Beach and see a dinosaur bird strolling by, haughtily ignoring the gawkers. I hope those worthy souls who battle to save the cassowaries and the rain forest don’t lose hope.
Because without support from government and individuals, without the effort and will to preserve the national estate in all its glorious forms, without people leashing their dogs and taking care when they drive, hope is all we’ve got.