Walking with Dinosaurs: The Cassowaries of Etty Bay

In my travels, I’ve encountered many strange critters. But, in September 2013, about a month after my Mudskipper blog post (my last blog post for well over a year), I encountered a very special creature in the rainforests of northern Queensland, Australia. A dinosaur. Yes, that’s right, a dinosaur, which is fitting because the rainforests of Far North Queensland, specifically the Daintree, are estimated to be around 180 million years old. For reference, the Jurassic period began around 201 million years ago and ended around 145 million years ago.

Now, you may be wondering: how does one encounter a dinosaur in the 21st Century? A valid question, of course, but have a look at this photo of mine and see for yourself:

I think I saw this movie once…

Now, compare it to the oviraptor illustration below:

Nomingia gobiensis
Nomingia gobiensis, a species of oviraptor. (Not related to velociraptor.)

The resemblance is uncanny. Of course, the critter in the photo is not actually a dinosaur. It’s a flightless bird called a cassowary, which I’m sure you’ve heard about, if you’ve watched any documentary about Australian wildlife. Having said that, a cassowary could easily pass for a prehistoric beast. The blood-red eyes, the tall head-crest (called a casque on cassowaries), and I mean, look at its feet!

You really don’t want to piss this guy off!

According to American ornithologist Ernest Thomas Gilliard, “The inner or second of the three toes is fitted with a long, straight, murderous nail which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. There are many records of natives being killed by this bird”. Hm. That doesn’t sound very pleasant. Why does everything in Australia need to be deadly?

Oh, God! It’s intentionally blocking my path to First Aid! Next thing you know, they’ll be able to open doors!

Yet, despite these obvious warning signs, I decided to hunt this mythical beast. Cassowaries are among the most captivating Australian animals; yet, they are also among the the rarest. In northeastern Australia, a little over 2,500 remain in the wild, and the population is declining. Like the dinosaurs, the cassowary is on a path to extinction.

With cassowary populations in decline, how relevant will this sign be in 20 years?

Okay. Now that we are a bit familiarized with the cassowary, let me give you a little backstory in my quest for this elusive bird. When I first arrived in Far North Queensland in April 2013, I had many goals. Finding a wild cassowary was one of them. Naively, I assumed that, once I ventured into the cassowary’s native range and explored its known haunts, I would inevitably find one. I was wrong.

I started in the Daintree Rainforest. That’s where cassowaries are most common, right? On my first expedition from Cairns to the Daintree, I stayed at a motel. Outside reception, a statue of a cassowary loomed, and I knew I had reached the right place. I talked to the motel owner and asked her about cassowaries.

“Cassowaries!” she said excitedly, as if she’d just seen one. “Yes, a male came here with his chicks every day. Some other photographers were looking for them here. They looked all over the forest and didn’t find anything. When they came back and told me what they were looking for, I just pointed to the cassowaries right by my motel!”

“Wow!” I exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see him! When does he usually come?”

“Oh,” said the motel owner, frowning, “he’s dead. Got hit by a car.”

This did not bode well, but I figured there would be more lurking in the forest. I asked her a few more questions, and she handed me a map. She marked off a number of locations where cassowaries had been sighted, and I was off on my quest. I hiked up and down the roads, inspecting the dense rainforest on each side. Two hours later, I had still found nothing.

No cassowaries in sight.

The next day, I went up to Cape Tribulation. I’d seen a YouTube video of a cassowary on the beach up there and was determined to find it. I prowled the beach and scoured the fringes of the rainforest, searching for the elusive, dino-birds. Yet, a day later, still no luck. I hadn’t even SEEN a cassowary, so photographing one was out-of-the-question. I returned to Cairns, defeated, and began researching other locations known to harbor cassowaries.

Kuranda was next on my list. In my extensive research (i.e. Google), I found a place there called Cassowary House. With a name like that, surely, cassowaries would be flocking to its doorsteps and sipping afternoon tea. I drove up to Kuranda and visited Cassowary House.

The owners were pleasant but somewhat unenthused that I had arrived to see cassowaries but had no intention of staying overnight as a paying customer. They told me that a National Geographic film crew had recently been filming a documentary there, and the cassowaries had been appearing around 4:00 consistently for the past few weeks. I still had an hour to kill, so they advised me to investigate a trail just down the road. When the cassowaries came, I could catch them on the way to Cassowary House. Excited, I thanked them and hurried to trail.

On the trail, I searched, and I searched. The cassowaries could appear at any moment! I waited breathlessly in the lush rainforest, feeling like a true, professional nature photographer. I checked the time. 3:40. The cassowaries couldn’t be far away now! Yet, the most noteworthy photograph I captured on that rainforest trail was this:

Ah, yes. The wild couch in its natural environment.

But I wasn’t about to give up yet! It was almost 4:00, and the cassowaries were surely nearing Cassowary House. I scrambled back. Throngs of photographers were gathered near the rainforest. This was a very good sign. Yet, as I approached, the photographers began to disperse.

“Hey, there!” shouted one of the owners. “You just missed them! The cassowaries were here just a moment ago. They were early today!”

Damn. Just my luck. I asked her if she knew of any other places to find cassowaries. She recommended a place called Etty Bay, an hour south of Cairns. She told me that’s where she sends all the film crews, when they don’t have much luck at Cassowary House.

A few days later, I drove down to Etty Bay, and I asked a local restaurant owner if she knew about any cassowaries. She said they would come almost every day and nearly walk inside her restaurant, but she could never predict when they’d arrive. I thanked her and headed to the beach, where I hunkered down with my gear on a picnic table. There, I waited. Hours passed. Nothing. I had expected that. I shrugged and left to explore the Atherton Tablelands.

Over the next few months, I revisited the Daintree and Kuranda, since the second or third time can be a charm in wildlife photography. I still had no luck. So I decided to return to Etty Bay one more time. This time, I arrived in the morning and waited around until the afternoon.

In the afternoon, a bus full of Japanese tourists arrived. They emerged from the bus wielding cameras of all shapes and sizes. I wasn’t sure whether to be delighted or horrified. The tour guide sauntered down to the beach, carrying a camera of his own, and we started talking. He mentioned that the cassowaries here often came out in the afternoon, and they would stick around for a long time. Surely, this could be my lucky day.

Not long after he mentioned the cassowaries, a male and his chick emerged from the rainforest and came down a grassy hill. This was it. After five months, I had finally found my prize. I readied my cameras and started shooting.

Male cassowaries, not females, care for the eggs and chicks.

Amazingly, even with a chick, this cassowary did not show any signs of aggression. He had become accustomed to people, and I could stand right next to him and collect photos and footage without worrying about being eviscerated. This behavior drastically contrasted everything I had heard about cassowaries. These Etty Bay cassowaries were not killer birds with a knack for terrorizing humans. These were gentle, awe-inspiring creatures.

Male cassowary feeding on fruit as his chick stands nearby.

But that wasn’t all. The show was just getting started. After thirty minutes or so, another cassowary appeared. This one was a female, and that wasn’t good. Everyone on the beach was worried that she might become aggressive, since females have been known to kill chicks on sight.

Male cassowary gazes across the beach at Etty Bay.

When the male saw the female, he and the chick immediately gave her a wide berth. They hung around for another five or ten minutes, but soon enough, they left and went back up the hill, disappearing into the rainforest. Meanwhile, the female stayed behind, feasting upon the remaining morsels of fruit lying on the ground. Of course, I was still taking photos and filming. In addition to my photos, here’s the footage I gathered:

On that glorious day, I was like a dog in a tennis ball shop. I couldn’t believe that, after so much terrible luck, I was privileged enough to see not one, not two, but three cassowaries in the same place at the same time. The moral of the story: don’t give up. This is especially applicable to wildlife photography, where your subjects are fickle and unpredictable. You can have several unsuccessful expeditions, and then, bam! You strike gold and shoot photos like this:

Female cassowary patrols the beach at Etty Bay.

That evening, I watched the sun set, standing next to a remnant of the Mesozoic era. This is one of the rarest birds in the world, and after many months of searching, I had finally found it in the most unexpected location. I had not found it within the remote and unpopulated Daintree nor in the photographer’s paradise at Cassowary House. No. I’d found it among the throngs of people on the beach of Etty Bay. Sometimes, I wonder if that female cassowary was thinking as she stood on the beach and gazed out into the Coral Sea. I like to think she was.

This is probably one my best photos…ever.

Believe it or not, the BBC contacted me in December 2014 to request using a few short clips from my cassowary YouTube video in Episode One of a documentary series called Nature’s Weirdest Events – Series 4. Obviously, I said, “Yes”, especially since I have been a long-time admirer of BBC’s documentaries. But that’s another story altogether.

Like birds? Check out these other bird-brimmed articles:

The Loud, Smart, and Beautiful Cockatoos of Australia

The Magnificent Artwork of John James Audubon

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