Thursday, 25 May 2017

Cairns Esplanade

I confess to having a love-hate relationship with Cairns, a busy tourist magnet of 150,000 people in tropical north Queensland, facing the Coral Sea. It is blatantly commercial, especially along the waterfront, which in the dry season is absolutely crowded with visitors including swarms of backpackers booking tours to the Great Barrier Reef and rainforest attractions and tour groups being herded from shop to restaurant to shop. On the other hand I think it has, with Alice Springs (far away in the central deserts), the loveliest setting of any Australian city, between the forested ranges and the sea, and the surrounds are superb. 

One place I always head to when I'm there is the Esplanade, the three kilometre waterfront backed by a strip of lawn (increasingly being swallowed up recreational developments) and facing either the shallow waters of Trinity Bay or, at low tide, vast expanses of glorious mud flats.

Trinity Bay at low tide, looking out to sea from the Esplanade.
Of course it wasn't always thus - when Cairns was founded in 1876 (as a new port to service the Hodgkinson gold field west of Mareeba, up on the tablelands) rainforest came down to the sea and blended into dense mangrove forests. Needless to say, they were not deemed compatible with the needs or aesthetics of the new town. 
Cairns, at the end of the green arrow, at the base of Cape York Peninsula.
Needless also to say, not everyone sees the mudflats though a naturalist's eyes and, despite the fact that many of the visitors are birders, there have been a series of proposals over the years to 'improve' them, including plans to dump huge quantities of sand to make a beach. Indeed at the southern-most end of the waterfront a big development involving a swimming pool complex has been inserted onto the flats, but at least that is adjacent to an area already heavily developed. In any case, I have no intention today of getting involved in such controversies, especially given that - as far as I know - there are no current proposals that would impose on the bay and its rich wildlife.
Looking towards the Esplanade and Trinity Bay, with the ranges leading out to Cape Grafton beyond.
Of course the tides determine when the best time is to visit, and if you can manage to coincide a high rising or falling tide with early morning you are lucky - even from sunrise there are walkers and runners to vibrate your telescope and discourage birds from coming too close to the shoreline, but it gets much more crowded later. The further north you go along the Esplanade, the further you are from the tourist jungle and the quieter is gets. Here are a few of the pleasures I've enjoyed there at various times; unsurprisingly wading birds are front and centre!
Little Egret Egretta garzetta above,
and Intermediate Egret Ardea intermedia below.
All three of these egrets are the same ones you're used to seeing whatever part of the world you live in.
Great Egret Egretta alba.

Red Knots Calidris canutus, above and below.
These are migrants, breeding in the Arctic.

Great Knots Calidris tenuirostris.This was in May, when the birds were definitely due to depart;
the one on the right in particular is starting to show some breeding red on the wing.
Red-necked Stints Calidris ruficollis swarm over the mud like busy little mice.
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica probing mud with its distinctive upcurved bill.
Australian White Ibis Threskiornis molucca, a common species which has become
a very successful urban species (to the point of intrusiveness!) in recent years.
This one however seems content with a more traditional lifestyle.
Black-fronted Dotterel Elseyornis melanops; this is a bird of the inland waterways across the
entire continent, but is quite rare on the coast.
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia and Gull-billed Terns Gelochelidon nilotica;both are found across much of the world.
Silver Gulls Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae;this little gull is the abundant gull of Australia (extending to New Caldeonia and New Zealand).
Australian Pelicans Pelecanus conspicillatus;this is reputedly the longest bill of any living bird!
Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus.Not primarily a fishing kingfisher, this one was more interested in small crabs.
And speaking of which...

Orange-clawed Fiddler Crab Uca coarctata, above;
unidentified crab below.
The flats teem with tens of thousands of crabs, sifting the mud for food and providing food for hundreds of predators.

But a lot is happening behind us while we're watching the shore too; there are some big trees on the grass at the northern end of the Esplanade and they attract a good share of birdlife.
Brown Honeyeaters Lichmera indistincta, small and pugnacious (possibly they're constantly annoyed by the
dismissive  name we've lumbered them with), are found in most of Australia except the south-east and the harshest deserts.
They readily adapt to urban living and exotic flowers.

Varied Honeyeaters Gavicalis versicolor are active and noisy all along the waterfront.
This is a closely coastal bird, found from Townsville to New Guinea.
White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike Coracina papuensis, found throughout eastern and northern Australia,
but commonest in the tropics. (Neither cuckoo nor shrike of course!)
Immature Metallic Starling Aplonis metallica.These, Australia's only native starlings, breed in big colonies in summer after which most
fly to New Guinea for winter, but some (and perhaps increasing numbers) stay over.
Very poor photo of an adult below - the eyes really are striking!
Another poor shot of a striking bird; this was taken in May 2006 shortly after Cyclone Larry devastated
much of the nearby forest to the south, driving birds such as
Wompoo Fruit-Doves Ptilinopus magnificus north and into town.
But perhaps my favourite visitor to the Esplanade is a diminutive and exquisite little parrot. The Double-eyed Fig Parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma is found in rainforest in tropical Queensland (a subtropical subspecies is apparently extinct) and New Guinea. The name refers to patches above the eye of some subspecies.
Double-eyed Fig Parrots, at just 14cm long Australia's smallest parrot, come to the Esplanade
when the native figs there are fruiting.

The Esplanade. It can be exasperating, and it always seems to be under threat, but I reckon you can't say you've really done a thorough job of bird-watching in Australia until you've been there. 

Sunset on the Espalande mud flats.

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Flabmeister said...

I agree that Cairns is a strange mixture. It is great for birding and would be magnificent if one vertebrate species could be culled. When we visited last July the game of Pokemon Go had just been launched. All the young tourists (ie under 40) were walking along the Esplanade eyes glued to their phones playing this mind-sucking game and ignoring all the wildlife. This didn't give a good feeling for the place!

Will you be doing a separate post about the Botanic Gardens and their surrounds?

It was interesting to hear views of people in Atherton and thereabouts regarding Cairns. Basically great sympathy for the poor folk who live in such a hot steaming, cyclone-ridden place. With justification they see the Tablelands as much more congenial!

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, I meant to mention that there will be a follow-up on 'the rest' of Cairns, especially Centenary Lakes (I don't actually have much on the Bot Gdns, as I tend to focus on native-oriented ones). I'm sure there is some condescension from the Tablelands to the coast; I get it, but note that there is a depressing lack of original vegetation up there...