10 May 2023

Rare cassowary sighting at northern end of Cape York

| Matt Nicholls
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A TEAM of researchers have come across a female cassowary in a remote section of northern Cape York, making it only the second confirmed sighting of its species in the area in four years.

The encounter happened on the first day of a six-day survey that was being conducted by Ipima Ikaya Country Traditional Owners and consultant Wren McLean, facilitated by Cape York NRM.

“It just walked into camp. It was amazing,” said CYNRM biodiversity project officer James Dobson.

“We didn’t expect that. We weren’t sure we’d see anything, let alone on the first day.

“Camp was set up, we were just sitting around having breakfast, going over the plan for the day, I was over by my tent, and they (the team) started yelling at me – in quiet voices – ‘James, there’s a cassowary!’ At first I thought, they’re having me on, but then I heard the cassowary making its call and I knew it was really there.

“We collectively spotted it again, crossing the track to the camp ground, and then across the main track, and all the time it was leaving prints in the mud.

“We measured the tracks and found it was a large female.”

For Ipima Ikaya Traditional Owner Pat Williams, who led the survey, the first he knew of a cassowary in the vicinity was when he heard the call.

“I heard its sound, and we were all silent, then it was here,” he said.

The only image captured was by Yunara Charlie, and while it is a distant shot, it is the proof of life they wanted.

For the Ipima Ikaya people, the cassowary, known as Wadthuuny, has great cultural significance.

Ms McLean said the cassowary’s entry into the camp was a “really significant moment”.

“We were so elated, we couldn’t believe it. I felt like, really, it walked in to greet the Traditional Owners… None of them had seen a cassowary, ever, in that area,” she said.

Ms McLean studied cassowaries for eight years in the Daintree lowlands and developed the use of visual lures in front of camera traps, to record the creatures.

“It’s an effective way of drawing birds in front of the camera and getting them to stop longer in front of the cameras,” she said.

The process was used in the current study and the team spent six days setting up the camera traps across 14 locations.

“We focused on areas of fresh water and potential cassowary habitat which is mesic rainforest – so we went round lots of big lakes and to seasonal streams and a permanent stream and to find soft ground to pick up footprints,” Ms McLean said.

“We found numerous cassowary scats, which all seemed to hold the same fruit, which was a small orange fig, so I’d say that species is really sustaining cassowaries in that area.”

Another highlight for Ms McLean was being on Country with the Traditional Owners.

“I just loved being out there and seeing how they were just so connected to that land; their inbuilt GPS’s were incredible.

“Pat Williams, our leader, was fantastic. Every day he was on it, he knew exactly where we were going.”

The results of the encounter rule out the common perception that cassowaries in the region are extinct. The last known sighting of a cassowary in the area was in October, 2018, by then Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service’s Heathlands Ranger in Command, Craig Dickman.

The QPWS set up camera traps over three years but results were sporadic with possibly two camera images over the two years of what was believed to be the same bird.

In two months’ time, the current camera traps will be retrieved and the team are hopeful the images will confirm a functional cassowary population exists.

Mr Williams is keen to get back out. He and fellow countrymen Yunara Charlie and Mune Lifu have now been trained with the camera traps and have the equipment to continue the monitoring.

“Being out on Country and taking the young fellas out there, hearing the cassowary call, then seeing it walk into camp, that was really something,” he said.

“I can’t wait to see what we find on those cameras. I want them to be safe.”

Cassowaries are listed as vulnerable under the state government’s Nature Conservation Act 1992 and there is an obligation to protect them.

Cape York NRM will facilitate another survey, with Bromley Traditional Owners in the Temple Bay area, based on historical sightings of the bird in the region.

“It’s an area closer to the Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park which is a very well-known stronghold for cassowaries on Cape York … so I’d be surprised if they’re not there,” Mr Dobson said.

The Cassowary field studies work, which forms part of the Biodiversity Bright Spots program, is a project funded by the federal government

Cape York NRM has also distributed information postcards, available in many outlets on the Cape, for people to recognise cassowary signs.

There is a QR code on the card, so you can upload photographs of what you find.

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