Catching a Cassowary

I landed in Australia with a list of specific wildlife found only on this continent. I also had a willingness to get as dirty, wet, bruised and tired as it would take to get a glimpse— a glimpse recorded uniquely in my memory, not to be experienced the same by any other human for the rest of time.

At the top of my list was the endangered cassowary. The second largest bird on the planet, the cassowary is included in a group of prehistoric birds called “ratites.” There are only 1,200 left in the wild, lurking deep in the rainforests of Northern Australia. It is rarely seen— even by locals born and raised in the area.

image
Wild female posing for me

Travellers said that most sightings take place in the ancient Daintree rainforest, so we traveled further North (out of our way) to scratch the creature off my list. Sunrise to sunset, we explored the forest only to leave disappointed (though I did swim with a rare freshwater pipefish in one of the forest ponds, and saw some BIG monitor lizards).

The next day, a woman at the supermarket said we should drive South toward Etty Bay. Sightings were still rare, but a specific family unit of cassowaries had been seen raiding campsites near a beach recently.

Obviously, a few days later, there we were— standing outside of a campsite where the forest meets the beach. Within 30 minutes, I sprinted barefoot toward some movement. A juvenile male was bobbing between some trees, deciding if he should venture onto the beach. He was small— almost five feet tall, with some brown feathers left over from being a chick.

My day was made. He was weary, but did not mind me getting close. The way he walked was straight out of the Jurassic era, leaving large, clawed footprints in the sand.

image
Sand stomping

 

I followed him toward the campsite, then when he disappeared in the jungle, I went for a walk to look through my pictures. I came across a blue tent, and my jaw hit the grass below. An adult female cassowary (larger than adult males) sat comfortably, eating a watermelon some campers had left unattended. Just sitting, her head was up to my chest. Bright yellow eyes blinked between long, black lashes. You could hear the power of her beak tearing into the rind. Her thick neck transitioned from light powder blue to a deep royal blue, then to red.

image

After she finished, she stood up. I suddenly remembered all of the documentaries about cassowary attacks. Zookeepers often need shields just to enter enclosures with hand-raised cassowaries. This one was wild.
Her claws were thick and black— built for swift sprinting or disembowelling an opponent, whichever she preferred. She had a fossil-hard horn on her head, raising her height up to my chin.

She walked toward me. I remained calm, though eager. She seemed to appreciate that, as she strolled beside me down the beach toward the jungle. I got really close— closer than I should have. After a few minutes, she straightened her neck, stood up straight and looked me in the eye. Then, as silently as the first one I saw, she disappeared into the foliage.

image
Eye contact was intimidating to say the least

Maybe I got too close and she was warning me, or maybe she thought I was as abstract as I thought she was. Either way, my number one animal had been seen, and the experience, and photos, will stay with me forever.

cropped-pieces-of-pangea-logo.png

Advertisements

Connecting

The sounds of the Australian rainforest at night are from another world. Leaves constantly rustle and creatures scream in the distance, sounding like robotic toddlers.

A shiny black skink warming up this morning

Last night, we drove through a cloud on the top of Lamington Mountain. The cloud was flashing with lightening, as it was a thunderstorm, so we had to set up our tent in a public bathroom.

Avoiding the rain by spending the night in a public shower stall

After living wherever can pop up a tent, I feel connected in a way I’ve never felt. The highway and its zooming cars outside my nylon wall transform into calming ocean waves lulling me to sleep.

Wild brush possum

image
This morning, I stopped in my tracks to smell a flower, something I can’t remember doing at home. That got me thinking- if I wasn’t in Australia, would I have done that? What if I moved here and Australia became my home. Would I get numb to it all and stop smelling flowers after a while?

I’m lying in a park, writing this on Arlie Beach. The Palm leaves above me clap in the breeze, the kookaburras laugh, and the lorikeet parrots scream. A couple of pink galah cockatoos even perched above us a little earlier, making robot noises before flying away.

Sulfur crested cockatoo flying above

Kookaburra

Lorikeets overrun every park on the east coast

Making friends with a cockatoo

My breath is taken away with the breeze, floating with the gulls.
I want to soak in how much “better” this place is than anything I could find at home, but I keep correcting myself. This is new, and different, but not better (aside from the temperature- the weather is definitely better).

image

Unique crested doves and rosella parrots come very close

image

My point is, wherever we are, we need to connect with what’s around us. If there is a park near you, make time to explore it. If you’re wearing shoes, remove them, and feel the grass. Any place can feel like home if you can connect.

As much as I’m loving my travels, I still miss my nature spots back home, especially the San Marcos river in Texas.

Love where you are, wherever you are.

cropped-pieces-of-pangea-logo.png

Dueling Dimorphodons

To be successful in life is to wake up every morning without the aid of an alarm clock. That is all I’d require for life to be considered luxurious. -Ian Smith

Some of my travel group learning about the different bromeliads of the forest
Some of my travel group learning about the different bromeliads of the forest

I usually wouldn’t attend anything starting at 6am, but I promised myself that I’d grasp every opportunity available as I boarded the plane for my first study abroad trip to Costa Rica. A few days before the trip ended, our head coordinator announced a special sunrise yoga class in the rainforest, beginning at 6am. I said I’d do it, knowing I’d probably just sleep in and just act really bummed for missing it. My roommate Daniel made sure that didn’t happen, as he did not want to be the only boy at the event. I’m glad he woke me because otherwise, I would have been jerked from my slumber by the alarm on my IronMan sport watch. That high-pitched “beep” would ring in my ears every morning— as if a rogue mouse set off an alarm after breaking out of its tiny holding cell.

Me with my roommate, Daniel
Me with my roommate, Daniel.

Daniel and I, barely awake, stumbled to a clearing surrounded by trees and tropical flowers. We were dwarfed by the lush Arenal Volcano directly in front of us— famous for its hot springs, which we later visited. At this point, everyone quietly greeted each other. We hadn’t been outside longer than five minutes and I’d seen more types of humming birds than I thought existed.

The volcano leaked steam while the bromeliads around us collected dew from the morning mist. I inhaled a breath while the orchestra of a tropical morning danced in my lungs.

The view during our hilltop yoga
The view during our hilltop yoga

We went through an hour of intense yoga- more of a workout than I would have liked. It grew as the sun rose higher. We finished our yoga hour with the “corpse” pose, which is essentially lying still to feel your heart pump.

Though my eyes were supposed to stay shut, I felt the sun vanish behind my eyelids, so I cheated and opened an eye. Storm clouds rolled over the top of the volcano. Our coordinator was coaching us on how to breathe while in corpse pose, and we could hear her excitement as a light mist fell onto us from above. “Let the rainforest cleanse you as it washes away your negativity,” was the ad-libbed line that has stuck with me through the years.

Photos couldn't capture the feeling of jungle rain on a sweaty body, so here's me swimming under the La Fortuna waterfall instead
Photos couldn’t capture the feeling of jungle rain on a sweaty body, so here I am swimming under the La Fortuna waterfall instead

That moment was one of the few in my life where things lined up perfectly. As if on cue, the rain cooled us after we finished the most vigorous yoga of our lives. The symbolism was overwhelming. This memory is enhanced not by the flawless setting, but by the unexpected guests who joined us. As raindrops freckled my face, I peeked again just to take everything in. Once more, as if on cue, I saw perfection in motion. A Swainson’s toucan swooped onto the branch of a leafless tree, taller than the others. Everyone was calm, quiet, and experiencing a natural high in its purest form during our jungle rain yoga, but this was the first wild toucan I’d seen, so I squealed and sat up to get a better look. The sky was grey-blue, the rain misting down, and a multi-colored bird just perched above us. We pointed as the toucan bounced around the branches, acting a bit frantic- as if the rain was getting it really excited.

We soon realized he was displaying for another male that swooped onto the branch next to him. Everyone gasped. The show went on as he fluffed his feathers in the rain, pruning in front of his friend. As if my heart needed to pound harder, a third toucan perched atop the tree, prompting the two males to begin jousting with their massive colorful beaks for her attention. This was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had the honor of experiencing. The rain, the bright, yellow chests of the birds against the green trees behind them- I was watching two delicate Dimorphadons duel for a damsel— a behavior the coordinators said they’ve never seen, even while growing up in Costa Rica.

Magic.
This was actually the fourth wild toucan I saw, but it is the same species as the ones in this story.

As an artist, I always appreciate the colors of nature. When I watched wild toucans spar in the rain, my appreciation evolved into teeth-gritting obsession. I’ve never been to an art museum and fallen in love with a piece of art, but there are connoisseurs who do, and who pay tens of thousands of dollars to experience that love. After this experience, I’ve finally been lucky enough to fall in love with a perfect scene, all because I peeked.

Me with some rescued babies at the Toucan Rescue Ranch. Not wild, but still marvelous little creatures.
Me with some rescued babies at the Toucan Rescue Ranch. Not wild, but still marvelous little creatures.cropped-pieces-of-pangea-logo.png