Author Archives: Mike D'Arcy

Metallic starlings — Glittering Jetsetters

Our Daintree Rainforest fauna comes in all shapes and sizes –and this particular Daintree Blog is about a jetsetting mob of animals who live half of the year overseas, then fly back to the Far North of Australia in Cape Tribulation to lead a very noisy life here in the warmer and wetter months of the year.

They must talk about their travels and life’s travails a lot, because their community is a constant buzz, with incessant chattering, starving kids yelling out and begging for food, frenetic comings and goings and the noise level of a busy city street.

And with those bulging red eyes, they’re quite startling.

Starling showing off red-eye and metallic hues
The glammed up, glittering irridescent sheen of adult starling

We’re not talking about homo sapiens, of course, but birds – the ultimate party birds – a colony of Metallic Starlings.

Unfortunately, not all Daintree visitors get to meet them.
They usually leave our area around March, when their food supply here is getting low. Then when the trade-winds blow in from the South-east, they decide to hitch a free wind-assisted flight back up to New Guinea. They all fly back here again in September, along with a compelling need to breed.

However, flying is a demanding and energy-sapping business. As any human high flyer knows, your arms or wings get tired when you flap a lot, so when the starlings return, their first priority is to gorge themselves on rainforest food.

Once they’ve stocked up, its time for house-building and family matters. They usually return to the same tall tree as the year before, check out any surviving nests, and either trash them or renovate the remains. More often, they’ll just build new nests.

Sometimes, they’ll go out on a raiding party to tear apart and rob material from another bird’s nest to use in their own. Lazy party animals? Not really, but opportunistic and desperate to get that family going!

With their hunger and house issues sorted, the starlings can then focus on breeding, and voila, within a few weeks a whole mob of pale-chested youngsters have joined the party. Starlings will have two to three clutches in the one season. Overcrowding? No problem. They simply build new nests to cope with the growing family.

Untidy nest chambers and adult starlings
Busy adults throwing together untidy clusters of nests to accommodate growing family

All this hard work can make for big colonies of up to 200 birds or so, in what must be the birdworld’s scruffiest nest system. While they do make a few single nests, more often they’ll build clumps or chambers of up to ten nests, scattered randomly throughout the tree. They look like they’ve been thrown together rather than constructed.

This strange nest architecture compares poorly with most other birds. For example, our little yellow Sunbird has a tidy, pendulous teardrop-shaped nest with a cute little awning near the top. The black Butcherbird’s nest is not as ornate, but at least it has a crude circular symmetry of woven twigs and fibre.

When you’re near the colony, you’ll hear and see a busy commotion of noise and activity, with hungry chicks yelling out and demanding food, while the adults are frenetically multi-tasking – foraging, feeding and socialising.

Metallic starlings are always on the move. From time to time, a chattering adult will swoop out of the tree, immediately followed by an enthusiastic flock of teenagers. Then, they’ll do a noisy circuit, wheel around and return to the colony. These typical short flights happen again and again throughout the day, and are definitely the big head turner for tourists, and locals.

It genuinely looks like they’re having fun, but there’s a much more serious intent – like gaining strength, learning important survival skills, and preparing for their winter return trip to New Guinea.

They are definitely noisy, but starlings are not nearly as raucously loud as our screeching parrot families, especially the well-known sulphur crested white cockatoos. But what starlings lack in volume, they make up for in numbers and persistence.

When you go in for a closer look, starlings are also much smaller than cockatoos.

Metallic starlings Diwan/Cape Tribulation
Noisy, glittering metallic starling

The adults are mid-sized birds that look identical. They have those startling, bulging red eyes, and a full black coloured body with a distinctive metallic iridescent sheen – a vision of green to purple splendour and glittering, actually, like a glammed up, badly dressed 1970s Rocker. Hence the name Metallic starling.
The youngsters are really easy to distinguish inside the colony, because they have much paler, clearly visible white chests. But no glitter, and definitely no platform shoes.

Between September and March, keep an eye out for regular Metallic starling colonies anywhere between Mossman, the Daintree Village, the Daintree River ferry crossing and all the way to Cape Tribulation.

One regular colony is at the Rainforest Village Campground in Diwan. Owner’s Mark and Janelle are committed starling observers (which I guess makes them sterling starling spotters), and have reported some fascinating behaviour from their local starling mob.

Once they saw twenty or so massed around a smooth-trunked Quandong tree, gripping onto the trunk like grim death, with wings outstretched.

So, why on earth would they do that? Testing it for grip perhaps? Now, we know that snakes are major starling predators. We also know that some snakes are not great climbers – so maybe the starlings were searching for a slippery, smooth treetrunk for next year’s breeding season?

Or, the behaviour could be traced back to their ancestral relative, the black starling, which grips onto cave and earth walls in a similar way! If you know or you know someone who can give us a good explanation, we’d love to share it.

And here’s another quirky behaviour reported at the same colony.
Starlings can drop down from their treehouses to the ground, backwards, with a little flutter of their wings – just like a spider dropping down its silk thread. Yes, backwards, and then they land unsighted but safely on their feet. Fascinating stuff indeed!

These guys live at speed – or maybe even on speed. The lesson seems to be – live, eat and breed quickly; build rough expandable, but insecure nests; and be prepared to put up with a lot of collateral damage in the process.

While they might behave a bit like party animals, Metallic starlings are actually very industrious and also have a pretty healthy diet, compared with many of our Aussie birds.

Because our dominant Australian trees are flowering eucalyptus, acacias, banksias and the like, which contain lots of sugary nectar, lerps, manna and honeydew, most Aussie birds have a high sugar diet.

And too much sugar can make birds noisy, aggressive and territorial!
There might even be some lessons here for human parents and kids, but that could be walking on eggshells, so best not to go there!

Unlike the sugar eaters, starlings need stamina as well as strength, because they breed frequently and migrate. So, they eat lots of insects and seeds and might even go out on a foraging party for grubs on a nearby lawn. Of course fruit, and some nectar is a large part of their diet, by the way – they are Aussie birds after all.

Nutmeg seed and Mace covering at Cape Tribulation
Nutmegs are great spices and red mace covering has lots of protein

Like the famous Nutmeg pigeon, they also eat the red mace from the outside of the nutmeg, which provides a big 40% protein hit.Starlings don’t chew like parrots, so when they swallow fruit such as nutmeg, the red mace coating is processed or rubbed off in their gizzards and the brown seeds are then pooped out – a bit like a cassowary or our domestic chooks (chickens to some people).

All this massed colonial feeding means that the base of their nesting tree becomes littered with pooped seeds, pungent smells, broken shells, torn nests and careless chicks. Just like their nests, the ground underneath is jumbled and untidy – it looks like a war zone, but it’s also a thriving little eco-system!! And it makes it much easier for researchers to examine their food intake and output.

Night-time predators such as snakes, giant white-tailed rats, even centipedes all enjoy the feast, and sometimes…each other. It’s a real jungle fiesta!

In world terms, it’s quite unusual for mainly fruit-eating birds to migrate so far, yet we have five species from the Daintree rainforest that fly to and from New Guinea. The other four are the Channel-billed cuckoo, the Koel (also a cuckoo), the Superb Fruit Dove and the famous pigeon with many names — the Pied Imperial, Torres Strait or Nutmeg pigeon to name a few.

This balanced high sugar, high protein diet, is only a small part of the secret behind the incredible starling energy and vitality. What’s even more important is the daily rainforest therapy that they enjoy just by being in our tropical Daintree rainforest. It’s absolutely true!

So, you’d do well to follow the starling lead when you immerse yourself in the Daintree for a few nights sleepover. Who knows what you’ll discover and how relaxed you’ll feel afterwards? The possibilities are endless.

If you plan to visit the Cape Tribulation section of the Daintree when our starlings are in residence, make sure you keep an eye – and ear – open for those noisy starling excursions as soon as you reach the Daintree River ferry. Or on your many stops after that.

Also check out our D’Arcy of Daintree Tours – we always cover some good territory.
And please listen to some of our Podcasts “Rainforest Insights, with DArcy of Daintree” on iTunes, Spotify or via our website.

Daintree’s Dinosaur. The cassowary.

Prefer to listen? Podcast available click here.

And here you are, on your journey of a life time travelling through the Daintree tropical rainforest section of the Great Barrier Reef Drive. You’ve crossed the River on the ferry, gone up and down the winding road over Alexandra range towards Cape Tribulation. And you’ve discovered intense green diversity – ancient ferns, woody vines, bright green foliage, steep drop-offs and running cascades. Just spectacular.

well camouflaged big birds at jungle edge
Camouflaged Dad and kid cassowary at jungle edge off Cape Tribulation Road

And suddenly you catch a glimpse of it from the corner of your eye – and your passenger gets excited by this big black shape moving slowly in the distance.

It’s your lucky day. Not everyone gets to see it. It’s our very big bird called the Southern cassowary, the Casuarius Casuarius — or just cassowary, for short.

So, what do you make of this living dinosaur, almost as heavy as Australia’s biggest living megafauna, the red kangaroo?

Well, it’s not going to hop, or fly anywhere. It’s a flightless bird and one of a group of mainly flightless birds called ratites that include the ostrich, emu, kiwis and the emas or rheas from South America. The DNA evidence also now informs us that a family of flightful birds (birds with flight) called Tinamou from South America are also related. Tinamous are sort of born-again flyers.

All adult cassowaries have a large mass of black feathers, making them almost invisible once they get a metre or two into the vegetation. The rest of their design is also adapted to heavy rainforest drudgery, with a solid body, short but massively strong legs, and three incredibly thick strong toes and vicious keratin toenails, the middle one more like steel.

If you get really lucky and come face to face with one of these elusive big birds you’ll notice their piercing, beady eyes; a big wide beak; a huge helmet or casque at the top of its head; and bright blue and red colouring around the wattle and neck. And you can get an idea of their age, because their drooping red double wattle grows longer and the casque grows larger.

Their fearsome beak swallows rather than bites food. One of our neighbours has seen an adult trying to come to grips with a full green papaya. It manoeuvred it around and around for minutes before finally – bang– squashing it with their big foot, then down the gullet! Problem solved.

Two teenage cassowaries hungrily fighting over a dead lizard
Normally frugivores, these teenage cassowaries are fighting over a dead lizard. Opportunistic omnivores.

Cassowaries are mainly fruit eaters, with some flowers and fungi often thrown in for good measure, depending on the seasonal food supply. But, frankly, when they have the chance, they get very excited with a meal of dead meat (or carrion); or small live birds, insects and reptiles. A few years ago, I saw an emerald dove get too close to an adult cassowary. Big mistake! A few pecks, and then it fed the proceeds to its enthusiastic chicks. I guess that makes it an opportunistic omnivore.

When you are out and about exploring the Daintree boardwalks or just casually strolling from your rainforest accommodation, don’t just look for the big black shape to find evidence of this unusual big chook. Keep an eye out for the big sometimes colourful blobs they leave behind in their travels.

What are these big blobs? Cassowaries have no teeth, so they swallow their fruit whole. Then their highly acidic digestive juices and strong muscular organs called gizzards take over and grind up the food, separating the flesh from the seeds. The final product is a ready-to-grow mixture of seeds and manure which is soon pooped out as a big blob. Look out for it and examine its contents. This seed-nurturing skill makes cassowaries key agents in spreading large seeds through the rainforest.

Don’t bother searching for their rough shallow nest. It’ll be well hidden away from the roads and walking tracks. Of course, its up to Mum to lay the green-coloured eggs, usually 3 to 6 in a nest, but it’s the very modern Dad that does the heavy lifting. This means sitting on the eggs, and later raising the young.

The eggs hatch after about 60 days, when the hatchlings are called “stripeys”. After a few months, the young

Three young stripeys -- cassowary chicks
Very young cassowary chicks are called “stripeys”.

teenagers change to a dull brown. When the young become a bit older, locals often see Mum joining the family from time to time, but any crisis has the kids quickly scampering back to Dad.

Now, when the kids are around 9 months, at times up to a year later, Dad or Mum or both need to make a life-changing decision.

An adult female would have had a good look around at the available talent, and selected the youngsters’ Dad to sit on her next clutch of eggs. (It helps that she’s 40% bigger than the Dad. Size is important in the cassowary world).

It might take a while but once the new union is established, Mum and Dad may actually join forces to kick the young out of home.

Like many instances in the bird world, separation can at times be brutal. One of our local lodge owners reported an adult hiding behind a tree, jumping out, and chasing, pecking and even kicking at the young until …success. The youngster is finally, reluctantly, out on its own. It’s tough love.

We’ve also heard that when Dad thinks its time for the young birds to have their own life, he’ll try to sneak out of the scene quietly, and who knows how strongly he might respond to any attempt to reconnect?

In the wild, it’s rare for even one stripey to reach maturity and have its own young. Tough love in a tough world!

The idea of all those big toes hanging around in the forest, could make one feel a bit uneasy about the prospect of an encounter. Really, there’s no need to panic.
It’s very safe, as long as you don’t act in a way that feels threatening to the cassowary.

They’re quite happy doing their own thing, unless threatened or provoked. Avoid situations like jumping out of a car, getting between them and the chick, having a dog present, or even just panicking and running away from it. So stay in your car, don’t get between dad and chicks, move slowly backwards and be respectful!

Originating from dinosaurs, as a megafauna survivor, cassowaries are well equipped to defend themselves vigorously! Firstly, they’re very quick. Their big pecking beaks can hurt, their feet are fearsome and those dinosaur-like toes are vary sharp. They can either jump vertically or hurl themselves sideways to strike at a passing car, an attacking dog, or – as we mentioned before – even its own young.

If you stay around long enough, you’ll probably come to realise that virtually all encounters are happy and harmless, and show the remarkable curiosity of the cassowary. Many locals, working intently at a work bench, or in the garden, have suddenly sensed a cassowary companion peering over their shoulder. A bit spooky, but just relax, mate, and keep your head down!

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the cassowary, like why do have that huge casque or helmet on its head? The early naturalists and collectors thought that the casque was a hard bony helmet.We now know that it is not the case. The casque is actually quite light, soft and flexible. The outside cover is a keratin sheaf. Keratin, by the way, is what fingernails and claws are made of. Inside the casque are thin cellular bony structures and empty space, not liquid.

Injured beak adult cassowary with large bent casque
Male cassowary with soft keratin casque, fruit swallowing beak, injured nose.

This means that the old ideas about their purpose can be dismissed pretty easily.
The casque is not used as a battering ram through the dense rainforest and also not used to knock fruit or food off branches, nor to head butt each other.
The scientists now are discussing three current theories. Some propose that the casque is a sociosexual attraction, indicating fitness, maturity and vigour.

Another suggestion is that the casque provides a drumlike sonic boom, a sort of low frequency voice box, allowing sound to travel longer distances through the dense forest, also a sociosexual idea.

Most recently, it was demonstrated that the cassowary casque actually helps with temperature control, and loses a little bit of heat in cool weather but a lot more in hotter weather. The idea was first raised in 1994 –and was comprehensively measured quite recently by Danielle Eastick from La Trobe University, using a hand held thermal imagery device.

So, three modern theories, but the jury’s definitely still out as to which of these might be primary or secondary purposes in the cassowary casque’s evolution.

Cassowaries evolved as rainforest specialists, and in tropical rainforests it rains a lot in the wet season. That’s what creates all these beautiful postcard-like creeks.
So, not only can they run fast through the thick vegetation, but they can also swim, and can cross deep streams, if they have to. Of course, they also need to drink and love to cool off in water.

Pair of cassowaries enjoying cooling off in water
Cassowaries can swim, cool off and some even fish!

And some of them are known to go fishing, without the rod and any other gear! They’ve been seen to settle down in a creek with their feathers spread out – until innocent little fish take refuge under their plumage. The cassowary then clenches its feathers, gets out of the water, shakes itself to release the fish, and eats the catch. Remarkable, maybe rare and localised, but true!

So, how many cassowaries do we have in Australia?

The most comprehensive research (Reef and Rainforest Research Centre in 2014) indicates about 4,400 cassowaries in the Wet Tropics, spread over 23 sub-regions, with a stable population over the last 20-30 years. We know that there are more in the northern part of Cape York, but their numbers have never been counted.

Most live in inaccessible rainforest around Tully and the Russell River, south of Cairns.
Between the Daintree and Bloomfield rivers, the numbers are around 110! Luckily for visitors, these are along a narrow strip of road between the Coral Sea and the mountains, so we often get to see and appreciate them!! So, if you come across a Dad with two chicks, you’ve seen about 3% of the local population.

That’s a brief introduction to our big birds. Cassowaries are so fascinating and unusual, that we’ll need another Podcast and Blog to answer your questions. So, if you have any more questions or information, please send them to us.

When you visit the Daintree, make sure that you stay around for a few nights to get the full rainforest experience. Stay longer. See more. Maximise your chance of spotting a cassowary.

Boofy frog choir in the Daintree

Prefer to listen? Podcast available – here.

We heard it again just the other night. Starting distantly, almost imperceptibly, with a steady build-up outside that slowly invaded our space, until it seemed to be right there in our living room. It was unforgettable, and is one of the great sound experiences around Cape Tribulation in the Daintree National Park.

What are some of your special sound memories? An orchestral performance in the Sydney Opera House? The song of a humpback whale? The rustle of palms in the breeze? How about a lawnmower engine at 8am on a Sunday morning. Maybe, its not beautiful, but certainly unforgettable.

For me, there’s one sound that’s right up there with the others and its the sound of a frog mob – a frog chorus, a sort of frog vocal extremism. Its sound on the edge!

Frog chorus? frog song? or boofy frog cacophony? Take your pick! They’re all a part of the frog sound spectrum, but its the genuine full chorus that gives the extra magic.

Let me tell you about our Daintree Frog choruses, and some of our special frogs.

Northern barred frog on the Daintree rainforest floor
Northern barred frog

Some of our frogs bellow and croak like big, boofy Rugby choirs after midnight– loud, enthusiastic and often out of tune. More grog than frog!

(With apologies to the Welsh – Welsh Rugby voices are boofy but actually very tuneful).
Other frog sounds are more subdued, contributing their own clicks, squeaks, gentle low-pitched booms, croaks and w’hhrrrs .

Its only the male frogs that call out, using inflatable vocal sacs to magnify the sound. They call either to lustfully attract females or to warn off other males.

The sound often starts out as a solo, then competitors and different species might join in, each in their own key and rhythm of course, adding their personality to the general cacophony. It’s noisy, complex, but definitely not yet a chorus.

Just occasionally, and this is the truly special part, it seems that they come under the spell of a jungle conductor.

The frogs slowly start to synchronise their calls, with rising rhythmic intensity, until out of this choral chaos comes a harmonious crescendo.

And then it starts all over again.
They remind me of endless rolling ocean waves. Each distant wave creeping steadily into sight, following but not catching up with the one in front. Then, close to shore, each wave breaks in foaming fury, leaving… nothing. Then the next wave takes over and….repeats the process.
Except the frog build up is quite a bit slower – about a minute or so.

The big mystery to me is how did the conductor manage to synchronise all those voices in the first place, and how on earth did she manage to get the boys to stop exactly on cue??

When’s the best time to hear the frog and forest sounds? Right now, in the Wet season! Because it’s the major breeding time for most of our animals.

Surface water has built up in the swamps and low lands; the rain has paused and heat increased, so there’s more growth all round. Eating and breeding habitats for many creatures become much richer.

At the tiny end of the food chain, creatures such as crickets, katydids, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, cicadas, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, beetles, geckos and skinks all proliferate.

And further up the food chain, their predators are also in greater numbers – birds, reptiles and, of course, the amphibians – our amphibious friends, the frog!!

A Bit about our Australian Frogs

To give you an impression of how healthy the frog scene is here in the Daintree, I’d like to give you a few few frog statistics.
Australian has over 220 frog species at last count and the Wet Tropics is host to a staggering 54 native species – and 22 of our local species are endemic and found nowhere else in Australia.In total, there are five families of frogs native to Australia and all five are represented here in the Daintree rainforest, just two hours drive north of Cairns. The five are:

Broad-palmed rocket frog, medium sized tree frog but now land-based
Broad-palmed rocket frog, a land-based tree frog
  • tree-frogs and their relatives (Hylidae)
  • Australian ground frogs ( Limnodynastidae)
  • Australian water-frogs(Myobatrachidae)
  • Narrow-mouthed frogs (Microhylidae)
  • True frogs (Ranidae)

Three frog Species around the Daintree

When you’re out and about, if you look around a bit, you have a good chance of spotting a few frogs yourself – at night, in wet weather, when its warmer or around the gardens and buildings where you’re staying.

Of all our fascinating frogs, I thought I’d describe just three, partly because they could be the ones you’re most likely to spot for yourself, because they’re quite common and because they’re also big and boofy.

Camouflaged White-lipped green tree frog hiding on a paperbark (melaleuca) tree
Camouflaged White-lipped green tree frog

Our White-lipped Green Treefrog (or Litoria infrafrenata) at 140mm is the largest native frog in Australia and is one of the largest treefrogs in the world. Its bright green colour and wide and white lower lip are absolute give-aways, although its a master of camouflage. Ive seen them so brown and blotchy-pink that I sent photos to the Queensland Museum asking if they thought it was a new species. Sadly for me and posterity, they said it was just well camouflaged.

It climbs and jumps really well and you can often see it around buildings because it just loves eating insects, and of course insects are very attracted to night lights. Very convenient for frog spotting day or night.
The call is a repeated bark, interspersed with a double -bark, and it’s one of the common wet season frog calls. When distressed, its been described as cat-like mewing sound

At the lower end of the garden is the incredibly beautiful Northern Barred frog (Mixophyes schevilli). It’s not a treefrog, but a terrestrial ground dweller, and one of the burrowing frogs. It’s often well hidden among the leaves and debris—usually close to the water. It’s active at night, and ambushes invertebrates, small reptiles, or other frogs in fact.

It’s also large, at 130mm, with a striking smooth skin and a leafy-brown colour. Like all the barred frogs they have distinct bars or bands running across their legs. Those powerful striped legs also make them good jumpers.

By the way, the tadpole of the Northern barred frog is the largest of all Australian tadpoles.
At 160mm, its even longer than the adult frog itself. That’s a monster tadpole. It certainly makes it boofy, but still beautiful in its own special way.
The male adult call has various sounds and is most often described as a deep “warrk” to “qwarrk” , repeated at reasonably regular intervals.

A cluster of Cane toadlets hiding in a rocky crevice at Bloomfield falls
A cluster of Cane toadlets at Bloomfield Falls

And finally, the boofiest of all, the Cane Toad or Bufo marinus. They often grow up to 380mm, and some are monstrous, with enormous mass. As warty and dry-skinned as a Ryebuck (“rummy”) shearer, they must only seem beautiful to their Mum – or a Rugby choir. The male call is a quite high pitched constantly rattling “purr”

The cane toad is the only true toad in Australia, but it’s not a native. It was introduced back in 1935 to do a job on sugar cane beetles, but its now much more than a pest. It’s stayed, spread and bred.
And they sure breed prolifically, as they keep extending their range around Australia and evolving on the hop as it were. Unfortunately, the adults have huge toxic glands behind their heads, which has killed a lot of our native wildlife. They’re a legitimate threat to the survival of some of our native species. There’s at least on record of a small croc being killed by ingesting a cane toad, but generally it is the smaller animals that are most at risk.

Apart from our rich frog life, the Daintree is always a sensational where you can immerse yourself in its sights and start to solve some of its mysteries yourself. And that means staying over for a few nights.

And while you’re here, think about a D’Arcy of Daintree Tour up The Bloomfield Track. Enjoy huge landscapes, Indigenous culture, and whatever flora and fauna is on display. Who knows, we may even come across a cane toad.

DAINTREECAM Art. Living and loving our 10 natural beaches

Prefer to listen. Click here for Podcast.

Life’s a beach here in the Daintree. Actually, we have ten (yes 10!) beaches between the Daintree and Bloomfield Rivers, but who’s counting? In fact, there are so many beaches, that you’ll be lucky to see another soul as you set out to explore them. It’s a matter of choice. Your choice!

Driftwood at Coopers Creek , Daintree area
Mouth of Coopers Creek, via Thorntons Beach
Cape Kimberley beach
Cape Kimberley, first beach north of the Daintree River. Dense growth over shore.

There are beaches, then there are tropical beaches. Then there are tropical beaches that have escaped development. They’re quite rare and quite distinctive, especially on the continental mainland. That’s exactly what you get here in the Daintree. Undeveloped tropical beaches.

Dense tropical Daintree rainforest hangs out over the sand, reaching out for the easiest sunlight; The high tide borders between rainforest and sea become a refuge for bleached driftwood, flotsam, seeds and pumice. The ebb (or low) tide starts to expose different natural phenomena such as crabs, worms, and birds. Only north of the Daintree River, you’ll start to see the special fringing coral reef, kissing the mainland.

While they’re distinctive, just don’t expect the Daintree beaches to be the same.
You see, each beach has quite unique qualities, begging to be explored. The mountains, ridges, creeks, meandering coastline and that fringing reef all encourage individual differences. And they all have their own individual names, of course.

The complexity of the Daintree tropical beaches means that they collect and create myriads of organic shapes, as well as amazing textures and kaleidoscopes of colours, from subtle to crazy. And that’s without exaggerating (much)!

Millions of years of powerful natural forces such as tectonic continental rift and drift, volcanic eruption, erosion, and constant Ice Ages have created this landscape.

And powerful forces such as these can’t just sit there passively. They make a strong impression and they demand visual expression.

And that’s why it’s here, along these Daintree coast beaches, that an exciting new art movement has emerged. It started slowly and secretively. But now the secret’s starting to come out and it’s sweeping around the world as we speak.

So, forget your Impressionistic, Ottonian, Abstract, Japanese, or Cubist Art Movements!! No way. They’re all so Yesterday, maybe even yestercentury!!

This new movement is called the Daintree Ecological Coastal Art Movement. That’s a mouthful, so we call it (DAINTREECAM) for short – and it’s really hot right now. Certainly more roundist than cubist and totally inspired by nature. A hint of Gaudi’s  Catalina Modernista style, or a touch of Brett Whitely on a good day.

Crab artwork-sand bubblers
Crab artwork–bubbler crabs

Let’s start off with the Willy Wonkers of the beach. Zillions of tiny little Sand bubbler crabs creating special and unique art. Twice a day, every day around the low tides – Scraping, picking up a little “blob ” -ful of sand, sifting out (not swallowing!) all the juicy rubbish and detritus, and in the process re-cycling organic flotsam. True ecological heroes.

But that’s just the start of it. Then they re-position the “sanitized” pellets into random little artistic bubbles. As individual as snowflakes. It’s art, naturally. Sand alone is their food, their canvas, and their medium. Functionalism. All part of the DAINTREECAM.

So, check out DAINTREECAM here in the Daintree. Slowly, naturally. Bring your CAMera, and go Instagram.

A harmless Medusae style jelly blubber,
Harmless but stranded and melting Moon jelly blubber

How about this marooned blubber of jelly, quivering like a bloated belly. It has short, stumpy tentacles and is certainly not dangerous. Imagine an island melting in the sun. With 98% water, it melts quickly. Or it could be an ancient eroding Volcanic crater. Not a jelly belly, not really a fish, but a jelly blubber.

Near the water, hundreds of extruded sea worm castings, maybe piled up tidily like corded sandy turrets, or collapsed and plopping randomly in crooked coils like the work of a tipsy cake decorator.


You could discover ripples of wave-blown sand on the flatter beach of the region, casting shadows in the early or late sunlight.

Armies of Soldier crabs foraging at Cowie Beach
Massed soldier crabs feeding, trying to keep UK shape together. Support from Australia??.

Here’s an army invasion. Hordes of soldier crabs, Marching and Munching ravenously along the sand.

Eco-warrior soldier crabs breaking down organic matter, creating their own patterns and colours as they forage along. Art on the move. Unlike other crabs, these guys move forwards, not sideways and certainly not backwards. They should join our emu and kangaroo on the Australian Coat of Arms. We don’t need a plebiscite!



Driftwood stone washed
Sea-washed and weather-beaten trees adorn the high tide mark

Driftwood – weathered and floating, stone-washed and sanitized by salt and stripped to grey or bone-coloured bare essentials. Long distance travel might add a few barnacles for a special effect.

Sinuous driftwood sculpture by nature
Sinuous driftwood sculptures Noahs beach

Tree trunks can grow naturally twisted and sculpted lovingly into sinuous, sensual human shapes. A torso, not a bust, but busty enough, nonetheless. A shapely piece of work.

An underwater volcano has erupted half way to Chile. Discharged gases and water combine to form chunks of soft, grey aerated pumice. Tumbled and tossed in the Pacific Ocean washing machine, a year or so later finding refuge in the peace and shelter of the Coral Sea and enriching our part of the earth. By the way, it’s the perfect callous remover! They cost about 6 Quid in Boots Pharmacies in the UK, apparently!


Cold water heavy rain mini-geysers
Mini-geysers exposed after heavy rain. Ephemeral art, naturally

Cold-water mini-geysers? Almost, but not quite. In big rain events, water can go underground, and then Magically, Secretly, some of the water bubbles up through the sand, creating eddies, whirlpools and temporary sand ridges. Only here in the Daintree.





Stream through coloured sands
Now it’s here. Tomorrow, it may be gone

Heavy rain also makes innumerable coloured little channels, fanning out over the sand like river deltas through the desert. The angle of the light, composition of the sand, reflections and the background all make for happy snapping.



Many local shops have a little $2 booklet “Walks of the Daintree” where you’ll find all of the Daintree and more beach walks explained.

And the really really good news is that Entry to our Daintree beaches is totally free.
Local volunteer caretakers, and World Heritage recognition means that you can visit and explore without having to break the bank.
Just bring along your imagination, and your camera. Be a part of DAINTREECAM, and Instagram

Phantastic Phantom Phasmid in Daintree RainPhorest

You never know who you’ll find when you explore the Daintree Rainforest.  Hidden among the greenery could be lurking green ghosts!

Please, come and meet this very unusual stick insect, a phantastic phasmid, in fact. Phasmid means phantom or ghost. and Phasmid is the name given to the family of Stick Insects.

If you disturb it, you’ll cop a squirt of a surprisingly sweet-smelling spray of white gooey peppermint. Just enough to sting the eyes of the preying spider or bird, or surprise the over-curious tourist. But, please don’t do it. Too many “predators” can stress the little beastie.  And so this Phasmid insect is commonly called the Peppermint Stick insect (Megacrania batesii).

And what an amazing colour. There’s no other insect – or insect colour — quite like it. It starts life as a blueish-green young, growing into a perfectly camouflaged green as it matures.

Peppermints live mainly north of the Daintree River and this is where you’re most likely to see them. Small populations south of Cairns have been reported, and it seems the same species is also in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Peppermints are always associated with a particular diet – the serrated leafed pandanus plant, in which it also hides skilfully on the inside barrel of the spiky leaf.

Mostly, it feeds on the screw pandanus (pandanus spiralis), although I’ve also seen them among the pandanus (Pandanus monticola) at Marrja Botanical Walk, off Cape Tribulation Road, so it’s likely that they’ll feed on some other pandanus.

Peppermints are diurnal (daytime), are very alert and have sharp eyesight. When approached, they’ll often quickly slide down backwards like a firefighter down a pole, to shelter among the spikey leaf edges.

A photo here shows a couple mating. Although, in many cases, researchers have noted that they’re not always mating when apparently joined. So, look closely! Often, the male seems just to be hitching a ride, a piggyback indeed. Presumably, this “blocking” behaviour is to safeguard his gene pool!! No competitors wanted around here!

Even when they are inextricably entwined, like the coupling two in the accompanying photo, they are almost perfectly camouflaged among the pandanus leaves.

Note the brown adult wings. The male is much smaller than the female with a better wing to size ratio. Basically this means that he can fly to other locations, and she can’t. Usually, she just drops the fertilised eggs down the leaf, and they hatch a few months later.

Males will occasionally forage too far from the females without mating. And here’s where a very special process enters the picture. The unfertilised eggs of many stick insects can still produce viable young – but they will all be female! This can continue for more than one generation, until the genders are re-united. Populations of female peppermint stick insects only have been reported south of Cairns!

This cute process is called parthenogenesis, or literally virgin birth. Many insect species actually have it, from ants to bees. All-female species have also been documented in fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds. But not yet mammals.

When I think of insects in the Daintree Rainforest, I think of the Insect Museum. It’s just off Turpentine Road, 30 minutes drive from the Daintree Ferry Crossing.

The Insect Museum is a great family visit. You’ll also see spiny leaf insects, Goliath Stick Insects and, if you’re lucky, a caterpillar of the Giant Hercules Moth. Under glass are wonderful world butterflies, bugs and beetles, and some of the owner’s unique artwork.

Apart from Turpentine Road, where else can you find the Peppermint Stick Insect?

The tree and bush-types Pandanus grow in many places, especially swamp land. Peppermints seem to like the slightly cooler spots around the beaches. Look for the pandanus, preferably a low-growing one to get a good vantage point, as they hide in and slide down the leaves. Look for the telltale signs of pandanus leaves have been freshly eaten. Peppermints are diurnal, but they often escape the heat by sliding down into the base, and they seem to semi-hibernate in winter.

Kulki boardwalk in Cape Tribulation, up to the lookout has small, young pandanus and is the most likely spot to find them in an easy accessible place. Marrja and Dubuji boardwalks and at Myall Beach through the Cape Trib Campground are also good spots.  You will need some good eyes and a bit of patience – they can be hard to spot with their perfect camouflage.

Heat before the storm

Prepared 6 December 2018, just before a few days rain, totalling 405 mm.
The Great Rainmaker, Thorntons Peak, has been letting us down lately. Firstly, the July rockslide, then a few very dry months. Now this prolonged heatwave! The buildup.

Daintree Coast residents are carting in water and cursing the lack of aircon. A few godless types have even been seen on their knees, muttering strange imprecations. Exhaustion does strange things!

Spiders have taken over the rain gauges, birds are nesting anxiously, as their overhead protection thins out. We’ve had sad reports of distressed cassowaries and dogs. It’s not just the fruit bats. But to see any plant or animal suffering is distressing. It’s one of our defining human qualities.

Dusty roads are layering a choking cover over plants. Vegetable gardens and roadside plants seem to be doing poorly and in many cases dying. Leaf loss in trees everywhere is substantial.

Yet, through all of this the creeks on Cape Tribulation Road are running. Still pretty, still giving life, still feeding the Coral Sea and reefs.

For goodness sake, we’re a tropical rainforest. There’s supposed to be rain every month (which there has been actually, just less than most years). And we can’t blame Thorntons’ rockslide for all nature’s perfidies.

This week, I thought I’d go out and listen to a few relic survivors. These are three ferns which go back around 300 million years, give or take a few.


Daintree scaly tree fern
Scaly tree fern showing heat stress

Tree ferns are widespread and easy to spot.

Large flat basket ferns are especially prominent at Marrja boardwalk.

And the majestic king ferns love wet feet in the misty mountains of Alexandra Range and its foothills at the Daintree Discovery Centre.

Tree ferns in gardens and road edges have lost lots of fronds and some seem to have totally died. Time will tell.

basket fern marrja
Early outer leaf growth basket fern

The basket ferns had already put on a skinny new growth to their outer leaves a few weeks ago, and were doing okay under the canopy, but certainly not thriving.

The big test was the king ferns. With their thick frond base, they need a lot of water to create the turgor pressure that keeps them pumped up and erect. Yes, many are wilting, with outer fronds collapsing and dropping off. But, when you get in close to look at their bases, the thick, strong fronds are still thriving. They’re beautiful, wonderful and successful survivors.

The main ingredient is the dense closed rainforest canopy, protecting itself.

The weather’s been extreme, but it’s also nature’s way of de-cluttering and re-mulching. Natural optimisation processes at work.

With the first real rains, the “green” season is just around the corner, recovery will follow, just as night follows day.

Soon the famous Daintree crystal clear creeks will be flowing strongly again, a riot of green growth will take over, insect life boom, plants bloom — and predators will grow fat from the proceeds. And let’s see what happens to the Thorntons landslide then!

This Daintree rainforest is a special place. Well worthwhile a good slow Rainforest Immersion Therapy.

I invite you to join me on a 4WD tour of Cape Tribulation and the Bloomfield Track.

For more information ( maps, distances, accommodation, eats visits and more) click here.