[A stop on the Cairns + Atherton + Daintree trip, 2021 trip]
How good does a birding hotspot have to be to be the #3 all-time eBird hotspot in Australia? Pretty darned good, you’d expect, and with 278 species recorded, Cairns Esplanade is that spot. Even more surprising, there’s not a forest in sight – instead it’s beach birding at its very finest.
The main esplanade walk is 2.5km long and has mangroves at the north end and the Cairns marina area at the southern end. You can start your exploration of the esplanade pretty much anywhere along it, though if you’re parking a car it is likely easier to find a park somewhere along the northern half.
In general Cairns is an extremely bird-rich environment, so it might not come as a surprise that the esplanade is such a good hot-spot. Probably the most populous of the birds in this city are the Rainbow Lorikeets.
As dusk falls the lorikeets flock in huge and incredibly noisy numbers to their roosting trees, roaring down the streets at a rate of knots. Many pedestrians, myself included, were taking phone photos and videos of the phenomenon. You would not want to be driving a car down one of these roads at the time.
The other bird that one notices quite readily swarming in numbers at dusk are the Metallic Starlings. These birds are found only in North Queensland, New Guinea and some nearby islands. Immature birds – such as the ones on the left below – have pale breasts with some streaking, while adults are a beautiful iridescent black colour (giving them their other name, Shining Starlings). They also have startling red eyes.
You’re likely to find at least a couple of Metallic Starling during the main daylight hours along the esplanade. I found the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon area and Fogarty Park (at the south end of the esplanade) a reliable place to find them – at the latter site in the late afternoon of April 13th I counted at least 50.
While you’re at the south end of the esplanade, the paths all round the marina and lining Chinaman Creek are generally also pretty good for birds. I found Peaceful Doves here and along the water, as well as what I thought at the time was “just an egret” but a few months later got an “armchair tick” when it twigged that it was actually a (white morph) Eastern Reef Egret – a bird I didn’t even know existed at the time!
The southern end of the esplanade – and anywhere that has fig trees – is also good for Figbirds. The subspecies of the north of Australia has the male having a vibrant yellow front, unlike the olive-white of the male Figbirds further south. The females are pretty much the same with brownish striations.
I found a Bush Stone-Curlew (also known as Bush Thick-Knee) in the car park in this same area, seemingly oblivious to people. A more obliging photographic subject would be hard to find, but I did worry about this bird’s life choices with vehicles coming and going around it.
Varied Honeyeater are the most common of the honeyeaters and I found it wasn’t unusual to find them both in the trees along the esplanade and also around hotel balconies and roofs and suchlike. Their call is quite pleasing to the ear and they have a classic honeyeater vibe about them.
The pathways on most of the esplanade consist of paved concrete, sometimes with two paths running roughly parallel, and punctuated by the occasional boardwalk section and sandflats viewing platform jutting out. There are generally quite a few people around, from families with strollers to fitness freaks to dog walkers, you name it.
When I was in Cairns in April 2021 there was much excitement at the recurring presence of a Nordmann’s Greenshank mixed in with the other wading birds. This lone bird, normally a resident of Russia and South-East Asia, made the news and became something of a celebrity, so I was keen to look out for it. Many scannings of the beach, mostly at low tide, and subsequent poring over photos later, failed to turn up the bird for me, which was extra frustrating as a couple of the locals had seen it the day before and made it sound like it was no big deal, so I had to settle for Whimbrels and Eastern Curlew and suchlike, birds I was already somewhat familiar with (ie., non-lifers). (The Nordmann’s actually turned up the next summer too, and who knows may continue to migrate to Cairns, so there is still a chance to find it…)
There were quite a few Red-Necked Stints, Red-Capped Plovers, Great Knots, Bar-Tailed Godwits and Grey-Tailed Tattlers, but at lower tides these birds are often far away near the water’s edge. I believe you’re not really supposed to go onto the flats, though some people do, at least where it is most sandy and nice underfoot, near the walkway.
It is somewhat of a challenge to identify all the wading birds, at least at distance, though there are some obvious ones of course.
It was rather difficult to resist watching the antics of Rainbow Lorikeets in the casuarina trees that line the path.
Near the top end of the esplanade I found a Masked Lapwing family with adorable fluffy chicks. I didn’t investigate the mangroves at this extreme northern edge much (there isn’t any easy access anyhow), but there is apparently a population of Mangrove Robin in there.
The esplanade itself does get a little same-ish after a while (mudflats on one side, parkland on the other), but there are generally enough birds to keep one interested.
Introduced birds like this fabulously coloured Rock Dove, as well as House Sparrows, also compete with the native birds for one’s attention.
Common Mynahs are also plentiful and are regularly named as one of the most invasive pest species not just in Australia but in many other countries; partly this is due to its effective adaptation to urban environments. They are less common in Brisbane (where the native Noisy Miner is far more dominant), so I still find them intriguing.
I had a few more Metallic Starling encounters on the esplanade which yielded some nice photos of these birds; the challenge here is to capture a male in enough light to show off its splendid iridescence. I did not see many raptors, a juvenile White-Bellied Sea-Eagle being a notable exception, as it flew across the pathways and out towards the sea.
Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos were also up to their usual antics along the beach and in the fringing trees.
My April 15 checklist consisted of only 24 species (nearly 250 birds seen in total); the search for the Nodrmann’s Greenshank means I probably missed quite a few, even though I walked the full length of the esplanade (and back!). It did feel, however, like anything could turn up. For example, I had another quick birding look at the esplanade on April 21 (the day I was due to fly out of Cairns) and saw a White-Breasted Woodswallow and a White-Bellied Cuckooshrike sharing a light pole… not something you see every day.
Although I mostly only found common bird species (waders notwithstanding) along Cairns Esplanade, I still had a pretty good time there. A more thorough search over a longer time period might have found me Double-Eyed Fig Parrot, Rose-Crowned Fruit Dove, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Beach Stone-Curlew, Nankeen Night-Heron which are all distinct possibilities according to eBird, or perhaps a number of more exotic gulls and terns than the regular Silver Gulls and Crested Terns. This is definitely a place where you can pick which type of birding you’d like to do: perhaps spotting waders with a scope, or strolling part of the esplanade to enjoy the sea-breeze with a bit of quality bird photography on the side. One thing you won’t find are forest trails, but you’re guaranteed plenty of birds.
Pluses and minuses:
+ Lots and lots of birds, including migratory waders and possibility of various rarer species
+ Pleasant strolling along paved paths
– Can be challenging to spot and identify the more distant birds on the mudflats
– Tons of people around
– Walk can feel a bit one-dimensional (very long up-and-back walkway)
+/- No forest!