[A stop on the Cairns + Atherton + Daintree trip, 2021 trip]
Centenary Lakes and the adjoining Botanic Gardens is a sprawling site with many varied habitats and vegetation sections. It sits a mere 3km north of the Cairns CBD and so is very easily accessible for birding, and furthermore has access to the massive Mt Whitfield Conservation Park which has all the hiking trails you could possibly wish for.
If you’re intending to take in both the botanic gardens and the lakes (or just the botanic gardens), the best car parking is in one of the parking bays along Collins Avenue, which separates the two areas. The 131 bus from Cairns also stops along here. Otherwise street parking on Greenslopes Street along the south edge of Centenary Lakes is probably the way to go (130 bus).
I started at the southern end of Centenary Lakes with a full morning blocked out to explore as much as I could. A Torresian Imperial Pigeon sat placidly on a power line when I was dropped off on Greenslopes Street at about 7am, having decided to catch one of these new-fangled “Uber” things from my hotel near the marina in Cairns. That was a lifer bird for me and I hadn’t yet even set foot in the gardens or lakes!
After wandering through some of the more formal parts of Centenary Lakes near the entrance, including the Cairns Chinese Friendship Garden with its red-pillared pagodas, I followed some of the creek-side paths and came across a Radjah Shelduck. This bird is also known as the Burdekin Duck and is uncommon in South-East Queensland and points further south, so it was pretty neat to see this handsome waterfowl here.
A Figbird, Magpie-Lark and Varied Triller were also seen but wandering around fairly randomly wasn’t really netting me many birds; it seemed very quiet.
In the rainforest part the mosquitoes were abundant and it was generally pretty steamy and uncomfortable, so I didn’t linger too long. The path here was more of a boardwalk so it wasn’t tough going, and I did see an Orange-Footed Scrubfowl, having seen another one earlier out in the open.
I must say I do like the look of the Orange-Footed Scrubfowl, it is almost comically chicken-like. They are megapodes (the name meaning “large foot”), the bird family to which Malleefowl and the Australian Brushturkey belong. All build mound nests and their eggs are incubated by the warmth of the mound material (decaying vegetation), which they monitor and adjust to maintain just the right temperature.
Later, on my way back through (having explored the Botanic Gardens and a little of Mt Whitfield), I passed through a bamboo stand and then the more open areas that lie to the east of Centenary Lakes, including a large grassy paddock.
This section contained a family of Masked Lapwings, Peaceful and Spotted Doves, Bush Stone-Curlew and – more excitingly for me – some Scaly-Breasted Munia.
I had been trying to get onto Scaly-Breasted Munia again since seeing a flock of them in Townsville the year before, where I only got distant shots of the birds. Here I counted 14 of them, including several juveniles and, after losing them after the first sighting, I proceeded to stalk them (very quietly!) until I could get close again.
They are non-native, but any finch-like bird is a good bird in my book. These ones are native to tropical Asia and are also known by the lovely names Nutmeg Mannikin and Spice Finch. Interestingly they are trapped in large numbers for Buddhist ceremonies in Southeast Asia, though most of those birds are later released.
Watching the munia for quite a while was really fun, as they came to ground and then sought shelter in the branches of nearby bushes. My persistence also paid off with the shot of the day as I was able to capture an image of one relatively exposed at close range – very happy-making! Photography, more so than simply birdwatching or checklisting, rewards patience, especially excessive (obsessive?) patience; I had been watching the flock for a solid 15 minutes.
Cairns Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens features many interesting and unusual tropical plants and also houses a café and visitor centre.
I bought a muffin from the little “Tank Sixty-Four” coffee spot in the visitor centre area and found one of the open green spaces – and a very pleasant one, I might add – to sit down and eat it, in the process noticing a big black bird up in the trees which turned out to be a Black Butcherbird.
Goodwin Street runs along the top border of the gardens and I had an unexpectedly good time birding here (on the road, basically!) with Dusky and Yellow Honeyeaters, Rainbow Bee-Eaters and a Laughing Kookaburra and a Willie Wagtail all competing for my attention. A flock of 15 Topknot Pigeons also flew over at this point.
Back in the gardens proper I explored more of the denser rainforest sections, though one part was closed so I had to backtrack. I saw a Pacific Emerald Dove in here but in general it had a little of that artificial feel you sometimes get in botanic gardens, where the trees and bushes are just a little too tidy and you start to wonder where all the birds are.
Immediately to the west of the cafe is a huge tree (maybe some kind of fig?) and there were at least eight Metallic Starlings within its massive canopy. Nearby I also spied an Olive-Backed Sunbird, always a very welcome sight.
Mt Whitfield Conservation Area – Red Arrow Track
It was still before 9am at this point, so with plenty of the morning to spare I decided to venture up one of the Mt Whitfield tracks. This conservation park is truly enormous and the main four walks are helpfully colour-coded – I just did the small “Red Arrow Loop” which ascends a ridgeline to an open lookout area which has views across to Cairns Airport and the ocean beyond.
The uphill is reasonably steep and I would not want to do this walk in summer, though the paved path is rather civilised and there are a few basic bench seats to rest on if you need it. I saw very few birds on the way up until coming across a pair of Orange-Footed Scrubfowl picking through the leaf litter quite close to the path.
At the lookout there is a pleasant grassed area and here I saw a couple of Australian Swiftlets darting about, and a Mistletoebird in the surrounding trees. At one point a White-Breasted Woodswallow flew past as well. This is a superb spot to sit and enjoy the cooling breeze, and contemplate the view, punctuated as it is by the occasional aircraft take-off and landing of which you have an excellent perspective. A fair few locals, being a mixture of fitness and family folk, were also enjoying the walk and the expansive views.
On the descent the birding picked up considerably, with a Spectacled Monarch, Black Butcherbird and Spangled Drongo all together in one area of the forest; here I gained what has become my favourite photo of the Black Butcherbird.
My species count for this visit was not particularly amazing, but any day I pick up four lifer birds is a good day, and I enjoyed wandering around and exploring the different sections in this area. Having bamboo stands close to rainforest patches just around the corner from swamp right next to tropical rainforest and remnant palm forest certainly does keep things interesting. Given the huge bird numbers I’d seen at Michaelmas Cay and on Cairns Esplanade in preceding days, and the very promising high species count of this area in eBird (240 species), I suppose my expectations were a little high that it would provide a similarly grand birding experience. It is a semi-reliable spot to find Little Kingfisher, Double-Eyed Fig Parrot, Lovely Fairywren, Large-Billed Gerygone and other north Queensland specialties, and I was hoping to – but failed to – find any of these birds. Possibly spending more time and searching more thoroughly would have helped.
The hotspots are a bit of a mess for this area: there is the all-encompassing Cairns Botanical Gardens and Centenary Lakes (240 species), which I used, then separate hotspots for Freshwater Lake, Saltwater Lake, Saltwater Creek, and Freshwater and Saltwater Lakes together. Someone should really sort that out…
Checklists for my visit: Lakes and gardens early (20 species) and later (8 species), Mt Whitfield–Red Arrow Loop (10 species)
Pluses and minuses:
+ Good cluster of hotspots with varied habitats to explore
+ Possibility of quite a few far north Queensland specialties
+ Great facilities particularly at the Botanic Gardens
+ Very close to the middle of Cairns
– I didn’t see many birds over the course of a few hours
– Birding here feels a bit patchy especially on the Mt Whitfield track