[A stop on the Cairns + Atherton + Daintree trip, 2021 trip]
Cattana Wetlands is a relatively new site of 80 hectares, located about 15km north of Cairns. Its proximity to Cairns and its excellent set-up for birding, as well as a very respectable 243 species recorded on eBird (putting it in the top 20 sites in Australia), makes it an excellent site to find birds and enjoy yourself doing so.
Getting to Cattana Wetlands requires finding your way to Dunne Rd, which is pretty straightforward from Cairns or anywhere along highway 1. The site consists of several large fresh and saltwater lakes, which were previously cleared for sugar cane farming and sand quarrying, being revegetated around 2009 by Cairns regional council at a cost of some $3 million (half the funds were provided by the state government, as part of Q150).
The facilities are great, and include a car park with space for 50-odd vehicles, toilets, BBQs, information panels, a bird hide, and viewing platforms. Moreover, the main trails are paved and all paths are flat, making for easy walking.
The small Kingfisher Pool has a square-ish bird hide… and a lot of mosquitoes, and a great view across the water. Another birder who was just leaving when I arrived pointed out a Black Bittern across the pond to me, which was otherwise quite well camouflaged (it is a famously secretive, skulking bird). It was my first ever sight of a Black Bittern, and a pretty weird-looking creature it is too. From the photo you can just see the characteristic yellow that gives it its alternate name of Yellow-Necked Bittern.
As I left the bird hide I watched a White-Bellied Cuckooshrike catch a bug, and soon after spotted a Spangled Drongo. There were still a few mosquitoes around and it was swampy on both sides of the path. I walked down towards the south part of Cattana Wetlands, where an intriguing unpaved trail branched off to the south-east.
Here it is open on one side of the track and I managed to nab an in-flight shot of an Australian Swiftlet, and in the same area a White-Breasted Woodswallow. This trail heads to the very easternmost part of Cattana Wetlands and eventually meets a creek line (see map above), and here I saw a Forest Kingfisher hunting (successfully!) for a big lizard – great stuff.
On the creek itself I found a female Olive-Backed Sunbird who kept returning to one spot and I eventually realised it was the bird’s nest, hanging from a tree branch over the water (a tactic to keep away from predators, no doubt). The entrance to this hanging nest was all but impossible to see – I only knew where it was by seeing the bird crawl into it once or twice!
After this fine encounter, on the way back to the main paved trails, I found a small group of Crimson Finch in the grasses lining the track, and there was an amusing moment where a dragonfly buzzed one of the finches, seemingly simply out of curiosity. The finch wasn’t fazed by the dragonfly bugging it (ha ha).
It was well worth walking off the paved trail, but back on it gave me great views across the big lake (called Jabiru Lake).
Here I saw a Rainbow Bee-Eater swooping around above the water and thought to myself “Gee, wouldn’t it be awesome if that bee-eater landed on that exposed branch just there” and lo and behold! it did. It stayed for maybe half a minute, enough to get a terrific shot and to fantasise how amazing life would be if such wishful thinking always bent reality to one’s will when it comes to birding…
To the west of Jabiru Lake there is another unpaved loop trail that leads to Jacana Pool; the turn-off could be easy to miss.
On the way back from that track (where I didn’t see much) I then became rather wonderfully distracted by some movement in trees not far from the loop entrance – it was a trio of Double-Eyed Fig Parrots, probably my biggest target bird of the trip, and I was overjoyed to be able to watch them for several minutes munching on fruit. They are the smallest parrots found in Australia (they are more a New Guinea bird), with the male having more red on the face than the females. They are just absolute cutie-pies, that’s for sure.
On the lake there were less water birds than I expected, the main highlight being a close-up encounter with a Comb-Crested Jacana. I observed this bird walking on the lily pads with its giant claws from the viewing platform at the north-west of Jabiru Lake. This platform is – like all the facilities here – of excellent quality, and I enjoyed being able to sit down here in the sun with my legs dangling over the edge and poke my camera through the metal railings quietly hoping the Jacana would eventually come closer which, luckily, it did. I just never tire of watching Jacanas.
A stroll along the boardwalk that cuts through the feather palm forest on the way back to the car park didn’t yield many birds – perhaps expected due to the density of foliage here – but I didn’t care by then, I had had a fantastic time already and was very happy to have discovered this superb birding site (the eBird hotspot was the only reason I had initially found it when planning this trip). Though I’d only found 20 species of bird, it was the quality of encounters that I’d had that was truly memorable (those Fig Parrots!!)
A Second Visit
I returned to Cattana Wetlands in November 2021, basically straight after flying in to Cairns and picking up some supplies. It was nearly 2pm when I arrived and a pair of Figbirds (including a stunningly plumaged male) greeted me right at the car park.
I set out anti-clockwise this time, spotting an Orange-Footed Scrubfowl, Varied Triller and a honeyeater that turned out to be a Brown-Backed Honeyeater.
At the viewing platform there was a group of Green Pygmy-Geese, another species I hadn’t seen on the April visit.
A Helmeted Friarbird (yet another bird I hadn’t seen previously) and Olive-Backed Sunbird were also present, as were a couple of Crimson Finch.
Walking round to Cuckoo Lake and Crake Pond revealed a range of water birds including ten White Ibis, five Magpie Geese, Royal Spoonbills, Pacific Black Ducks, and Great and Intermediate Egrets. Where were all these birds last time?!
Somehow I got to 27 species in a much shorter visit than the previous one, though there weren’t any really stand-out extended encounters this time.
Cattana Wetlands is a testament to the power of rehabilitating agricultural land. Kudos to the council and all those involved in creating this site, and the bushcare group “Cattana Wetlands Jabirus” who keep the weeds under control. I had a great time birding here and just generally enjoying the location. There are a few extra trails to explore beyond the lakeside loops if you have the time and inclination and, most importantly, a wide variety of birds that you might see.
Pluses and minuses:
+ Huge species count means you can find a big range of birds here
+ Great flat paths that are easy to explore, with bird hide and viewing platforms
+ Excellent facilities
– Some might want a larger area to explore (?)