Michaelmas Cay

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Oceania » Australia » Queensland » Great Barrier Reef
June 23rd 2016
Published: July 9th 2017
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For our final full day in Cairns we had another tour booked, this time to Michaelmas Cay, a sand cay on the outer Great Barrier Reef. Michaelmas Cay has one of the biggest colonies of nesting sea birds in the southern hemisphere and has colonies of several different species of sea birds.

The cruise to visit the cay did of course leave from near The Esplanade which meant that despite the fact that it was another fairly early departure, I could have a bit of time to look at The Esplanade. Rather than a beach or anything like that, the Cairns coastline has an extensive area of tidal mudflats and mangroves and a line of trees behind including some large figs which is an excellent place for birds.

Although it is winter and not the ideal time for seeing waders, there was a fair number of them on The Esplanade as well as many egrets of various species, Masked Lapwings, Australian Pelicans, gulls, and terns. Sadly, I don’t have a scope which made the identification of distant waders more difficult, but through binoculars I was able to identify most species after a little while looking at them. I didn’t have a huge amount of time on the Esplanade in the morning but I managed to identify several species of waders, the best one being the very distinctive Red-capped Plover. Partly because of the ease of identification, but mostly because they’re such cute little things and very prettily marked. As well as the waders, there were also a few Sacred Kingfishers on the mudflats which was a year bird. There were some birds along the shore as well including many Spotted and Peaceful Doves and huge numbers of Indian Mynas. And the sunrise on the Esplanade was stunning too.

The boat that we took to Michaelmas Cay was pretty cool with big sails and plenty of space both inside and out, though for some reason they kept the inside at a ridiculously cold temperature, obviously they had extra fuel to burn and they were burning it off with the air conditioning. It was quite windy and before boarding the boat we were told about the slightly choppy weather, but luckily I don’t have any problem with seasickness so I stood outside at the front of the boat looking out for things. The first thing I saw off the side of the boat was a rather large Leopard Shark at the surface of the water just off the side of the boat. There was a marine biologist on board who I told about my Leopard Shark sighting to confirm that it would be that because I’m no fish expert and that there was no other species that it could be confused with and said that it could be a Leopard Shark, there were no similar species, and that they were not commonly seen at all and she had never seen one before!

I also saw a couple of gulls and terns from the boat but I couldn’t identify any of them for sure. The rest of the boat ride passed without anything else of note, no pelagic sea birds or marine life seen from the boat though I went to the talk with the marine biologist which was interesting. As we started to approach the cay I was able to see it from quite a distance away being a pale yellow speck on the surface of the water, and I was also able to see the different colour water indicating the extensive reef that surrounds the cay and is a national park. There was also a significant number of birds flying around, forming a mass of birds over the cay. The boat set anchor a little distance away in the deep enough water, probably about 500 metres away, and to get to the cay there was a little boat going back and forth from the boat every fifteen minutes that we could use whenever we wanted. Most people went to the cay for snorkeling or diving but I was of course there for birds. I also can’t go in the water because of an ear problem, but I wasn’t hugely bothered. Included in the tour though was a ride in a semi-submersible which I though was worth doing because it would be a shame to go out to the great barrier reef and not actually see the reef so I decided to reserve a place on the first tour in the semi-submersible to get that out of the way and look at the birds later.

While the crew was setting that up though, there was a fish feeding off the side of the boat which mostly attracted huge trevally as well as various other large fish. After the fish feeding we boarded the semi-sub in which the people sat completely underwater with glass below and on all sides, but was not truly a submarine because the top of the vessel stayed on the water line. The coral reefs were quite impressive and mostly unspoilt and very colourful. They had apparently had a coral bleaching incident a few years ago but apparently thanks to a lot of rain that fell soon afterwards most of the coral recovered, though the tips of lots of the corals were slightly white. There were also lots of Giant Clams around which were awesome and of course there was lots of fish, some of which I could identify, some was pointed out, but most I have no idea about. There were lots of different butterflyfish and big wrasses and groupers and things and it was all very pretty. Although I didn’t see any sharks on the reef, there were a couple of Green Sea Turtles cruising about which was cool.

The semi-submersible trip lasted for about 45 minutes and it was nice to actually see the reef before starting to concentrate on the birding so I headed straight out onto the cay when we got back.

Though being winter, it is low season for the birds on the cay with the minimum number of birds, though there are individuals breeding year round, and individuals of species that don’t breed there but just rest there can show up year round. On the cay people are restricted to a small strip of beach to limit the impact to the seabird colony which nest on the ground around rocks and driftwood. The numbers of people who can go to the cay every day are also limited and there were a couple of people from the Queensland National Parks Service who I suspect may have been there to monitor the people on the cay.

When I first got there I was rather overwhelmed by the number of birds, the skies were full of screaming terns and noddies, the ground was also covered in birds and there were chicks everywhere. At first, I thought the distant part of the beach was covered in pebbles but they were all chicks, some of the chicks were even spilling across under the barrier into the people area.

It was very noisy, and manic, and generally awesome. Once I had overcome the initial shock of the sheer number of amazing birds, I got the binoculars out to look at them properly. There were Greater and Lesser Crested Terns all over the place including many chicks. Sooty Terns were also extremely numerous but there were even more chicks than adults and it was the same situation with noddies, though as well as there being pairs feeding their chicks there were huge mats of noddies

just sitting on the beach which were mostly Common Noddies but I was able to locate a couple of Black Noddies amongst the commons so I could add that to the list. The other species breeding on the cay were the Brown Boobies and there were probably a couple of dozen nesting pairs, each with little scrapes in the ground and a couple of sticks which was more than the terns had, with their chicks and eggs just sitting on the ground. As well as the nesting pairs there were also quite a few individuals sitting around and lots flying around over the surrounding ocean too.

Not long after I got to the cay though, I noticed that on one piece of driftwood that stuck up considerably higher than the surrounds was a female Greater Frigatebird which was very nice to see. and it sat there for the entire time that I was at the cay.

It was of course extremely hot and dry at the cay with the only respite from the sun coming with occasional clouds passing over as there was no shade at all. Plenty of water and lots of birds kept me going though, so I was able to stay out on the cay for quite a few hours taking pictures and videos and scanning around with binoculars to watch the birds, and also to look out for different species here and there because although only a few species regularly nest on the cay in large numbers, 36 have been recorded, and I saw twelve there, of which nine were year birds and lifers. I did of course have to leave the cay to go back to the boat for lunch which was included in the tour/cruise but I spent most of the time on the cay and throughout those hours other species that I added were Bridled Tern which took quite a while to add because of ID difficulties, Gull-billed Tern flying nearby over the sea, and a Lesser Frigatebird flying overhead bringing the day to a two frigatebird day, which is pretty good I think. It was a lot of fun watching the tern chicks tottering around and comparing the different ages of the noddy chicks was interesting. There was a funny Crested Tern chick at the waters edge that walked down to the waves as they flowed out and then ran back up the beach when the wave came back in trying not to get wet, though the wave caught it slightly most times. The nest building behaviour of the boobies was another nice thing to watch, as were the adult birds flying back and feeding their chicks as they squabbled over food.

Very awesome. I supposed you can’t have something very awesome, either awesome or not, but I think this cay deserves a grammatical exception

Apart from the rope fence separating the people bit from the bird bit and a small weather tower, there was nothing man made on the cay. It is mostly covered in sand with small pebbles and lots of birds of driftwood here and there along with some sticks and other bits of dead vegetation. Apparently the cay was once covered in live vegetation with salt tolerant grasses and succulents, but this was completely ripped out by a cyclone. It was expected after this that all the noddies would leave the cay because they usually only nest in low vegetation, but the noddy colony stayed and switched to sheltering under the drift wood. The vegetation is starting to slowly recover though, with a couple of patches of grass growing at the other side of the cay. It's only a few square metres now, but hopefully the vegetation should spread.

I say hopefully because who knows about the future of this cay. Rising sea levels could destroy it, global warming may damage the corals, and increasingly violent weather could spell the end for this fantastic place. For now though, it’s definitely worth a visit whether for birds or corals or any kind of marine life.

On the journey back to Cairns, we were going in the direction of the wind so the sails were opened for us to sail back. The sails weren’t all opened and the ones that were opened weren’t even open fully but we went extremely quickly all the way back which shows both how strong the winds were and how big the sails were. Nonetheless I stood at the front of the boat looking out for anything on the water or in the air. Most of the journey back was uneventful, however there was one interesting sighting that was some sort of sea snake sitting at the top of the water which I saw for a split second before the boat went over it. I didn’t see it for long enough to identify but I could see it was quite a slender sea snake with bands of alternating dark and light brown and it was my first wild sea snake of any kind. I think and Elegant Sea Snake is the most likely candidate though, but of course I can't count it.

On the way back in, I got a really nice view of Cairns with the city surrounded by mangroves on either side, and forested mountains stretching back behind the city. There were quite a few big boats at Cairns too, including a ridiculously big cruise ship like several large blocks of flats.

When we got back into Cairns and off the boat there was still quite a bit of daylight left so I had another look along The Esplanade, and in addition to more nice views of the many lovely species I saw in the morning, I added two new species to the list. One was a particularly attractive wader, a Black-fronted Dotterel, and I do like waders when they’re easy to identify, at all other times they just frustrate me. And the other was another new honeyeater for the list, a Varied Honeyeater, and there were quite a few of them around though they moved around too much and went into places that were too inaccessible for me to photograph. The sunset over the Esplanade was fantastic too.

And after dark we popped back to the accommodation before going out again for dinner and to look at the many fantastic flying foxes that fly around the city. Then we went to bed fairly early to be able to get to The Esplanade for sunrise the next morning. The next day we were due to head up to a town in the rainforest near Cairns called Kuranda for some particularly exciting birding opportunities, but I wanted some more time at the Cairns Esplanade first to get a few species that I had so far missed before we headed up. Originally our plan to get to Kuranda was to take the scenic railway, but that was very expensive and only runs in the early morning so would only give me an hour or so at the Esplanade. So we looked into other possibilities and found a regular bus service from Cairns to Kuranda that was only $6.70, so we mostly packed up our room so we could head out to The Esplanade for first light.

New birds seen:

Black-tailed Godwit
Australian Pied Oystercatcher
Red-capped Plover

Sacred Kingfisher
Common Noddy
Sooty Tern
Brown Booby
Greater Frigatebird
Black Noddy
Lesser Crested Tern
Lesser Frigatebird
Gull-billed Tern
Black-fronted Dotterel
Varied Honeyeater

New reptile:

Green Sea Turtle


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