Wildlife sanctuary on plateau above Cairns teems with a colourful array of warblers, waders and raptors, writes Jim Eagles.

I've been wary of emus since I was about 6 and one of them pecked me viciously on the hand, drawing blood, during a family visit to Auckland Zoo. So you can imagine how I felt when I saw one of these scary monsters charging full tilt towards me down a narrow trail through the tropical Queensland bush.

I leaped aside and tried to hide behind a worryingly small tree. Fortunately, the emu raced past, eventually stopping about 20m away.

As it stood there, getting its breath back, I nervously moved nearer to take a few photos. It didn't seem to mind. When I headed back to our luxurious tent-cabin it even seemed to follow me for a while.

By the time I'd reached the tent, much to my relief my new friend couldn't be seen. But I'd no sooner told my wife about the encounter and wandered outside to enjoy a calming cup of tea than there it was. Help! I was being stalked by a giant bird.


This adventure took place in the Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve, a magnificent wildlife sanctuary in the tablelands above Cairns, created by using surplus water from an irrigation scheme to fill eight artificial lagoons in a 2000ha block of parched bush.

The lagoons attracted birds and marsupials, mammals and reptiles, by the hundreds, and nature lovers followed. So the Wildlife Conservancy of Tropical Queensland, which runs the place, built the Jabiru Safari Lodge, where we were staying, in the middle of the reserve, to accommodate visitors and raise funds.

When we later strolled down to the lodge building for a safari drive - they have them at dawn and dusk each day - chief guide Greg had an explanation for the emu's behaviour.

It was, he said, almost certainly a female emu whose male partner had recently been seen with five chicks. "When it comes to breeding time the female emu lays the eggs and that's it. It's up to the male to incubate and raise the chicks. The female has nothing to do with them. In fact if she comes across the chicks she'll kill them. I'd say our male must have been looking after his chicks in the area where you were walking and chased her off. There's nothing else round here that would make a female emu run like that."

On our next safari trip, Greg took us to see an orphan emu chick nicknamed Eddie he was raising at home. "Next time the male pays us a visit," he explained, "I'm going to try releasing Eddie in the hope that the male can't count very well and will think the little fellow is one of his."

Being chased by an emu wasn't the only excitement during our four days at the lodge. On one evening safari we nearly stood on a 2m water python lying almost comatose at the edge of a lagoon. Kevin, our guide, said the fact that its jaw was dislocated, there was a huge misshapen bulge in its body just below the head and the ground was covered with white feathers suggested it had just caught and swallowed a cattle egret. As we watched in horrified fascination the snake gradually got its jaw back into place and started slowly moving the egret down its body.

Just across the lagoon, there was drama of a different sort. A squadron of Australian pelicans was having a meeting, with the birds gathered in a circle around an old tree stump upon which perched a huge bird, whose giant clacking bill and flapping wings indicated he was engaging in a spot of rabble-rousing.

Meanwhile four Australian cranes, or brolga, were patrolling the shoreline, looking very official in their pale-grey uniforms with the reddy-orange head bands. Were they there to keep the peace?

We never found out because I was keen to see a jabiru, Australia's only species of stork, after which the lodge is named, and Kevin had spotted one on another lagoon. We drove quietly across ... and there it was, a jabiru, its majestic blue-black head shining in the light of the setting sun.

"That's the bird that delivers all the babies in Australia," said Kevin, but the jabiru ignored his joke, posed briefly for photos, then wandered off across the dam into a patch of reeds.

On morning safaris, we enjoyed great views of kangaroos and wallabies and even caught a few boxing matches between groups of young male roos. Once we watched as a group of males jostled competitively and one flicked out a jab that caught a rival on the chin. The blow was ignored so he flicked out another jab, which landed on the same spot. This time the result was a full-on fight with punches and kicks flying and a couple of other males joining in.

During one of the evening safaris we also had a great view of a female with a rather large joey sitting in her pouch, its head sticking out, enjoying the scenery.

"That's unusual," said Greg. "Normally when they've got a joey they take off as soon as we appear. But this one seems quite happy for us to admire her baby."

But the reserve is most famous for its birdlife with over 200 species having been identified.

From the viewing deck of the lodge, on Clancy's Lagoon, there is a constant parade of water fowl, including unusual birds such as the cotton pygmy goose, great crested grebe and hardhead diving duck.

Up above is a regular fly-past of assorted raptors. One morning, when I walked to the head of the lagoon, I found a tree with a whistling kite nest and watched as these powerful birds of prey - with wingspans of nearly 1.5m - exchanged the high-pitched calls for which they are named and jousted with each other and other birds.

The surrounding bush is alive with spectacular birds such as the rainbow bee-eater, red-winged parrot, blue-faced honeyeater, metallic starling and red-backed fairywren. But the most amazing of the lot is surely the rare gouldian finch.

They're easy to see at Mareeba because they're being raised at an aviary attached to the lodge. Their colours are stunning - an adult male may sport vivid patches of red, green, turquoise, purple, yellow and black - and, best of all, gouldian finches don't peck small boys' hands or chase old men down bush pathways.



Air New Zealand flies weekly from Auckland to Cairns non-stop between April and October. One-way Economy Class fares start from $342. airnewzealand.co.nz