Chiara Talia

Michaelmas Cay birds

Michaelmas Cay: a bird paradise in the Great Barrier Reef

When planning my birding trip to Australia, due to limited time, I could focus only on some parts of this huge island. I end up choosing Far North Queensland because based on my research, that was an absolute gem birding and wildlife-wise, but I also picked it because visiting Australia I could not miss the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef – a spectacular natural wonder

The Great Barrier Reef, in the north-east coast of Australia, is one of the seven wonders of the natural world and a World Heritage site, being the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem. There are almost 3000 individual reefs and 900 islands ranging from small sandy cays to large rugged continental islands. Home to over 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral and 4,000 species of mollusk, no other World Heritage property contains such biodiversity. Coming to birds, there are more than 200 species that visit the reef or nest or roost on the islands, with over 1 million individuals reported during breeding season. It is not surprising that this is a very popular destination – not only for nature lovers.

But it is actually only when I started to look at day trips to visit the Great Barrier Reef that I realised that I could also combine that with birding… And let me tell you: that ended up being one of the most exciting birding I’ve ever done in my life.

Michaelmas Cay

Googling around, I came to know about Michaelmas Cay. This is a small, vegetated sand cay, located about 40km of Cairns. Michaelmas Cay is a popular snorkelling and diving spot, thanks to its easy access from Cairns and its crystalline water and reefs. However, what makes it very special is the bird life.

Michaelmas Cay is a major natural seabird habitat, formally declared a national park in 1975. It is not only one of the most significant bird sanctuaries on the Great Barrier Reef but also of the whole Southern Hemisphere. It is home to more than 20 bird species, with many ground-nesting birds finding this island with its low vegetation an ideal nesting habitat. It is enough to say that during breeding season in the summer up to 20,000 birds have been observed – which is an incredible number if you think that the cay is less than 400m long and 50m wide! Michaelmas Cay is also recognised an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International because it supports over 1% of the world populations of greater and lesser crested terns.

Almost nowhere else such vast numbers of birds and species can be seen together in an accessible location.

The journey

Cairns is one of the major spots from where the tours to the Great Barrier Reef depart. However, not many actually go to Michaelmas Cay. When I was planning my trip I could find only two companies, of which only one had the trip available for the day I was looking for. My day started with a walk before sunrise along the Esplanade in Cairns (which is a birding hotspot too that I will cover in a next blog article). Then I reached the Reef Terminal, ready to embark on the catamaran of Ocean Spirit Cruise. We were welcomed by a buffet breakfast and during the journey we also got a nice presentation by a marine biologist.

After 1.5h navigation on the catamaran we finally arrived to Michaelmas Cay. I could see the cay at the distance, birds already flying around. We were given all necessary equipment for snorkelling as well as a lycra suit. The suit is necessary since dangerous jellyfish inhabit those tropical waters. In addition, the lycra suit was also a very good protection against the strong sun.  As the water is very shallow, a small beach buggy brought us to the cay.

When we were approaching it, I could start hearing the bird calls getting louder and louder. When I stepped on the cay, I immediately started walking on the beach. Everyone else was there for the snorkelling and diving, so they stopped immediately and got ready to get in the water. I was the only one to keep walking towards the birds. I am not going to lie – it was quite overwhelming to be surrounded by thousands of birds and my eyes got filled with tears of joys. Many birds were extremely close, completely unimpressed by my presence. There were so many things going on, I didn’t know where to focus, birds flying around me, birds courting, birds incubating eggs, birds attending to their young. It was a lot! I felt so lucky to be in such a special place. I was a guest in that corner of paradise that so many birds call home.

Only a tiny part of the cay is accessible to humans (less than 10% of it) and the area is delimited by a rope.  Funny enough, the rope itself is used by many birds to perch and many birds decided to stay within the “human area”. You can see a small vlog from this trip here.

I want to now formally introduce the 8 bird species I got to meet and see there. We will start with the 4 main breeding species on Michaelmas Cay: the crested tern, the lesser crested tern, the sooty tern and the brown noddy. 2 to 4 thousands pairs of each ot these species nest on the cay!

Brown noddy

The brown noddy is a tropical seabird with a worldwide distribution. This was the bird I have seen in the highest numbers, mainly because terns were nesting mostly on the part of the cay that was not accessible nor visible from where I was. On the other hand,  Brown noddies were absolutely fine in staying just around on the rope or very close-by. The brown noddy is a colonial bird, usually nesting on cliffs, trees, or bushes. It occasionally lays its eggs on the bare ground as in Michaelmas Cay. Brown noddies made perfect subjects and I could document a variety of interesting interactions as you can see in the selected shots below.

Sooty tern

This seabird is distinctive among terns with its jet-black back, black cap, and neat white forehead. It is found in tropical waters worldwide, very rarely seen near land as it lives offshore and nests on sandy islands.

Despite being very numerous on the cay, I suspect they nested mostly on the side of the cay that were not visible. Since I spotted them mostly flying around when coming back from the sea.

Great crested tern

This large tern has a yellow bill (which makes it easy to distinguish from the other common tern species on the cay – the lesser crested tern). They feed by plunge diving for fish, the male offers fish to the female as part of the courtship ritual (as you can see in the first photo below). 

Lesser crested tern

The other common tern species on the cay is the Lesser Crested tern. Compared to Great crested tern it is slightly smaller and has an orange bill.

Brown booby

The brown booby (Sula leucogaster) is a large seabird of the booby family Sulidae (which includes also gannets).

The booby’s head and the back are covered in dark brown to black plumage, with the remainder (belly) being a contrasting white. The species also displays sexual dimorphism of the bare part colours. The male has a blue orbital ring, as opposed to the yellow orbital ring of the female. The female is slightly larger than the male. This was the first booby species I have seen in my life and it was my favourite bird from the trip. Thanks to their fairly large size and the fact that several pairs were nesting very close to the rope, this was another species that I could observe very well. For example, because it was very hot, most of the boobies were doing gular fluttering (which is a strategy of thermoregulation in this species – you can see some of my videos here) and in addition I could see the adults trying to shelter their young with their bodies.

Honestly young boobies might very well be among the cutest, fluffiest and weirdest creatures ever. I couldn’t stop watching them!

Great frigatebird

 I had only two brief sightings but luckily I had my eyes up in the sky in those moments! A female great frigatebird was flying high in the sky. This is a very large seabird with over 2m wingspan with a forked tail!  Males have a red throat patch which is incredible.

Ruddy turnstone

The ruddy turnstone is a familiar bird. I have seen it many times along the coasts of Belgium and the Netherlands during winter. Normally I see them along the coasts with cold, rain and wind (the typical weather conditions of the North Sea). So seeing it on a warm and sunny sand cay was very strange at the beginning. Then I realised the incredible journey this bird did to be there! Ruddy turnstones breed in the arctic tundra and some birds migrate all the way to Australia! It looks like the ruddy turnstones getting there start their journey from east Siberia or west Alaska. In Australia, Ruddy Turnstones are widespread around the coast of the mainland and off-shore islands.

Silver gull

The silver gull is the most common gull of Australia and the gull species I have seen more during my time there. It can be found throughout the continent, particularly at or near coastal areas (but also in cities nowadays). Adults have a bright red beak. They usually nest in large colonies on offshore islands, and the availability of breeding habitat looks like the limiting factor in the expansion of this species. 

Photography Challenges

Overall my time there was amazing. It is a birder and bird photographer’s dream to be surrounded by so many birds – however despite the great availability of subjects, photography itself was not easy. The main challenges were all related to the environmental conditions.

  • Strong direct sunlight
  • Sand and water
  • High temperature

Mid December in the Tropics means summer is in full swing. The temperature was above 30°C, not a cloud in the sky. We arrived at Michaelmas Cay at 10am and stayed there for about 4 hours. This means that I took photos exactly when the light was harsher. I had to deal with strong shadows and contrasts. The sun was high in the sky, but I tried to keep it at my back. I took photos in RAW format – so I could recover details in the both the shadows and highlights.

It was also very warm and I was taking photos very close to the ground level. So I had to deal with heat distortion resulting in visible heat waves which are very clear especially when using zoom lenses as mine. In many cases, heat distortion is unavoidable, and there is no way to fix it, but there are a few different ways to avoid it. Of course the best is just not to shoot when the ground is so heated up, but in my case I could not choose the time of arrival at the cay. The distortion is much more evident when taking photos of distant subjects (you can see clearly in the fourth photo of the lesser crested terns). This is why I tried to focus mostly on subjects that were closer to me.

The high temperature and being under the sun for a long period with no shelter was difficult also for me until the point I got dizzy every time I was standing up to move somewhere else. I had to take some breaks going in the water (which anyway was super warm) and I went back to the catamaran for getting water and some food after the first couple of hours. 

Also for the sand I just tried to be careful. I had a neoprene cover for my lens as well as a rain cover around it. When taking photos on the cay, I used my backpack as camera holder. When I got familiar enough with the place and the conditions, I also decided to get in the water to take photos of birds on the shore in a different angle. It was scary – but worth it 😂 Below you can see a few photos of how it looked like!

A day to remember

This was a day I certainly will remember for the rest of my life. For anyone travelling to Far North Queensland, I highly recommend taking the trip to Michaelmas Cay. If you want to know about other birding spots in the region you can check my blog article here or watch my Youtube vlog about my search for the huge Southern cassowary.

And if you have any question about this part of my itinerary, want more information in case you are also planning to go there do not hesitate to contact me via email or on Instagram


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