You need to be casso-wary

When in Far North Queensland, we visited Hartley’s Crocodile & Wildlife Park near Cairns.  The creature that took my attention was a southern cassowary haughtily marching along the fence of its large enclosure. If you want a bird with wow factor, this one’s a stunning example.

A southern cassowary, for those who’ve not seen one, is a very tall intimidating bird with a boney helmet on its head, a bright blue neck and drooping red wattles. Unless you’re waddling around a zoo, you’ll only see these in tropical rainforests in north-east Queensland.

Why you should be wary of a cassowary

Cassowaries are actually quite shy and prefer to disappear into the forest before you remotely figure out they’re there.

The ladies are bigger and more brightly coloured than the men (as it should be). Height-wise they can grow to 2m (6.6ft). They’ve got tiny wings hence no flying about – and each of their three-toed feet has a second toe sporting a very sharp dagger-like claw.

This claw is why you need to be wary of a cassowary. If you annoy one too much, it could slice you with that claw and spill your intestines onto the grass below. You certainly don’t want to chase one through the dense forest either because they can jump up to 1.5m (5ft), swim across raging rivers and over the sea, and belt through dense forest at speeds up to 50kph (31mph).

However, in the real world, there’s only one documented death of a human from a whack by a cassowary and that was way back in 1926. Two boys, 13 and 16 year old brothers, saw a cassowary on their Dad’s property and because they were idiots, thought they’d kill the bird by whacking it with clubs.

The bird kicked the 13 year old, who ran off. His older brother then struck the bird. He tripped and fell and the cassowary took the opportunity to kick him in the neck which probably severed his jugular vein. One kaput 16 year old. Personally I vote for the bird.

If you like statistics, there were 221 attacks in 2003 of which 150 were against humans. This was mostly because humans fed the cassowaries (a big no-no) and the birds came to expect or snatch the food. Most of the other attacks were because the male was defending its nest.

This was my favourite painting to do. Who’d have thought cassowaries and boots could be such fun. Sadly I made it too tall and then couldn’t decide if I should cut the bottom part of the boot off, or the top of the cassowary’s head. The compromise was to fold down the top so you can open up the painting and see the lot.

Cassowary hi-jinks

The boney helmet on top of a cassowary’s head (called a casque) grows as they age, but it’s not really known what the casque is for. Perhaps it:

  • helps them smash through undergrowth so they don’t hurt their heads
  • enables them to push leaf litter around while scratching for tasty treats
  • enables them to smack other cassowaries around when fighting over who’s the biggest dude in the forest
  • amplifies low-frequency sounds made by cassowaries who are ready for a bit of naughty fun. That’s my theory. Feel free to make up your own.

Cassowaries munch on fallen fruit (their favourite), flowers, fungi, snails, insects, fish, frogs, rats, mice and dead creatures. Because they eat fruit whole, they’re VERY important for distributing plant species through the forest.

Each year, their solitary lifestyle is interrupted when a female or male decide it’s time for a bit of sexual proliferation. Males may share a female, but females will not tolerate another female hanging in their space.

In May or June, Mrs Cassowary lays 3-8 eggs in a heap of leaves, then Mr C moves in for nine months to incubate the eggs and look after the little chickies. I’m starting to think female cassowaries have it all worked out.

Wild cassowaries are thought to live to about 40 to 50 years. It’s endangered because humans run vehicles over them, dogs attack them, they get shot, tangled in fence wire, habitat destroyed by humans or cyclones, or they die from disease. Then feral pigs eat their eggs and other creatures eat their food supplies. It’s not a marvellous outcome.

So treat these birds with respect and behave yourself in the forest, then you needn’t be too wary of the magnificent cassowary!

My desk with the cassowary painting in action

Bluey’s search for a sole

Last summer, while moving soil around the garden with the wheelbarrow, I ran over a long solid object. First thought – “why did the ol’ fellow leave the hose there?  What an odd place to put it.”

Micro-seconds later, I clicked it wasn’t a hose … and then gave myself a terrible fright thinking it was a snake. They’re beautiful creatures but there’s not a single non-poisonous snake in Australia, and Phillip Island certainly has its fair share of them slithering about. Running one over isn’t something you really want to do.

So with pounding pulse, I leapt about 30 feet into the air before realising it was actually an adult blue-tongue lizard I’d just abused.

The wheelbarrow was empty so no harm done and fortunately they’re very solid … although I’m sure the blue-tongue was deeply unimpressed. He lay there stock still, very embarrassed to be caught out.

At this point, to avoid further damage, I picked him up in gloved hands and gently placed him beyond the rear wire fence out of harm’s way. To my relief, he promptly took off for the safety of a fallen log.

This lizard really does have a blue tongue. If you watch quietly and don’t run over them with garden implements, you’ll easily spot that beautiful blue toned appendage flicking in and out.

This painting was a pleasure to do, particularly the canvas sneaker. I wanted the shoe to sit on the blue tongue’s back, to show he’d sneaked off and stolen it in his search for a sole. Hopefully it doesn’t look like he’s being squashed by it!

Bluey’s habits

Did you know we’ve got six species of blue-tongue lizard in Oz? Nope, I didn’t either. It’s a splendid number you have to admit.

They have a long body with a large head and short legs – hence the initial thinking that it was a snake. The legs aren’t initially that obvious. However they have a rather short tail which tapers off to a point, unlike our friend the snake with their l-o-n-g tails.

Blue-tongue lizards are found throughout most of Australia. We’ve seen them in all the Australian States visited so far, usually in unexpected places seeking out warmth or chasing something to fill their tummies.

At night they hide under leaf litter, in burrows or under rocks and logs. Once morning arrives, they meander about to find sunny spots for basking, and forage around for breakfast.

They eat all sorts of things including a wide variety of vegetation and invertebrates. With their large teeth and strong jaws, they easily crush snail shells and beetles. We have some pretty weird beetles lurking about, so they’re most welcome to those.

Blue-tongues prefer their own company most of the year. Then between September and November, the males go hunting females for a good time. They get rather rough though, and females can end up with scrape marks from the male’s teeth. I’m so glad I’m not a lizard.

And what’s that blue tongue for? When threatened, they open their mouth wide and poke out their tongue, which contrasts vividly with the pink mouth. Allegedly this colour combo scares away evil predators and dreadful human beings. Doesn’t work with wheelbarrows though.

Topsy turvy turtles

Truth to tell, I haven’t personally seen a Eastern Long Necked Turtle doing its thing in the natural world.

In late 2015, I saw a wonderful photo in one of Melbourne’s daily newspapers. Someone had piled three young turtles on top of each other at the Wild Action Zoo. They perched there looking highly alarmed while a photographer possibly frightened the tripes out of them taking a pic.

Still, the photo appealed so I hung onto it in expectation it might come in useful. Which it surely did.

The article in question …

For the Sketchbook Project, I decided to draw two turtles atop each other but give one a smile because she’d grabbed a high heel shoe with her rear foot.

This painting turned out tricky to execute because of the large amount of dark shadows between the two turtles.

Thus it was particularly difficult to delineate one turtle shell from the other, and required much fiddling about so they didn’t completely meld into each other.

Don’t know that I was wildly successful – time consuming trying to get it right for this amateur.  Oddly, the rock on which they were perched ended up being the stickiest part to get right. C’est la vie!

Oh those naughty turtles

The Eastern Long Neck turtle (Chelodina longicollis) can be found lurking in various areas across South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and northern parts of Queensland.

They adore swimming about in fresh water and are quite common, which was a surprise. Made me realise I rarely swim in fresh water looking for creatures, plus one would need to know where to look and carry diving gear.

They’re rather naughty too, these turtles. If one comes into contact with another species called Chelodina canni up there in Queensland, they’ll mess around together and produce lots of vibrant hybrid babies.

Our turtle has a variety of names including ‘snake-necked turtle’ and ‘stinker’. When one feels threatened, a charmingly offensive smelling fluid is emitted from their musk glands.

Our smelly turtle is carnivorous and munches through a variety of critters including insects, worms, tadpoles, frogs, small fish, molluscs and crayfish.

And if you’re wondering what the point of their long necks is, they use them at mealtimes to rapidly strike at any unfortunate creature passing by.

Double goosey gander

Ever met a Cape Barren goose?  No?  Then you’re in for a treat.

You won’t find this lovely hued goose anywhere other than Australia. They reside in the southern coast of Western Australia and in south-eastern Victoria, although we’ve only seen them on Phillip Island, where we are based.

They rank as one of the world’s rarest geese which makes them very special. Fortunately there are more of these geese kicking their heels up today than at any time since the settlement of Australia. This is apparently due to the improvement of pastures in which they graze – so much more to eat.

How about a magpie goose? They’re common in northern Australia and used to be widespread in southern Australia. However, the usual story – humans stuffed that up by draining the wetlands where the birds breed.

The Cape Barren goose and the magpie goose hang out at opposite ends of Australia. The monochromatic orange legged magpie goose lives in coastal northern and eastern Australia, and southern New Guinea as well.

Introducing the Cape Barren goose …

This gorgeous critter was rarely seen on Phillip Island. However, in recent years, they’ve become surprisingly common. They’re still classed as vulnerable or rare, so it’s a magnificent pleasure to see their numbers steadily increasing. Occasionally we’re treated to the sight of dozens of birds making merry together in grassy fields overlooking the bay.

This goose is a grazing bird and munches happily on common island tussock grass (Poa poiformis for those of you busting to know the Latin name). They’re also partial to chowing down on spear grass, herbs and succulents, pasture grasses such as barley and clover, and legumes.

They tend to hang about in pairs – it’s unusual to see one on its own. In autumn, Mum lays her eggs in a nest in the tussocks on open grasslands. To ensure he contributes equally to the equation, Dad builds the nest and lines it nicely with down.

Then they noisily defend it against other crazy geese. Like many humans, they’re monogamous and hang together for life. Mum incubates the eggs but the babies are brought up by both parents.

The birds on Phillip Island are wary of humans but they allow you get relatively close. Bird couples seem to inhabit the same areas all year around. We do a count every time we leave the island and you can almost always find the birds in the same fields.

Because their colouring is quite amazing, I decided to include one in my sketchbook. Both geese are tearing about on wheels and the Cape Barren goose has the dubious distinction of being on a skateboard.

And now for the magpie goose …

When wandering past the Port Douglas golf course on our northern Queensland meander, I spotted a gaggle of magpie geese picking around the edge of the grass.

They have a black neck and head, with a knob on the crown of the beak which increases in size with age. Bit like a female bottom really.

The underparts are white and the bits I like best – the bill, legs and feet – are orange. Where they differ from most waterfowl is they don’t have fully webbed feet. Instead they have strong clawed toes that are only partially webbed. I’m sure you all wanted to know that.

They’re very partial to chowing down on aquatic vegetation – mostly wild rice, paspalum, panicum and spike-rush, none of which seems too appealing to me.

Magpie geese build nests in secluded places, preferably close to wetlands. Like the Cape Barren goose, Dad builds the nest.

Mum and Dad mate for life, but a male might cohabit with two females. Why is it you always hear the story of one guy with two girls?  Why not the other way around?  And who’d have thought geese would have such proclivity towards this behaviour.

Fortunately all adults share incubation and care for their babies.

Given the magpie goose isn’t very keen to make your acquaintance, he’s on skates for a quick getaway.

Painting the geese

Thought I needed a wider drawing than the paper width of the journal allows, so started off with 3 sections (which you’ll see in the first 2 illustrations).  Eventually I gave away the first section to ensure it fitted correctly.

My Cape Barren goose was surprisingly tricky to get the colours right.  Not too happy with him and I’d redo if there was more time.  However, it gives you an idea of how cute he might be 🙂