Michaelmas Cay

On a recent trip to Cairns we took a day trip on 7 Nov 2013 to Michaelmas Cay in the Great Barrier Reef

Starting off at about 8 am, initially we were a bit crest fallen as the sky was heavily broken overcast, and naturally we wanted a perfect day.

Overcast Start

As we motored out the 33 km from Cairns we encountered some chop as the winds were blowing from the East at about 20-30 km/h.  Some of the passengers needed a seasick pill, but we were fine.  We chose to go with Seastar Cruises because they have developed a well-earned reputation as the best boat to take for birders and bird photographers and perhaps for general tourism as well.  They have a fast catamaran with an enthusiastic staff and a passenger limit of just 35.


Reaching Michaelmas about 9:30 am we are the first boat to reach this cay.  All you have to do is tell the staff you are birders and we were the first group to be put ashore.

 Our pickup

Bird photography on Michaelmas is best done with handheld gear in my opinion, less hassle and much easier to track the flying birds.  Can you make out the birds on the distant cay ?

On the beach

Wow, there were simply birds everywhere !  Michaelmas Cay is one of the most important bird nesting sites in the Great Barrier Reef with around 20,000 or more birds in peak nesting season, and in early November this was in full swing.  Visitors are only allowed on the cay between 9:30 am and 3:00 pm and must stay behind the ropes.  Here a couple of birds are studying the rules:-

Birds Reading Sign

But the birds were clearly very used to visitors and wouldn’t fly away at the approach of a human in a swimsuit.

Visitors behind ropes

In early November the most abundant species was clearly the Common Noddy and they were nesting in close quarters.  I’d guess there were well over 10,000 noddies.  Although they seemed to just use a simple scrap in the ground as the nest site, this one does seem to be carrying a bit of nesting material.

Common Noddy (carrying nest material)

And courtship displays or aerial fighting were also common.

Common Noddy (fighting)

Many chicks were also present.

Common Noddy (with chick)

And the marauding Silver Gull was caught in the act.

Silver Gull (with dead chick)

The second most abundant bird was the Sooty Tern.  Here’s one with adult plumage, similar to the Bridled Tern seen in Singapore waters but with black upper wing plumage rather than dark brown.

Sooty Tern (adult)

Many thousands of Sooty Terns were present, but it seemed that nesting season was already over for this species as there were many juvenile birds present.  Here’s a juvenile in its striking all black plumage with white spots on the upper wings.

Sooty Tern (juvenile)

It was easy enough to see the Common Noddies and Sooty Terns from where we landed on the beach, but as birders, Seastar Cruises will also take you around the cay on their launch.  On the other side you can see more species.  Many Lesser Crested Terns and if you look carefully a few Greater Crested Terns were also present, but they didn’t seem to be nesting.

Lesser-Crested Tern

Then there were just a few Brown Boobies, perhaps ten or so.  They also didn’t seem to be nesting.

Brown Booby

And even fewer frigatebirds.  Can you see the frigatebirds among all the birds in flight?

Birds Everywhere

Here they are on their perch.

Frigatebird Perching

One obligingly flew off to give us a look at the key ID features: Lesser Frigatebird (juvenile).

Lesser Frigatebird

After a couple of hours at Michaelmas Cay we had lunch on the boat (included) and then moved off to Hastings Reef for some snorkeling and unbelievable colorful fishes, before our return to Cairns around 4 pm.  What a great day !

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Wildlife Photography is My Passion