Headed out of Cairns this morning towards Mareeba. Stopped at the Henry Ross Lookout which had great views of Cairns and the sea. Further up the hill we took the turn to Barron Falls which we thought would be a quick stop but we had to drive through Kuranda to get there. On the drive through we discovered that Kuranda was home to the largest butterfly aviary in Australia but as it didn’t open for another forty-five minutes we headed out to the falls first.
The track to the falls includes a canopy boardwalk which was a great opportunity for some birding. Saw a few lifers including Lovely Fairy-wren and Spectacled Monarch. At the end of the walk we were rewarded with awesome views of the gorge and falls.
Back in Kuranda Lil Sis and I headed to the Butterfly Sanctuary while Mum checked out the shops. Butterfly Sanctuary is home to eight species of butterfly, including the Ulysses and Cairns Birdwing, which is Australia’s largest butterfly. Cairns Birdwings are poisonous, they ingest the toxins from the plants they eat as caterpillars and once they feed the toxins stay in their body even through metamorphosis. It spooked us at first because the butterflies land on you, but then we found out they are only toxic if you eat them.
The male Ulysses is the perfect shade of blue, that’s according to science and the light spectrum, not just me. We went on a guided tour which covered the entire lifecycle of the butterflies. We started in the aviary at the feeding and breeding stations, where the butterflies are fed sugar water and where they lay their eggs. They only lay on certain species of plant so branches from those plants are only provided at the breeding stations, which make the eggs easy to find and collect.
Next we headed into the nursery where the eggs are washed and put into Petri dishes to hatch. Caterpillars really are the hungriest animals; one American species is capable of eating 83,000 times its birth weight in its first 48 hours which is the equivalent of a human baby eating 80 elephants in its first two days of life. The caterpillars are raised until they form a pupa. It takes two full time staff to make sure they have enough food every day. During metamorphosis the entire body of the caterpillar, except for the stomach and reproductive organs, liquefies and reforms. Some of the liquid is retained in their abdomen and when they emerge they pump this liquid through veins in their wings to uncurl them.
After emerging they are left to dry for four to six hours and then they are released into the aviary. The lifespan of the butterflies varies and depends on their ability to fly. Once they become butterflies they can’t grow or repair any damage to their bodies, so the more erratic flyers like the Ulysses only live for about two weeks as a butterfly because they damage their wings quicker, whereas the Australia Lurcher can live for up to nine months as a butterfly because it tends to rest a lot more.
The sanctuary also breeds Hercules Moths, which are the largest moths in the world (up to 36cm wingspan). The adult male only lives for two days and the females three to five days. Their metamorphosis is unpredictable, taking anywhere from nine months to two years. Because of this the sanctuary rarely have two adults together so when a female moth emerges they put her outside to mate with a wild male. The female produces pheromones which the male can smell from up to five kilometres away.
We hung out in the aviary for a while longer, the butterflies loved my Rabbitohs hat, because the logo is white and butterflies see in UV, which means white glows to them. We saw a female Ulysses laying her eggs, which is a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ affair.
When we were done we met up with Mum and checked out a couple of the shops (Kuranda is a lot like Mogo) and got some chicken pies for lunch. Then we drove on to Mareeba. Not far past Kuranda the rainforest finishes and the country is much more like the outback, dry and red dirt. We stopped on the roadside to have a closer look at the sugar cane and then drove on to Julatten.
We checked into our room at Kingfishers Lodge Birdwatching Park and while I went birding Mum and Lil Sis drove down into Mossman for supplies. Saw a few lifers, including Emerald Dove, Graceful Honeyeater, Dusky Honeyeater, Macleay’s Honeyeater and Victoria’s Riflebird. We had planned to go on the night walk but it was cancelled because there weren’t enough people (fancy that, no one wants to go bird watching…). 16 lifers for the day and 29 for the trip so far.