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Waiting for Barbara

Marie Read's Photo Adventures--Australia
November 2006

I’ve been standing here for five hours now. During that time, the weather’s changed from drizzly to cloudy to bright sunshine. The forest scene before me, ideally lit earlier this morning, is full of harsh highlights and ugly shadows. Sweat trickles down my back; I wriggle uncomfortably. Fifty yards away a tub of quartered apples slowly starts to rot in the heat. I fear that fickle Barbara has stood me up again, just as she did yesterday.

I’m near Mission Beach, Queensland, at one of the feeding stations set up as part of a cooperative program between local residents and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in the wake of Cyclone Larry that hit the region last March. The goal is to ensure the survival of the endangered Southern Cassowaries that make this area their home.

And Barbara? She’s a large female cassowary, thought to be at least forty years old. Immediately after Larry, she and several other cassowaries were relying on this supplemental food supply, visiting this feeding station daily as they foraged through the forest. The devastating cyclone had stripped trees of their leaves and fruit, robbing local wildlife of its food source. Cassowaries, being flightless, could not easily leave the region to find food elsewhere, so they began to encroach on local suburbs in a desperate search for food. To entice them back into the forest, away from the dangers of traffic and dog attacks, feeding stations were set up at forest edges.

Recently, though, Barbara and her mate have been coming to this feeding station less often. That’s a good sign: my host has explained that some forest trees are finally starting to produce fruit again and the cassowaries are probably finding natural food at last.

For a photographer, though, that’s less than ideal news to say the least. So, as the morning wears on, my typical argument with myself starts. How much longer should I wait? The light is awful now—is it worth staying? Even if she were to arrive now, wouldn’t the shot look horrible? But if I leave, will I miss her visit? Maybe she will never return because she’s finding enough food elsewhere? Am I wasting my time?

I decide on a compromise: a long lunch break then one more try. Luckily, by early afternoon high cloud has softened the light significantly. And good timing—I find Barbara sauntering down the track toward the feeding station. As tall as I am, she stares at me, long eyelashes fringing strangely human-like hazel eyes. Her neck is adorned with red and blue fleshy wattles and her huge casque is uncharacteristically bent. Apparently deciding I’m no threat, she ambles over to the fruit tub and starts gulping down the apples.

Thrilled to be in the company of such an imposing creature, I take shots with lenses ranging from 28mm to 500mm, giving me habitat shots as well as close-ups. Twenty minutes later, she sits down for a long rest at the edge of the forest, almost obscured by vegetation. Just before dusk, she slips into the forest and disappears. Stay well, Barbara.