Common noddies, Michaelmas Cay
Common noddies massed at the water’s edge, Michaelmas Cay. Photo ©Tony Neilson

Seabirds close-up and personal

Michaelmas Cay, about 40 km offshore from Cairns in Australia’s Far North, is one of the most important seabird breeding sites within Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

In peak season (summer) there can be 20,000 birds and 16 species represented on the tiny low-lying cay. And when stepping on to the creamy sand below the rookery, even the most committed aviphobe is hard pressed not to stand in awe at the frenetic scene ahead.

Most people go to the cay to snorkel and scuba the surrounding reef formations. But long before the strictly controlled tour vessels tie up at their mooring sites, you are surrounded by seabirds heading out and returning from fishing expeditions.

Red-footed booby, landing
A red-footed booby comes in to land on a tender vessel – always a good regional sighting. Photo ©Tony Neilson

Main breeding species

Common noddies, sooty terns, crested terns and lesser crested terns are the main breeding species on the cay, which was formed entirely by plants and animals. Others known to use the rookery include: the endangered little tern, brown boobies, lesser frigate birds, ruddy turnstones, silver gulls, bridled terns, black-naped terns, reef herons and roseate terns.

And if you keep your eyes open there can often be a few surprises – like the red-footed boobies (uncommon in the region) that sometimes take up station early in the morning on service vessels.

Sometimes confused

On a recent visit, a lone sanderling emerged from a pack of terns and noddies around the back of the cay. Sometimes confused with red-necked stints by visiting northern hemisphere birders, the sanderling is fairly common in southern and north-west Australia but much less so at a place like Michaelmas Cay.

Note: Although visitors may only set foot on Michaelmas Cay in a small roped off area just below the rookery, views of the birds (especially the laid back common noddies) are excellent and at times ‘intimate’. However, some of my images with this article were shot from a small boat around the ‘back’ of the cay – courtesy of the tour operator.)

Tony Neilson, Natural Images 2018


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.



  • David Mead January 31, 2018 at 4:57 PM Reply

    Beautiful shots Tony!
    Still haven’t been over to Michaelmus, it looks fantastic with so much pulsating life in a small area.

    • Tony Neilson January 31, 2018 at 5:24 PM Reply

      Thanks David – good to see you are keeping tabs on things.

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