If you have lived in Far North Queensland for less than three years, this page will be very useful to you, but even those who have lived here longer than that might still learn something new. It is not meant to tell you everything about the idiosyncracies of life here but it will cover the aspects that will make a difference to the environment and show you how you can coexist more harmoniously with it. We have included this sort of information because the environment local frogs have to live in has been modified substantially and they are on a decline as a result. Perhaps if newcomers to this type of climate and biodiversity were more knowledgeable about what's here and why, less modifications would be made to properties and more frogs (and other animals) could survive. Some of the information provided here doesn't have any impact one way or the other on frogs directly but is included anyway for its value as environmental education or just helpful hints ("Gee, I wish somebody had told me about that when I moved here").
Cairns is fully tropical and normally has a seasonally monsoonal climate. This means that we experience a dry winter with humidity levels below 50%, hardly any rain, and day temps around 25 degrees; and a wet summer with humidity over 80% and exceeding 90% just before the monsoon trough arrives from PNG. In normal years, the spring is actually hotter with temps exceeding 30 deg. every day while the summer temps only reach about 27 deg. because of the heavy cloud cover and rain. The weather station at the airport is used for the weather reports on radio, tv and newspapers and it is often quite windy there. The temp given is not representative of inner Cairns and backyard thermometres often register a temp 3 to 4 deg. above what is given on the news. The temperature here is one of the reasons why big shade trees are so important, not only in residential blocks but public parks and plazas as well.
In normal years, you can expect the rains to start around November/December and continue straight through until April or so. Cyclone season starts in December but most cyclones in this area seem to arrive between February and April. Wet season rains are heavy and steady - an inch of rain (2.5cm) an hour is typical.
When we aren't getting rain in the warmer months, the sun is quite brilliant and strong. If your skin is not used to sun exposure, you'll find that you can come home sunburnt after only 15 or 20 minutes of walking around outside. Many people report that they did not have freckles on their skin when they moved to Cairns but developed dozens only a few years after moving here. Queensland has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and, with the strength of the sun up here, it is easy to see why - another good reason to have shade trees in our yards!
If you moved to Cairns between 2000 and 2003, the lovely rain we received in 2006 was your first taste of what a normal wet season is like. The drought was severe and, based on rainfall levels, we were hit harder in this drought than anywhere else in the country. For an ecology which has evolved to handle a few metres of rain each year, the drought turned the local ecology on its ear and there were domino effects throughout the system which affected the plants, forest composition and nutrient recycling, and the resident wildlife - especially the frogs. Many insects up here only breed during the wet season so numbers will be better during wetter periods and very sparse during El Nino years (which is bad news for frogs and reptiles).
We were in La Nina (2010/2011) which means lots of rain but this will change. An interesting pattern we've observed now that the group has been doing this work for 25 years is that this region seems to be in drought during solar maximum and the next maximum is in 2025.
Insects are a very important part of the food chain and the more insects there are, the more food there is for frogs, small reptiles, birds, insectivorous bats and some mammals. Get to know some of the very interesting bugs up here and appreciate when you have the opportunity to see them. Don't reach for the bug spray or the broom! Some of the insects you might see up here are very large but this doesn't mean they will harm you. Here's a few fantastic ones
Rhino (rhinocerous) beetles -
These are impressive and they look menacing but they are harmless; the beetle itself is about an inch and half (about 4cm) long; when disturbed, they hiss but they don't bite; they emerge from the ground after the summer rains arrive and their larvae is a very large and fat grub about two inches (5 cm) long and 3/4 inch (2 cm) thick that lives under ground.
Longicorn beetles -
This group contains some of the biggest beetles in Australia, some with bodies about two inches (5 cm) long and some with extremely long antennae five or six inches (15 cm) long; they are harmless
Leaf insects -
About 6 inches (15 cm) long, the leaf insect is camoflaged to look like a leaf in the trees and so it is green and has an irregular shape; it is often found hanging below leaves on tree branch and it is harmless
Stick insects -
Very similar to the leaf insects but these are camoflaged to mimic branches; they are long and thin but the males have wings and can fly, although normally they just sit unseen in the trees - there are many species and they range from six inches (15 cm) to one foot (30 cm) long in Cairns, although there are some rainforest species in the Wet Tropics that have been measured at 51cm (nearly two feet) long; these are completely harmless.
Moths and butterflies -
There are many species here which can be large in comparison to other areas of Australia such as the Emperor moths and Birdwing butterflies, both with wingspans about six inches (15 cm) and these are very prized visitors to your garden
Hercules moth -
The biggest moth in Australia with a wingspan of over one foot (30+ cm), its caterpillar is nearly six inches long; a story was told to us by one of our members about a fellow who had moved up here from Melbourne and had been in Cairns for a week when a Hercules moth flew into the lounge room of his house which backed onto bush. Thinking that something that big must be a bat, the fellow grabbed his broom and beat the creature to death. When his housemates returned home a few minutes later to find the magnificent moth dead on the floor, they first reprimanded him for wanting to kill a bat anyway and then decided that they'd prefer he find somewhere else to live!
Smaller versions of these are found elsewhere; ours are 'nuked' in comparison and can be more than six inches (15 cm) long; they are very striking with blue or red legs; if you dig these up in the garden, just let them scurry away to a hidehole - they just want to get out of the light; don't try to pick them up with your hands as they can bite.
Native bees -
These are black, very small, and they do not have a stinger; they create a mud covered hive in holes and crevices and even inside besser bricks close to the ground; they can be seen swarming around the entrance holes to their hives and we encourage you to leave them be, even if the hive is somewhere on the house - they won't harm the house and they are very important pollinators for the flowers, fruits and vegetables in your yard.
The Nuisance Bugs: ants, spiders, termites and mozzies
Not all bugs can be welcome inside the house but it is the methods you decide to use against them that can have an impact on the environment and whether frogs will be able to live on your property. Houses can have lots of problems with ants, especially those made of hollow bricks (which are used because they are cheap and provide cyclone protection). The hollow cavities in these bricks provide a beautiful, protected and large environment for ants to colonize in. Ants can be annoying but most of the household ants are very small and they come and go according to the weather outside. Learning to ignore them is a strategy that will reduce stress on you and reduce the amount of poisons you bring into your home. If you allow the smaller spiders and geckos to hang around, they will take care of a lot of the ants for you.
Green tree ants
Are a bit of a different story however. They generally shouldn't come in the house but they can overtake the garden and make it unsuitable for mostly anything else. They have very few predators in a developed environment so they can reach plague proportions in your yard. They are predatory and will attack anything that comes into their host tree including small frogs and large insects. If you are gardening and disturb their tree, they can drop down onto you and their bite is just painful enough to be annoying. They nest in large colonies by gathering up leaves in tree branches and pasting them together to make a large ball. They patrol the entire tree to protect it from invaders and if you have deliberately planted moth and butterfly attracting plants, you won't have any caterpillars because they will all be killed by the ants.
However, spraying the ants is not an environmentally friendly way to get rid of them. Cutting the nests out of trees and sinking them into a large bin of water helps reduce numbers but not all nests are accessible without tall ladders or cherry pickers, and the ants disperse rapidly once the nest is disturbed (including up your arm). One of the pest control contractors we've come across uses a food bait that specifically targets the green ants and works extremely fast. No spray is involved and the ants take the bait back to their nest. This method means that only the ants are affected, there is no residue left behind to affect other species and the ants in the nests are killed off regardless of how high up in the trees they are. (If you have a green ant problem, email us and we'll put you in touch with the contractor - however, they are located in Cairns so if you are outside this region, they probably won't be able to help you unless you can get a bunch of your neighbours together so the contractor can do a service trip for all.)
Also do a great job of getting rid of pest bugs and there is no harm in letting the smaller species take up residence in your house. You could establish a 'line in the sand' where they are allowed to set up shop (let them have the the ceiling for example) and when they cross over that line, you can gently scoop them up with the broom and relocate them outside.
The tropics have some very large spiders as well as some gorgeous and unusual ones. Some of the tiny jumping spiders come in brilliant colours and irridescence and others have hard bodies. These spiders should be allowed and encouraged in the garden as they help control bug numbers without the use of harmful chemicals. We still hear the odd report from some of the bushier suburbs about seeing the occasional Golden Orb spider. The size usually frightens people but the spider is harmless and its large yellow-tinted web is strategically placed to catch a lot of bugs, including large ones. This spider is sadly, seldom seen in inner Cairns suburbs anymore.
There are some spiders to avoid and these are mostly found in bushy areas and housing which adjoins bush. As a general rule of thumb, avoid touching any brown furry-looking spider and always wear closed footwear when wandering through the forest. When rumaging through the garden or the bush, look out for any tubes or casings that look like they are made of dense spider web threads. Many of the dangerous spiders create funnels in the ground similar to the Sydney Funnel web spider or make cocoons in tree bark. In most inner Cairns suburbs, however, you won't see the venomous species at all.
Are a problem for older homes which are made of wood and they can move into wooden furniture that resides on a patio or veranda. There are many different ways to treat termites but some of them have strong residual effects that will last for many years. Other wood items like beams and fences can also be treated with chemicals which have long residual rates. Frogs climbing on the walls of homes treated this way will die and this will continue for years. If you have purchased a home which turns out to need a termite treatment, research the methods promoted by various contractors. New products like termimesh may be more expensive but should provide better protection longer. Another aspect to consider when using any chemical to treat the home or kill bugs is that more and more residents here are experiencing respiratory problems and these people have increased sensitivities to toxins. A chemical used to kill bugs around the house might cause asthma attacks or other bronchial difficulties in your family, visitors, or nearby neighbours.
Are a part of the tropics but you can reduce the angst! There are many different species here - some daytime active and others nocturnal - but the one which gets everybody's attention is the Dengue mosquito (Aedes aegypti). The spread of viruses by mosquitos is a real concern in the tropics and these illnesses invoke a fear in the tropical traveller. Who wants to pick up malaria, Dengue, Ross River fever, etc. on their holiday? You might ask how could anyone live here with those diseases around? Well, people do live here and most of them don't ever pick up a mosquito-borne virus.
The spread of a mosquito-borne virus requires two things in succession: a person with the disease already and the right species of mozzie to pick it up. A mozzie bites a person who has the right virus it can carry and it picks it up. It flies off to someone else and bites them and the virus is transferred. The Dengue mozzie can only carry Dengue virus and not others. The Culix mozzie is responsible for Ross River fever and a different one again for Malaria. (Cairns has not had any problems with malaria thus far but there have been a small number of cases further up the coast when travellers have brought it in with them.) There are two approaches to reducing mozzie numbers around the home: environmentally friendly and environmentally UNfriendly.
Mozzies love standing water to breed in so the elimination of breeding sites is a very effective way to reduce their numbers on your property. Water can collect in lots of things in your yard: a jar full of plant cuttings, a bird bath, pot plant bases, containers you're saving for something else, a kiddie pool left face up, a wheelie bin with its lid left open, palm frond bases left on the ground, a clogged gutter, etc. The water sits in these and a few days later, there are little wriggling things in it. You've just become a mozzie breeder! The mozzies that hatch out will smell the blood of you and your warm blooded pets and they'll hang around your house - why go somewhere else when the restaurant is right here?
So one environmentally friendly way to reduce mozzie numbers is clear up any items in your yard where water can collect. Keep your roof gutters clean and remove the bases from outdoor pot plants during the wet season. If you are trying to grow cuttings, dump out the water in the garden every few days and refill it with fresh tap water. We encourage the use of receptables of water for the frogs but they need to be tipped out and refilled every few days. Water in bird baths should be refreshed as well and if the birds are using your bird bath, you'll need to refill it each day anyway as they will be splashing it out. Ponds need to have appropriate species of fish to eat the wrigglers (consult our Ponds and Tadpoles section) and anyone who has tadpoles should read the bottom section of our tadpole page for more details about local laws.
So you've been responsible and eliminated those mozzie reproduction sites on your property - what about your neighbourhood's mozzies? The next basically environmentally friendly way to keep mozzies away from you is to use repellant methods. There are personal repellants such as lotions and sprays (be considerate when using these sprays - people around you might have respiratory, asthma or sinus problems and might be triggered into an attack) and these can be applied to your skin and clothes to protect you wherever you go for a period of time. Please note that while you're not deliberately saturating your environment with these personal repellants, these chemicals are not friendly to other forms of life so don't touch any animals (especially frogs and reptiles) and try not to brush up against vegetation or touch any flowers while you are coated.
If you are not going from place to place, you can also create an exclusion zone around yourself which is much friendlier to the environment. Mozzie coils and candles containing citronella fill the air with a scent that mozzies don't like and so they stay away while these items are burned. Some coils smell better than others so shop around. We use Hovex citronella boosted coils and they don't appear to have any effects on our aviary birds or the frogs.
There are also electronic devices out there which can be used around the home. We have one called the Neo Photo-catalyst trap which does attract and kill mozzies. It does however kill other insects like moths so we suggest being careful where it is setup so that you can get rid of mozzies without killing off the frog's food.
Councils frequently use pyrethrin fogging to control mozzies and the jury is still out as to whether these chemicals cause any problems in the environment. A suspicion is that these chemicals cannot possibly be targeted to kill only one particular kind of insect so there are almost certainly many other species of bugs that are being killed off. So Council fogging is not the most environmentally friendly way to control mozzies. But what is definitely most UNfriendly is when homeowners decide to fog their properties themselves with the kind of chemicals they can buy at the store. This is when all the insects are killed or tainted as well as frogs and other reptiles.
So our recommendations to you for mozzie control is to patrol your property regularly to eliminate breeding sites and refresh deliberate water receptacles; and use coils and candles to create exclusion zones around your yard. Have flyscreens installed on your windows to keep bugs out of the house and let the geckos, skinks and spiders control these tiny bugs. If you own the home, you can also install flyscreens on the veranda or patio to create a permanent outdoor exclusion zone. If you live in an area where even these measures don't reduce the problem (because there is a swamp nearby), it would be better to call council to get them to fog than it would be to pick up bug sprays at the shop to do it yourself.
The Public Health Unit in Cairns is also still experimenting with new repellants and baits that might help reduce Dengue mozzie numbers but these are still in development. They also have available methoprene pellets which can be thrown into gutters or other bodies of water which prevent wrigglers from hatching. They insist that this chemical is not harmful to other species including frogs and tadpoles but it is an endocrine disruptor so we would not want to see it used in water which can be accessed by frogs. You might want to contact the Public Health Unit for more information about mozzie control before you phone council to request a fogging - they are helpful and believe that community engagement is a very effecitve tool to eradicate dengue.
A frequent comment of recent settlers to Cairns is "I can't stand those geckos in the house". There are three species of geckos which are commonly seen inside and outside homes and all three look very much alike. They are the Dubious Dtella (Geyra dubia) which is native; the Chained gecko (Lepidodactylus lugubris) which is also native and has a tail that curls; and the Asian House gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) which has unfortunately displaced our native geckos over most of Cairns. All three species are small (only about 5 inches (12.5 cm) long) and are mostly nocturnal. Once inside, they'll be hiding behind pictures on the wall, under appliances that have a small space underneath - anywhere that is dark. At night, they emerge to run around on the walls or ceiling chasing small bugs. They have very small, dry droppings which stick to anything and that quality tends to make some people loathe them - but the droppings are easily removed when the walls are swept or washed. The geckos get rid of little bugs in the house so there is no need for sprays if the geckos are allowed to stay. If you want to let them do their job, be sure to look before you close doors and windows as this is a common ending for geckos (and frogs).
There are some larger species of skinks in bushy areas but most parts of Cairns will only have the little striped skinks similar to those of any other part of Australia. These seldom come indoors but they will help keep small bugs in control in your garden.
have a terrible reputation but they do their important bit in the environment, too. Many newcomers have heard about the taipan and many of the licenced snake removalists will tell you that the vast majority of calls they receive are to remove a "taipan". There must be such variety in the taipan because when the snake catchers arrive, their prey looks a real lot like a Green tree snake, or a Brown tree snake, or a Slaty-grey, or an Amethystine python, or a Children's python! The notion that there are taipans lurking in suburban backyards is just that - a notion. It is very rare to find dangerous snakes in Cairns backyards. There are some venomous species here but most local snakes are pythons or rear-fanged colubrids (which means you would have to stick your finger in its throat to access any of the venom). There is a list of trained and licenced snake handlers available from Wildlife Rescue and from QPWS to come and catch the snake without harming it. The snake is then relocated to bushy areas away from homes. Snake handlers need to have a licence to come to your house and some of them will charge you for their services so please ask when you are talking to them on the phone.
Most snakes here would be happier if you weren't around. They haven't come to your yard to see you and are most likely just looking for a bit of water and something to eat. This is especially so during dry periods like drought. The three most commonly seen species seem to be the Green tree snake, the Brown tree snake, and the Amethystine python.
The Green tree snake is an avid fan of frogs and is often responsible for attacks on large White-lipped tree frogs that it can't possibly swallow. It is a long, thin snake that does vary in colour but green and blue are frequent colours. It is a nervous species and will take off quickly if approached by people. The Brown tree snake also loves frogs and is very fast.
The Amethystine python is also known as the scrub python or scrubbie and is mostly a forest dweller although it does meander through some residential areas. This is Australia's largest snake with a documented record of 28.3 feet (8.4m) but it is rare to see one over 14 feet (4.2m) in Cairns. A trip to the rainforest is needed to find a really big scrubbie. The scrub python is not interested in frogs or other cold blooded animals but it does eat rats and other warm blooded animals. A large one would be capable of eating a cat, a chook or a small dog so if you are going to be living in a house that is close to bush, it would be wise to make sure that all pet birds and chooks are kept in snake proof enclosures or indoors at night. Pre-made aviaries are fine but check where the roof attaches to the sides because some styles use a corrugated type roof which leaves spaces along the top of the side panels. Check at the ground level as well to make sure the ground hasn't worn away in spots. A snake can squeeze through surprisingly small spaces so make sure all holes are securely plugged. Cats and small dogs should also be kept inside at night.
If you should see a snake in your yard that you wish wasn't there, phone Wildlife Rescue (4053-4467) or the DES to ask for the contact details of the nearest snake catchers. Don't kill the snake or try to catch it yourself.
Frogs and toads
Abound - or at least they used to. Environmental pollution is causing frogs to become susceptible to disease and even the cane toads are succumbing. There are a lot of 'old wives tales' about toads including such gems as "toads can spit venom a metre away". If you are violent or abusive to a toad, it can release venom from the glands behind its head but this is a very rare event. For more information about toads, visit our cane toad section. Frogs are not doing well either and we hope that the rest of the pages in this How to Help section will tell you what you need to know about watching out for frogs and providing a safe place for them to live.
Do exist up here - the signs aren't just tourist attractions! There is a crocodile relocation program in effect throughout Cairns but it doesn't include Trinity Inlet. Cairns is laced with drainage canals and many of these are tidal, so it is possible for the odd croc to go for a swim up a murky drain to look for something to eat. During the wet season, they get washed out from their estuaries and are seen along some of the beaches trying to find their way back. If you should see a crocodile, do not approach it. You can phone QPWS on 4046-6601 and they will connect you to the ranger on duty who will come out to trap the croc and relocate it somewhere else. If you are a boatie and enjoy a little fishing, do not clean your fish near the boat ramps or along the shore. If there should be any crocodiles around, they will pick up the scent of the fish and wander over to see if you'll be kind enough to share it (they are remarkably persuasive!). Do not swim in any drain and never go for a swim in Trinity Inlet or any other estuary in FNQ.
Birds - the good, the bad, and the ugly
The Wet Tropics bioregion boosts a remarkable number of bird species and it will be a delight to see some of these visiting your garden. Placing one or two bird baths in the garden will enable you to see the visiting birds and allow them to get a much needed drink and cooling bath - especially in dry seasons and drought. Planting bird attracting plants such as bottlebrushes, lilypillies, costa gingers and heliconias will help feed them as well.
In particular are a very welcome resident with their bright yellow plumage and the male's irridescent bib and they create hanging nests that are built off a hanging item under a protective roof. For example, under the eaves of the roof or inside a patio or carport are common places to see a sunbird nest. They will get used to your coming and going around the nest but please keep your domestic pets away, especially cats.
There are some birds, however, that you don't want to encourage. Some people like to feed kookaburras by placing meat scraps on a fence or table. Please don't feed kookaburras if you want to have frogs and skinks around your property - kookaburras eat them. Butcherbirds also kill small animals including birds and they frequently prey on sunbird chicks. But the birds you want to actively chase away are the Indian brown mynahs. These are brown with a yellow beak and marking around the eye, a dark head, legs and feet. They are gregarious, noisy and they attack other species including frogs. There is no hard and fast rule about how to get rid of mynahs and their numbers have gotten worse over the years. They seem to prefer open areas so a lot of the new housing estates would be prime real estate for these mongrels. At least you can destroy any nests they build which are often on a ledge or track under cover. They also prefer open, lawned areas over vegetated ones so a densely vegetated yard will have far less problems with mynahs than a sparse one filled with expansive lawn. They are an imported pest and are not protected so if you chose to use them as target practice for your new slingshot, the authorities are not likely to turn up on your doorstep. Some councils and environment depts in Australia have trapping programs for this pest bird but we're not aware of anything similar in Cairns.
Cats and Dogs
In Cairns, you are allowed a maximum of two dogs and they must be kept in a fully fenced yard or enclosure. There are no restrictions on cats at all. Many people here keep dogs, not because they enjoy their companionship, but because they are more of a deterrent than an alarm system. This is a poor reason to keep an intelligent, social animal but commonly seen. These dogs don't get played with much, get yelled at for barking more than any other type of attention, and are one of the leading causes of complaints to council. Cats are another source of complaints to us nearly as much as to council. While not all cats are a nuisance, there are certainly enough complaints about wandering cats fighting at night, scratching neighbour's cars, attacking native animals, leaving unwanted calling cards in other people's yards, etc. We regularly receive calls from desperate homeowners wanting to know what they can do to keep other people's cats out of their yards.
So if you are a cat or dog owner in Cairns, ask yourself if you are doing 'the right thing' for your pet's happiness, your own, and your neighbours'. Do you play with your dog everyday and take it for walks? Do you keep your cat indoors at night where it can keep you company instead of the resident wildlife? Does your pet get all its flea, tick and worming treatments? (This is especially important for cats - we have uncovered a serious problem with tapeworms in frogs that originates from cats. Read all about it in our Cat Alert page.) Have you restricted your dog to using only part of the yard and leaving the remaining (hopefully well vegetated bit) for birds and other wildlife? Have you tried to train your dog or cat not to approach wildlife?
If you are a dog or cat owner and you are looking for accommodation, please consider NOT choosing a house that backs onto bush. This is a place where housing has been placed right up against intact habitat and native wildlife (including goannas, snakes and ground dwelling birds) is more plentiful and frequently seen on the property. These are homes which are especially suited to those looking to be close to nature and living harmoniously with the environment. A dog or cat in these properties is a conflict waiting to happen and the wildlife usually loses.
Native vs. Exotic Vegetation and Cyclones
This is a very serious issue in the greater scheme of things. There are 3,000 species of native plants in the Wet Tropics bioregion but most of them must be considered too boring! So many newcomers to the area buy a house block with established local vegetation and then strip it to make way for plants they consider "more tropical" such as palms, heliconias and gingers. These are excellent accent plants for a diverse garden but they are not meant to base an entire landscape design on! These plants do nothing to create a shady canopy which is so important in our climate. The latter two especially require a lot of water which is fine during normal rainfall periods but a strain on a finite resource during the dry season and droughts.
Big trees are another sad casualty of the "cyclone paranoid". So many newcomers (and some locals, too) believe that any tree taller than their roof line is automatically going to fall on their house in the next cyclone. This is an anxiety that is very unneccesary. Big trees have proven their survivability by the fact that they are still here after more than 100 or 200+ years and at least a dozen cyclones. Time for a reality check! Cairns doesn't see cyclones that often anymore and most are at the lower categories. If you would like a detailed history of cyclones to hit Cairns, the Bureau of Meteorology website has heaps of cyclone information.
Our President lived in Cairns for 21 years and has seen five cyclones in that time: category 1 Justin in 1996, category 2 Rona in 1998 (which dumped more rain than anything); and category 2 Steve in 1999. In all three, there was no damage at all to the house she was living in, no matter how many trees were on the property. During 2006, in a heavily treed premises, we experienced a the equivalent force of a category 3 as cyclone Larry (Cat 5) passed by to the south of Cairns. None of our trees (including a massive melaleuca) damaged the house even though many of them are planted with ten metres of the building and there was no structural damage at all. If anything, the surrounding trees protected the house by providing a buffer from the winds. If we were to receive a Cat. 5 head on, it wouldn't matter how many or few trees there were - there wouldn't be much of a house after that! And when category 1 Tasha came through, it knocked over one pot plant.
For the cyclone overly-conscious, trees are not the biggest threat here. Flooding and storm surge are far more likely threats to cope with during a cyclone. Many of Cairns suburbs are less than 3 metres above sea level and Cairns is laced with tidal drains. If a 3 metre storm surge were to arrive at the same time as high tide, all of the Cairns basin would be under water. Local flooding is possible where drains get clogged or there is too much run off (insufficient vegetation). The more trees there are - especially big trees - the more of the water that gets taken up. Less trees means more runoff and erosion problems and worse flooding.
If you are very concerned about the trees around your house, you can do a bit of an audit of your trees before you start revving up the chain saw. Find out first what species of trees are better suited to rough weather and what you have on the property now. For example, the imported African Tulip tree has very soft wood and splinters apart at the hint of a breeze. One of these around your home can definitely cause problems in a cyclone (besides the fact that it is a pest species). You need to first get your tree species identified and then contact a specialist in the nursery/landscape industry to find out if these are good ones to have or might cause some problems someday.
Some trees are evolved to allow their branches to break off in storms which allows the overall tree to survive but creates some branches to clean up. Others don't bend or give and suffer trunk damage which is bad news. If you don't have any plant ID guides, you might try contacting one of the many revegetation groups around Cairns (Cains Urban Landcare, Treeforce, Conservation Volunteers) to see if they can help identify your trees or try Cairns City Council's revege nursery. Once you have your species list and a drawing of the property layout, you can take this to a specialist nursery, certified landscaper, or possibly a forest meteorologist at JCU. Palms also can be cyclone tolerant or cyclone fragile. If you are including exotic palms in your garden redesign, chose species which come from cyclone prone areas (such as FNQ, the Carribbean or Philippines) as these have evolved to tolerate cyclones.
Big trees are very important for shade and they service the adjoining properties - not just the one the trunk is growing from. Removing a big tree from your property deprives your neighbours as well as you of shade and forces the use of more air conditioners to make homes tolerable. There is also a historic significance to these trees. Some of the bigger melaleucas, for example, are several hundred years old and have been feeding birds and other wildlife for all that time. Currently, there are no restrictions in Cairns on the clearing of these magnificent trees on private land but we really would like to change that.
When making your selections for new plants in the garden, choosing local natives is the best policy. These plants have evolved in this climate, feed and shelter the wildlife and help to increase insect diversity which, in turn, feeds a lot of insect-dependant species like frogs. Many overseas species are pests, run amuk here and cause environmental problems. A handy pocket guide is available to help you identify undesirable (weed) species in FNQ and is available from Cairns City Council and some bookshops. It retails for about $8, is spiral bound with coated paper for use outdoors and is titled "Weed Pocket Guide, Agricultural and Environmental Weeds, Far North Queensland".
Although it seems like an item of common knowledge, please don't dump garden scaps or grass clippings into the bush, streams or drainage easements. If you are disposing of weeds, place them into a plastic bag, tie the top and leave in the sun to dry them out before placing in the bin. All other plant material and grass clippings can be chopped up and used in the garden as mulch, including palm fronds. Mulch is important for water conservation, soil enrichment and provides shelter for skinks and other invertebrates. (Your kitchen scraps can also be thrown into garden beds to help enrich the soil and feed insects.)
We make a plea to prospective home purchasers to look at the property as a whole and not just at the house. If you don't like the large trees on the block, please don't buy it and strip it. There are entire estates being built around Cairns that have no vegetation and no room for any trees at all. If you want a hot, sunny yard with a few palms and heliconias, buy a new house. Leave the older homes with their historic trees for someone else who is looking for shade and visiting wildlife.
There are two groups of these: the little, fast flying bats with the sonar capability are insectivorous bats, and the much larger fruit eating variety are called flying-foxes. Many people have a distaste for both but they are important to the environment and that is especially so for the flying-foxes.
Insectivorous bats help control insect numbers and they are very small - about the same size as some of the larger butterflies! They whiz around the street lights at night scooping up bugs. They do not get tangled up in people's hair! They do not want to come into your house although they might be very happy sleeping in your roof during the day if there is an opening available. Their droppings are excellent fertiliser for the garden. If you should do any renovating and find these little furry creatures, you can leave them alone to go about their business and just place a large plastic or glass tray under their roosting spot to collect their droppings.
If your construction work is going to close off their access hole, then it would be best to construct a little bat box to attach to the outside of the house under the eaves (a search of some of the bat conservation websites will include the plans for these simple boxes). If you can wait til after dark to close off the opening they have been using to enter the roof, they can leave on their own at dusk and not get back in at sunrise. Hopefully they will find the bat box and settle in. Alternatively, you might be able to find someone with bat expertise to carefully trap and relocate the bats for you. You can try QPWS on 4046-6601 or Wildlife Rescue on 4053-4467.
The flying-foxes congregate in camps and hang in the trees during the day. At dusk, they fly off to look for trees in flower. They are the second most important seed disperser of the rainforest (the cassowary is first). Orchardists can be quick to complain about the flying-foxes getting into their fruit trees but the fruit grown for us is actually a second rate food source for these animals. It is much healthier for them to eat rainforest fruits and pollen. However, as more and more of their original habitat has been replaced by buildings, or when temporary food shortages are created by cyclones, they have had to get used to raiding fruit trees to get a meal. Planting native trees and shrubs helps feed these animals and they help fertilise your garden as well as play an essential role in carrying seeds away from the parent plant and helping to pollinate flowers.
Now there is a word to send a shiver through most people! This is cane country and there are rats. In many parts of the world, rats are associated with slums and filthy conditions but that is not at all the case here. These are animals accustomed to living in tall grasses (which is what sugar cane is) and they look for food and dry nesting sites - not filth. Sugar cane is scattered around various parts of Cairns and there is no buffer between cane fields and a residential suburb next door. Cairns is basically a checkerboard of land uses and so, an animal that reproduces at the rate exotic rats do, is constantly on the move looking for somewhere else to settle down and raise a family. The nicest homes here can have problems with rats but this is one animal that should definitely not be welcomed or tolerated. But before you pull out the bromokil, make sure that the blurry fur ball that you saw flash by in the corner of your eye is actually the exotic rat (Rattus rattus) or House Mouse (Mus musculus) and NOT a native rat (of which there are several up here)!
Some people say that rat numbers have increased because the cane isn't burned green anymore but we can't dispute or vouch for that. Certainly there are rats wandering about the suburbs looking for cosy places to live, especially during the rainy season. Most of the time, these are the European Black rat (Rattus rattus) which is actually a lean, all grey rat with a dark grey tail as long as the body. (There are many native rat species as well which are protected as property of the Crown but unless you are living in a property close to bush, you're less likely to run into the native ones.) The exotic Black rat is old enough to reproduce at the young age of three months and they breed repeatedly throughout the year which makes for a lot of offspring looking for somewhere different to squat. The Black rat is a notorious carrier of Leptosporosis or Weil's Disease. This is a potent bacteria that is capable of killing even a healthy person. The bacteria is spread via the rat's urine so wandering around in flood waters during the wet, especially near cane or in cane runoff, is clearly a bad idea unless you are wearing gum boots or those hip waders used for fishing.
Another potentially dangerous rodent is the imported little House Mouse (Mus musculus). Yes, the cute little mouse is dangerous! They reproduce in HUGE numbers to the point of being a plague in some parts of Australia, will nest anywhere and everywhere in your home and invite their friends, and even take the food off your plate while you're watching them. (A very good reason for allowing pythons to hang around your yard!) Worst of all, they spread disease. All you have to do is just breathe their dried up urine (for example, while cleaning up one of their nests or areas they have squirted). They are common carriers of viral meningitis (more formally known as Lymphocytic Choriomenigitis Virus) which can cause meningitis, encephalitis and/or liver damage. The problem in Australia is that there is no blood test for this virus so, if you get it, there is not much your doctor can do for you. If you have discovered mice in your home, be very sure to wear a mask or wet towel over your face when you are cleaning up any spots where the mice have soiled.
The Black rat and House mouse should be eliminated as quickly as possible and, while we cringe at the thought of using poisons, these are two imports that need to be controlled without delay. Most of the pest control contractors include rat control in their repetoire. The alternative to poisoning is trapping but what to do about the trapped rat becomes a problem. If you choose to use poison, be sure that only the rats are going to access it and not other non-target animals or your pets. This approach can be combined with a trap which addresses the problem of what to do with a live rat in a trap. The other aspect to consider is to be absolutely sure that the visiting houseguest is indeed the exotic European Black rat and not a native species of Melomys, Hydromys, Euromys or Antechinus. Contact QPWS is you are not sure. It is against the law to dispose of native rodents so you need to be sure.
If you are living very close to bush or backing onto bush, you might see some of the Wet Tropics' own rodent members. Generally, these will be relatively easy to distinguish from the imported pest:
Fur is more reddish or brown, body is a bit shorter and stockier and the tail is brownish. A melomys nest is very different from the black rat's - it has very little smell, is made from leaves and natural vegetation, and is more likely to be in the garden in a natural setting. A black rat nest will be right into a man-made setting such as under the hot water heater, inside the washer, or in a wall or crevice; the nesting material will include natural elements but will also contain a lot of man-made items such as fabric, litter and plastic bits; it has a distinctive, pungent odor. Another way to distinguish the two is to leave a plate of various food items near the nest. Include meat or cheese scraps, seeds, nuts, and some raw veggies. A black rat will likely take all the food items - the melomys will take the seeds, nuts and veggies but will leave the animal based scraps.
The White-tailed rat is vastly larger and the latter half of the tail is whitish; the face looks more like a possum than a rat; they can be destructive to your house and chew their way through almost anything; you are only liked to see these if you are living in or very close to rainforest
The Water rat is also quite large and the outer end of the tail is pale but the fur is chocolate brown; this animal looks just like an otter as it glides acrobatically through the water; they love to eat insects and tadpoles so if you have seen a large rodent splashing in your frog pond or tadpole tanks at night, you'll need to devise a night-time cover for your pond
about the size of a mouse but extremely fast with erratic movements - you might think you imagined it if you were to see one, they are that fast
Other natives -
Such as Bush rats, Cape York rats and Canefield rats can also be seen in Cairns. ID can be very difficult but some of the same overall habits would apply such as being solitary, living outside in with a nest made of natural elements, and the lack of that rancid black rat smell. Some have white fur underneath and pale pink feet which also is helpful to ID them as native.
These native rodents are needed in the forest and the larger two actually include cane toads in their diet so they play an extra special role. If these have decided they like your house as much as you do, you'll have to contact QPWS about their relocation and positive identification.
Whether you are renting or buying a property, it is actually a useful exercise to find out what kind of soil type it has. This is not for engineering purposes but for lifestyle impacts. Much of Cairns has a sandy soil which drains away very quickly. If you want a house with a luxurious, shady rainforest garden and it has sandy soil, you'll need to be out there watering every day to keep your plants alive. This is costly (Cairns City Council charges for its water) and a strain on the local water supply (especially in times of drought or upcoming climate change). There are many trees and shrubs which are suitable to fast draining soils and a garden full of these will look and grow better than rainforest species. These soils are also suited to arid vegetation (cacti and succulents) which grow in a flash up here. Raised beds of loamy soil with decorative edgings can be used for annuals, perennials and veggie gardens.
Sandy soils also tend to have more problems with midges (also known as sand flies). Allegedly, these tiny little pests don't actually bite you but squirt a fluid on you instead which makes your skin itch. However, researchers have recently found that bites from midges can transmit disease. Many people deal with sandy soil by putting a thick layer of topsoil over it which helps the plants grow better as well. This is much better for the environment than fogging your yard with pesticides!
Clay soils tend not to have any problems with midges but they don't drain well and tend to collect water in spots which encourages mosquitos. Gardens composed of rainforest plants are suited to clay soils and some of the classic 'tropical' plants such as gingers, heliconias and aroids (elephant ears/cunjevoi, alocasia, caladium) are very happy with 'wet feet'.
Other bits and pieces
A few other tidbits are included here to make your adjustment smoother.
Cairns has improved the reliability of its power supply over recent years but it is still a very wise practice to unplug appliances at the first sign of a thunder storm or when the power has gone out for any reason. Spikes coming through lines can still blow up an appliance even when the power point is turned off. To protect your electrical goods, pull the plug out of the wall. The same applies to your phone for really severe storms.
Many residents and tourists get around Cairns by using a bicycle and this is great for the environment, too. However, many drivers are unaware of the bicycle rules and don't respect shoulders, especially at corners. The single white line marks the lane boundary and the shoulder side of that line is a bike lane by default, even when the bicycle symbol is not painted in it. Please do not cross the white line when driving. Another bike rule that many drivers seem to be unaware of is that bikes using the bike lane or shoulders are allowed to ride in either direction. This enhances safety as the cyclist can monitor traffic and get out of the way in case the car driver doesn't see them. There are also heaps of bad spots where bicycle lanes simply stop existing and the cyclist is forced without warning into riding in a traffic lane or trying to jump a curb/kerb. This is an issue that the bike lobby has been trying to get fixed for years but it would cost money so it doesn't get addressed. Also be aware and extra cautious of asian cyclists. In some asian countries including Japan, bicycles have the right of way in traffic. When these unsuspecting visitors come to Cairns, they don't seem to be aware that the rules are different here (which is something inbound operators should be addressing) and will venture out into intersections without looking or stopping.
There aren't a lot of tv news items about crime in Cairns but it definitely exists and is simply toned down. Keep your car locked at all times and your doors should be locked as well, even when you are home. Opportunistic thefts are the most common where access is gained through an unlocked door or window. Bicycle thefts are also extremely common so if you use a bike, make sure it has secure locks and use them, even if you are just running into the shop to get one thing. The police service has a free engraving program and you can have anything engraved including tv's, vcr's, bicycles, cameras, etc. Volunteers with ID's can come to your home by appointment and get all your goods done in just a few minutes. The engraving is shallow and doesn't damage the item. You can arrange for your items to be done by phoning the Cairns police on 4030-7000 and asking for the Community Liaison office.
If you are unsure of what government dept. to contact for a problem, or there is a problem with a footpath, neglected property, tree clearing, etc. the Cairns Regional Council has a well staffed Customer Service Centre and they should be able to help you. Their number Mon to Fri, 8:30a to 4:30p is 4044-3044. They also have an after hours option for dealing with emergencies such as a busted water pipe in the street or that sort of thing - just call the normal number and listen to the recording for when to push 9 (or 1) to be connected to someone.