It was a sweltering, hot afternoon, like many we’ve had lately in Northern California; only it was years ago on an isolated Australian savannah, when unique Oz friends came to entertain us.
They were not human friends, for there were no other humans there that day, except for the woman behind the counter at the empty Wetland Centre. It was the Mareeba Wetlands in Queensland.
It was quiet, desolate and sizzling hot, and we had the whole place to ourselves.
Surrounded by nothing but termite mounds and gum trees, I think the heat, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 C.), had something to do with it.
So far, Athena and I had had good birding luck, had found lizards and birds here, all completely entertaining.
The frill-necked lizard, one of my favorite lizards. Their neck frills up when they’re alarmed. But that day it was so hot, not even the frill moved.
And the birds in Australia are just always a surprise. This noisy intense bird had a blue face and yellow eyes. They eat bugs and nectar.
This ruby-eyed bird looked like a cross between a pheasant and a cuckoo.
So then we were taking a break, enjoying a cup of tea, when four big emus came sauntering in.
When the first one came around the corner, I noticed we both sat up straighter. Then three more followed.
The cheeky giants gathered around a nearby picnic table.
Native only to Australia, emus primarily eat plants and grasses, and that’s what they were eating that day. They also eat arthropods and insects in grass like crickets, beetles, and grasshoppers.
Although they are technically birds, emus are flightless and have large bodies, so it’s more like coming upon a human or large animal, than a bird.
They are funny-looking with their hairless legs and long necks. And their feathers look more like grass than feathers.
Their necks are blue underneath the feathers.
We knew better than to think they were friendly.
They were indifferent to us, and continued quietly grazing, even as Athena slowly moved in closer to get photos.
They can sprint up to 31 mph (50 km/h) and have powerful legs and formidable claws, used for defense.
The second tallest bird in the world, emus average around 65 inches (165 cm) tall, about 5’5″. Only ostriches are taller.
It is a unique experience to be face-to-face on level ground with a bird. It doesn’t happen too often.
Eventually Athena got too close. The emu let Athena know by indignantly stretching its long neck higher than her nearly six-foot-high frame. At that point we both backed up, and they resumed their grazing.
They stayed there so long that eventually we went back to our table.
They grazed on grass while we sipped our tea.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.