Many Australians take beach holidays between Christmas and the new year. My Laddie and I, preferring to beat the crowds, took our coastal trip in late November instead. If you’re an Aussie prudently forgoing holiday travel during the latest COVID outbreak, or a Northern Hemisphere reader seeking a little sea and sunshine to brighten dark solstice days, enjoy some vicarious adventures with me in this series on wildlife encounters in the Eurobodalla region.
Fine rain mingled with the sea spray speckling my face, but I eagerly breathed it in anyway. After medical problems consumed May through July, and a COVID lockdown restricted us to our neighborhood from August to October, this was my first coastal escape since a Tasmanian trip back in March. The forecast for the week looked gloomy, but so what? I’m no fussy sunbather; I go to the beach fully expecting to get wet.
Besides, the mist cast a lovely atmospheric filter over the long ribbon of shoreline. Without the sun’s bleaching glare, the walk unfolded a unique palette of color. Rose-hued cliffs divided beach from bush. Vibrant green seaweed slicked the dark tidal rocks, which oystercatchers probed with orange beaks. Washed-up man o’ war pneumatophores—the bladder-like portion of their bodies that drifts on the surface, serving as both float and sail for a zooid colony suspended beneath—glittered like sapphires amid the seashells. It felt like wandering into another geologic era, a primordial paradise where life seethed quietly in the foam, and no footprints colonized the sand.
At least, no human footprints.
Inspecting the cliffs’ geology, some unusually large tracks caught my eye. My immediate, somewhat childish thought, was a dinosaur: the three-toed tread lacked the webbing I’d expect in a pelagic bird. Plus, they were larger than my hand. Even the massive Australian pelicans couldn’t leave a mark like that! A long chain of them ran along the tide line. I followed them, speculating aloud on their origin until my Laddie stopped short:
“I found it!” he said in a startled hush.
I squinted into the vegetation at the base of the cliffs. “What am I looking at?”
Can you spot it?
An emu browsed in the brush. Shaggy grey-brown feathers perfectly mimicked the undergrowth, and the bare bluish skin around its face matched the rock behind it. The imposing unfurled behind huge, scaly feet. No rational person could look at this creature and dismiss the notion that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Even the vestigial wings evoked comically stumpy tyrannosaur arms.
I gaped for several seconds before grabbing my camera. Beneath my delighted awe, I felt deeply silly, because on yesterday’s drive out—desperate for cheerful topics to quell my frustration at a trailed creeping down the switchbacks ahead of us—I’d told my Laddie about how one of the park websites mentioned just such a thing.
“I saw cows on the beach once, in Ireland, so I’d love to see emus!” I’d told him as our car crawled through the dense fog. But the idea was still so alien to me that I didn’t put that fact together with the tracks until I was staring the creature in the face.
Although I’d seen emus in captivity, this seemed like a wholly different animal. My northern-hemisphere brain struggled enough to process a bird nearly as big as I am, but to see it strolling casually down the shore made an almost farcical juxtaposition. Beaches are habitats for gulls, sandpipers, and pelicans. This marvelously awkward creature seemed incongruous in my mental construct.
Perhaps the emu thought the same thing about me. But I doubt it thought about me at all; its amber eyes barely flicked our way. Either it was used to people, or it’s so large that puny humans merit little concern. It continued its stately progress, pausing every few meters to munch on leaves. We walked parallel to it for quite some time (at a respectful distance, of course).
Eventually it moseyed away from the cliffs for a brief sojourn along the breakers. It made a more polite beach companion than most human visitors. We were sorry when it wandered back into the bush, and our growling stomachs—taking a cue from the emu’s morning repaste—directed us back to our accommodation for breakfast.
Snuggled in a wooded cul-de-sac, our rental house enjoyed a rich variety of wildlife. Wallabies grazed on the lawn, rainbow lorikeets adorned the shrubberies, and every rooftop featured a masked lapwing like a live, screaming weathervane. But nothing compared with the oddball charm of a beach-combing emu!