Busy beaks and autumn antlers

After months of construction closure, the bridge from Lakeside Terrace to the Northern Trail has reopened! I strolled across it yesterday, a cool, blustery day of intermittent sunshine. On either side of the bridge, a trumpeter swan was furiously beak-grooming itself near the shoreline, as if this mating pair needed a break from each other.

I love crossing the lake bridge in any season, but early fall adds two special sensory features. Nasally, there’s a smell I’ve decided to call “leaf-crisping.” Earthy, dark and dry, the scent arrives with the first smattering of fallen yellow leaves. Visually, there’s the season’s first sprinkling of tree-bound leaf-color: yellow, orange and red highlights among the still-dominant green.

How quickly can you find the grooming swan amid this canopy of changing leaves?

Every 20 seconds or so, the busy beak arose from its chest-scratching activity long enough to grant me a swan-head view:

I met one fellow human on the bridge, an older gent visiting from his home on the Iowa-Illinois border; his girlfriend was spending the day at a management seminar. (As I mentioned last time, summer’s end is when the leisurely zoo conversations begin.) We watched the swan and talked animals for a while, and he told me about the time, in Alaska, when he saw a baby moose in the wild. His first thought: Where was the mama moose, who would certainly consider him a threat to her offspring? Once he spotted her, he slowly backed away, keeping her in sight until he’d removed himself from the scene. The anecdote proved prophetic; I finished crossing the bridge and passed the tigers to arrive at the liveliest moose scene I’ve ever seen.

Like every animal on the Northern Trail, moose tolerate the same broad range of temperatures we have in Minnesota. But they don’t thrive in heat, and not only does early fall bring a soothing coolness to these thousand-plus-pound mammals, but it happens to be their mating season. It’s rare to see a moose of each gender standing together in plain view; the male’s antlers were spectacular. (A rack can weigh up to 85 pounds.) The moose weren’t mating at the moment, but their behavior was still rather hilarious.

I’d never heard a moose make a noise before, but September-October is when the species gets vocal. Every time the male looked at the female or took a step in her direction, she let loose a quiet, low-pitched whining wail; whether that’s designed to be alluring, I couldn’t say. (A couple of teenage boys echoed it flawlessly as they walked by, making me a feel a bit bad for the she-moose.) As she stepped slowly across the exhibit on her long, slim legs, her mate applied his antlers to a tangled mass of twigs on the ground, head-butting them and grunting in a prolonged cadence that sounded like a dog’s growl.

I assumed it was some kind of rutting-season aggression thing, but after consulting my Big Binder of Zoo Facts back at home, I realized it was probably purely an antler thing. Like leaves, antlers sprout each spring and fall off by winter. In the fall, escalating male hormones cause the “velvet” (fur-covered skin) protecting the antlers to dry up, and a moose rubs off the velvet on trees and vegetation. (I wonder if the drying velvet itches; my Big Binder doesn’t say.) By winter, the hormonal decline is complete, the antlers fall off and the sexes become much harder to tell apart.

I took this boy-moose photo three years ago in later autumn, a year before I started this blog. (Note the big “bell,” or dewlap, dangling from his throat — a male’s bell is longer than a female’s, if you’re trying to tell boy from girl in the depths of an antlerless winter.) As this autumn’s color deepens, the photo ops will only improve. My camera and hiking boots are ready.

Black and white mischief

Who knew African penguins loved the taste of caulk? Not I, or not until last week, when I arrived at the zoo to find their exhibit briefly closed. The penguins had been diving down to strip away the pale goo that helps bind the front pane of glass to the rest of their exhibit.

By midday, as I passed by on my way to lunch, the exhibit had been repaired and reopened, with a fresh layer of fast-drying concrete to shield the new caulk from wayward beaks. During lunch in our lounge, volunteer coordinator Heidi — always a gold mine of animal information —  explained that consumption and digestion did little to alter the whitish goo, which meant some of it got reconsumed (eww!). The penguins were unharmed by their new short-term snack, but taking it off the table was obviously best for all concerned. Heidi also mentioned the penguins’ fascination with shiny objects, including zookeepers’ keys. One crouching keeper got a ring snatched off her belt at feeding time; a penguin dived to the bottom of the seven-foot pool with its metallic toy, which zoo staff promptly retrieved.

A different species of silliness was going on along the Minnesota Trail, where high in a tree, a chittering squirrel was taunting our silvery she-wolf. Once again, she cast off her aura of wild mystery and reminded me of my dog, gazing up into the branches with a slack, quivering lower jaw, then leaping to stretch her forepaws up past the lowest branch, a good five or six feet off the ground — all in vain. Watching alongside me, a guest said she was reminded of her husky at home.

The early days of a new school year always bring a welcome breath of quiet to the zoo. With summer crowds dissolving, I could take some decent underwater penguin photos without fear of blocking anyone’s view. Oddly, guests seem to approach volunteers with more questions after the crowds thin out; I answered at least half a dozen in four hours on Thursday. On autumn weekdays, zoogoers are no longer swept along in a crush of humanity; they have the physical and psychic space to pause, ponder, wonder, inquire. And if animals decide to act silly, then everyone gets a front-row view.