Paddle and wing

Latest tiger-cub news: Joining the zoo’s tiny tiger cub is an even tinier cub, born July 1 at the St. Louis Zoo. Neither cub had a maternally inclined mother; now both can be seen on Tiger Cub Cam, sometimes together. Neither has an official name yet, but my Day Captain Extraordinaire, Rae Nan, has taken to calling “our” two-weeks-older cub “Dragonfly” because of the double-wing stripe formation on the back of her neck. I couldn’t even picture a dragonfly when she first mentioned this name, but then I went river kayaking and saw some in person.

It was two weekends ago — a two-hour float down the St. Croix River from Interstate Park near Taylor Falls, Minn., to Osceola, Wis. It was 90 degrees, and as soon as I started kicking water up onto my kayak to create a cooler resting spot for my outstretched legs, dragonflies started perching there, too. When I pulled over to rest for a minute in shoreline shade, this friendly fellow sat on my knee for a good two minutes until I pushed off and started paddling again. It never occurred to me to wonder if he’d bite me, but at least one good website (I like this one, eduwebs) confirms that dragonflies don’t bite people; they just devour mosquitoes. Tellingly, I didn’t come home with a single bug-bite of any kind.

I’d hoped to see wildlife on this adventure — and we did spot a pair of eagles soaring into the treetops — but I wasn’t paying attention to dragonflies until a kayaking companion mentioned a colleague’s recent tweet about them. The tweet marveled that dragonflies can live for several years, spending all but their final few weeks underwater as nymphs. Another fine website, mndragonfly.org, marvels at this tropical insect’s ability to thrive in the Upper Midwest. There are at least three major varieties of dragonfly: darners, skimmers and clubtails. Eduwebs says California has 60 species of dragonfly. I’m pretty sure the dragonflies I photographed were blue darners.

Part of the zoo’s mission is to remind visitors that there’s a vast blue-green world beyond cities and small towns, full of overlooked creatures, and to give us all a gentle prod outward into that world. Once we’re physically immersed in nature, we’re more likely to think, “Maybe we shouldn’t put condos on this, after all” or “We need to make sure this kind of animal never dies out.” Worked on me.

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Tiger tech and pups in person

It’s hard to remember a world without webcams. In the past two weeks, my husband and I have become addicted to Tiger Cub Cam, which shows the cub slumbering round-the-clock, in an incubator by night and a crib by day, surrounded by a growing menagerie of stuffed toys. It’s her third week of life, and she’s spent much of it snuggled up with a Tigger toy that’s bigger than she is. Last night, she’d wriggled her entire body beneath Tigger, with just her paws and tail sticking out. On Thursday, I saw the pair of them — tiger and Tigger — facing off on this flatscreen at the Northern Trail’s Tiger Lair.

She’s a hilarious sleeper: punching the air with all paws, rolling around and struggling to hold her head up, twitching her tiny tail. Zoo lit tells me tiger eyes open a week after birth, but with all the sleeping, it’s hard to tell. Her ears, which at birth were like two shallow cups peeking out of her head, seem to be emerging and unfurling into the shape of recognizable cat-ears.. A human steward watches over her at all times; my husband, watching alone last week, said he saw a zoo staffer looming over with her with an iPhone –a video within a video? — then remembering to duck out of the webcam’s sightline. When a staffer takes her out for “care,” such as bottle-feeding, a pillow Post-It promises her quick return.

Since that first “open house”  two weeks ago, we’ve all had to settle for enjoying the cub at a virtual distance. But last week I finally caught my first glimpse of dhole pups, who are nearly three months old now. They’re another Asian animal, also highly endangered, just a short distance from the tigers on the Northern Trail. But their “babyhood” has been completely different from the tiger’s. Our two dhole moms have been nurturing two litters of unknown size, both born in mid-April, in this rock-den. An estimated four to seven puppies are in there; these two emerged for just two or three minutes Thursday. Soon after the birth, the two male dholes were reportedly carrying food into the den for the two moms. At birth, dhole pups look almost like bear cubs: dark brown with small rounded ears, not the distinctive pointy headgear these two pups are already sporting. Baby animals are always fun, but it’s meaningful fun with two species like tigers and dholes, when you know those species run the risk of disappearing.