Tail end of summer

As Labor Day approaches, along with the departure of our traveling summer dino exhibit, I must thank my fellow volunteer Emily for showing me how to make the most of a scheduled hour at the exhibit trail’s endpoint, Dino Village. We’ve had two such hours together in the past month, both on rainy days. Both times we took shelter in the interpretive booth, where Emily displayed her prowess with coprolite artifacts (more about those in a moment) and took this picture (she declined to be photographed herself).

Besides the coprolite fossils, which I’m so bravely gripping here, the booth held a delicate glazed ostrich egg about the same size as a dinosaur egg. As kids approached the booth, I devised my second-favorite interpretive question: “Is this a huge egg or a tiny egg?” Coming from a dinosaur, of course, it’s tiny; a proportionately sized egg would have a shell too thick for the dino-baby to shatter from within. My favorite question, though, applied to the coprolites: “What do you think these are?” Emily taught me not to answer this until the children had already touched the fossils. She also showed me the immensely charming companion book stashed in the booth.

The disclosure “It’s poop!” leads to giggles, recoiling or blank stares, depending on the toucher. “Jurassic Poop” further explains that before droppings can spend thousands of years hardening into rock, they first must drop in a cool, dry environment that fosters fossilization. Emily, a new summer “green-shirt” volunteer who plans to go through more intensive training and become a permanent “blue-shirt,” understood the full benefit of the ask-touch-tell sequence: Sure, you can walk around with a coprolite in your hand and ask, “Would you like to touch this poop?” I’d seen volunteers doing that before, and it works just fine: A certain type of kid-guest will always leap at the chance. But forcing a guest to think harder and work for the answer gives the brain a better workout, lures in the potentially squeamish and often gets a more dramatic response.

Despite my mild-at-best interest in dinosaurs, I also have a new favorite to go along with my other two: this guy, Parasaurolophus, who’s hanging out here in Dino Village. Emily and I wondered where he’ll go when this exhibit packs up and moves on in a week, since this statue isn’t part of the traveling animatronic herd: I’ll say something here when I know. My favorite thing about Para, obviously, is his head-crest, whose multiple uses included mating calls. But child-visitors to the booth all told Emily, when she asked, that their favorite was T-rex. One little boy explained his preference: “He’s even bigger than my dad!”

Our butterfly garden is the other summertime exhibit that’s technically winding down, but nobody has informed its winged inhabitants: When I stopped by last week, they were fluttering everywhere, in greater numbers than I’d ever seen. Their favorite plant seemed to be the Joe-Pye weed, a late-blooming perennial I’ve heard of but never knowingly seen. (Thanks to ever-helpful zoo staffer Cale for letting me know.) It can grow up to 9 feet tall, but there’s a “Little Joe” dwarf variety that stops at 4 feet, and I’m pretty sure that’s what was growing here. It’s a cold-tolerant herb, also known as snakeroot and Queen of the Meadow, and a magnet for monarchs as well as the zebra longwings seen above. I plan to add it to my own garden soon, before the local butterflies (and dinosaurs) move on.

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Kittens, trees and ear-tufts

Yesterday’s good zoo-news: It was not only my zoo day, but our latest Canada lynx kitten’s first day on exhibit! He’s only out in the mornings, and I had the good luck to be scheduled on the Minnesota Trail at 10:30, so I could see sights like this:

I hadn’t seen lynx kittens trying to navigate trees since the Epic Feline Frolic two winters ago. This particular kitten is about three months old, and this particular treetop moment is deceptively graceful. In the fifteen minutes I spent watching him, there were far more moments like this:

He was all over his new habitat, exploring and sometimes hiding amid the foliage. Keeping visual track of him required a little effort:

Other times, his giant paws and tufted ears were plain as day:

The little guy’s mom was out and about, too, but giving him plenty of “me space.”

A guest and his daughter gave me the perfect chance to use some of my “interpretive” skills when they asked if these were bobcats. At nearly 30 pounds, the largest lynx is twice the size of the largest bobcat, with larger ear-tufts and less-variegated fur. And you generally won’t see lynx living in the wild this far south, or anyplace that doesn’t offer a buffet of its favorite food, snowshoe hare. You might not even see this little lynx unless you come early and watch very closely, in which case you’ll be richly rewarded.