Fur-baby explosion

I’ve spent nearly a month of this summer away from the zoo, and what did I miss? Babies, mostly — home-grown Minnesota fur-babies, either born on site (lynx kittens) or rescued from the wild (moose calves). There’s a healthy batch of both: four kittens and six moose orphans that came our way via the DNR. Here are a couple of the kittens, who only recently started venturing into the exhibit (so maybe I didn’t miss that much after all). With all the high-speed scampering, getting all four and their mom in the same frame was out of the question. To see a previous generation of our lynx kittens attempting to navigate trees when they were a bit older than this, I refer you to my post from two birth cycles ago, An Epic Feline Frolic.

Minnesota Zoo lynx kitten in stream

lynx kittens and logs

The new lynx and moose are all somewhat more than three months old now, in late August, although the moose calves were born in separate batches over a period of nearly three weeks. Those calves have begun rotating in pairs through the outdoor exhibit, learning to nibble leaves from branches as they’re gradually weaned off bottle-feeding.

Minnesota Zoo moose calves

Northern Trail supervisor Diana, in the exhibit with the calves below, said this pair weighed about 180 pounds when I took these photos in early August. They’re coming along nicely since their discovery by DNR researchers as part of an ongoing study about declining moose populations in northeastern Minnesota.

moose calves and Diana

Minnesota Zoo moose artifactsA new volunteer feature this summer, besides our outdoor Big Bugs exhibit and the Conservation Carousel you walk by en route to Big Bugs, is the  “conservation cart” by the carousel. Inside, along with all the information about bees and other pollinators (a topic for another post) are moose “bench talk” artifacts: a section of antler rack, a piece of pelt, a jar of the “moose chow” that supplements the leaves and twigs in a zoo moose’s diet. My favorite moment so far with the antlers followed a question like the ones I explored in my previous post: “How did the moose die?” This gave me the perfect opening to talk about the temporary nature of antlers (shed naturally every December) compared with the more permanent nature of horns, and the lack of antlers in most deer species’ females (except caribou), and how antler growth is a response to hormone levels, which react to seasons and their varying hours of daylight. Moose are struggling in Minnesota, the southern tip of their geographic range, but nothing gives you hope for a species’ future like a big batch of thriving babies.

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A frog in my throat

zoo volunteer with frog puppetSo yeah, that’s me with a giant frog puppet. The zoo’s education folks (including us volunteers) continue to highlight one form of wildlife per month this winter at the Tropics trailhead, and as Froggy February winds down, I’m still marveling at how much educational mileage I’ve gotten out of this big fake frog. It pulls in kids of all ages like a magnet, and then I’m off to the races with frog facts. Wiggling my finger inside its cloth tongue, I explain that a frog’s real tongue moves faster than the human eye can see as it catches flies and other bugs, and that its eye sockets then push downward to help it swallow those bugs whole. I ask if kids can tell frogs from toads and then talk about dry, warty skin and short-legged hops as opposed to frogs’ smooth dampness, webbed feet and long leaps.

froggy FebruaryLast week I found a great way to illustrate those leaps: by putting this plastic frog, which resembles the leopard frog found widely in Minnesota, next to a measuring tape on the floor to show how far he can jump — 5 feet 4 inches, a figure that sticks in my head because it’s my own height. I asked kids to see if they could leap as far as a leopard frog in a single bound, and quite a few could. Others hopped down the length of the tape, and I told them they were actually toads — still a type of frog.

Minnesota Zoo bullfrogAnd here’s a live one —  our Minnesota Lodge bullfrog, whose size never fails to astound me. They’re the largest of our state’s 14 frog types (11 types excluding toads) at a maximum length of eight inches. Bullfrogs’ croak sounds like motors, leopard frogs’ like snoring; the interpretation booth has a handheld device that emits these and all the other types of croaks made by the 11 frogs. In a few days, the booth’s contents will switch from frog- to plant-related items, in anticipation of a spring that feels like it will never come. I’m not psyched up to talk about plants yet — but then, I wasn’t that excited about frogs at first, either. Until, eventually, I was.

Obsessed with owls

owl salt-and-pepper shakersThey’ve been taking up long-term residence in my subconscious and my Facebook feed for the past couple of months; I’ve been holding the door partway closed because that’s my knee-jerk response to popular things. But once I decide there’s a good reason for the popularity — in this case, gorgeousness blending with oddness and a hint of mystery — I tend to succumb. I bought these owl-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers. I started following The Owl Pages on Facebook, where at least a couple of striking new owl photos get delivered to my eyes each day. (The Owl Pages website breaks down owls by subspecies.) Then the zoo’s education department and volunteer corps, in its continuing “animal per month” interpretation focus, declared January to be “for the birds.” Technically, owls are raptors, with their talons and their sharp hooked beaks, but they’re frequent players in the zoo’s bird show, and their fact sheets are in the information booth we volunteers are staffing at the Tropics trailhead this month. (The Tropics aviary is the best place to see birds at the zoo this time of year.) Beyond the bird show, the place to see an owl at the zoo is in the Minnesota Trail’s porcupine exhibit.

snowy owl wing

snowy owlMy fellow Thursday volunteer Joel Hillyer took these three photos and graciously gave me permission to share them.  This snowy owl spent a few weeks in the porcupine exhibit in our Minnesota Trail before rejoining the bird show. (From a recent bird show, I learned that snowy owls are the largest owl by weight in Minnesota at just over 3 pounds. The state’s largest owl by surface area is the great gray owl, who’s about 2 feet long.)

great horned owl on Minnesota TrailOur usual on-exhibit resident is a great horned owl — also the type of owl I periodically hear hooting in my yard in winter, their mating season. Found throughout North America, everywhere from dense forests to city parks, they’re the largest North American owl with ear tufts and eat a variety of rodents and other animals — even skunks!

owl artifacts, bench talkCementing my obsession was the discovery of an owl-themed “bench talk” among the other Minnesota Trail boxes. Owls have feathers all the way down to their talons, as you can see here. If our eyes were as proportionately large in our face as an owl’s, we’d have eyes the size of oranges. Owls can’t shift their eyes from side to side, but they can swivel their heads at least two-thirds of the way around to see what’s behind them. And female owls are quite a bit bigger than male owls. These are just a few of the owl facts I’ve filed in my brain so far.

owl sounds on Minnesota TrailEven if you can’t see the great horned owl on the Minnesota Trail, you can hear the different calls made by different species using this handy trailside display. Besides the whoo-ing of my occasional “yard owl,” I still have to memorize more of their calls — just one more detail I plan to absorb about this species as my fascination continues to unfold.

A howl before mating

It’s Wolf Watch mating season again, when volunteers bundle up for a few weeks to spy on the zoo’s two gray wolves in half-hour shifts and tell staff if we witness a butt-to-butt “tie.” (Two months after that, pups are probable.) There’s been a bit of grumbling the past two weeks, as zero-ish temperatures collided with a general lack of activity in the exhibit. (This Tumblr by an anonymous fellow volunteer about sums it up, while confirming the wolves’ names as I’d jotted them down once — she’s Wazi, he’s Kaska.) But on Thursday, I got a bigger eyeful than expected.

wolf watch- Wazi play bowFor the first 15 minutes, I saw only the tips of Kaska’s black ears as he lay near the exhibit’s edge and I sat huddled under an electric blanket in the glass-enclosed wolf-viewing room. But then he stood up, executed a deep stretchy “play bow” followed by a shimmying body-shake, and walked over to the “coyote side” of his area. A few minutes later, Wazi the she-wolf, whose white fur blends so well with snow that I hadn’t seen her, also stood up, performed an identical set of maneuvers and followed him. (Here she is doing another stretchy play bow at the coyote side.)

wolf watch- howlI was debating whether to leave my chair and blanket and follow them when I heard such a ruckus that I leaped up and ran toward it. Both wolves were howling through the fence at all four coyotes, who were yipping back. Here’s Kaska in full-thr0ated howl mode. (The wolves appear to be butt-to-butt here, but I don’t believe anything actually happened.) Only a few intrepid guests appeared on the Minnesota Trail that bone-chilling midday, and I had this particular scene completely to myself.

wolf watch- coyote watch

She maintained her interest in the coyotes longer than he did.

wolf watch- Kaska close-upKaska and I had a moment together at the coyote-side window, and when he faced me head-on, I had to lower the camera for a second and gaze directly into those amber eyes, appreciating the unmediated wildness of our encounter. (My husband later said Kaska was imagining how I’d taste with steak sauce, which was probably close to the truth.) These animals, so similar in some ways to our house pets, have such a fierce untamed elegance that I never take this kind of proximity for granted. It makes braving the bitter cold worthwhile.

Owl surprise

When I ducked into the Minnesota Trail’s black-bear viewing lodge Thursday morning, I expected to see only humans and bears, assuming the latter weren’t still asleep in their holding area. I did not expect to see a tiny owl, perched right there on the fingers of a Close Encounters team member, over by the lodge fireplace.

screech owl encounter

I knew the Close Encounters program (financed through Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment) was up and running and that zoo staffers would be hands-on with non-exhibit animals along the trails at designated times. But this tiny owl caught me off-guard, and I wanted to know his story. Ask a friendly zoo staffer, and you shall be told: He’s an Eastern screech owl named Rio, adopted first by a Texas facility after he fell far from his nest. He’s full-grown now and weighs only 7 or 8 ounces. Because he probably remembers his owl parents, his new blonde stand-in parent describes him as a “partial imprint” — he “knows he’s an owl” but still puts on an apparent mating display for her, tinged with aggression. You’d never know it to see him here, though; Rio maintained the same aura of motionless poise for the five or 10 minutes I spent admiring him.

Eastern screen owl close-upWe have Eastern screech owls in Minnesota, too, though they’re masters of daytime disguise — even when they’re not blending in against bear-lodge fireplace stone.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website cracks me up by describing the species as a “cosmopolitan owl,” meaning that these little guys thrive in suburban areas, which offer tree cover and minimal predators. They’re not endangered or rare, and despite their name, their range also covers the Plains states. Their call, which I’ve never heard in the wild, is described as a descending whinny or trill. At the zoo, Rio eats frozen mice and, for enrichment or extra fun, crickets and mealworms. When he’s had enough exposure to people, which happened sometime after I took my second photo of him, he hops off the hand and into his carrying crate, positioned next to the lodge fireplace for maximum warmth on a winter’s day. I hope he makes a return appearance sometime.

Off-duty docent

For my sister-in-law Barb, a rarely seen beaver cavorted in the pool. For my college roommate Tracy, the tiger and leopard cubs frolicked extra-hard. Each of the past two weekends, as a nonvolunteering “civilian,” I’ve taken a friend to the zoo. Both Tracy and Barb spontaneously bought me coffee at the Penguin Cafe, but otherwise the two outings — though equally delightful — could not have been more different.

Here’s Barb two weeks ago with one of the Minnesota Trail’s most elusive residents. It’s as if this furry rodent knew that Barb was a former Brookfield Zookeeper in Chicago, that she was in town just briefly from another state, that she frequented the Minnesota Zoo in its early years and that one special appearance deserved another.

We had a little less luck with the zoo’s trio of young cat species: the lynx kitten goes off-exhibit after lunch, the leopard cubs were hanging out near the back of their space, and the tiger-cub launch was still two days ahead. But it was the perfect day for hiking the Northern Trail, with head coverings and large coffees to take the edge of the sunny chill. And the dholes, which can be hard to spot in their roomy woodland home, graced us with an eyeful. Since this month’s volunteer update, I know all their names (though I don’t know which adult this is, at left): females Piri and Fanni,  males Blyger and Prosit (who’s chubbier) and three female pups: Astrid (reportedly the smallest and boldest), Csilla (pronouned Chee-yah) and Janka.

A week later, for Tracy’s visit, everything had changed: gray skies dropped a warm drizzle, the beaver had returned to invisibility, the Northern Trail was too wet to walk in full — but all the baby cats were out in force. The lynx kitten kept to the top of his exhibit, but you could still see his cuteness. I’d heard the tiger cubs might go back inside if it rained, but there they were — just a headless wrestling blurry ball whenever Tracy and I pointed our cameras at them, but distinct enough when they ventured out from beneath their umbrella of trees. They’re prowling alongside the window less often now, but I think the cub below was drawn to a visitor’s neon sneakers.

Tracy describes me as a docent in my zoo life, which of course is what I am, though at the zoo we tend to call ourselves interpretive volunteers instead. (We do have a sense of kinship with the Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docents, or AZAD, however.) These past two weekends, I was a partly-off-duty docent, free of any scheduled commitments but still irrepressibly shouting out animal information, asked-for or not. Force of habit guarantees that when I’m in my “natural habitat,” as I like to call the zoo, animal-fact eruptions happen. Bringing friends into that habitat just makes it feel even more natural.

Bearing up nicely

Last week I finally got to see the new American black bears on the Minnesota Trail. As with the Grizzly Coast grizzlies, or brown bears, we have three — as any fairy-tale fan should agree, the ideal number of bears in any given unit. The first thing you’ll notice here is that not all black bears are black, just as not all brown bears are brown.

So what’s the difference, then, you might ask? American black bears are much smaller than the Russian/Alaskan grizzlies (200 to 400 pounds, as opposed to 800 or 1,000), with shorter, less shaggy fur and no fatty hump between their shoulders. Their short, nonretractable claws make them excellent tree-climbers. To my eye, black bear ears seem pointier. For a comparison, here’s Sadie, the smallest of our grizzlies, scratching herself on a log last week:

Like the three grizzlies, all three black bears were rescued as baby orphans — but in northern Minnesota, up by Leech Lake, in early 2010. They likely have a few more inches to grow and quite a few more pounds to gain. Their names are drawn from the languages of various Indian tribes: Kuruk (which means bear) and Tiva (dance) are the two black ones; Tiva, the smaller female, has a bit of white on her chest. Syke (which means “sleeps” and is pronounced like “psych”) is the cinnamon-colored black bear, and though I certainly didn’t intend to pick favorites on my first viewing, I already have a soft spot for him, much as I do for Kenai among the grizzlies.

It might have been a one-morning fluke, or my personal bias, but Syke seemed like the most active, and interactive, bear in my first half-hour at the exhibit. He reared up briefly but repeatedly on his hind legs (a maneuver that helps bears sniff the air  — smell is their strongest sense), went nose-to-palm with this toddler, and presented his face for photography more often than his hindquarters. That said, the zoo’s information sheet identifies Kuruk as “the boldest one,” and this exhibit opened less than two weeks ago, so it’s early days yet.

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