Water, glass & goofballs

Yesterday was Day 1 of the Minnesota educators’ annual four-day weekend, a Day 1 that always feels like a holiday at the zoo. Combine that with our baby dolphin’s third day of access to the show pool, and you’ve got a holiday on steroids. Off-duty teachers and their inquisitive kids filled the stadium and swarmed in Discovery Bay, and I spouted baby-dolphin facts until my voice started to fail: She’s three months old and four feet long; her grandma is the one with the tiny eyes and the notched dorsal fin; daddy Semo is gated alone in a smaller pool because he might be aggressive toward the baby; the contest to name her is under way on the zoo’s website and Facebook page. I glimpsed her twice as she swam briefly from the holding pool to the big, scary show pool, but there was no time to photograph her or anything else yesterday. Fortunately, she’s not the zoo’s only frolicking aquatic mammal, and I’ve been holding onto these goofier, furrier images until the time is right. I think it’s right now.

Whenever I stroll through Russia’s Grizzly Coast, this is what I hope to see: Kenai all wet and slightly awkward, fur billowing, in pursuit of trout and a good time. What I never expect to see on the Minnesota Trail (or anywhere else), and did see just once in late August, is this:

It’s a special treat to behold our beavers in the water (or out of it), and I’ll never know what got into this one, but he scrabbled at the glass while delighted boys pressed up close and laughed. Just that one time.

Walking the Northern Trail two weeks ago, I kept reminding myself that THIS surely must be my last gorgeous day of Autumn 2010 at the zoo, and I did my best to immortalize the color with my camera. (Little did I know that last Thursday and even yesterday, despite the increasing chill, would be beautiful too.)

Here’s a lone stallion grazing peacefully in the Asian wild horse exhibit, plus a view of rosy foliage (baby maple? overgrown sumac?) on the Lakeside Terrace. I have to skip the zoo next week, and by November the last trace of color will surely be gone. But it’s been the longest, most lovely October in recent Minnesota memory, and I shouldn’t mourn its passing too much.

Crowded house, cool pool

I had my first beaver-sighting of the year in February and hardly expected another so soon, but fellow volunteer Chieko greeted me in the Tropics this week with exciting news: She’d just seen a baby beaver swimming! I high-tailed it over to the Minnesota Trail — fortunately, just where the volunteer schedule told me to go. I didn’t see any “kits” — the three or four babies born unexpectedly June 13 — but based on its size, I’m pretty sure this furry swimmer is a yearling from the previous batch.

Moments after I took this picture, the beaver arched its back and dived, dolphinlike, beneath the water. I had better luck observing the bigger, bulkier pair hanging out on the exhibit’s left-hand side, farther from the dam but closer to the handy ledge with a convenient pile of beaver chow and, within paw’s reach, a fine selection of sticks to fetch and chew.

Volunteers heard various theories as to why the beavers had emerged from their dam the past couple of weeks: the heat, the suddenly closer quarters since the kits’ arrival, the two enticing piles of beaver chow (upon first glimpsing the chow piles, I wondered if the beavers were filing their teeth on pieces of gravel).

This is actually my first glimpse EVER of a beaver’s tail on exhibit, although the zoo’s beaver “bench talk” box contains a preserved tail to show kids. The stick-fetching beaver seemed torn between clambering onto land and chilling in the pool. We spectators leaned over the railing to get a clear view every time the waterlogged rodent and its stick started to drift beneath a shelf of rock. I never did spot a tiny kit (YET!), but like the guests whose comments I overheard, I was just pleased to get an eyeful of the bigger guys. “We can tell Daddy we finally saw the beavers,” said a woman strolling onward ahead of me toward the next exhibit. And there’s sure to be a next time.

An elusive rodent of unusual size

Hurrying back indoors to warm up after a third consecutive Thursday of Wolf Watch (more about that in a minute), I passed the beaver exhibit and saw an unexpected sight — a beaver perched beside the upper-level pool. The largest species of North American rodent (20-80 pounds full-grown) gazed down a rocky slope toward the lower-level pool (a more typical site of occasional beaver sightings) as if contemplating a plunge.With or without a visible beaver, this exhibit has tremendous natural charm. The downward-flowing water burbles noisily and emanates the clean-seaweed smell of a healthy lake. Colorful ducks float on both the upper and lower pools, and an underwater-viewing window offers a potential view of beavers swimming beneath their dam. In summer, even before the Minnesota Trail’s dramatic redesign in 2007, this exhibit was a shady oasis of shifting light patterns and birdsong on a hot day.

Besides all that, the beaver has the best “bench talk” at the zoo. In a typical bench talk, a volunteer uses either a real animal pelt or a skull replica as a jumping-off point to talk about that animal’s unique features. The large plastic beaver box holds a furry pelt (guard hairs act almost as a raincoat to shield the beaver’s skin), a preserved, paddle-like beaver tail (for steering, grooming and slapping the water in warning), a beaver’s skull with teeth (which grow throughout a rodent’s life and must be filed down by chewing on wood), a beaver-skin hat, and a large picture book with informative captions. On a cold day with no live beaver in sight, a volunteer can sit by the roaring fire in the Minnesota Lodge, within 10 or 15 steps of the actual exhibit, and entertain a group of kids with this smorgasbord of beaver facts and imagery. And just when you stop expecting to see a live beaver, one appears.

So before I saw the beaver, nothing much happened with the wolves beyond last week’s post — they playfully bumped their open jaws together twice, and he eagerly sniffed, pawed and marked the patch of snow she’d left yellow. I caught her napping in the sun after that, and despite my inability to get an unobstructed view of her face, there’s something fitting about this image: It reminds me of the zoo’s logo, a tiger face with a leaf draped across one eye. Every mammal deserves a sheltering tree.