Sensitive spooning

Eleven years into volunteering at the zoo, I’ve noticed that I go through favorite-critter phases, with a “best thing at the zoo right now” orientation. Because the South American aviary on the Tropics trail was a new addition last fall, with its waterfall and its chorus of chirping, and because that leafy green trail is such a refuge in winter, that’s my “best thing” this season. And my favorite bird in that aviary is the roseate spoonbill, which the Audubon Society accurately describes as “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.”

roseate spoonbill posing

roseate spoonbill close-up

Standing about 30 inches, the spoonbill is related to a flamingo and looks like one, too — until you notice the bill. In this aviary, that’s not always easy to do, because our two spoonbills — like their other on-exhibit relatives, the scarlet ibis — like to perch in the treetops, beak tucked under wing. But first thing in the morning, one spoonbill likes to pace the lower level, brushing the ground with that amazing implement on his face. (On the day I took all these photos, zookeeper Ben told me this one is the male and has a slight wing injury from some mysterious phase of his pre-Minnesota life. The roosting female would be a bit smaller-bodied, and smaller-billed.)

spoonbill scavengingThis big, odd, beautiful shore bird was behaving much as he would in the wild, where spoonbills sweep their heads from side to side in search of tasty morsels, especially in shallow water. The spoon-shaped bill is a sensitive instrument full of nerve endings, and when its owner scoops up a mouthful of water, that bill has the advantages of a sieve; it opens slightly, the water leaks out the sides and the tasty bits of seafood get swallowed, along with the occasional piece of plant life.

Minnesota Zoo roseate spoonbill crouching

They’re in our South American exhibit for a reason, but roseate spoonbills can also be found along U.S. shores in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. In our zoo space, they coexist with several smaller species besides the ibis. My second-favorite bird species in this aviary, the black-necked stilts, were keeping anxiously clear of the much larger Mr. Spoonbill, who strode purposefully across every inch of the exhibit in the 20 minutes I spent hovering with my camera. Eventually he fluttered up to join his mate in the treetops, and I craned my neck for one last look before moving along.

spoonbill and stilt




My favorite falcon?

Okay, I may not know enough types of falcons to have a legitimate favorite (and the owl remains my favorite raptor, that less specific bird-of-prey category). But proving the zoo’s thesis that you grow fondest of the species that you meet in person, I developed a keen interest in the American kestrel after a recent Close Encounters session by the turtle tank between Tropics and the Minnesota Trail. The encounter was advertised only as “Meet a Bird of Prey,” scheduled for a time when I did not have a “must-cover” volunteer assignment elsewhere. So I went to see what kind of bird it was.

American kestrel with Mary

Zoo staffer Mary presented kestrel Miici, whose name she described as an Indian word for “eat.” Miici is a former pet, which makes her “imprinted” on humans for food. (The zoo feeds her mouse chunks and mealworms.) The Warner Nature Center, which has a densely informative page on kestrels and other types of raptors, advises against adopting a kestrel as a house pet — which may be tempting, since they’re robin-sized and cute. But even as the smallest falcon, weighing just under 5 ounces (or the weight of a tennis ball), they’re an aggressive hunter, with a raptor’s hooked beak and sharp talons.

American kestrel head turnCamera-shy Miici kept turning her head every time I took her picture — not the full backward-facing 135 degrees that an owl head can turn, but much farther than our own limited range of motion. She also bobbed her head up and down, telescoping her neck, to an amusing extent. Mary described some of her falcon features — the black marks under a kestrel’s eyes serve the same function as the similar but artificial marks on a football player’s face: to absorb sunlight so it doesn’t reflect into the eyes. Kestrels are found throughout North America, especially near open areas where they can spot ground-dwelling prey with their excellent long-distance vision. At the zoo, in a season less bitterly cold than this one, a staff-led encounter with Miici would typically happen outdoors. I look forward to meeting her again on Lakeside Plaza in a gentler season.

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.

Feathers on the walkway

I am not a patient person or a frequent birdwatcher. These two traits are directly related. On any given Thursday, I generally stride through the Tropics aviary with my eyes front and center, focused on my next destination. Last week, however, I froze in my tracks when confronted by a Malay great argus pheasant on the path.

This type of brazen encounter isn’t unheard-of, but it’s not usual, either. Fellow volunteer Michele, who was already on the walkway with the pheasant when I arrived, says her shins have been wing-slapped by a Victoria crowned pigeon who sometimes frequents the path. (Michele says the pigeon targets the khaki pants worn by most staffers and volunteers.) When a small flotilla of moms and strollers arrived, Michele helped them form a line to one side of the pheasant, and the moms discouraged their toddlers from actually touching the bird, although they wanted to. Eventually, Mr. Argus fluttered up to perch on a railing and show off his plumage some more.

The pheasant convinced me to linger on the path and peer deeper into the dark recesses of foliage on either side. It was an extremely dark and gloomy day, but splashes of color and life dotted the branches.

This nesting Nicobar pigeon seemed oblivious to the commotion just a few feet from her perch; nothing was going to startle or dislodge her. Nearby, black-naped orioles, with their bright yellow coloring, fluttered within easy sight of the walkway. Looking them up online, I realized that their tropical Asian range includes the Nicobar Islands (Great and Little Nicobar), northeast of Malaysia and south of India. So they’re close to the pigeons in the wild, as well.

No bird-feet were strolling the walkway when I passed through yesterday, but the Nicobar pigeons were more active, and one took the pheasant’s previous spot on the railing:

I’d been looking hard for a fairy bluebird the previous week, and yesterday I managed to capture one in my lens during the 90-second window he gave me. I didn’t see another oriole, though. Sustained birdwatching requires more patience than I possess, but even a little bit of lingering can pay off.

Cygnet and foal

With nearly a week of spring technically left, the zoo still has fluffy spring babies to see. An Asian wild horse was born May 24, and over Memorial Day weekend, the trumpeter swans who live on our lake had cygnets. Last spring, I tried in vain to get a clear baby-swan shot. Last week, my luck improved.

The challenge was to get the adults’ faces in the picture, since swans spend so much time browsing for food with their heads underwater, tails pointing skyward. To maximize their reach in browsing, their necks are as long as their bodies: on average, nearly 60 inches each. At 20 to 30 pounds, trumpeters are the largest swan species. Now about three weeks old, this cygnet will be fully feathered at about two months old; a month after that, it will be able to fly. The zoo has released 165 swans into the wild, through its trumpeter swan restoration project participation. But some of them like the zoo’s sheltered lake so much, they eventually come home.

The newest member of the Asian wild horse exhibit is a few days older than the cygnets, but just as cute:

They’re also known as Przewalski’s horses (or in zoo shorthand, P-horses), after the Russian explorer (first name: Nicolai) who first informed the West of their existence in the late 1800s. (The Brookfield Zoo, which I recently visited, also has them, along with a helpful sign explaining the pronunciation: “Shevalski.”)

If not for captive-breeding programs in zoos, Asian wild horses would be extinct. In the mid-1960s, there were none left in the wild. But as with trumpeter swans in Minnesota, reintroduction efforts have restored a population to Mongolia, their last native stronghold. And as with many endangered species, humans have been their greatest threat: from hunters to farmers who (understandably) repurpose the land for crops or domestic grazing. In a nicely ironic twist, though, it’s also humans who’ve helped bring P-horses back from the brink.

Avian spectacle

As a winter of construction work envelops the zoo, our daily bird shows have no amphitheater: the fancy new one still in progress, the old one giving way to next summer’s penguin exhibit. In the interim, handheld “bird encounters” in Discovery Bay replace the free-flight theater shows, and I observed one yesterday from my assigned station at the dolphin window. The trainers began with a Harris hawk and moved on to a barn owl. When this unfamiliar fellow came out — an owl with the eyes of a spectacled bear — I had to cross the room for a closer look. Logically enough, he turned out to be a spectacled owl.

These are tropical rainforest owls found in Central and northern South America. Their bird-call is a knocking or tapping sound — or, for females, a shriek that reportedly sounds like a steam whistle. Websites say spectacled owls are unsociable, and delightful bird-trainer Rebecca — seen here taking questions after the encounter — says they’re still rather unusual in zoos. I always expect to see something I’ve never seen before in each shift at the zoo, but usually that’s just a new animal behavior. This time, it was a completely new animal.

Avian April

April is Farm Babies month at the zoo, but for those who don’t want to hike all the way out to the Family Farm on a weekday (trams run part of the way Friday through Sunday), we’ve got bunnies and chicks in the main building.

Besides a group of six-week-old New Zealand white rabbits (their inner ears rosily aglow), there’s this nice little mob of Rhode Island Red and Americauna chicks, which were mostly about two weeks old as of Thursday. (Zoo staff keep swapping out the big chicks and introducing younger ones, so that age range shouldn’t change much.) Kids were fascinated and the chicks reciprocated, rushing en masse to one side of their enclosure to inspect a little girl’s floppy pink hat, then to the other to check out a little boy’s green-frog finger ring. A couple of guests were concerned that one of the smaller chicks was getting picked on by the others (pecking order, anyone?), but by the time a staffer stopped by to assess the situation, all the fuzzy orbs were milling around randomly again.

Meanwhile out on the Central Plaza, the morning was rain-washed and smelled of worms, and two trumpeter swans were hanging out on the pond. Thanks in part to the zoo’s captive-breeding program, these guys are off the Minnesota endangered-species list, and my fellow volunteer Wally theorized that the one resting on land just flew in from the wild to take shelter here, given its lack of a visible zoo tag. Sneaking back outside after lunch, after the sky cleared and the worm-smell dissipated, I became obsessed with following the swan pictured at right (zoo tag not quite visible here) as it glided around the pond’s edges, dunking its head to eat aquatic plants with tail feathers pointed skyward and, for one spectacular moment, stretching upward to show off its 7-foot wingspan. Both swans were shy about showing me their faces, but I was just happy to see them gracefully situated in a shallow, sheltered body of water so nicely tailored to their needs.