Tiny, tiny tiger

I woke up yesterday feeling oddly, biologically sad — not a rare morning situation for a night owl like me, and I knew my zoo day would perk me up fast. I didn’t know how fast until I came into the lounge and heard the news — an Amur tiger cub to go with the two Amur leopard cubs! And more news: We could meet the cub at a two-hour “open house” for staff and volunteers, though we couldn’t take pictures. And once I arrived at the holding area, MORE news: We could take pictures after all, since the cub was already featured on the zoo’s Facebook page. So I turned off my flash and went into a sort of photographic trance, while Northern Trail staffer Fred patiently cradled the baby on the other side of a glass-paned door and tried not to get his fingers nibbled off.

In these pictures, she’s four days old (born June 17) and three pounds, with eyes still unopened. She almost never stopped wiggling, so I’m glad these photos turned out as well as they did. Her parents are Molniy, one of the “Detroit boys,” and Angara, who came here when the other Detroit boy left, in a mating exchange that clearly paid off. This cub was the second and larger of two delivered by Angara; the first did not survive. About two-thirds of tigers survive the first 30 days.

Zoo staff usually take a hands-off approach to animal infants, letting moms be moms. But after a few days of watching Angara and the cub, zoo staff decided to hand-rear the tiny tiger. As one staffer mentioned as we gathered at the window with our cameras, tiger mothers have been known to eat their young. And Angara didn’t seem to be getting the hang of the whole nurturing thing. So some lucky humans have round-the-clock cub duty for the near future. While the general public won’t get its own open house, the zoo has a tiger webcam set up, as well as a leopard webcam where you can see the other Amur cubs with their mom. The baby leopards, born May 29, won’t be on public display for some time.

As if the day didn’t have enough baby-fresh goodness already, the trumpeter swan family was paddling alongside the newly reopened lake bridge (previously closed as part of black-bear-exhibit construction). I’d seen cygnets before, but not near enough to appreciate just how fuzzy they are. Last year’s cygnet pair didn’t make it to adulthood, possibly because of an extreme extended heatwave early last summer. I hope this quartet fares better.

Yesterday was great for weather (70 and sunny), cute animal babies and cute remarks by junior humans. As we watched the swans, a little girl on the bridge kept exclaiming, “Trumpet swans!” I gently corrected her, maintaining a “not-that-it-really-matters” vibe, and she repeated forcefully: “Trumpet swans!”

As I strolled the rest of the Northern Trail, just past the camel-ride site, I overheard this conversational snippet from an eight-to-10-year old boy and his mom just ahead of me:

Boy: “I wish I could live here.”
Mom (obviously amused): “You wish you could LIVE here?”
Boy: “Yes.”

Understandable, really.

Busy beaks and autumn antlers

After months of construction closure, the bridge from Lakeside Terrace to the Northern Trail has reopened! I strolled across it yesterday, a cool, blustery day of intermittent sunshine. On either side of the bridge, a trumpeter swan was furiously beak-grooming itself near the shoreline, as if this mating pair needed a break from each other.

I love crossing the lake bridge in any season, but early fall adds two special sensory features. Nasally, there’s a smell I’ve decided to call “leaf-crisping.” Earthy, dark and dry, the scent arrives with the first smattering of fallen yellow leaves. Visually, there’s the season’s first sprinkling of tree-bound leaf-color: yellow, orange and red highlights among the still-dominant green.

How quickly can you find the grooming swan amid this canopy of changing leaves?

Every 20 seconds or so, the busy beak arose from its chest-scratching activity long enough to grant me a swan-head view:

I met one fellow human on the bridge, an older gent visiting from his home on the Iowa-Illinois border; his girlfriend was spending the day at a management seminar. (As I mentioned last time, summer’s end is when the leisurely zoo conversations begin.) We watched the swan and talked animals for a while, and he told me about the time, in Alaska, when he saw a baby moose in the wild. His first thought: Where was the mama moose, who would certainly consider him a threat to her offspring? Once he spotted her, he slowly backed away, keeping her in sight until he’d removed himself from the scene. The anecdote proved prophetic; I finished crossing the bridge and passed the tigers to arrive at the liveliest moose scene I’ve ever seen.

Like every animal on the Northern Trail, moose tolerate the same broad range of temperatures we have in Minnesota. But they don’t thrive in heat, and not only does early fall bring a soothing coolness to these thousand-plus-pound mammals, but it happens to be their mating season. It’s rare to see a moose of each gender standing together in plain view; the male’s antlers were spectacular. (A rack can weigh up to 85 pounds.) The moose weren’t mating at the moment, but their behavior was still rather hilarious.

I’d never heard a moose make a noise before, but September-October is when the species gets vocal. Every time the male looked at the female or took a step in her direction, she let loose a quiet, low-pitched whining wail; whether that’s designed to be alluring, I couldn’t say. (A couple of teenage boys echoed it flawlessly as they walked by, making me a feel a bit bad for the she-moose.) As she stepped slowly across the exhibit on her long, slim legs, her mate applied his antlers to a tangled mass of twigs on the ground, head-butting them and grunting in a prolonged cadence that sounded like a dog’s growl.

I assumed it was some kind of rutting-season aggression thing, but after consulting my Big Binder of Zoo Facts back at home, I realized it was probably purely an antler thing. Like leaves, antlers sprout each spring and fall off by winter. In the fall, escalating male hormones cause the “velvet” (fur-covered skin) protecting the antlers to dry up, and a moose rubs off the velvet on trees and vegetation. (I wonder if the drying velvet itches; my Big Binder doesn’t say.) By winter, the hormonal decline is complete, the antlers fall off and the sexes become much harder to tell apart.

I took this boy-moose photo three years ago in later autumn, a year before I started this blog. (Note the big “bell,” or dewlap, dangling from his throat — a male’s bell is longer than a female’s, if you’re trying to tell boy from girl in the depths of an antlerless winter.) As this autumn’s color deepens, the photo ops will only improve. My camera and hiking boots are ready.