marine mammals

We Stole a Day

I usually put up photos and musings about the dogs, but I thought I’d go back and post some of the best photos from our little stolen day at the Bronx Zoo. Andy suggested we take a jaunt down there together, and it turned out to be a fantastic idea. Nobody wants to go to the zoo in March, so we kind of had the run of the place.

Nothing like a lazy Grizzly.

The majestic Bison. Andy and I engaged in a not-so-heated debate about whether or not you could eat Bison. Apparently, you can, but we’re probably not talking about these particular Bison.

One of my favorite parts of the Bronx Zoo is the “World of Birds,” an imaginative and intimate set of bird exhibits. Some species of birds will religiously stick to lighter, warmer spaces, so they can live in their habitat without a screen or glass between them and visitors.

This White-throated Bee-eater is one such bird. I’m still using the same little 3x zoom I’ve had for a couple of years, so I’m actually only about eight feet from this bird.

Nobody knows how to lounge around better than the bears. I think they were still experiencing some torpor since March can’t be too far out of hibernation season.

The snow leopards weren’t exactly fired up either. And they can’t be trusted to hang out in their habitats without some fencing, so there’s no way to take a photo without those telltale vertical blurs.

As far as I could tell, this White-naped Crane was free to come and go as he pleased. Most of the outdoor bird exhibits seemed to consist of an offering of excellent habitat that would encourage wild birds to stop by and exhibited birds to stay. It’s possible (and I suppose likely) these cranes were somehow wing-clipped and unable to fly out, but there was no netting enclosing their habitat, just fencing.

As we walked around the zoo, we heard a mysterious sound echoing back and forth across the hills and buildings. Was it angry baboons? A mysterious and exotic bird?

It was an uppity sea lion and her screechy bark. Up close, it was obviously a loud sea lion noise, but filtered through trees and over a hill, it was much harder to place. She hooted and hollered incessantly pretty much the entire time we were at the zoo.

One of my favorite exhibits here, even since I was a kid, is “Jungle World,” a series of interconnected habitats climate controlled in the high seventies and even higher humidity. Again, with as little glass or other obvious enclosures as possible, the habitats are structured to encourage the animals to stay in the right areas. The feel, though, is a little more like a stroll through the jungle than it is like a museum.

Although this tree kangaroo could easily have been stuffed for all the moving it didn’t do. I don’t think I could ever be that limply comfortable on a branch, but he was pretty blissful in this pose.

When I saw this Malayan Tapir, it was with a certain degree of the shock of a strong memory.  I suddenly felt like the little kid I was, overwhelmed with joy, when I first came to Jungle World and saw the Tapir. I don’t know if it’s the same actual Tapir, but it was certainly sitting in the same spot with the same depressed stare. If A. A. Milne had written about jungle life, the Tapir would have been Eeyore.

What would a trip to the zoo be without a giraffe sighting? Apparently the giraffes had just made the transition from their indoor, winter habitat back to the fresh air of the New York area, so they were strutting around proudly. Although, that may simply have been the way they have to walk. I’ve never seen a giraffe stroll, idle, or slouch. I suppose one could amble without too much difficulty, though.

This is an Aztec Tern coming in for a landing in yet another open-feeling habitat, this time for arctic birds. It’s covered over with a huge dome of netting and filled with terns, penguins, and the like.

Here’s one of the Aztec Terns giving Andy the hairy eyeball.

I have some mixed feelings about zoos. On the one hand, I love being able to see these animals up close. I’ve always been enamored of even fleeting glimpses of the varied and beautiful life around me, so being able to pore over the crisply delineated colors of an Aztec Tern from only a few feet away is eminently gratifying. On the other hand, there is something inherently unwild and perhaps even unethical about containing an animal for the purpose of spectating, particularly when that animal’s natural urge is to roam and migrate. I know Golden Retrievers gain weight, become depressed and anxious, and live shorter lives when they’re cooped up too much, so I wonder how a Snow Leopard understands his one or two acres or how Tern feels in even the grandest cage. I think it’s terribly important for people to see the variation and beauty offered outside of human artifice and entertainment, and that a zoo probably contributes immensely both to people’s lives and to their sense of the importance of conservation.

But maybe I just tell myself that so I can feel OK about financially supporting a zoo with my $10 admission.

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The Boat Ride

The end of the Bread Loaf Juneau season includes a chartered boat ride out of Auke Bay and up the channel. The idea is to have dinner and drinks, celebrate whoever is graduating, and see some marine life.

But before we get started, I am compelled to point out one of the boats that was in the harbor with us as we were getting ready to leave.

Of course, concerns of food and revelry took a quick second seat when we found our first group of Humpback Whales. First, we found a group of three or so, who very nicely obliged us by surfacing and spouting on and off for quite a while.

Humpbacks have a double blowhole, like a pair of nostrils, so the spouts are actually two jets of spray. You usually can't see that very easily, but it's almost visible in this picture.

Then, of course, it was time to find some whales who wanted to show off their tails.

It's worth pointing out that we've had about nine or ten days of unremitting rain and overcast skies. Then, on the day of the big boat trip, the sun blazes, the temperature climbs to 72, and there isn't a cloud in the sky. Not so bad.

We found a couple of groups who were willing to show off.

While I'm wary of personifying whales, they seemed to have a knack for flipping their tails in front of nice scenery.

Every time a whale's body broke the water in the characteristic slide that preceded a tail flip, the whole boat full of people began to "oooo." When the tail flipped up and over, the whole boat cheered. It was an immense experience.

I swear: this is the last tail picture. This whale came at the boat and ended up quite close before this final dive.

It's also worth mentioning at this point that Humpies are baleen whales; they feed by sucking an immense amount of water into their mouths and then straining out fish or krill.

They typically come up under a school of fish or grouping of krill and fill their mouths as they come flying up through the water. This behavior is called "lunging."

John Muir, the turn-of-the-centry glaciologist and naturalist I quoted in my 7/2 entry, would have my head if I raved only about whales and didn't put any glaciers in my journal. Here's a particularly glorious glacier. Happy, John?

We were also privileged to see a fascinating feeding behavior called "bubble net fishing," in which a group of Humpies swim around in circles below a large school of fish. They exhale air from their blowholes and create a wall of aerated water the fish see as a barrier. Thus, they concentrate their prey into one column and all lunge up through the school at the same time.

As many as a dozen whales can team up in this fashion; here we had about five, I think. In this photo, they're just finishing the lunge.

I thought the cheering for the tail flips was boisterous, but the three rounds of bubble net fishing we saw brought such breathless anticipation as the gulls circled the area they knew was about to be boiling with terrified fish, and when five giant whales subsequently broke the water, they got a round of cheers.

Cody caught the same bubble net lunge at almost exactly the same moment. This is a different picture taken with a different camera; we just managed to click the shutter at almost the same instant.

Cody, you'll notice, has the superior lens. You'll also notice that he clicked a fraction of a second earlier than I did; the seagull that's almost directly over the highest whale's jaw here is just a hair further along in my picture.

There were people on the boat and great conversation; there was great food. But let's face it: the whales win.

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Glaciers and Kayaks (but not together)

This is Matt Brooks. He's a naturalist, glaciologist, and avid birder. I'm not sure if he has degrees in all three, but I wouldn't be surprised, since he certainly knows his stuff. He took our Wildness class on a walk below Mendenhall glacier in order to talk about the role of post-glacial succession in habitat formation.

As a glacier withdraws, it leaves behind it different kinds of ground: bare rock, moraine (gravel and sediment), etc. Different mosses and lichens make a home there, and then larger shrubs and trees. Mendenhall glacier has been withdrawing steadily for quite a while, so the area below it has a textbook array of different kinds of forest.

Matt's main interest and expertise was birds, but after the first week or so of July in southeast Alaska, the birds are finished marking out territories and finding mates, and they've gotten down to the business of raising babies, so there aren't so many kicking around, and practically nobody's calling.

We were, however, able to see a large number of Artic Terns, which spend their summers nesting at the base of the glacier. We even got to see a few of them mob a Bald Eagle. We also got to hear Hermit Thrushes, Chickadees, and caught a good look at a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

This is the same glacier I visited in my 6/24 entry, but this picture is taken from the other side of the lake.

According to Matt, we're probably already in an age of glacial recession, so it's almost certainly not due to global warming alone that this glacier is shrinking. However, the last twenty or so years have been, overall, much warmer, so the glacier's receding much faster than normal.

As Matt points out, he's a federal employee, so if he can state unequivocally that global warming is an issue, no matter what the political leanings of the federal administration, it seems obvious that it's happening. The question now is what the negative effects might be and how we should address them.

This morning I went kayaking with (from the left), Sam, Palmer, and Mark. We rented boats from the Rec center, and, with one person at the front of a pair of boats and one at the back, we went down to the water. We went a slightly shorter way than I did last time (since we didn't have to be wheel friendly), but it still wasn't the easiest of walks.

Once we were on the water though, we slipped easily through the calm harbor waters and south, away from Auke Bay.

We circumnavigated a small island, and since at least a couple of the five species of salmon are now running fiercely, the eagles are everywhere. This pair was sharing a fish and warding off the crows who were trying to steal it.

Salmon lept out of the water several times a minute, so far and so high that you could literally tell the species as they hung in the air. I spotted Silver and King Salmon.

After we rounded the island, we turned back towards town and home. That's Mt. McGuinness you see just to the right of Mark. I'm hoping to hike up it on the next clear day.

On the way back, I spooked a flock of Pigeon Guillemot, who took off with some noisy clapping against the water, and a cute little Marbled Murrelet popped up about two feet off the port bow, looked extremely surprised, and went straight back down.

On our way back, we noticed the backs of a pair of Harbor Porpoises breaking the water. We caught a quick glimpse and counted ourselves lucky, but they took an interest in us and spent almost 10 minutes circling the boats underwater, coming up to breathe once in a while. I got lucky and caught this one about twenty feet away.

Though the fin may remind you of a dolphin, these guys are from a different Family entirely. In fact, Killer Whales are more closely related to dolphins than porpoises are.

They lost interest about the same time we did, and they continued on their way right as we did. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that I have exactly the same attention span as a porpoise.

The last member of the wildlife crew who deigned to be so easily photographed was one of about eight Harbor Seals whom we displaced because they were relaxing in the shallows where we took out our kayaks.

They lazily drifted away, popping up like adorable periscopes from time to time to check us out.

Good day.

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