Notes From the Zookeeper: Field Work

You guys! Guess what! Go on, guess! No, I’m not pregnant. Thanks for that, though, sj. Guess again! No, I am not getting a pony. My surprise is NOT as good as a pony. Now I’m disappointed. Thanks. Oh, now I’m supposed to just tell you? Fine. Whatever.

Today, maybe even as you read this, I am going to do a little field work! I haven’t had a ton of opportunities yet. I have been to the bog a couple of times to check nests for the zoo’s ongoing bog turtle project, but that one started years before I joined the zoo (or even graduated college!). I came in just as the actual field work was winding down, so there was not much point in training me. Today, though, I have been invited to travel along with my lead keeper, Stephen, as he pulls and checks traps for his big project. He’s studying mudpuppies, and we’re going to catch some. Hopefully.

what is a mudpuppy

If you’re thinking we’re out to catch one of these, you might be a little incorrect. Just a little. We’re looking for salamanders.

He believes he has found a new species, so after filling out mountains of paperwork to get permission, he has been setting live traps for the animals in many different places. He sets traps and checks them daily for a week or so out of each month. He is hoping to determine that this is indeed a new species, or a previously described species that has never been found in the current range, which will yield information about stream ecology. Any animals that are captured will surrender a tiny bit of DNA for gene sequencing before they are fitted with a PIT tag. Basically, a tiny little transponder that is the same kind of microchip inserted into a dog or cat for identification should they get lost, is inserted under the animal’s skin. This chip will let him know if the animal is a new individual, or if it is a recapture. The Hiawasee is a pretty big place, so finding a recapture is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but Stephen has already recaptured one. This could shed some light on movement within a territory at some point, so a recapture is still a win.

So tomorrow, I meet him at an undisclosed, top-secret secret meeting location. Like maybe the Bat Cave. Or the zoo.  I am not at liberty to say.

Oh, man! The only thing that could make fieldwork cooler is if we could meet at the Bat Cave! Maybe Stephen really IS Batman. But even if he were, I couldn't tell you.

Oh, man! The only thing that could make fieldwork cooler is if we could meet at the Bat Cave! Maybe Stephen really IS Batman. But even if he were, I couldn’t tell you.

Then we’re going to drive to his trapping site, which is about an hour away. We’ll jump in his boat and paddle out to pull the traps. If there are mudpuppies in them (please, oh, please!), he’ll show me how to take genetic samples, record weights and measurements, and how to insert a PIT tag. Then we’ll let the little rascal go and move on to the next trap. A good time will be had by all.

I won’t have my camera because water + clumsy = disaster. So I will draw pictures for you next week to show you what I saw. In the meantime, I pack. What do real scientists take on trips into the field?

  • Snacks – We’ll be gone several hours, and no food makes one zookeeper very cranky.
  • A change of clothes – we don’t want to expose our captive zoo animals to diseases and parasites they may have poor resistance to, so we will change clothes from head to toe before returning to care for our animals. You’d be surprised what kind of yuck can be carried in on shoes.
  • A second change of clothes – for when I drop the first set in the water
  • Cool tunes – we have an hour of driving each way, and we need something to listen to. I’m thinking “Hamilton,” or maybe “Les Mis.” Anybody know the official soundtrack of field work?
  • Book or e-reader – again, an hour drive each way. I have to do something, right?
  • Barf bag – I get sick when I read in the car. But 2 hours seems like a lot of time to NOT read.
  • Water shoes – we’re going to be on the river, and maybe IN it. Most likely in it. Because it’s me.
  • Water-proof notebook – who knew they made such a thing, but they do.
  • Towel – Because if when I fall in the water, it would be nice to be able to dry off a bit. 50 degrees is chilly even when you’re DRY!
  • Water wings – Field work is sink or swim, and I am allergic to sinking to the bottom of the river and dying.
  • Plastic-coated form of ID – Because when I get swept away in the current, hit my head on a rock, and forget who I am, the authorities will know whom to call.
  • Adult diaper – The sound of running water + a bladder the size of a Lego brick+ the sheer terror of being in a boat (I had red beans and rice for dinner. What if I lean over to quietly relieve a little, um, pressure, and capsize the canoe?)
  • Rubber duckie- all work and no play, ya’ll

What’s exciting in your world this week?



On Opportunity

After spending at least two years in a little paper packet, a seed unexpectedly found itself in soil. And it didn’t waste a moment. Only eighteen hours later, look what it has decided to become. Find your soil and grow as hard as you can.

Find your soil! Grow! Grow!

Adventures in Gardening, Part 1

I am not a gardener. I can grow things in pots to beat the band, but an actual garden is beyond my experience/capability/attention span. And this is one area in which I am in no danger whatsoever of becoming my mom. She loves to garden, and she spends a great deal of time planting, seeding, researching, mulching. She spent my entire childhood trying to tame the wild undergrowth on the bank in her backyard. A few years and a backhoe later, she has the garden of her dreams. And a knee that needs replacing. That’s a bad combo, if you didn’t already know.

Last week she asked me if I’d like to come help her “get some weeding done” and get the plants to bed before the first frost. She’s not as fast as she used to be, and there are some things she just can’t do right now with her bum knee. I would rather stick a garden rake in my eye than tend my own garden, but of course I was happy to help her out. There’s just one complication: Mr. Squish.

Who? Me? I not do nuthin.

Where I go, Squish must follow. Sounds like it would be no problem at all. Small child, large fenced yard, what’s the issue? If he was an ordinary youngster, he might play happily while I worked. Ordinary, he is not. Creative and with a nose for trouble, he is. Throw a cocker spaniel with barely two brain cells to rub together into the mix, and you’ve got yourself some fun.

Mom had an appointment, so she showed me where to start and left me to my work. The first ten minutes were fine. I did the rough work with her claw, the most amazing tool ever found on a late-night infomercial. A few twists, and the top soil and mulch are loosened, weeds are yanked up like so much spaghetti. Fabulous. I look up, and Squish is nowhere to be seen. The next few minutes go something like this:

Scream loudly for small child.

Locate him indoors playing with the remote control.

Bring him out of doors.

Remove can of insect spray from his hands.

Place small child in pebbles with toy dump truck.

Remove pebbles that he has buried in the very, very bottom of the raised vegetable garden.

Begin to hand-weed a tricky patch on hands and knees.

Remove skunk-breathed dog from face, repeatedly. Attempt to convince her I do not wish to give her a kiss.

Come up for air.

Return to hands and knees and commence to weed.

Feel sudden weight on back as small child becomes “baby gorilla” and asks for a ride.

Crawl to compost barrel to dump weeds, so as not to disturb baby gorilla perched between shoulder blades.

Remove skunk-breathed dog from face.

Remove child from back and take him back to the rocks to play.

Hear child say “I have a rock for you, Mommy!”

Notice sudden movement out of the corner of eye and move just in time to avoid small child slam-dunking rock the size of a dessert plate directly on my head.

Curl into fetal position.

Scream at skunk-breathed dog to get out of my ever-lovin’ face and beg child to quit bouncing on my kidneys.

That was all before Squish discovered that the five foot retaining wall is an easy climb.

And Mom wonders why I didn’t get much done. I think I remember why I don’t garden.


Walkies With Phoebe

Love me

I walk my son to school. Everyday, rain or shine. Well, light rain or shine. I don’t want the kid to start the day a soaking wet mess. And everyday, we see the above fuzzy face with the sad eyes that clearly beg “Take me with you!” The weather has been so hot, though, that it hasn’t been safe to take her. All summer long, Phoebe has been on mandated slug-itude. Not much of a stretch, usually.  PBGVs are in the Basset family, after all, laziness comes rather naturally. But Phoebe is a “go-do” kind of dog and wants nothing more than to be with us. And since morning temperatures have recently dropped to the 50’s, she’s now good to go.

Walking with her family in brisk weather is Phoebe’s idea of heaven. She scampers ahead, tail tucked under like a furry rudder, then dashes back. She sniffs, she prances, she play-bows, chases squirrels. It’s a glorious thing. The entire walk to school is a joyful event. It’s hard not to laugh at her antics and join in the fun. I wish it could last forever. And so does she.

Here’s the fun. We walk to school daily. And every single day, Phoebe forgets what happens at the half-way point: she has to leave her boy. Each morning, we get to the sidewalk in front of the school, my son kneels and hugs her goodbye, and she is taken by complete and utter surprise as he merrily skips away to join his friends. “What the —” is her clear thought, as she strains at the leash, wags her tail and cocks her head in puzzled anxiety. Every day, she looks at me with the expression that says “He’s gone too far! Let me go get him so we can go home! Wait! Where is he going? Please bring him back to me!” And every day, my job is to drag her back down the sidewalk, ignoring her frantic backward glances and reminding her that we will get him in the afternoon. Phoebe has always had a special relationship with her boy, ever since the day we got her, but she is not above shopping for a new one. She takes a studious sniff at each passing child, as if to say “I came with one, I am leaving with one!” Every single day.

Usually about half-way home, Phoebe’s brain re-engages, and she becomes magically aware that food will be served upon her arrival. The spring returns to her step, and she bounces with glee. Most days.

Today was different. Today, instead of playing chicken at the crosswalk, a car actually motioned for us to cross. So we did. Out of appreciation and a bit of stupidity, we ran across the road. And all heck broke loose. Boy-child inadvertently kicked the dog in the hind leg. Son snapped at dog for nearly tripping him. Phoebe, always the drama queen,perceived the situation thus: playful romp interrupted by monster biting her leg. She yelped and bucked, dragging me the rest of the way across the road. Being yelled at by her boy just added icing to the poop sandwich. Having slipped her mind that her boy leaves her every single day in exactly the same place, Phoebe’s natural interpretation of his departure on this fair morning was that he no longer loved her. In the natural, healthy manner of a co-dependent, Phoebe became determined to make him love her again. Her attempts to drag me all the way down the sidewalk so she could demonstrate her undying devotion to her boy were creditable.

I somehow managed to encourage her back down the sidewalk and up the hill, but now her normal “leaving my boy behind forever and ever and ever” worry has expanded to include “boy no longer loves me, and monsters want to eat me.” She began trotting up the road, tail tucked, ears held so high that they met in the middle of her head, alert to any sound. Her sudden hurry had nothing to do with breakfast and everything to do with getting home and undercover before the leg-biters could finish her off. She responded to my calls and whistles with a wide-eyed stare. I attempted to get her attention again by means of an obedience lesson, but a frightened dog whose brain has taken a brief vacation is but a poor student. I settled for significantly slowing my pace to indicate that I did not share her worry. She didn’t buy that, either.

We were nearly home when it happened. I called her name, and she responded by trotting warily back to me. I took a playful swipe at her tail, and suddenly the light came. She play-bowed and scampered merrily up the road in clear anticipation of breakfast. Who knew that her brain button was in her bum? Maybe that’s why dogs are so attentive to that particular region. They’re trying to read each other’s minds.


Weekend Wanderers

"Not all who wander are lost." J.R.R. Tolkien

For my family, a weekend with good weather is a weekend that is meant to be spent out of doors. One of our favorite things to do is hike, so when Saturday dawned all cool and sunny and delicious, we knew we had to get out and hit the trail!

There are several state and national parks close by, and sometimes it is difficult to choose one. This time, we voted to choose a trail we had never done before in a park we visit with some regularity. Having learned from past mistakes when we stumble back home exhausted and starving, I set out our dinner. All we needed to do was toss it in the oven for 15 minutes when we got back. We packed water bottles, apples and some bunny crackers for the trip home, and we were set.

We got to the park in less time than I had expected, and we were feeling fine.  One thing we enjoy about this park is that we don’t usually see very many people. We squashed our dismay at seeing the parking lot nearly full. Apparently someone was throwing a birthday bash in the closest picnic shelter. A raucous one. Oh, well, we thought. We’ll get back on the trail, and we won’t even realize that they are there. We parked the car and sun-screened ourselves. We forgot the bug spray, but what difference does that make, really?

After taking small ones to the restroom, we checked the trail map. 2.7 miles. No problem. A casual stroll for our family. We’d be home and eating dinner by 5:30. We grabbed our hiking poles, popped Squish into the Ergo and headed out.

The trail was nearly flat at the start, and nice and wide. After about 15 minutes of brisk walking, we noticed that we could still hear the merry-makers at the picnic shelter. Quite loudly, as a matter of fact. It was some party. Apparently the trail begins by looping back to the east and makes a very gradual turn back toward our destination. It took over half an hour of hard walking to finally get away from the noises of civilization and finally feel like we were back in the woods.

The trail sloped gently upward as we climbed the hill. My first dilemma of the hike came sooner than I expected. The kids were the first ones to find the scat. Yes, even when I write about hiking, I will still find a way to mention poop. After careful examination (from a distance, I will add), my 9 year old announced “That animal ate berries.” And he was right. The rest of the family dashed blithely on ahead as I debated whether or not to mention that turd was left by a bear. I decided against it. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The sun was so hidden by the trees that it appeared as though we were on the verge of a huge storm, but as I found myself continually rubbing gnats out of my eyes, I left my sunglasses on. The big kids slapped at the bugs that were chewing on their arms, and Squish choked once or twice on a gnat. Next time, we’ll actually use the bug spray. But nothing was going to spoil this day.

The weather was cool but humid. The ground was littered with green leaves and small branches, evidence of a recent and rather severe storm. But we shouldn’t have any water crossings, according to the map. We pressed on.

The trail narrowed significantly, until it was more of a suggestion than a path, barely wider than my two boots. A steep drop-off was on my left, a tangle of branches on my right. Thank goodness for hiking poles to give us a bit of traction. The kids counted enormous millipedes and woolly worms, both of which we found in abundance, discussing the differences between a centipede and millipede, and the niche each occupies in the ecosystem.

I realized about a mile in that I had worn the wrong boots AND needed another pair of socks, but bravely I plowed on. Another mile, and we began to have some doubts about the accuracy of the trail map. We’d have 2.7 miles behind us really soon, and the trail showed no sign of ending. Ever. Each time we crested a hill, our triumph turned to chagrin as we saw a still larger peak ahead. I wondered more than once if we had actually been transported to Middle Earth, to a mountain that was fighting back. Oh, did you not know that I’m a geek? Consider yourself enlightened.

At times it did appear that the mountain had a mind of its own. Remember that storm? Not only had it dropped so much bright green leaf-litter that we could barely see the path, it also took down a few trees. Over the trail itself, as it so happens. We found ourselves sliding down rain-softened earth and scrambling up steep hillsides to pick up the trail again. And more than once we had to leap and limbo over the trunks of massive trees that had lost their battle with the storm. My daughter stayed close behind me to keep a visual on her baby brother and prevent me from knocking his head off as I slid under tree trunks with him perched on my back. American Gladiators has nothing on me.

After awhile, no one talked. We were too tired/daunted/annoyed to speak. And suddenly my husband said “Look at that!” And so we did. We crowded close to examine his find. It was no millipede. He had discovered one of our favorite things to come across in the forest, a carcass. This particular animal had been dead a few weeks, it’s pelt peeled partially back from its skull. The teeth were fascinating, consisting of large, thin, curved canines. Definitely carnivore. The rest of the remains were a bit of a puzzle. Long tail, tawny colored fur, once-powerful long legs designed for jumping. We spent the rest of the hike speculating what it might have been. It appeared to be a young animal, as there was another set of canines beginning to make their appearance, much more substantial than the first. I do love a good mystery.

After forty-five more minutes, the shine had worn off of that particular mystery. We began to wonder when and if the trail was going to crest and begin to loop back toward the east again. My biggest fear was that, having laid a long, gently sloping trail that stretched for miles, the trailblazer would have lost interest on the home trip and blazed a steeper, shorter trail for the return.

And so it was. The upside was that going downhill took pressure off the backs of my heels and allowed my boots to chew on  a different part of my feet. We did learn something, too. When a trail is named after a creek, that sometimes means that the trail once was a creek. Complete with large, slippery, moss-covered creek rocks. It makes for an exciting and sometimes unexpectedly speedy descent!

The trail seemed to improve marginally for a bit, and then we came to this:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

This is the actual trail. The photo doesn’t quite do it justice. The portion that you see is actually about 25 feet of rock. Steep, slippery, rippled rock with a lovely rock pit below ready to offer a landing you’ll never forget should you miss a step. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to slither across the bottom rim. Have fun! This photo represents our next dilemma. Do we attempt this crossing, or do we turn back, knowing that we will have three miles to cover should we double back.

My husband was ready to throw in the towel. “We can’t do this,” he said, shaking his head in frustration. My 9 year old considered carefully. Is he brave or was risk of injury preferable to hiking back three miles? A little of both, I think. He and my daughter studied the footpath and said “Oh, Dad, we can do this! Just put your feet here, and here, and then you hop over.” My husband did a test run for us, and we discovered they were actually right! It was way easier than it looked at first glance. Lesser people may have turned back, but we will not be vanquished! On we plowed.

Gradually, the trail began to smooth out. Fewer rocks and a wider path  meant that we could speed up a bit. We were done. Ready to go home. Enough fun for one day. And a mile and a half later, we made it back to the car.

We arrived home an hour and a half later than I had really hoped, my feet had been completely chewed by my boots, my hips were so tired from lugging Squish’s nearly thirty pounds that I could hardly move. And as the sun rose on Sunday morning, the first words out of my mouth were “Yesterday was so great! You want to go for another hike today?! ” We didn’t manage to find the time to do it again, but you’d better believe we’ll be out next weekend, if the weather holds and the creek don’t rise. Adventure awaits!