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    Bright green day gecko sitting on a log

    Glorious Geckos!

    I’ve always liked reptiles, but until recently I never particularly wanted to own any. Then I checked out a gecko exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah, the same weekend that a big bi-annual reptile expo I’d just learned about was coming to town, and…

    Well. Geckos happened.

    For some reason when I thought about reptile ownership, it hadn’t really occurred to me that there were plenty of species that wouldn’t require a desert habitat (the desert and I are arch enemies and I will not have even a tiny slice of it in my house). I didn’t realize you could have a reptile pet that didn’t require all sorts of heat lamps (I would probably burn my house down) and live food (I would possibly burn my house down on purpose because I’d inevitably let a bunch of feeder insects escape and populate my home), but it turns out there are a number of species that can be kept without much equipment and that do great on pre-made diets, no insect colony required. (Though now that I’m more educated about all of it, the idea of heat lamps and breeding roach colonies on purpose doesn’t scare me so much anymore!)

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    Things To Do in Utah: Sleigh Ride to the Ice Castles

    Here’s a great winter activity that combines two of my favorite things: harness horses, and amazing photo ops. The Ice Castles in Midway, Utah, is a pretty great attraction all its own: it’s a set of incredible man-made structures built from ice and designed for visitors to wander around and marvel at, slide down, and crawl through. There are little tunnels for the kids to explore, a few ice slides (make sure you wear snow pants, jeans are far too traction-y, I speak from personal experience here), and a stand with hot drinks and snacks.

    In the evenings, the Ice Castles are lit by color-changing lights inside the ice, which makes for a pretty incredible display; plus out in Midway, the stars are far more visible than they are in Salt Lake. This year they’ve also featured photo ops with the Frozen princesses and performances by fire-breathers. (Now I’m sad I missed this year. I’ll have to go back again for those fire-breathers!)

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    Short eared owl perched on a tree branch

    Featured Creature Friday: The Short-Eared Owl

    (Featured photo above by Kathy & Sam from Beaverton, OR, USA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

    You might have noticed that things are getting a little birdier around here lately. I hope you’re prepared for more of the same, because since I started volunteering with Hawkwatch International, I’m soooorta obsessed with raptors. Sorry, not sorry. So here’s the first of what I’m sure will be many Featured Creature Fridays on the theme of birds of prey: the short-eared owl!

    Short eared owl in flight in the hills over Glen Devon, Breadalbane, Scotland

    Photo by Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland (Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    The thing about short-eared owls is, they are both majestic as hell and adorable times approximately one million. They don’t want to be, because they don’t necessarily appreciate the attention and they’d rather just get on with the business of being tiny angry birds, but they’re just so cute. Case in point: Hawkwatch’s newest education bird, Galileo.

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    H is for Harrier – Photographing Raptors at Farmington Bay

    I’ve written before about my completely abysmal bird-watching skills, and I’m sorry to report that they haven’t gotten much better since then. I’ve devised a better strategy, though: these days I’m usually looking for bigger birds.

    I’ve been volunteering for awhile with Hawkwatch International, learning to handle their education birds and traveling around to events and schools talking to people about our birds and why we need to protect raptors. I’ve also been getting involved in some of the many science projects that Hawkwatch does to monitor raptor populations, as well, so I’ve been learning to ID the different types of raptors that can be seen in my local area, and I’ve definitely been able to spot them more often and identify the species and sometimes the sex more reliably.

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    Things To Do in Utah: See Elk by Horse-Drawn Sleigh at Hardware Ranch

     

    It’s a well-known not-secret that I’ll go out of my way to take a picture of a horse. If it’s a draft horse working in harness, I’ll go even farther out of my way. Which is how I end up every few years driving about two hours through a canyon in the winter time to take a twenty-minute horse-drawn wagon ride at the Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area.

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    It’s a great activity especially for lovers of wildlife and rural tradition; visitors can take a horse-drawn tour through a peacefully grazing herd of wild elk and get a much closer look at the animals than they usually will in the wilderness. There’s also an interpretive center for visitors with displays on the local native wildlife, pelts to touch, and other exhibits, along with a beautiful view out over the wildlife viewing area.

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    Things To Do In Utah: The Power of Poison at NHMU

    Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

    Yeah, I did take a picture of the elevator. The graphic design for this exhibit is just as outstanding as the rest of it.

    Okay, listen. I’m a nerd. Let’s get that right out of the way, just in case you haven’t noticed yet, because I want you to understand that I love the Natural History Museum of Utah. (And am now finally a member! Hell yes!) In the last few years they’ve been host to some seriously remarkable special exhibits. The one about the history of horses? Transcendent, even if I wanted to carry on a spirited argument with that one placard about horse shoes. The one that was entirely about geckos? Life-changing. I literally own four geckos now and my life is profoundly enriched and I would possibly kill a man to be able to go see that particular exhibit again. (It’s cool, I went to the poisons exhibit, I totally know how to kill a man now.)

    But I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced the kind of profound museum-related disappointment that I felt when I reached the end of the Power of Poisons exhibit that’s currently on display at NHMU. How had I reached the end? Why, and wherefore? Surely there was more I needed to learn about poisons. SURELY.

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    Featured Creature Friday: Remarkable Rats

    Photo courtesy of National Parks Service

    Photo courtesy of National Parks Service

    Okay, I know, the Featured Creature is usually about animals a little more exotic than your average rat. We’ve lived with rats (some of us even voluntarily), we’ve used them extensively for a very long time as research subjects, we’ve helped them spread all over the world and destroy fragile island ecosystems… what more could there possibly be to say about rats? Well, I thought this week with our Featured Creature it might be fun to try something a little different and offer you a collection of interesting links for things you might not know about a well-known sort of creature. You might be surprised, for instance, with a few of rats’ less-publicized qualities and talents, like empathy and even altruism. A study published a few years ago showed that rats will free their captive brethren, if they’re able, even if there isn’t any sort of actual reward in it for them. They may even save the captive some of their food, which if you ask me is a clear signal of good feelings from any species. (I mean I could share my Cheetos with you, but signs point to no.) Rats will also remember who’s helped them before, and are more likely to help other rats who’ve helped them. They aren’t just helping each other, though; what’s got me really excited this week is how rats are helping us. Non-profit organization APOPO is training rats and their handlers to do incredibly important work: detecting tuberculosis, and searching out hidden landmines. Sure, they don’t do that work spontaneously, they didn’t just wander into a lab one day and ask to be pointed at the tuberculosis test samples. But they’re stunningly good at the work. A single Giant Pouched Rat can check more TB samples in ten minutes than a lab technician can manage in a day… and the rats have a better accuracy rate, too, which has resulted in many previously undiagnosed TB patients being able to get life-saving medical treatment. You can’t beat these rats for mine detection, either. They’re light enough that even if they step directly on a landmine, they won’t set it off, and they’ve proved to be more efficient than mine-detection dogs at doing the work.

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    The Memory of Joy in Present Grief

    alpineloop2013_0003There are dozens of dogs in the shelter, but he’s the only one you see.

    The kennel is a squat concrete outbuilding, and the sound inside is cacophanous, almost too loud to bear, between the hollow drumming of rain on the roof and the voices of the dogs, all raising the alert. You can’t actually see a single one around the plywood partitions between the chain-link kennels… except for him. He’s massive, one paw braced against the fence as he casually props himself up, head easily rising above the partitions, to get a look at you. He’s not making a sound, but the look on his face says, It took you long enough.

    He’s not the dog you’re here to see, but you know immediately that he’s the one you’ll take home. When the papers are signed and it’s done, you open up the rear door of your truck to lay a blanket over the seat, and he pulls his leash out of the kennel worker’s hand and streaks through the open door, scrambles muddy-pawed right under your arm and into the back seat. Once he’s inside, the look he gives you is equal parts desperate and defiant. You don’t know where he’s come from or what he’s been through, but it’s obvious he knows a thing or two about being left behind.

    You drive home with him peering over your shoulder, as if he’s always been there.

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    You figure a dog will help you get out of the house more, get in some exercise. You don’t entirely count on the way he changes the landscape of your existence. When you’re getting lost in your head he noses at your hand to pull you back; when you’re feeling alone, he slips in and leans against your legs, to remind you that you’re not.

    You explore redwood forests together, chilly northern beaches, mountains and birch groves, canyons and landmarks. He drives you half crazy sometimes, and he keeps you sane, too. He’s there with you nearly everywhere you go, but you’ll always remember this the most: rain-slicked streets, and it’s dark enough that you can hardly even make out the shape of him beside you, except where he blocks out the reflection of moonlight on the wet road. But you can hear the clicking of his claws against the asphalt, and the cheerful sound of his panting as he keeps pace with you, and it’s the most free you’ve ever felt, like the two of you could run forever without slowing down. At night, he crawls into bed with you, tucks himself into a ball in the space behind your bent legs, a contented dot on the comma of your bodies.

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    You tell yourself he’s just getting older. He’s maybe eight now, nine, and it’s a decent run for a big dog. He starts slowing down, and it happens by tiny degrees but seems to come on sudden, too; first his hind feet start scraping, at first every now and again and then more and more often, against the sidewalk. You think maybe his thighs are losing their muscling, and then you think it’s all in your imagination. His walking gait changes from four beats to a strange wobbling two-by-two pace, but has he always walked that way? You’re suddenly uncertain of everything. Then he doesn’t want to go jogging with you anymore, can’t manage a slow trot for even a yard, and where he used to quietly egg you on to make your walks longer, now he lags behind even as you’re already turning home. You throw a ball for him and he stumbles and falls, like he’s not entirely in control of his own limbs; once in the span of a single game would be nothing, twice is suspicious, the third breaks your heart.

    It’s not your imagination. You’ve got the Internet; you diagnose it yourself. The vet’s only a formality; there’s nothing he can do, anyway.

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    He doesn’t seem to entirely understand why his body doesn’t work right anymore. That’s the worst part. There’s no pain, and that’s the best you can hope for, all things considered. What you can’t help is the anxiety, which gets worse the more his body fails; he paces and frets, startles at the smallest noises, quivers with fear in response to sounds that you can’t even detect. The vet gives you Prozac, but all it does is turn the dial down a little; now you don’t just need to worry about his body giving out, you need to think about how much of this stress he can take. When he’s not panicking, he’s sleeping, spends most of the day curled up on your bed. Instead of walks, you drive him to the park and settle in together on a picnic blanket with a book. He likes to lie in the grass and people-watch, but after awhile even that exhausts him; he sprawls on his side in the grass and sleeps there, too. His tail wags easily enough (if a little crookedly) and he’s just as happy to share the bed as he always was (he kicks in his sleep, viciously, but he always has). But where he used to ghost your every move, following you around the house, now he disappears into quiet rooms and keeps to himself. He seems tired even when he’s already sleeping.

    You agonize over the when; everyone tells you, “you’ll know when it’s time.” You’ve always figured that was true, but you know the lie of it now.

    You don’t know. This isn’t anything like certainty. You still have to make the decision, anyway.

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    The morning is overcast and cool, and the park still smells like rain from the night before. Close your eyes and you could be eight hundred miles away, on the coast again, on the same streets you used to run together. He doesn’t even feel it as the mobile vet slides the needle with the sedative into his skin, just lies there and takes the treats and attention on offer, until he slowly falls asleep. You curl up around him while the vet shaves his leg, finds the vein, gives him the last shot. You’re in the grass, under a low-spread tree, on a beautiful summer day, and then he’s gone.

    You drive home with an empty collar sitting on the passenger seat.

    You weren’t ready to be left behind, but he’s gone anyway.

    Featured Creature Friday: The Great Potoo

    greatpotooI didn’t even have to think of an adjective to describe this week’s featured creature, because even its official name thinks it’s just great. I’ll tell you right now why the Great Potoo is so awesome: huge yellow eyes and a gaping mouth make it look like a completely fictional animal invented by the Jim Henson puppet workshop, and its most common call sounds like it’s trying to call its mom from some Lovecraftian afterlife.

    This nocturnal bird can be found in ranges from southern Mexico into Central and South America, and they require trees for their lifestyle, so they tend to live in woodlands and on the edges of forests. Their feathers, in a range of assorted browns, look pretty unremarkable until you see the Great Potoo’s greatest trick, which is its disappearing act. Its coloration is perfect camouflage against the bark of trees where it perches, but it also spends a lot of its time actively pretending to be the tree. It takes on a posture to make itself look like a broken branch, and chooses ideal perches that help it carry forth that illusion, like it’s really dedicated to performance art. Really boring, very still performance art. They’re incredibly dedicated to the art, too; a Great Potoo won’t abandon its tree impression until a predator is almost on top of it.

    This strategy carries over to their child-rearing habits, too; instead of building an elaborate nest, the Great Potoo lays an egg and sits it on top of a stump or in a little hollow on a tree, and then the parent sits on top of the egg, and later the chick, occasionally taking off after flying insects (and sometimes even bats!) , and then flying right back to continue the long-term tree impression.

    Featured Creature Friday: The Legendary Lammergeier

    By Arjan Haverkamp [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    By Arjan Haverkamp [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Ladies, gentlemen, distinguished guests, please allow me to introduce you to the most metal of vultures.

    I’m not even kidding. Everything about this bird is hard-core, starting with its name. It’s called a Bearded Vulture, which admittedly is a little tame, but it’s also known as a Lammergeier — German for “lamb-vulture” — and it used to be known as Ossifrage, from the Latin for “bone-breaker,” both of which could also double as killer names for a death metal band.

    Being vultures, Lammergeiers generally feed on carrion, and here’s the ultimate reason why this bird is too awesome to exist: it eats bones.

    In fact, it eats almost nothing but bones, with 85-90% of its diet consisting of bone marrow. Rather than compete with other scavengers in its habitat (which stretches through mountainous regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa), it just sits back and chills while they do all the work picking the meat from the carcass. When the meal is down to the bare bones — no pun intended — the Lammergeier swoops in to claim the skeleton. The Lammergeier can simply crunch its way through bones up to the size of a lamb’s femur, or might use its beak to smash a larger bone against a rock until it cracks open. For the biggest bones — some of them just as heavy as the Lammergeier is — it’ll simply carry them aloft to heights upwards of 200 feet, and then drop them against the rocks below, cracking the bones open so they can get at the marrow inside. It’s not just a random toss, either; it takes young Lammergeiers about seven years to perfect the technique. The Lammergeier’s highly acidic stomach contents — with an estimated pH of 1 — mean it can digest even hard, dry pieces of bone; it can continue to feast on a skeleton for months after all the marrow and soft pieces are gone.

    As if the bone-eating weren’t awesome enough, Lammergeiers also kill more live prey than perhaps any other vulture; they’ll use their bone-breaking technique to crack open the shells of tortoises, but they’ll also do it to kill small mammals and sometimes beat smaller birds to death with their wings. (The Greek playwright Aeschylus was said to have met a death by tortoise when a Lammergeier mistook his bald head for a stone and dropped a tortoise on him from a great height.) The Lammergeier may also use its intimidating size — it has a wingspan of nearly 10 feet — to surprise and attack larger animals like wild goats and antelope, pushing them from cliffs and ledges.

    By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

    By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

    The bone-crushing and murder are only a part of why this bird is so great, though. It’s also just plain pretty as hell. Probably because its scavenging behavior is so different from the majority of other vultures, it also looks quite a bit different; unlike its often bald-headed fellows, the Lammergeier has a fully feathered head, including the feathery beard for which it is named and a pair of eyebrows I think we can all agree that even Spock would envy, along with brightly red-ringed eyes. The adult’s plummage is typically a sort of cream color, but they usually look more rusty red or orange, since they deliberately dye their feathers.

    The adult birds wallow in iron-rich dust baths, which tints their feathers, but the behavior is thought to be very deliberate:

    Why would a big, burly, black-and-white vulture gussy itself up in blush? It may boil down to a combination of diet and a society based on status. “Their diet is primarily ungulate bones,” says Margalida. They search cliff sides and valleys for sheep or chamois skeletons cleared of meat by other scavengers. While nutritious, the bones lack carotenoids, substances common in seeds and berries that give most other birds their flashy feathers.

    “Red is very popular in the bird world,” says Margalida, adding that, in bearded vultures, the color appears to be a status symbol. Females, the dominant sex, are brighter than males. Color intensity also grows with age. A bird often handles conflict by puffing out and displaying its dyed ’do.

    So they eat bones, they wear make-up, and if you cross them you could end up suffering a death by falling tortoise. If that’s not completely bad-ass, I don’t know what is.