Hellos . . . and good-byes

2014 marked a major milestone for Teaching Creatures. In February, we celebrated 10 years of providing live animal programs to southern New England! It was an exciting year: we re-visited several schools, libraries and families we have served for many years—a great honor—and also presented at many new libraries and schools, which was a delight as well.

Hadley, the guinea pig

Hadley

We also adopted some new animals in 2014, namely Norbert and Smaug, the bearded dragons, and two Guinea pigs, Penelopy and Hadley.

Norbert, the bearded dragon soaks up some sun.

Norbert, the bearded dragon, soaks up some sun.

 

 

It is always a joy to welcome new critters into the family, even if it’s for a short time. In September, Smaug found a new home at The Greenburgh Nature Center in Scarsdale, NY and sadly, Penelopy came to us with some health issues she could not overcome, and she passed shortly after coming to live with us. We miss them both, but are having lots of fun with Norbert and Hadley.

 

Emma helps Milkshake get acquainted with Emmet.

Emma helps Milkshake get acquainted with Emmet.

In the spring, we said goodbye to interns Kaitee and Jade as they ventured on to new and exciting things, but welcomed Emma and Anna in the fall, and continue to enjoy working with Kal. I can’t say enough how wonderful it is to have the help of these talented young animal enthusiasts.

 

On a personal note, in November we welcomed Emmet into our feline family—a ten week old Maine Coon kitten who has given us, and his older brother Bolt, hours of love and amusement.

Emmet, our new baby

Emmet, our new baby

Emmet’s unbounded joy made it a little easier for us to say goodbye to Small, our sweet 19-year-old cat, later that month. Small was the last of our older cats, and sharing our home with two youthful, spirited kitties again certainly keeps us on our toes!

Small as a kitten in October 1995.

Small as a kitten in October 1995.

Small last Christmas Eve, December 2013

Small last Christmas Eve, December 2013

In the coming weeks, we look forward to making room for Roz, an eight year old African bull frog, formerly known as Mrs. Chubbs. Stay tuned for more!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neighborhood Nestwatch

Over the last two years, our family has had the great privilege of participating in Neighborhood Nestwatch. This citizen science program involves us in monitoring the nesting activity and site fidelity of eight target bird species, which include Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Gray Catbird,  Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, House Wren, Carolina Wren, and Song Sparrow. Each year,  Nestwatch team members come spend a morning in our yard. During their visit, they set up 3-5 mist nets, and survey the yard for nests and other bird activity.  When a target bird is captured, it is sexed, measured, weighed, aged, banded and released.

An American robin getting its leg bands.

An American robin getting its leg bands. June 2012.

Since 2012, the first year of the program, we have captured and banded 12 target birds, including one chickadee, two robins, six catbirds, two mockingbirds and one cardinal.  We have caught and released  several non-target species as well, including several chipping and house sparrows, a house finch, a downy woodpecker, an oven bird, and a cedar waxwing!

In addition, we have monitored six nests for the program over the last three years. We are currently monitoring the nest of the male Northern Mockingbird we banded in 2013, and successfully banded his mate today during our annual visit. We look forward to seeing which birds return in the days, months and years to come, and to banding and observing more birds and nests to better understand the lives of backyard birds.

This male returned to the yard the following spring.

This male American robin, banded in 2012, returned to the yard the following spring.

 

 

My son, Aidan with the banded mockingbird, 2013

My son Aidan with a male mockingbird, July 2013. This bird returned to the yard in April 2014.


 

Getting ready to release the male Northern cardinal, 2013

Getting ready to release a male Northern cardinal. July 2013.

Sara measures a gray catbird, July 2013

Sara measures a gray catbird. This was one of three catbirds we banded in July 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A cedar waxwing from Nestwatch 2014.

A cedar waxwing from today’s visit 6/25/14.

Aidan records measurements of a gray catbird for  Evangeline. June 2014

Aidan records measurements of a gray catbird for Evangeline. This was one of three catbirds banded today 6/25/14.

This male mockingbird was recaptured today, 6/25/14. He is successfully nesting in the yard this season.

This male mockingbird was recaptured today, 6/25/14. He is successfully nesting in the yard this season.

Invaluable Interns

Kaitee, a Hampshire College student, helps clean the rabbit pen.

Kaitee, a Hampshire College student, helps clean the rabbit pen.

Internships and volunteer positions have a dear place in my heart. They are a valuable way to gain experience, test out your interest in a particular field, and serve a worthwhile organization and the larger community. They are also a great way to get your foot in the door for future employment. In more than one instance, I was later hired by the group I interned or volunteered for.

As the school year comes to an end, I find myself saying goodbye to two of the three wonderful interns that have spent the last eight months with Teaching Creatures. Since October, they have helped clean cages, prepare diets, change water, feed and care for over 30 animals that make up the Teaching Creatures education collection.

 

Kal handles "Peach." a Stimson's python

Kal handles “Peach.” a Stimson’s python

They have handled snakes and lizards, rabbits and hedgehogs, roaches and hermit crabs. They have also assisted with programs at museums, schools and senior centers across the Pioneer Valley. Each has brought different strengths and interests to their work, and I have had a great time getting to know them all, and teaching them more about the ins and outs of working and educating with living creatures.

 

Jade gets "Norbert", a bearded dragon, used to being held.

Jade gets “Norbert”, a bearded dragon, used to being held.

Their help has been a great asset to the daily operation of Teaching Creatures and I look forward to seeing where their passion for animals takes them in the years to come.

 

A Week of Wildlife

The first week of spring, though it had its ups and downs weather-wise, brought with it some exciting wildlife sightings that reminded me that even subtle changes in light, temperature, humidity, plant growth etc. trigger changes in animal behavior and distribution.

The first skunk of 2014.

The first skunk of 2014.

This past week, the first red-winged black birds, brown-headed cowbirds and common grackles arrived at my bird feeders. We heard our first wood cock of the season as well. Reports of black bear activity, prompted us to start bringing in our bird feeders at night. One night, as we prepared to do so, we encountered our first (very white!) skunk of the season, foraging for seeds around the feeder poles. It returned a couple of nights later for more!

A yellow-spotted salamander migrating to a vernal pool.

A yellow-spotted salamander migrating to a vernal pool.

On Friday March 28, I got a call that the annual migration of spotted salamanders, wood frogs and other amphibians was anticipated to begin on this warm, wet night.  I spent a couple of hours with close to 50 other volunteers, monitoring the road around the tunnels on Henry St. in Amherst, where we saw a few yellow-spotted salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers begin to make their way to the vernal pools on the opposite side of the road.

Finally, this morning while I watched sleet and snow coat the ground, ushering March out like a lion rather than like a lamb, a beautiful male cardinal collided with our sliding glass doors, despite the many hawk silouettes we have up to prevent this.  He flew off a short distance into the middle of the yard, and proceeded to roll over on his side, clearly stunned.  We quickly scooped him up into a box and brought him inside to recover in warmth and safety.  Within 15 minutes, he was alert and active again, and we released him back outside, where he promptly returned to gobble down the seeds at our feeders.

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These early wildlife encounters are the harbingers of spring for me, regardless of what the weather may be doing. I look forward to many more as the spring progresses.

 

 

Introducing Bolt . . .

Bolt

Bolt

It has been over 18 years since we’ve had a kitten in our lives. It’s also been that long since we adopted an animal solely as a household pet, and not a “working” pet as part of Teaching Creatures. For almost a year, our son has been asking for a kitten, having only experienced older cats, and wanting something youthful and exuberant to play with. Our sweet cat Small turned 18 in August, and prefers to spend his days quietly lounging on the furniture, nibbling a few morsels, and getting snuggles, NOT playing.

I am a firm believer in serendipity, and many of my animals have come to me in fateful ways. Bolt is no exception. Our first opportunity to adopt Bolt came back in early September, shortly after our cousin found him under her deck in Brooklyn, NY. The pictures she posted on Facebook were adorable: He was a perfect mix of two of our beloved cats, Slyder (8/17/1992 – 3/29/2010) and Small. It seemed meant to be, but in the end we decided we weren’t ready for a new kitten yet, and Bolt was adopted by another family.

Small (l) and Slyder (rt.)

Small (L) and Slyder (R)

Slyder and Small shared a special bond.

Slyder and Small shared a special bond.

Fast forward three months. Once again, our cousin posts pictures of Bolt on Facebook, explaining that the family that adopted him discovered an allergy and need to give him up.  Kismet!  This time, there is no doubt in my mind that Bolt is meant to be ours.  And so our Christmas this year has been blessed with a wish come true in the form of a little black and white ball of energy and fun. Stay tuned for the continuing adventures of Bolt and Small. Happy Holidays to all!

Bolt and Small. New bonds to be made!

Bolt and Small. New bonds to be made!

 

 

Turtle Time

A couple of years ago, a good friend gave me this beautiful photograph of a hatchling snapping turtle, framed with a quote from Lao Tsu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

I was reminded of this today as I slowed my car down to watch and carefully pass a large flock of European starlings and brown-headed cowbirds that kept flying down, in graceful concert, into the road in front of me. The woman driving the car behind me immediately moved to pass me, and though she decided against it, I watched her throw her hands up at me in exasperation and impatience.

Nesting leatherback sea turtle - Culebra, PR 1987

Nesting leatherback sea turtle – Culebra, PR 1987

The holiday season can bring out the best, and sometimes the worst, in our species. For many, it is a time of frantic hurrying, piqued anxiety and immeasurble stress. I myself get caught up in the hustle and bustle of it all, and when I do, I try to remember  to take a lesson from the slow, sure, steady lives of the amazing turtles I’ve worked with over the years. I take a deep breath, and find comfort in the knowledge that it will all get done eventually.

In the words of the wise old turtle Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda, “Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is a mystery, but Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” Here’s to slowing down and enjoying the moment this holiday season!

Douglas, the ornate box turtle Oct. 2013

Douglas, the ornate box turtle Oct. 2013

Wonders of Winter

It comes as no surprise that watching birds is a regular activity in my family. My mother-in-law holds a Ph.D in Ornithology, and her passion for our feathered friends has seriously rubbed off on my son, who has become quite an accomplished birder over the last few years. Our love of birds has taken us to Costa Rica, Ecuador, and many spots in the US (posts on these amazing trips to come!). We maintain bird feeders and bird-friendly habitat in our yard, and participate in several citizen science projects involving birds.

A white-breasted nuthatch on the suet feeder

A white-breasted nuthatch on the suet feeder

House finches and a field sparrow on the tube feeder

House finches and a field sparrow on the tube feeder

One of these is Project FeederWatch coordinated by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. FeederWatch runs from mid-November through early April, and engages us in identifying and counting the different species of birds that visit our yard in a 48-hour period, along with recording some basic weather data.  In addition, we provide a profile of our yard including number and types of feeders we put up, the size and vegetative composition, and the presence of important resources like water and cover.  The data we and other FeederWatchers collect help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in the distribution and abundance of birds.

Today, we are in the middle of our second watch period of this 2013-2014 season, the 27th season in FeederWatch history.  We look forward to many more days of observing the types and numbers of birds that visit our yard in the coming months.

A fox sparrow in the forsythia bush

A fox sparrow in the forsythia bush

A beautiful Carolina wren

A beautiful Carolina wren

The highlights for today were one brown creeper (a first for our yard in the 11+ years we’ve lived here), three fox sparrows (we’ve only ever observed one before), 43 dark-eyed juncos and a favorite of mine, a Carolina wren!