Mammals seemed to have the upper hand this week at the Wildlife center, at least in terms of keeping us busy. Of course we’ve still got gobs of birdies, and they keep coming in, but we’re into what has been termed “the second wave” of squirrel season, which means we’ve stopped counting how many baby squirrels we’ve got in, both Eastern Grays and Douglas Squirrels. The day now seems to be dominated by squirrel feeding, and no matter what else is happening, you have to check the board every half hour to see if any groups are up. Add to this the fact that lots of volunteers are away and some of the interns have left, and needless to say, a lot of other tasks (laundry, dishes, etc.) are getting backed up. But Oh. My. God. They’re cute. And soft. And wriggly.
Feeding them is like a moment of Zen. It can’t be rushed. No matter how many squirrels there are and how many other tasks are waiting to be completed, you still have to take your time. Going too fast can lead to the babies aspirating the formula, which almost inevitably leads to aspiration pneumonia. Luckily, some of the babies now have their eyes open (eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!), and the feeding gets easier because they know the routine and are HUNGRY. An added bonus is that once they hit that stage they don’t need to be stimulated anymore. But for every squirrel that opens its eyes, we seem to get ten new closed-eyes babies in. Because they’re invasive, there’s a limit on how many of the Grays we’ll take in, and we’re not even halfway there. There’s no limit on the native Dougies, so it’s bound to get crazier. Squirrel season has yet to reach its peak.
Luckily, there is no second wave of raccoon season. We’ve got 40 juvenile raccoons, and I hear that having them in the nursery was like letting the lunatics run the asylum. Now they’re in the raccoon silos, socializing with each other, and (we hope) learning to hate (and thus avoid) humans. They’re still cute as a button, but you learn to look past the Cute Overload facade of them pretty quickly. This week we had to vaccinate a bunch of them for various diseases. To vaccinate them, you need to catch them. And before you can catch them you need to put on rubber boots, rubber overalls and thick, leather falconry gloves over latex gloves. And you need to strap on a set of cajones, because, holy crap, those critters are terrifying. At this stage, they’re the size of a large cat, but seem to be ten times as strong, and it takes two people to hold them down while a third does the vaccinations. All the while, from the moment you catch them they’re squirming, snarling, growling, screeching, and trying to bite you. I half expected one of them to spit pea soup, do a 180 with its head and calmly say “Come in, Father”. Grabbing them off of the fencing that makes up the walls of the silo is daunting enough, but doable. You have to herd them down to a reachable height with a broom first, going slowly enough to make sure they don’t fall in the process, but quickly enough that they don’t just dodge the broom. When you do get ahold of them, they almost inevitably pee on you while you try to hold them far enough away from your body that they can’t sink their teeth into you as you wrestle them to the ground. After the first couple got caught this way, however, the remaining raccoons got wise to our ways and they all huddled in the plastic barrel that’s strapped horizontally to the fencing as a place to hide. That’s when things got interesting. Sure, grabbing them off the wall is challenging, but aside from the peeing/snarling/snapping, they’ve at least got their back towards you and once they’ve been swept within arm’s reach, it’s just a question of being fast and having a firm grip. Once they’re in the barrel, however, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game. Suddenly, you’re dealing with a group of snarling, growling, cornered beasts waiting to lunge at your face the moment you reach towards them. I’ve never faced down the barrel of a gun, but I hear it can loosen the bowels faster than a jar full of Metamucil. I’m sure this isn’t comparable, but I’ve never wished for intestinal fortitude quite as much as I did facing down that barrel of raccoons. There are some folks at PAWS who are perfectly happy to reach in there and grab one, but they all have longer arms (and apparently bigger balls) than I do. I never got up the nerve. My eventual plan of attack was to scare them out of there by making lots of noise with the broom and to keep plucking them off the wall. It worked, and soon enough they were all vaccinated, and I was free to go change my underwear.
But both my saddest and happiest moments this week involved a much less frightening species: the Virginia Opossum. They can look pretty fearsome, threatening you with their “alligator” gape, and sure, they can and do bite, but they’re fairly slow and lumbering, and mostly will just try to move out of your way. You can handle the babies and juveniles without gloves. You just grab ’em under their tummy and pick them up. The babies that come in, mostly orphans, are pretty low maintenance. Unless they’re injured, it’s usually simply a question of getting them to the stage where they’re self-sufficient enough to be released. There seems to be a pretty good success rate dealing with the youngsters. Not so much with adults. Opossums are nocturnal and reclusive. If you see an adult in daytime, chances are it’s in trouble. So it was with one of the opossums brought in this week. She was an old girl, had reached the end of her opossum days. She was blind in one eye, and so emaciated that her pelvic bones were visible through her pouch. She could barely stand and kept almost falling off the exam table. It was hard to watch and it was the first time I’ve cried at PAWS. It was decided to euthanize her. Sad, but at least she was spared the lingering death by starvation she would have faced in the wild. We provided her with a release of sorts.
A much happier release came later in the week, when we took one of our juveniles opossoms out to a designated location and let him go. As an orphan, he’d been tube fed formula, dish fed formula, given kibble, fish, quail, fruit and veggies, and was now ready to head out into the wild world and forage for food on his own. After the night shift, one of the seasonals (basically assistant rehabbers) and I drove him out to the park the naturalist had chosen, walked a ways into the woods, found a nice level spot with lots of undergrowth, and put down the box. It was my first release, so I got to reach in, grab the fat little fellow under his fat little tummy, and place him on the grass. He waddled off a few feet towards the brush, and “hid” under a leaf. We watched him for a moment and then left him to get on with his little opossum life. I couldn’t help but worry about what might await him out there in the big wide world – cars, dogs, cats, natural predators, poison, and cruel humans – but he was where he belonged. And I finally got to see what all our hard work at PAWS amounts to. Releasing wildlife back into the wild is our ultimate goal. It’s an amazing feeling seeing it come to fruition like that. Here’s hoping he has a full, successful life out there. Good night and good luck, little opossum dude!
One of the great things about bad birdwatching is that you can be completely lazy and still do it. Birds, unlike say, badgers or snakes, are everywhere, out in the open, easy to spot. All you have to do is pay attention, and they’ll reward you with their everyday presence. And sometimes you can end up having remarkable encounters without even trying.
I already mentioned seeing my first pair of Black terns when I went birdwatching with a friend the other day. Thing is, we weren’t trying very hard. We had expected to see only familiar species and were yakkin’ away about something completely different when they appeared, like magic, right in front of our noses, flying over the irrigation ditches in the polder, diving on occasion to catch a tasty morsel. Stunning birds, they were. And because we were ostensible bird watching, we had our binoculars with us and could watch them as they flew towards the horizon. But at times they were so close that the bins were completely unnecessary.
Today, walking home with my sister and nephew through one of the most exclusive shopping streets in town (a convenient shortcut… not someplace I was shopping myself), a fluttering movement just above the streetlights caught my eye. My first thought was “bat” but it was still full daylight. I turned to get a better look and was amazed to see a Swift swoop over the street and up under the roof of a building. I’ve seen lots of Swifts from a distance, and their eerie cries on the wind are a true sign of summer in this part of the world. But I’ve never been blessed to see one so close, squatting in some of Amsterdam’s most pricey real estate. Truly amazing.
But the most remarkable close encounter I’ve had lately was with a bird I see from close range on a daily basis: the Jackdaw. There are hordes of these birds – the smallest member of the crow family – in my neighborhood, and they’re quite confiding. They hang out in large groups on all of the grassy patches in the area, and at dusk, perch and noisily rearrange themselves around the trees on the far side of the square from where I live, making their high-pitched “Kaw Kaw” sounds. They’re not afraid of humans and watch you with their seemingly knowing gaze as you walk by just a foot or two away from them. But even so, this encounter took me completely by surprise.
I was eating dinner on the couch and watching Springwatch on the BBC. There was a persistent “Kaw Kaw” from outside, but as it’s a sound I hear constantly, I didn’t take much notice. Suddenly it struck me that one of the “Kaw Kaw”s sounded much closer by than the rest. I turned around and this is the sight that greeted me:
The little guy had fledged right onto my window sill. Although his parents were in the tree outside calling to him, he appeared to be more interested in what that strange, large, pink mammal on the other side of the glass was doing. He was there for quite a while, well past dark, and I called an animal rescue line for advice. They assured me he would be perfectly all right even if he spent the night out there, and that as soon as it was light, mom and dad would be back to feed him until he was strong enough to fly off himself. I checked on him occasionally before going to bed, and he’d settled down nicely onto his chosen perch. And indeed, the next morning he was gone. Although he did leave me with a small parting gift.
In the days and weeks since, I’ve seen a young jackdaw in the neighborhood following its parents and learning how to survive. I don’t know if it’s the same little guy, but I like to imagine it is. Wherever he is, I wish him well. Good luck out there, little jackdaw! Take care of yourself!
If you’re bored enough to have checked out the “about” section of this blog, you may have noticed that I referred to myself as a bad birdwatcher. I suspect that many of my friends would object to my applying that moniker to myself. After all, at times I certainly can be quite good at birdwatching, and my non-birding friends are always impressed at my birdy knowledge. Compared to the big boys, though, I am just a novice. But the term “bad birdwatcher” needs a bit of explanation. It’s not about where I fit on some heirarchy of skills. Bad birdwatching is a state of mind.
The term was coined by Simon Barnes in his excellent book How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. It’s been a while since I read the book, so forgive me if my memory of its contents is a bit fuzzy, but what has stuck with me was Barnes’s approach to birdwatching, which truly can be applied to most aspects of life. It can be summed up in these simple sentences from the book:
“Look out of the window.
See a bird.
Congratulations. You are a bad birdwatcher.”
In other words, you don’t have to be an expert, or even necessarily very good at something, to do it and enjoy it.
As someone who has often been paralyzed by her own need for perfectionism, I found this a truly refreshing approach. I don’t have to be a twitcher with an impressive life list and the ability to recognize every LBJ on sight. I can take joy in just observing birds, learning about them in my own way and my own time. I don’t have to go out in search of rarities. I can enjoy the antics of the Long-tailed tits in the trees out back, and it still counts as birdwatching. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in seeing new birds or adding to my list. (I’m very excited to have seen my first Black terns on Tuesday.) It’s just not my priority, and I find that just taking it step by step – first learning to recognize the everyday birds around me, then starting to pay attention to their songs, then adding to my knowledge of different species as I come across them – I’m becoming a better birdwatcher than I ever thought I’d be.
Yet I still proudly wear the moniker “bad birdwatcher”. For me, birdwatching is not about ticking a name off a list and moving on. It’s about enjoying the beauty of everyday things. It’s about appreciating nature in the middle of a crowded city. It’s about marveling at the biodiversity in the life that surrounds us. And it’s about taking a step back and really being in the moment.
And all without a PhD in ornithology.