Monday, November 10, 2014

Good-bye, Horse

Our year of the horse has overlapped much of the Chinese Year of the Horse. Unlike that year, however, ours has, somewhat surprisingly, come to an end.

I have longed for a horse for decades, and the Resident Teen longed for one for at least a decade; finally we get one, and yet here we are, once more unhorsed. We have given Avi away, and he is off to a new life in an eastern-Washington setting, where he will surely learn new skills and find new patches of gravelly dirt in which to roll.

I know...who goes around giving away horses? (I suddenly cannot stop thinking of Jerry Seinfeld in the immortal "Pony Remark" episode: "Who wouldn't love a pony? Who wouldn't love a person that had a pony?")

Suffice it to say that the Resident Teen is temporarily putting horses on hold as she ponders what to do with her future (and that Avi is much more horse than someone like me can handle), so as Avi's not the kind of pony who should be loafing around in a pasture, it was best all around to let him go to people who could bring out the best in him.

But I always meant to write a bit more about Avi and who he is because, even though he's only 7 years old, he's already got enough material to write his own memoir, if he ever learns how to write.

Avi (full name Avram) was born May 2, 2007, on Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky (full pedigree here). His mom is a mare named Bisbee's Prospect, who raced at Emerald Downs in Washington and won three of her six races. 

His sire is a stallion named Eddington, a champion who won six races, finished in the money in 15 of his 17 starts, and placed third in the 2004 Preakness, going on to beat the likes of Funny Cide (2003 Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner) in his last race, the 2004 Pimlico Special.

Eddington (c) Ron Mesaros
Eddington is a great-grandson of Secretariat and occupied that legendary racehorse's stall at Claiborne Farms when he was there at stud. Today he resides at a breeding farm in California. 

Thanks to this genetic heritage, Avi was blessed with stunning speed and captured a lot of attention in his workouts when he started his racing career at Emerald Downs. He won his first race there on April 24, 2010. (You can see a bit of that in an Emerald Downs "Where Are They Now?" feature here--Avram's story starts at 3:50 in the video.) 

Unfortunately, Avi had a defect common among Thoroughbred racehorses: a condition called Laryngeal Hemiplegia ("lazy flapper" or "roaring" in layman's language), in which one of the two cartilagenous flaps that make up the larynx becomes paralyzed. 

So instead of firmly snapping open and shut--open for breathing, shut when swallowing--the paralyzed flapper billows around in the horse's windpipe like a loose sail on a boat, impeding the efficiency of breathing while running at high speed. 

Not exactly a recipe for success in a racehorse, and surgery to stitch the offending flapper in place didn't work; Avi stopped and appeared to go backward in his second and final race. 

Fortunately, however, a lazy flapper doesn't prevent a horse from thriving in plenty of other equine careers. Indeed, with excellent training Avi went on to become a lovely jumper, winning ribbons at shows before he became ours. He's often described as an honest horse, one that willingly jumps without hesitating. 

The Resident Teen found him to be a lovely ride, offering enough of a challenge to her to make her a better rider and rewarding good riding with a fine performance. His new owners will surely likewise find him to be an exciting horse to work with. She also found that the lazy flapper certainly didn't affect Avi's speed when galloping down trails (after all, when you're just out for a gallop, you're not asking the horse to fly at 40 miles per hour over a distance of a mile while beating out other horses). She vividly describes rocketing along a trail and seeing the woods streak by in a blur on either side. 

Around the barn, Avi displays an interesting personality--he can be goofy and affectionate, but he also has a curmudgeonly side. Show up to say hello, and he makes that lovely rippling nicker that is horse for "hello," but as soon as he sees you haven't got any treats, he flattens his ears back as if to say, "Dang it! Stupid human." 

We called him Mr. Angry Face when he was peevish. Of course, when he was being sweet, we were likewise all "oh, pretty pony!" about him.

Real horse ownership, of course, is a heck of a lot different from reading about and dreaming of owning a horse. 

There are many fine children's books (especially British ones) that include the harsh realities associated with maintaining a large, delicate, working animal, but in most stories the horse usually just "goes lame" before the big show, or has a bout of colic, which makes for a nice dramatic chapter that involves staying up with the horse all night long until it recovers. 

There is nothing wrong with such stories, mind you. But in actuality, it seems there's a whole lot more in the way of fungal skin infections, thrush in the soles of the feet, scrapes inflicted on the horse by its own silly hooves (what else other than a horse would open up a gash on its leg simply getting up awkwardly one morning?), and absurd things like a gum abscess that explodes while out riding, showering the horse's neck with blood and freaking out little children passing by.

We've all learned a great deal during the Year of the Horse. We've met wonderful people, and we've enjoyed the ride. And we're curious to see what Avi--former racehorse, jumper, and part-time therapy horse of sorts--will achieve next.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hooray for Hoary Marmots!

The hoary marmot is one of those animals whose name I can never read without hearing the voice of John Cleese pronouncing it, with dramatic pauses, at the outset of a Pythonesque mock-umentary about the species: "And here we have...the Hoary Marmot."

It is definitely not one of the animals you learned about growing up in the 1960s on the east coast. It is a creature of alpine and subalpine meadows, habitats severely lacking on New York's Long Island, where the highest point is High Hill at a mere 387 feet above sea level.

Then you move to the northwest and it's marmots, marmots everywhere. (Well, not really, but if you throw in the rest of their ground-squirrel kin, it certainly seems like it.)

An alpine meadow on Mount Rainier is where we most recently encountered a hoary marmot. The "hoary" in the name refers to the grizzled gray fur on an adult marmot's back and face. Marmot comes from French and Latin words that mean "mountain mouse."

The Rainier marmots along the paved trail that leads up toward the mountain from the Paradise visitor center are utterly blase about humans, even ones who thoughtlessly let their children tromp on the meadow and run up to the animals without any regard for other people who are wildlife-watching.

Not that I'm complaining about rude people or anything.

These marmots pose most obligingly for tourists, so I suspect the National Park Service is actually paying them off in edible flowers.

Flowers are just one of the foods that go toward making the hoary marmot a hefty animal. It is up to 32 inches long, with the tail adding nearly another 10 inches, and can weigh up to 20 pounds. It lives in a burrow, which it digs in areas filled with rock fragments (known as talus). Other habitat requirements include rocks on which to perch and plenty of grass and other plants to eat.

Eating is one of the marmot's favorite pastimes, and it goes into hyperdrive in late summer, packing on an extra 20 percent or more of its body weight so that it enters winter with ample fat reserves.

Hoary marmots hibernate all winter, piling into a communal sleeping chamber in October (or even as early as mid-September depending on where they live) and not emerging again until May. The extra fat sustains them during this remarkable eight-month sleep, during which their normal respiration rate of about 100 beats per minute drops as low as three beats per minute.

When we strolled through the marmot meadow, we spotted about five of the animals. Hoary marmots typically live in small colonies that are basically extended families, spread out over a rich feeding ground.

We heard one marmot, hidden on the hillside, repeatedly calling out with a loud whistling cry, which is a warning signal among marmots.

Though the marmots on the rocks below us seemed to take notice of the whistle, they didn't stir.

Perhaps the whistler was a young marmot who thought humans were predators (which they are, though not in the park) and was practicing due diligence, while the older marmots knew there wasn't much to worry about from a bunch of mamas and papas packing sippy cups and Pirate Booty.

The marmot's whistle has earned it the common name of, well, whistler. The mountain known as Whistler in British Columbia is named after the species. The marmot is also called a whistle-pig (which is a great name for an animal, not so much for a mountain.) The whistling cry can carry for more than a mile, making it an excellent way to communicate across a sprawling  meadow.

You would be correct if you guessed that the hoary marmot is related to the groundhog, which likewise sleeps through the winter. The groundhog, also known as a woodchuck, is in the same genus--its scientific name is Marmota monax, the hoary marmot is Marmota caligata. Both marmots are in the squirrel family, along with chipmunks, prairie dogs, and, of course, squirrels.

If you're a birder and are assembling a life list, you know it's going to be a lifelong occupation. A comprehensive life list is much easier for a marmot-watcher. There are only about 14 species of marmot, all of which live in the northern hemisphere, and 6 of them live in North America. You can see 5 of them without leaving the United States, and the sixth species would require nothing more than a pleasant trip to Vancouver Island.

Lewis and Clark encountered one of them, probably the yellow-bellied marmot, in their travels. They make an offhand mention of seeing a "Moonax, which the natives had petted," "moonax" being the Algonquin word for a marmot. Was it a tame marmot? Being that it was April, was it a snoozing marmot they'd dug up that was too zonked to run away? We'll never know.

No less a personage than John James Audubon painted a portrait of the hoary marmot, though it seems the only living one he saw was a caged specimen in Europe. He claimed that the marmot "seemed to be dull and sleepy." There is no record of what the marmot thought of Audubon.

If Audubon had been able to plant himself in Rainier's marmot meadow, not far from the lodge, he would have enjoyed his very agreeable subjects, who would pose most obligingly, keeping watch while sunbathing on their rocks.

We only saw the marmots move vigorously a few times, when they displayed a variety of charming marmot behaviors such as kissing (pressing their teeth and cheeks together in greeting) and a bit of wrestling (sitting up and playfully pushing against each other with their forepaws).

Our marmot meetup occurred in late September, but now, as Halloween approaches and Mt. Rainier's flanks are cloaked in snow, the marmots have probably tucked themselves in for the winter.

They cleverly position their shared den, called a hibernaculum, under a rock so as to thwart hungry bears from digging them up midwinter and eating their snoring, conked-out selves.

They'll still be fast asleep when poor old Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvanian groundhog, will be shaken awake on Groundhog Day to predict the weather. Perhaps we can start up a new holiday for midwinter--call it Marmot Monday and celebrate it by sleeping late, then getting up and eating heartily for a few hours before going back to sleep again.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Just Try NOT to Take a Picture of Mount Rainier

It's hard enough not to take a picture of Mount Rainier when you can see it from Seattle or the ferry. It's even harder when you're creeping along its flanks and the view is spectacular and the mountain photobombs every scene at which you point your camera.

"Hello! It's me! The mountain! I'm out!"
"Me again!"
"Just me again! Sorry!"
Mount Rainier is classified as an active volcano, perhaps simply on the basis of how nimbly it scurries to get into every photo. Fortunately there are enough people visiting the park and taking pictures of the mountain to distract it and lure it out of one's camera range for a few seconds here and there, enabling one to take photos of valleys and trees and the burgundy, crimson, and rust of fall foliage.

We also saw a wide variety of wildlife, up very close...more on that in another post.

" weren't thinking of leaving without taking another snap of me, were you?"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Name That Bug

"Red-breasted nuthatch?" That works.
Among the job titles I would like to have had in this world is Namer of Animals. It would be even better than being a Namer of Paint Colors and almost as good as a Namer of Racehorses.

I can tell you right now that in this position, I'd have done a bit better by some North American birds, the ones that are burdened with dull identities because they were named after naturalists who described them or after people whom these naturalists admired.

"Steller's Jay," for example, doesn't exactly do justice to this bright blue bird of the black Mohawk and raucous cries. "Gambel's Quail" leaves out the fact that this chunky little bird sports a jaunty topknot on its head. Nor would you ever know that "Lewis's Woodpecker" has a pink belly, or that the little "Townsend's Warbler" wears a yellow and black mask worthy of a lucha libre wrestler. And "Scott's Oriole" is pretty lame for a species in which the yellow male has an executioner's hood.

Of course, there are plenty of North American birds with smashing names (Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Red-Breasted Sapsucker, Whooping Crane, and Roadrunner tell you lots of what you need to know about each species, for example). But when it comes to descriptive names, insects have really won the lottery.

Dear reader, you are no doubt thinking I must have a lot of time on my hands to be thinking about bug names. Trust me, I have a lot on my hands, but time is not among this quantity. I only happened to think about bug names because I found these bugs living it up on a mystery plant growing beside the driveway:

I knew they were leafhoppers (two, two, two facts in one name! A+!). But I didn't know what kind. A Google search turned up a likely candidate: the wonderfully named Candy-Striped Leafhopper. Its other common names mention its colors in various combinations (scarlet, blue, red, green), but for my money you really can't beat "candy-striped."

Candy-striped leafhoppers, however, are mainly East Coast insects. This colorful insect is most likely a rhododendron leafhopper--not nearly as fabulous a name, but at least it tells you where you're most likely to find one. They're native to eastern states, too, but were introduced accidentally to the northwest sometime back in the 1920s on nursery stock.

Whatever the heck it is, it belongs to an athletic family: some leafhoppers can leap up to 40 times their length. Jumping is the insect's go-to defense. It may be the source of the leafhopper's alternate common name of "sharpshooter, "which, according to an Audubon field guide, was inspired by how it "leaps rapidly from danger with the speed of a sharpshooter's bullet."

Other sources suggest that it's called a sharpshooter because it sidles and hides behind stems, like a sniper taking cover; that the name comes from the precision with which it jabs its mouthparts into leaves to suck out fluids or its ovipositer to lay eggs in them; or that it was inspired by the "pop!" with which the insect expels honeydew from its hind end (a sound that is apparently just audible to people with far, far better hearing than I have).

Here, by the way, is a leafhopper exuding honeydew, that sweet fluid so delectable to ants. Listen closely.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Snake Killers and Hobgoblin Flies

A pair of dragonflies is taking it in turn to do sentry duty in our garden. On some warm evenings, a vivid red dragonfly perches on the shepherd's hook that holds bird feeders in the winter. Other evenings, a dark dragonfly lined with yellow passenger-train windows on his sides alights there.

Both dragonflies use the site as a launch pad for hunting insects on the wing. The dragonfly suddenly whirs away, zigzags in the air, and circles back to the hook to watch for prey again. It will spend a good portion of an hour hawking like this.

Dragonflies are famous for their speed and maneuverability as well as their keen eyesight (if you had 30,000 facets in each eye, you might be able to spot a flying gnat 10 feet away, too). Oh, and also for being Very Large Insects. (Though not as big as their prehistoric kin, which would have required a yardstick for measuring, if yardsticks had been invented yet.)

Their size, huge eyes, long abdomens, and strong flight have caused them to migrate into the folklore of many cultures (and you can find out about some of this in the wonderful book A Dazzle of Dragonflies by Forrest L. Mitchell and James L. Lasswell).

Not all of this folklore resides in the ancient past, either.

The first dragonfly I ever saw was one that skimmed over my suburban backyard on New York's Long Island. I didn't know what it was. I screamed bloody murder. I was, after all, very small, and it was very big.

My mom explained to me that it was a "darning needle," this being one of the dragonfly's many common names. I hadn't a clue what a "darning needle" was (except for, now, this insect) and my ears heard "diamond needle," which is what I called it for weeks thereafter. No wonder nobody knew what I was talking about when I still came in screaming about one appearing.

Why the screaming? I'd been informed by my German grandmother that dragonflies were known to sew shut the mouths of children. You'd scream, too.

Sewing shut mouths as well as eyes, ears, and noses, and even stitching together fingers and toes, were among the crimes dragonflies were accused of in the past. This earned them their darning-needle name as well as the epithets devil's needle and ear-piercer.

And speaking of the devil, in Europe dragonflies were often believed to be one of the devil's favorite animal forms to inhabit or simply for evil beings to ride, giving rise to names such as devil's horse, hobgoblin fly, witch's horse, and water witch.

Another completely false accusation laid at the dragonfly's six feet are that it possesses a venomous sting. This untruth has dubbed the insect with colorful names such as horse stinger, bull sticker, blind stinger, and snake killer. (Though oddly it's also known as a snake doctor.)

The dragonfly enjoys a more exalted position in Native American and Asian folklore, in which it's generally admired for its grace, beauty, ferocity, and flying skill. Judging by the number of dragonfly motifs on modern dishware and other home furnishings, it appears that this take on the dragonfly may predominate nowadays.

Which is an excellent thing, as it would prevent an uprising of Instantly Concocted Folklore such as occurred in that long-ago backyard. As I cringed on the ground one afternoon when a dragonfly began circling above my sandbox, my friend Elaine had a scathingly brilliant idea.

"Did you know that dragonflies are scared of sand and you're supposed to throw it at them to make them go away?" she said.

Wow! Who knew! Well, obviously Elaine did! We could be proactive! Soon we were merrily flinging great handfuls of sand into the air, dodging it as it rained down on the lawn. My mom looked out the window, gaped at what was going on, and quickly put a stop to it.

Dragonflies (known as "mosquitohawks" in parts of the Midwest) are aces at devouring pesky insects, so I don't think most people are driving them away with buckets of sand. Dragonflies are also very cool to watch, and don't appear to mind your approaching them quite closely (they probably glance-x-30,000 at you, think "not bug no eat it, not bird it no eat me" and go back to spotting midges).

They also have beautiful names. In this department they've truly lucked out. Unlike gorgeous birds who get saddled with tiresome names that include their so-called discoverer's name (Clark's nutcracker, Bewick's wren, blah blah), dragonflies have scooped up adjectives as avidly as they scoop up mosquitoes in the basket formed by their legs.

Just a quick look at a dragonfly-&-damselfly field guide offers up such evocative names as Smoky Shadowdragon, Amethyst Dancer, Apache Spiketail, Ebony Boghaunter, Rainpool Spreadwing, and Spangled Skimmer.

I still don't know what species the dark dragonfly that visits my garden belongs to. The bright red dragonfly appears to be a Cardinal Meadowhawk (Sympetrum illotum).

I could be wrong. If I am, please don't throw sand at me. I certainly don't throw sand at dragonflies anymore. Nor do I scream when they show up, unless it's to holler to a family member to come take a look.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

It Is Balloon!

A few days after July 4th, when most of the fireworks and firecrackers had finished exploding and the dog's terror had somewhat subsided, I stepped outside and saw a weird purple object underneath the Resident Teen's window.

At first I assumed that somebody had dropped something off at our house. Another teen was due to sleep over that night, and I thought maybe she'd dropped off her stuff while en route to the stable so as not to schlep it around all day.

I was not only wrong, but was advised that this supposition was really outlandish, and I was left with the impression that I should have my head examined.

Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a sky lantern. An expired sky lantern, which I suppose becomes a ground non-lantern. Or litter. My husband assumed it had been set aloft as part of Fourth of July festivities, enabling me to pass along the "have you lost your wits?" incredulous look, because a sky lantern that could stay aloft for days powered by only a tea candle's flame would be pretty amazing.

Where did it come from? Perhaps it had something to do with the local lavender festival--Woodinville is home to a big lavender farm, and the festival was going on later that week. But no, no lantern launches were associated with this event.

(Not that Woodinville is any stranger to balloons--we saw the first hot-air balloon of the season pass over the other day. Thankfully it did not land on our house.)

After learning that sky lanterns cost just pennies and come in packs of 20 or more, we concluded it was just some local party or a wedding. And were glad its flame had fluttered out before it cozied up to the wooden siding. Though how it managed to snake its way through the tree branches is beyond me.

Sky lanterns have a long history in Asia, and the custom of launching them spread to places such as Portugal and Brazil a few centuries ago. Subsequently more countries picked up on the tradition. And Woodinville. They're sometimes called wish lanterns. They're associated with good luck, good fortune, and the carrying of wishes to the stars.

Unfortunately, they also carry flames into flammable materials, as happened in 2013 when a lantern landed on a recycling plant in England and started one of the country's biggest fires ever, causing about 6 million pounds' worth of damage. I gather that the owners of that facility did not feel the association with good luck and good fortune. Sky lanterns are banned as fire hazards in some countries and parts of the States, including Washington D.C., which banned them as far back as 1892.

48'' Solid Lavender Beach Balls
A cousin of  Bunce, though not as handsome
as Bunce, who was swirly.
I hate to be a killjoy, but if I lived in eastern Washington, which is currently in flames with the largest wildfire in state history, I'd boycott them, too.

 I bet they look really beautiful, though, when they take to the sky by the hundreds in festivals in more fireproof parts of Asia.

I have decided, however, that this particular luminous lilac lantern is actually the soul of the long-gone purple beach ball Bunce, who was the mascot of a group of friends at my first college and starred in his very own photo essay of his adventures.

Two of the other three people in that group will be visiting in a few weeks' time, so I think Bunce sent this message to wish us a good time.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What Animal Weighs the Most?

Veiled Chameleon
A lizard, of course. It's covered with scales!

Ha ha.

Begging your pardon, but it's been about half a year of reptiles here in Cottage Lake.

Today I handed in 250 pages' worth of words about reptiles to my editor.

Part of the fun in researching this wonderful topic was having an excuse to head up to Monroe and visit The Reptile Zoo.

Not that you need an excuse. But my family's driven past it for 16 years and I could never persuade them to stop and visit the World's 10 Deadliest Snakes or the Albino Alligator.

So when my sister and her three wonderful children came for a visit, it was the perfect opportunity to head out of town with my 10-year-old nephew.

The Reptile Zoo, on the outside, has the look of one of those roadside mystery spots where water flows uphill or the force of gravity is missing or the like, but that's clearly just to pull in road-weary travelers. It's actually (shh) educational. The owner is a former science teacher who is out on the road himself visiting schools with a menagerie of reptiles most of the time.

It's hot and humid inside, and there's a pungent pong--just so you know. But that's because the place appears to be geared to the comfort of the cold-blooded critters. I'm not an expert, but I've been to enough zoos to know the creepy feeling of being in a place where animals are not housed properly, and I certainly didn't get that feeling here; in fact, the reptiles here seemed bright, alert, and active, which isn't something you typically find yourself saying about reptiles.

Caiman Lizard
We were also lucky to have stumbled in on a day that they happened to be feeding most of the animals. Reptiles don't need to eat everyday because they get a lot of mileage out of their meals, being of slow metabolism and not needing to stoke their internal furnaces to produce heat like us frantic mammals.

I say "lucky" guardedly, realizing that seeing a vat of rats in broth and watching snakes consume them is perhaps not everybody's cup of tea.

But my nephew certainly enjoyed it, especially as he got to hold a small alligator for the keeper (in addition to getting to hold a corn snake, one of several animals rotated in and out of service over the course of the day for visitors to touch).

Mali Uromastyx
The keeper also asked him to bang loudly on the glass of the big alligator's cage to distract it while he opened the door on the other side to bring several chickens and fish into the exhibit. How often does a kid get asked to bang on the glass at a zoo? It's a big no-no at all other times.

The zoo is home to a wide variety of lizards, snakes, and turtles as well as a few crocodilians, with clear signs explaining who's who.

And someone's been having fun naming the animals: There is a species of legless lizard named Legolas, a snake named Steven Steven Stevenson, and one cage of critters that go by Starscream, Bumblebee, Megatron, Soundwave, and Optimus Prime.

If Burma-Shave still made highway signs, they'd tell you what to do: