A Bird In the Hand…

We had an unusual invitation drop in our laps last week. T posted a comment to a picture by our local zoo. The photo was of a Tawny Frogmouth – a bird native to Australia – and she remarked how it was something both of us would love to see up close some day. As it turns out, an acquaintance of ours works at the Henry Vilas Zoo, and saw the comment. She called T and asked if we’d like to “meet” the bird, whose name is Hagrid, in person! Of course we said “YES!!!” and plans were set in motion…

We arrived at the zoo on the appointed day a few minutes early. The zoo walking paths have been cordoned off to direct all traffic in a long, one-way loop to maximize social distancing. Everyone was wearing masks (which is as it should be) and we headed over to the barn where Hagrid lives. It was a chilly day, with temperatures in the upper 30s Fahrenheit, but the flamingoes were out enjoying the sun. We were escorted into the foyer of the building, and waiting while Hagrid was prepared to meet us.

Hagrid is being trained to be an animal ambassador for the zoo, and Hagrid’s trainer brought him out to the foyer of the building so we could get a closer look. He was wary of us, and also of the roofers, who were hammering away re-shingling the building next door. Tawny Frogmouths are carnivorous, and eat mostly insects, plus the occasional mouse, frog, or lizard. Frogmouths are named for their appearance – they really do look like they have a frog’s mouth. They are also prey for larger birds; raptors will eat them, and snakes and lizards will gladly eat their eggs if given the opportunity. Hagrid began “stumping” as the trainer called it, or staying still – sometimes with eyes closed – to appear like a tree branch. Their camouflage coloring is really quite remarkable.

Hagrid “stumping”, pretending to be part of a tree.

We stayed for a while, asking questions about Hagrid. I took several photos, but missed more than a few photo-ops; I was overcome by a sense of wonder – that feeling that got me involved in birdwatching in the first place. I’m constantly amazed by the incredible diversity of the bird world, and the large degree of specialization that exists in feeding methods and the specialized equipment birds have evolved into to ensure their survival. As we wrapped up our visit with Hagrid and thanked his trainer, our acquaintance asked if we’d like to see the bear caves…

These are the former indoor quarters for the bears. Built from concrete some time during the early 1970s, they are small and cramped little bunkers, which makes them exactly what a bear would want from a den to feel secure. It was fascinating seeing this still remaining part of the old zoo. They still exist only because the tunnel that accesses them is a convenient pass-through to get to the keeper’s areas of the polar bear exhibit. The dens were fascinating and also a bit creepy. I’m not the most broad-shouldered man, but I had just a little bit of trouble squeezing through the low, narrow doors into the dens.

Find the gnome…
The bed is made of used fire hoses; flexible, super tough, and able to withstand the weight and the claws of a bear.

We were extremely grateful for our special access to see Hagrid and the old bear dens. It’s not often such an opportunity comes along, and we were delighted we could take advantage of the invitation. Zoos, like so many institutions, are struggling right now. Because so few visitors are going to the zoo, revenue is down. The animals still need to be fed, along with a million other expenses that need to be covered to keep the zoos functioning until it’s safe to gather in crowds again, so please consider sending your favorite zoo or animal shelter a donation. Even a few dollars will help keep the lights on and the animals fed for another day.

To donate to the Henry Vilas Zoo, follow this link: https://www.henryvilaszoo.gov/

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