Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Day at the Zoo

The much forecasted rain finally showed up today in a series of spurts. (According to Aucklanders, the "problem" with New Zealand is that you can have four seasons in one day.) But it did not get in the way of the most incredible day at a zoo.

The zoo opens at 9:30; I arrived at quarter of 8:00 for the first of three behind-the-scenes tours. After meeting up with the keepers, we headed over to the Aussie walk, a series of environments for Lorikeets, Emu, Wallabies, and a Red Kangaroo. It was our job to feed them breakfast.

One can actually feed Lorikeets at the Philadelphia Zoo, but there you can only feed the rainbow colored parrots for as long as your medicine cap sized cup of nectar lasts. In Auckland, we fed the birds a container of fresh grapes and corn. They swarmed me, landing on my arms and even on my head, using their beaks to tear apart the skin and their tongues to lick out the juicy food inside.

Then it was onto uncharted territory as I met the remaining Aussie animals. Feeding the Emu was a ton of fun; I am thankful that their large beaks have good aim, as they devoured the grapes I offered in my fingertips with a powerful snap.

The highlight of the morning was having the sole Red Kangaroo eat food from out of my hand. The Kangaroo is apparently very shy but will occasionally allow humans to feed her - one out of six visitors they guessed. (The Wallabies, including one with a joey in its pouch, all scurry away when you approach too close.) Shivering under the shelter of a small lean to keep out of the rain, the Kangaroo first sniffed my hand and then began eating. It says a lot about my day that this was not the best moment.

As the rain got heavier, I had a few hours to spare before my next two tours. So after a few quick stops en route, I settled in at the Kiwi house, where I spent the next 90 minutes desperately trying to snap a photo of the elusive bird without using the flash. (Spoiler alert, after frustratingly watching several other people cheat and break the rules with their own flashes, I decided to take one parting shot. It rendered the previous 90 minutes somewhat pointless as this was what I got.)

But a quick camera lesson to convey the difficulty of getting the no-flash shot. Step one: slow the shutter speed a significant amount so enough light can come in to take a picture. Step two: use a monopod to steady the camera. If the camera even moves the slightest bit, the photo appears blurry because the shutter will capture all motion as long as it is open. Step three: have the patience of a saint. The Kiwi has to step into just the right light, at just the right angle - and on top of that, it has to stay still, something the bird does not do well. After taking close to 200 pictures, this was the best shot I got. Not bad all things considered.

Finally it was back outside to meet Maya, the zoo's nineteen-year old Red Panda, my favorite animal in the world. We entered the exhibit with a container of grapes and pear slices, and the hungry creature was eager to greet us. Like the Aussie animals, the Red Panda nibbled grapes out of my offering fingers. It has beautiful brown eyes, and a coat of red fur that has unfortunately led to its being endangered. (The only remaining individuals in the wild live in the Chinese Himalayas.)

When the Red Panda reached out and took my hand in its paws, it was the obvious highlight of my day.

That is not to say that feeding the Ring Tailed Lemurs was a let down in any way. Coaxing them out of the treetops took time, but one by one they finally came down to eat the banana that I had cut up for them. Lemur males always allow the females to eat first, so I am lucky that the ladies were hungry, otherwise I would not have met any of them.

Whereas the Red Panda has clawed paws, the Lemur has small little hands, with fingertips that look like little black balls of gel. By the end, there were three in a branch right next to me, all fighting over the food and pulling my hand to get the last bites of banana. When the bananas were left, they took turns licking my fingers to get the last remaining banana juices.

While I waited for the DVD of photos to be made, I went to hang out with the Kea, the only species of mountain parrot in the world, and a bit of a clown in the alpine regions of New Zealand. Unlike so many other unique New Zealand birds, the Kea can fly, and the plumage on the underside of their wings is stunning - bright orange, metallic teal, and brilliant green. I made it my mission to photograph the bird in flight so I could capture these colors.

My mission is complete, but not truly accomplished. This photo does the Kea some justice, but I am hoping that when I get to Te Anau on South Island, I will encounter the bird once again. It was also a photo nearly 90 minutes in the making.

Tomorrow it is off to Tiritiri Matangi, and island bird sanctuary with some of New Zealand's rarest species, including the Takahe. In the meantime, it is off to grab a bite to eat, watch cricket, and stare out at the sailboats that are still in the water at 8:00 at night. Life here does not suck.

(While the pictures were uploading, I ran out to a place called White Lady to grab what someone told me was "the best burger in the world." It's easily top 5. The joint is a glorified food truck, and it was rated #1 by Lonely Planet as top destinations in Auckland. Definitely know what I'm getting for dinner tomorrow.)

Kia ora everyone! Some bonus pictures for you all below.

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