Thursday, September 1, 2016

A skunk in the pool

My duties as the zoo veterinarian covered more than just the animal collection. From time to time there were situations in which the blowgun I had designed proved invaluable. 
     One such occasion followed a call from a worried householder who lived not far from the zoo grounds. “There’s a skunk in my swimming pool, and he can’t get out. Can you help?” she said. 

The striped (as opposed to the spotted) skunk is the main carrier of rabies in the prairies, so I approached the problem with great care. Zookeeper and friend Stu Hampton and I headed to the home to see what we could do.

 When we arrived the situation took on an extra level of complexity. The skunk was not just in the pool. A bedraggled and soaking wet, thoroughly miserable, lump of black and white hair sat in the middle of the pool on the blue cover, or so-called blanket. Two glistening eyes, the only bright thing that identified the animal as more than a child’s teddy bear, looked resignedly at us. 

We both went to the long edge of the oblong pool in the hope of persuading the animal to escape at the other side. It did shift away from us but only got to the pool’s edge before we realized why it was using the centre of the blanket as a resting place. When it tried to reach up to the pool edge, its weight promptly depressed the nylon material so that the skunk sank up to its belly and could not reach the tiled rim. Carrying one of the zoo nets Stu quickly went to the other side, where the skunk was still trying its best. It promptly retired to the middle.

My next possible solution was to use the blowgun. With the dart loaded with a suitable drug I went back to the long side of the pool so that the range would be minimal. The creature at once retreated. I could in no way ask my partner in this exercise to stand opposite me and drive the skunk back to the middle so that I could dart at a range of no more than three and a half metres. Such an action would be beyond dangerous. The last thing either of us needed was for Stu to be darted if the projectile should ricochet off the blanket surface.

         So, back to the short end of the pool. Now the hours of practice came into their own. The target was no larger than three of my palms held side by each. At a range of fifteen metres I pinged the dart right into the skunk.  Success! He was soon out cold.  The housewife looked amazed, Stu seemed impressed and I was delighted. The rest was simple. I lifted the blanket’s edge, causing the skunk slide down to the other side where Stu used the net. As a fisherman he had plenty of experience. Luckily the animal had not discharged its infamous scent so all was good.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A tale of a monkey's tail

The Forestry Farm zoo in Saskatoon has had a small group of capuchin monkeys for many years.  In 1981 a tiny infant arrived and was soon an attraction as it nestled up against its mother breast. One of the keepers, and older and very experienced man called Jureen had along established close relationship with the females. 

Jureen seen as a trusted friend
They would come right up to the wire and take titbits of food from him and seemed to enjoy being stroked. Not so much with Tarzan, the male.

The newcomer was two weeks old when Jureen told me that it had something wrong with its tail.

I went with him to see what was what. The mother came right up to the wire, the infant firmly attached to her belly. Jureen fed her some grapes, one at a time. This allowed me to take a careful look see that the tip of the infant’s tail was dark, almost black and had no hair on it. There was little else to see but it did not look good.

“Let’s watch them closely. I’ll come by every day and take a look,” I told Jureen.  He was a taciturn man at the best of times and sort of grunted a reply that meant okay.

Two days later, grapes in my own hand, it was obvious that I needed to take a closer look. The hairless end of the tail had now extended a further two centimetres towards its backside.

Jureen, to my amazement, opened the door of the pen. The mother let him take the infant from her.

The tip of tail was cold and swollen. It was gangrenous. Prompt action was needed..

Neither of us could be certain how that had come about, but Jureen thought that it might have been attacked by one of its pen-mates. We had no way of knowing which one. There were three possible culprits.  Its mother, the other adult female and Tarzan. The easiest to eliminate was its mother. Tarzan was a remote possibility, after all the, infant carried his DNA. That left the other female. She seemed to be a reasonable candidate and there was no way we could be sure. Jureen tucked the tiny infant inside his jacket and we headed over to the old house where there was a little clinic.

The surgery to remove the gangrenous end of the tail was simple. An injection of a small amount of local anaesthetic about four centimetres about above junction between healthy and dead tissue eliminated any possibility of pain for the little guy. That was easy to judge because the live tissue was warm, the dead, cold. While we waited for the anaesthetic to take effect I filled up a hot water bottle and we placed it, wrapped in a towel, under the patient. Another towel lay over its top. Next, a rubber band, twisted a few times and slipped up its tail made a handy tourniquet.

The key was to lop off enough tail at a junction between the tiny bones to make sure that everything left behind was healthy and had a blood supply. A flap of healthy skin on both sides was needed to fold over the stump for the stitches. All this took only a few minutes. The fiddly bit was the buried sutures. If the monkeys, especially the mother, found any tag ends of nylon they would promptly pull them out. Three stitches did the trick in no time. When all was done we used a swab to wipe off the iodine and alcohol that had been used to prepare the surgical site.

Jureen stood quietly by as I explained what I was doing. With the monkey again tucked inside his jacket we headed back to the barn. Jureen put the little guy back on a shelf in the cage. His mum came over to see how things were. She sniffed once and took off, heading through the exit to the outside display area. This was not good. It was impossible to decide if she had detected the smell of the disinfectant, or perhaps of me.

Our next step was to let the other two back from the outer section of the display and leave them to themselves. The thinking was that they might induce the mother to pick up her youngster as she might be protective or jealous.  

Half an hour later Jureen checked everything out. The infant had not moved and was cold to the touch. A rescue action was needed.

A syringe of a favourite drug cocktail and the blowgun did the trick on the mother. She was soon asleep.

We found a wooden box big enough to hold the pair of them and soon had a blanket in it. A twenty–five watt light bulb fixed to the wire front of the box made an ideal heater.

The next task was to eliminate what remained of the smells of those disinfectants. Warm water was a start but it would probably not be enough. I dipped a Q-tip into the mother’s mouth, another one into her rectum. These two were smeared over several parts of the baby, including the upper end of its tail. Jureen placed the hungry infant against its mother’s breast where it at once began to suck, albeit rather weakly.

An hour later we returned to check how things were progressing. The mother was awake, the baby was nestled against her. All was well.

This and other stories about zoo and wildlife work in Canada are part of my soon-to-be-released book Porcupines to Polar Bears.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A wild deer in the sitting room

Watching a group of wild deer cross the pond in front of the house is a form of magic. A wild deer in the house is a different matter. Something has to be done.
Eight does on the pond

By the late 1970s humans had acquired the ability to administer drugs to animal patients that were either dangerous or too far away to inject by hand. 
 Heavy metal darts, the kind seen on many a film of the time were well established. They are not precisely accurate enough for small targets. They can either miss, or cause severe damage. I had seen an X-ray of an unfortunate small dog that had been darted by a dog-catcher with one such projectile. The entire dart was buried deep inside its body. It died in seconds. The catcher and the owners must have been horrified. An alternative seems to be a good idea.
The new technique owed much to the men of hunter-gatherer societies in many countries. They had developed blow-gun systems that allowed them to shoot darts high into the forest canopy with deadly accuracy. Their darts had tips coated with paralyzing or poisoned compounds (working on the target, not the consumer) that brought down animals for use a food.
The basic design of those darts was converted into syringes that carried vaccines or other treatment drugs. 
Vaccination of a zoo lion. The blow dart can be seen in his hip.
Many zoo veterinarians and their patients benefited from the modernization of this ancient technique.
In chapter six book of my book From Porcupines to Polar Bears I describe my own struggles with the development of the blow dart and how I put it to use.
One problem that needed a quick solution was the noise emitted when blowing into the pipe. It is a noise that should at all costs be avoided when in polite company. Many readers will admit, under pressure, that in private the noise is associated with warming of the bed.
A simple mouthpiece solves the noise problem.
The solution was simple. A mouthpiece did double duty. It cut out the noise and ensured that all the effort in the puff propelled the dart with maximum power.
 On one occasion a call from the city police meant that I had to deal with a situation outside the zoo. The tool came into its own. An invasion of a home by a white-tailed deer needed urgent action.
In fall young males are often driven off by big bucks wanting to ensure that any females became their sole (or is that soul?) mates.
Under normal circumstances the youngsters head off into the countryside. But on this and other occasions the young deer seem to lose their minds. .
A buck had leapt through the picture window of a house with a fine view of the university buildings across the South Saskatchewan River. Two ladies of a certain age were enjoying a quiet cup of tea. Their afternoon view underwent a dramatic change.
The deer had no doubt come up from the bush-lined river bank. Naturally it panicked when it found itself in the unfamiliar environment of a city sitting room. Soon there were shards of bone china mixed with the shattered glass of the window. The ladies wisely retreated and made the call. When I arrived some fifteen minutes later the room lacked what I assumed was its former pristine state. The sofa was shredded. The carpet was decorated with a fresh stain of something dark wet and smelly. Several flowers lay scattered among greenery beside the coffee table.
The deer was standing still, no doubt bemused in unfamiliar surroundings. A drug-filled dart with its bright red woollen tail soon had the young buck down and out. Thence into the zoo truck and away to a wooded spot some fifteen kilometres from the city limits. Into the jugular vein went an antidote to the immobilizing mixture Thirty second later it was up and away, without even a look back of thanks.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Wet Nurse for a Bear Cub

There has been an unexpected delay in the publication of my new book Porcupines to Polar Bears.    

The manuscript was ready to go in late January. The intended launch date was at the beginning of April. A couple of things beyond my control have put that back and the printer still has not got the book to Dragon Hill, my publisher.  While I wait I will post a small number of edited clips to give an idea of the work and hopefully tickle your fancy. Here is one. 

 A sure sign of spring in the 1970s and 80s was the arrival of orphan bear cubs at the Forestry Farm Zoo in Saskatoon. Most often the mothers had been shot when they became a danger to humans in logging camps in the north. The cubs usually arrived in early March.

One mother bear cannot have known what was coming when she heard the growling noise of diesel engine approaching. The machine was a huge earth mover clearing an area around her den to prepare it for a mining camp.

Next thing she had been crushed to death by tonnes of a mix of earth, rock and trees. 

The driver of the enormous machine must have been right on the ball when he saw the dead bear because he was quickly out of his cab to see what he had wrought. There were two tiny cubs nestled against the sow’s chest. Both were alive and would almost certainly have been mewling. He must have been horrified.

It was late January and bitterly cold, with daytime highs hovering around the minus twenty centigrade mark, while at night it dipped below minus thirty. For an adult bear, spending much of her time in the den she could develop a real cozy fug—that warm, smoky, stuffy atmosphere so favoured by the British— this temperature would be no sort of challenge, and she could easily keep a cub warm and snuggled up as it lay between her front legs or on her chest where it could easily get some nourishing milk from one of her two teats, which like a human’s are level with the armpits.

The cubs eyes were still closed and their umbilical cords hardly dry. They would have no chance of living for a full day.

The driver acted right away, no doubt on the radio installed in his cab (no cell phones in 1980). With admirable speed someone on the crew bundled the cubs up in a warm blanket and headed to Saskatoon, some 400 km away.

It was obvious that there was a real challenge at hand. The smallest cub was moribund, hardly responding and making no noise. It died within a couple of hours. The eyes of the larger cub, a male, were closed and a 10 cm length of dried umbilical cord was attached to it belly. On the zoo scale it weighed under a kilogram.

Given that reading it had likely doubled its birth weight and was no more than two weeks old, a very early arrival indeed.

Bottle raising bear cubs was nothing new the zoo staff. Those previous ones were much further along on their development and weighed two or three kilograms by the time they reached us. They did well on evaporated milk and soon dived into some added solids fed twice a day.

The tiny new orphan would need to be ‘on the bottle’ every three hours day and night. Obviously impossible given the small number of staff. Another solution was needed.
Romulus and Remus and their foster mum
Could a foster-mother be found? Other human / animal wet nurse stories come to mind. The classic, which may be more myth that fact is the story of the founding of Rome by the brothers Romulus and Remus, nursed by a she-wolf. There are plenty of records of humans nursing animals. For instance, as reported by Samuel Radbill in 1976, travelers in Guyana observed native women breastfeeding a variety of animals, including monkeys, opossums, pacas, agoutis, peccaries and deer.

It became a case of trying to find a suitable lactating female. In those pre-laptop, pre-Google days of 1980, but having some knowledge of this practice, I called Dr. Ernie Olfert at the animal resource centre at the university and see if we can get some help. We were in luck. A Terrier-cross bitch had just whelped. We could borrow her for the unusual task of raising our little orphan.

I was unsure if the bitch would accept the newcomer to her cute litter of four mainly white pups, with the only black on them being around their heads and ears.

Although I have later learned that dogs will often accept such newcomers without the aid of drugs it seemed prudent to sedate her and try to fool her into thinking that nothing unusual had happened when she woke. The injection soon had her dozing soundly. Next, the faeces on the Q-tip that I had briefly put into her rear end was smeared over the little cub. He took no notice.

The objective was to try and fool the bitch into thinking that he was one of hers that needed a clean-up. When the hungry cub was placed at her belly he at once latched onto a teat and began to suck as if there was no tomorrow.
The milk bar is open

Even before she was fully awake the bitch began to check on her litter. She licked both cub and pups. He was just one of the gang. He soon perked up and within a week was mixing with the pups, rolling, play-growling and so on, although in a slightly different language than his “litter-mates”. He was having a good time.

All went well for about four weeks, but on my daily check-ups it became obvious that her udder looked sore. On closer examination I thought that the needle-sharp claws of her foster child might be causing the problem. She seemed to be uncomfortable as soon as he began to feed and we needed to do something before she rejected him outright. 

It is unlikely that a five-week-old bear cub has ever had his toenails clipped, but that is what we did. While keeper Sharon held the squirming little guy I used a set of human clippers to do the job. He struggled a bit and made his objection known with little squalls. Other than that the process went smoothly, unlike some dog clipping wrestling matches I engaged in during my general practice days in Kenya. We then wrapped the ends of his feet in sticky tape to try and further protect the udder and put him back with his buddies.

This worked for only two more days and then she simply turned off the taps. One day the pups and the cub were nursing—the next she would have nothing to do with them. It seems probable that the cub’s tiny needle-sharp teeth may have finally led to this dismissal. The pretty little bitch’s job was done. She went home with all but one of her charges to Dr. Olfert’s care at the university.

We had weighed the cub every three days and he had made great progress, now stretching the spring to over two kilograms. He would need more milk for a while and so we went back to the standard evaporated milk for bear cubs, only three times and then twice a day.

He did lose weight for the first two days, but then the scale began to stretch every day. Within a month he was up to five kilos.

Play time
We hung on to him for about another month as he and one cub had formed a bond and seemed to spend their days roughhousing, eating or sleeping curled up together.

Within a coupe of weeks the pair were losing interest in the milk as they found a much more enticing diet in the bowl full of milk, fruit and ground meat on offer.  

The two buddies stayed indoors for another six weeks, the cub leaving the pup in the dust both literally when they played and weight–wise. On April 15, two and half months after he arrived, he weighed fifteen kilos, the same as his foster mother when she adopted him.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Buenos Aries and the Iguazu Falls.

From Coronel Suarez we headed for Buenos Aries, the capital city of Argentina. Here I must declare a bias. With the exception of Christchurch in New Zealand I have not yet been to a city that I like. Too many people, too much traffic, etc., etc. Buenos Aries is part of the group. There were a few saving graces.

Buenos Aries skyline
The evening view from our hotel window was spectacular.

Some of the buildings were impressive. There were beautiful trees in some parks. We were lucky to meet up with Laura and her son Ethan. We had first met them on our trip over the Andes from Chile and Laura urged us to get in touch once we hit the city.  

Blooming trees in BA
Jo's Tilley hat and one of BA's buildings
They took us to a nice restaurant on the waterfront and we were impressed with the tall buildings across the river that had been built on a reclaimed garbage dump.

A BA yellow bus

We were much less impressed with the  Yellow bus hop-on, hop-off  city tour. If all the buses are the same as the one we boarded they are an utter waste of time and money.   

 The Nauga hide seats had cracks in them. The headphones are unreliable. We had to choose among three of them before we found a pair that even worked.  Every now and again, without any action our part, the commentary would quit, or change into another language. As if that was not enough the recorded voice would seldom tell us about the place or building we were passing.  Useless as tits on a boar. We soon disembarked and headed for the metro, which is excellent.

General San Martin
We did more exploring on foot. A tasty treat at a panaderia for lunch; the famous monument of General San Martin, the national hero of Argentina.  We were impressed with the cathedral and it high altar.  

Unfortunately we fell victim to a pickpocket.  We had heard of the skill of the local members of this brigade. I imagine that the activity is on an industrial scale with gangs acting as teams. Our pickpocketing experience may have been unique. As we emerged from the dark of the cathedral to the bright sunlight of the square Jo put on her dark glasses. We crossed the road, walked fifteen metres and suddenly Jo called out, “my hat!  It was gone.
Jo and her new hat
Her expensive Tilley headgear had been removed from her head. Only one solution. Buy a straw replacement from a sidewalk vendor. 
On our last evening we did enjoy a tango show. The intriguing thing was the demonstration of the dancing styles and costumes over the last century.

A special place
Enough of cities for quite some time. One reads of places and things that should be on anyone’s bucket list. 

The Taj Mahal, Machu Pichu, Victoria Falls, an elephant herd in the wild. We are lucky to have seen all four. There are no doubt others. 
A special moment on the shore oif the Kasinga Channel, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda
Machu Pichu, another special place

In each case one can read as much as one likes, one can even see photos or watch videos. Then one sees the real thing. The experience is on another level. 

The Devil's cauldron Iguazu

Next stop the Iguazu Falls.  Even in the thirty-four degree and maybe ninety-five percent humidity the falls are stunning.

A raging series of cataracts, crashing sound, clouds of spray high in the air. Enough said. 

The best thing, other than the falls? As we left the little train at the exit gate there were two cold showers to stand under. We soaked oursleves from head to foot, clothes and all. 

The clothes were dry by the time we boarded the bus, but the temporary relief was great.

Despite my statement that photos not doing justice here are a couple that we have kept, if only for ourselves (and to share in miniature here)

A pan view of the Argentinian side of the falls.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Five days in Coronel Suarez, Argentina

Planning a big trip is fun. Where will we go? Do we speak the language? How much will it cost? My wife Jo and I decide it's time to visit South America. We have never been together to the continent. I had been to Brazil thirty years earlier to attend a wildlife conference. But that’s another story.

It took us no time at all to decide that Brazil was not an option. The visa requirements are ridiculous. They wanted three months of recent bank accounts. They even wanted Visa records. They almost wanted my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Forget it. Next on the list, Argentina. We had heard about the Iguazu falls as a must-see destination and would visit at the end of our trip. Jo starts to work on her Spanish. CDs’, dictionaries, even a Harry Potter book.

As we chatted about this and that with dear friends Trudy and Leo about the trip she said, “You must go the Coronel Suarez. We have been there twice. It’s great. Maria Luz, mother of our friend who studied here and stayed with us would welcome you.”

Coronel Suarez? Not in any travel book. No reference in Lonely Planet. Check Google. There it is. Contact Maria. She writes: Any friend of Trudy is a friend of mine. Come and stay with me. You will be welcome.

In Puerto Madryn, where I left you, we board a late night bus. After breakfast and a five-hour wait we board another bus in Bahia Blanca, destination Coronel Suarez. Our first daylight trip through the famed pampas is a surprise. We see vast acres (hectares) of crops. Sunflowers in bloom, huge fields of wheat, equally large green fields of soya beans. None ready to harvest. After all it is early February, six weeks or so before that busy time.

A couple of small ponds where flamingos swing their heads back and forth as they sift for food. Two majestic black-necked swans glide across the surface of another pond. Raptors glide and wheel across the sky, too far away for me to identify. Every now and again are tall stands of pampas grass, their bushy heads waving in the breeze.

Jo and Maria in the garden
Five hours later Maria is at the depot hugging Jo. Her home is on a tree-line boulevard in the middle of the little town of thirty-thousand folks. We meet her youngest son, Federico, when he gets home from work.

The next days were so full of new things and wonder that it is still sinking in. Trudy and Leo had mentioned Tito. A larger than life character related to Maria through the marriage of her son Gaston to his daughter Marta. Tito is soon at Maria’s home and takes us on a tour of the town. He knows all the details of its history. He tells that next day he will take us to Sierra de las Ventanas where we will see The Window in the Mountain.

The Window in the Mountain
Next morning we head out, Jo and Maria in the back. My Spanish is worse than his English, but not by much. As we drive along he asks me, through Maria, about Kenya, specifically if I know about Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout movement. BP, as he is known among scouts world-wide, lived the last years of his life in the Outspan Hotel where my parents honeymooned over Christmas 1939.  I played many a game of cricket within sight of the hotel. Tito had retired from his duties as a scout leader after thirty years, but was still passionate about every aspect. My involvement was more modest. I was a cub and scout at prep school. In Saskatoon I led a small troop for a few years. I tell Tito about our most memorable day. It was the winter of 1980. We went camping when the temperatures plummeted. It was minus 29 when we set up the tents.  By morning it had dropped another four degrees. I tried to light the camp stove – failed. We bundled the boys in the van and headed out for pancakes at Smitty’s.

Burrowing owl during a Candian winter.
It's much warmer in South America.
At lunch-time the four of us stop in the picturesque village of Ventanas. As we leave I spot a bird on the wall of a part-built new home. It is a burrowing owl. Is his northern summer home in Saskatchewan? Maybe.

Next stop, now two hours from home, we spend time admiring the range of jagged hills and the window in the mountain far above us.

Part of he Sierra de las Ventanas range
 In the morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we visit three silversmiths to look at exquisite jewellery. Trudy has told us about these treasures, and shown us some of the pieces she purchased on her trips. She is absolutely right. We dither and gawp. No purchases today, just comparing and planning for a return.

Maria, JCH, Jo, Tito after the picnic
Tito picks us up as we return from the jewellers. Maria has told us that we are going to a popular health spa and camp site known as Camping Levalle. The spa has a saline pool. Some of us take a dip. Tito’s youngest daughter, Ana, known to one and all as Anita, who teaches English, does the fluent translation. After a picnic lunch we head out again. There has been no mention of our next destination.

An hour later we enter a chocolate-box pretty town of Carhué. The streets, laid out in a well–designed grid, are lined with flowering trees. As Tito tops a small rise a desolate scene confronts us.
Dead trees on the shore of Lago Epecuén
Dead trees are the only things we can see above ground level. Rows of wooden corpses, branches sticking up as if in supplication, line what must have been more avenues like those in the town behind us.  We drive between two rows of the ghosts. A cemetery, its headstones much corroded, is the only sign of former human occupation. Someone still cares for a lost loved one. A bunch of flowers sits atop a grave.

The graveyard
We learn that Lago Epecuén, the lake we can see beyond the trees is saline. So much so that the mineral concentration is slightly less than the Dead Sea, ten times the level of any ocean. It is the last in a chain of seven lakes above it. It was inundated in 1985 when heavy rains led to the upstream overflows. The water level rose steadily over a few months. We skirt the shore passing many more tree skeletons. A scene of utter wreckage appears to our left. We have arrived at what remains of the town of Villa Epecuén that used to have a population of three thousand. Like Carhué the desolate streets had been laid out in a tidy grid pattern.

Curled bark stripped from a dead tree beside the lake
 Before this trip I had not realized the destructive power of salt water. Not as a surging force like a tsunami or the terrifying wall of water rushing down a flooded river, but as a corrosive substance. It is not just the rusting of metal, as one would expect. It is the concrete of the roads and buildings. Other than a tall tower marked with a line at the eight-metre level, not a single structure remains intact. The lake reached those eight metres. Because of the slow rise of the water nobody died. All but one older man remained. Everyone lost a home or a business. Imagine!

The tower in background. Marked with its 8 metre line.
I at once think of some post-apocalyptic scene. It turns out that the site has indeed been used in movies. My photos do not do it justice. This link  shows the scene five years before our visit. The water has receded even further since then. This YouTube video gives a more current view as a trick cyclist does his thing over and around the ruins.  

The impact is all the more stunning because none of our hosts have warned us what is coming.

Next day, after lunch, we head to the polo grounds where there are seven pitches. I have known for many years that the best polo players in the world are Argentinians. I had mentioned to Maria in our early correspondence that I used volunteer as vet for games in Kenya. 

Polo ponies and riders at Coronel Suarez
--> Now here is the real thing. Dozens of ponies stand patiently in the shade of a line of trees. They are élite athletes tuned down to exact fitness for the explosive game, one minute quietly standing, the next at full gallop. We meet Horatio,  a few years older than us. He is here to watch his son and grandson playing on the same team. He remembers playing in a tournament with Rowena, one of our oldest Kenya friends. I send her a picture of the three of us standing together. She at once replies that she remembers him well. She adds that we have been lucky to visit Coronel Suarez, telling us that it is the Mecca of polo.

Tito's wine cellar.
We are invited to Tito’s home for the evening meal. Maria warns us, not once but at least three times, to make sure we are hungry when we arrive. She even tells us to go easy on the pre-dinner snacks. Tito takes us into his wine cellar. Not just wines, there are preserves, home-cured hams and other goodies. He offers a choice of wines. A merlot, minus one glass for a ‘tasting’ is soon on the table.

We emerge to join the family for a pre-dinner drink. I am in for a surprise. Silvano, one of Tito and Mabel’s sons joins the group. He has a blue and purple scarf, with a toggle holding it at his neck. Before I know it Anita has translated Tito’s little speech. I am honoured with the gift of the local scout’s neckerchief and toggle. Wow!

One small part of the dinner party

We sit around a long table and are treated to a feast. Maria’s advice on hunger was not given lightly. Mabel has shared in the preparation of the spread.

From the left, clockwise: Julian, Jo, Maria, Marta, Mabel,Tito, Gaston and Ana.

  On our last day we return to the silversmiths and make our choices. After that Tito takes us to the town’s scouting headquarters. Silvano and all the other troop leaders are making plans for an upcoming event. 

Dinner that evening is another feast. This time at the home Maria Luz’s son Gaston and his wife Marta. The family are there and Anita tells us that she and Julian are engaged and will marry in December. Congratulations all round. Pizza extraordinaire. Many flavours. Great gathering.

Late at night, we board for Buenos Aries. Maria is with us, heading off on her first leg to Uruguay for a holiday. Tito’s entire family wave farewell on the sidewalk of the bus depot. What a welcome it has been. What a memorable time. What a send-off.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Wildlife scenes in the Chubut province of Patagonia.

I left you in Esquel boarding an overnight bus for Puerto Madryn on Patagonia’s east coast. We go with a taxi to the Hi Patagonia hostel run by the charming and very helpful Gaston. So helpful that he had no problem putting a  kettle on to boil so that we could have our first proper cup of tea since arriving in South America. Tea lovers know what I mean!

Gaston soon put us on to the first of several wildlife encounters. We boarded a big zodiac, fit for 50+ passengers and headed out in the bay to see some dolphins, seal lions and birds.

Sea lions and cormorants on the rocky shore of Golfo Nuevo
 The dolphins did not oblige but the seal lion colony, dominated by a big bull, on the rocky shore was interesting, especially when we saw Imperial Cormorants and a single gull standing nearby. Later we identified it as a Kelp gull.

Under the boat and a farewell wave
We may have missed out on the dolphin but then an extraordinary bonus presented itself. The boat crew asked us to watch for disturbances in the water surface. Long before any of us amateurs saw anything the skipper called out “There it is.” At once we saw the tell-tale of a tail above the surface. 

It was a juvenile humpback. The guys at once identified  it as a different one from that seen the previous week.

 As if this was not enough of a thrill the magnificent creature swam right under our boat, not once but twice within fifteen minutes.

On our walk back to the hostel we once more admired the variety and number of graffiti on any available wall.   They are in every community we visited

Over the next two days we hired a car, a much newer, more comfortable and more reasonably priced Ford than the crummy Chevy for which we had been gouged in Bariloche. Two hundred dollars American in the Andean town was outrageous. 

We headed for Peninsula Valdés a fascinating area that has been designated as a national park.  

A road sign makes things clear.
Along the way there were several groups of  wild guanacos, a few rheas and an array of succulent flowers that we could not hope to identify.

 The red one is thought, by the authors of this site  to be a member of the Aizoaceae family.

 The yellow is probably Opuntia maihuen. All were fleshy and low to the ground, seeming to be drought and salt resistant.

Jo puts things in perspective

A lunchtime stop at Punta Delgado gave us a chance to see the skeleton of a Southern Right whale. The whales  themselves gather in the Golfo San Matias on the northern side of the peninsula over the months of May to December. 

We were too late to see them congregate there, but they are reported to be so tame that one can get close to them as they calve and breed. Maybe we’ll see them next time we go.

After lunch we were led by a charming guide down a steep incline to see a group of female elephant seals. They look like giant slugs. There were no big bulls around so we did not see the noisy and vicious fighting that is so readily viewed on all sorts of wildlife movies and no doubt on YouTube. This one, shot by Richard Sidey is a good example. 

Next day we headed to Punta Norte, the northern-most tip of the peninsula to see much larger colonies of sea-lions.
A disproportionate weight advantage
We saw one breeding event. A huge male smothered a female that seemed to be trying to escape. How she survived her mate's crushing weight (400 kg) is thought for reflection.

            We hoped to see the famous beach hunting of sea–lion pups by Orcas. No luck. We were about a week early. The pups were still with their mothers and had not yet ventured out to swim. From Gaston we learned more about the unique hunting technique. It stems from an old human activity. At one time the ranchers used to capture the pups for food. They would chop off the heads and flippers and chuck them into the water. The Orcas soon found out about these free lunches. Next step, self-service. This National Geographic clip, shot on the same beach, shows what we missed. The commentary is inane and way over the top. It makes no mention of the human induced behaviour.

The next two days took us bird watching. We had heard that there is a huge lagoon near the town of Trelew, a ninety minute bus ride south of Peurto Madryn.
Chilean flamingos and others on take-off
 We found it, but were in for a surprise. It is indeed huge, many kilometres long, but it is a sewage lagoon. There were thousand of ducks and swans swimming on it. They rose in a cloud as we approached. In the distance I saw some Chilean flamingos, one of three species seen in South America. The others live in the high Andes. A stalk behind scrub and bushes got me within a hundred metres. As they also rose I was able to snap their departure. In silhouette there are many ducks and a couple of ibis, identifiable by their long down-curved beaks. An hour of the smell was enough.

Our last day in Puerto Madryn gave us two spectacular experiences. The morning two-hour taxi ride to Ponto Tombo led to an amazing experience.  Ponto Tombo's name comes from the site where the aboriginal people buried their dead (tombs). We walked among a Magellanic penguin colony of something like one million birds. 

At the entrance to the trail a sign shows that not only folks in wheel chairs can gain prior access, but also pregnant women, a nice touch with a simple graphic message.

 The path for visitors is clearly marked with a two-strand wire fence.

Competing for food. Two chicks mob one parent
Our taxi driver, who had taken tourists there many times, knew the area well, told us that there had been no penguins at the site before 1978. 

 The tiny penguins come to the beach and the walk (waddle) up, in some cases over a kilometre to their respective burrows. Every pair returns to the same burrow each year for the nesting season. By the time the chicks are weaned they are the same size, or a tad bigger that their parents.

The birds have right of way on the fenced paths where tourist are permitted. They know it. One walked within half a metre of Jo, ignoring her completely.
We watched chicks mobbing parent birds as they returned with full stomachs from feeding in the ocean. Outside some burrows there were two chicks competing with vigour to get at the regurgitated food. The adults trade off every ten days and are said to travel up to six hundred kilometres out to sea to find their food.

As we returned to the parking lot I needed to answer a "call of nature".  The choice of cubicles was clear, but shown in a delightful way.

Our visit to the town ended up with a fine sea-food supper and a magic rainbow show.  

The sea front at Puerto Madryn

 Then it was off to the bus station for another overnight ride north. Next stop Coronel Suarez.