Animal Shenanigans: Slug’s Lunch

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Today in weird things that normal people don’t notice but I totally do: Linz has a lot of slugs hanging around. Well, not really hanging around as much as oozing their way around in the parks, hunting for delectable patches of veg to nosh on. It’s slow living to the max here for Linz’s slug population, so today I bring you a slug, savoring her lunch in slow-motion:

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And here are gifs, BECAUSE I CAN!

Slug eats 2

Slug Eats

This is just a little reminder to all of us that like a slug, we should all slow down and savor life a little bit more.

Bialowieza Forest

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A plaque at the entrance to Bialowieza National Forest.

Bialowieza, the last old-growth forest in Europe, is the real reason we’re in Poland. About a month ago, when we were deciding between visiting Chernobyl in Ukraine and Bialowieza, we heard that the Polish government had green-lighted some logging in the forest. We figured, ‘Well, time to see it before it’s gone.” It’s not like Chernobyl is going anywhere soon.

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A tree on one of the Nordic Ski Tracks.
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Moss and lichens growing on a low roof in town.

We caught a train from Warsaw to Hajnowka, and a bus from there to Bialowieza, the eponymous town on the park’s east side. From here, we ended up doing two hikes: one along the Nordic tracks on the East side of the town, and the Bialowieza National Park Nature Tour for Scientists. The former winds confusingly through state forest (where the logging is taking place), while the latter takes you into the actual national park and requires a hefty 550 zloty fee (~$161 USD) for the guide. Overall, both hikes were nice, with two caveats: an absolute boatload of mosquitos, and a fairly ‘touristy’ feel to the National Park hike—you’re walking a well-worn path, occasionally past another tour group. It’s not like hiking open and free in the wilderness.

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Resident wildlife.
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Logging in the state forest, along the Nordic Ski Tracks.
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A logged clearing in the state forest.
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Untouched fallen trees in the National Park.

That said, the park does have an impressive array of mosses and fungi. Because they don’t remove dead and fallen trees, there’s plenty of material to support the growth of saprophytes, in turn hosting tiny insects and insect predators like spiders. You might catch glimpses of animals from afar, so bring the camera with the nice zoom lens. And you may even see wild boar if the population has recovered by the time you arrive—we saw none, because most were wiped out by swine flu a couple of years ago. Our guide reported that summer, you could smell the rotting boar carcasses every time you got near the forest. But that’s the course of nature for you.

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The trail of an animal through the morning dew in a field near the forest.
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Late afternoon in the fields.

A few tips for when you go:

  • You could easily stay in Hajnowka and hike from there if you’re not so interested in the national park. The town was adorable and untouristy, and we found their tourism information center to be super helpful – they’re open 9-5 Monday-Saturday, and 9-1 Sunday.
  • We stayed at Dwor Na Otulinie in Bialowieza and loved it because it’s on the outskirts of town, nearer to the forest. The hosts are lovely folks and they’ve got a mini-kitchen downstairs to prepare meals for yourself.
  • We tried a handful of restaurants in the town and found Bar Biesiada Jolanta Żłobin to be hands-down the best for cheap food, even compared to the ‘supposed best’ Bar Leśna Dziupla. It’s partly because they have amazing pierogi (though I suppose you could order something else), partly because they have these delicious sodas under the brand Vilnele, and partly because the cook/barman/waiter at Biesiada looks a bit like an overweight Harrison Ford. He speaks almost no English, so arm yourself with Google Translate.
  • There are mosquitos. Not just mosquitos, singular at a time, but whole swarms of them that will relentlessly follow you as you hike. Try early on to make peace with the fact that you’re going to lose some blood.

Some more photos of Bialowieza:

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Bar Biesiada’s counter, where they also sell fried jelly donuts.
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A brown puffball grows in the grass.
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This is a woodpecker, but you probably couldn’t tell because we didn’t bring a DSLR with us.
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King of the hill: insects climb on a mushroom in the National Park.
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Mushrooms on a log.
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A monument to those killed in the forest during the World War.
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Yellow coral fungi on the forest floor.
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Little snails, probably the most common animals you’ll see in the forest.
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This is what a hazelnut looks like.
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An orb weaver (Agriope); our guide was excited about this because she had never seen them in this part of the park before.
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Another snail, snailing along.
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And sunset.

Stolby Nature Reserve: Animals!

One of the coolest things about Stolby was the abundant wildlife; there were so many different insects, birds, mammals found along the trails. Here’s what we found on our hikes in July:

Wolves

The purple trail takes you pretty far into the reserve, so it’s not surprising that’s where we saw wolves, a six-pack to be exact (no, really, not kidding and yes, pun intended). There’s no picture here because a) I wasn’t fast enough and b) I took me a few seconds to realize the dog-like creatures in front of us were wolves. We simply rounded a bend in the trail and suddenly there appeared to be five german shepards 20 feet in front of us. My first thought was “who left their dogs out hereeeooh MY GOD THESE AREN’T DOGS.” because as I scanned left, I noticed a massive black animal at the front of their pack. They paused, sniffed the air, and then they loped off into the bushes. Stoytcho apparently spent the three seconds ouf our encounter desperately searching for a nearby stick, so yay, survival skills.

Chipmunks

There are tons of Siberian chipmunks (Eutamias sibiricus) along the paved trail into the park because people feed them. I can’t comment on the ecological stability of this, but can say that the Russians know how to feed their animals. Everyone brings sunflower or other seeds for them, and any attempts to give them bread are met with strange looks. So at least the chipmunks won’t get diabetes. If you bring your own packet of seeds, you can get the chipmunks to eat out of your hand.

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Squirrels

Strangely, squirrels are much rarer than the chipmunks. We encountered this red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) along the paved trail into the park. It was pretty skiddish, though it feasted on the same sunflower seed bounty that its chipmunk cousins loved.

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Birds

We’re not well versed in birds, though we did recognize when we stumbled too close to a hawk or eagle nest and the thing just wouldn’t shut up. If you visit Stolby, though, the most common bird you’ll see is the great tit (Parus major). It’s a pretty yellow and gray bird that also partakes in the bounty of seeds visitors bring. If it’s early summer, you might also see a fun show of adolescent birds demanding to be fed by their parents, despite the fact that they can already fly.

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Snakes

We saw a snake! Tally one to our sightings of snakes on the trip so far (this number is around a woeful 3 or 4). This one was crossing the paved path on the way into the park. My tentative guess on the species would be Elaphe dione, the Steppe ratsnake, according to a nature guide of animals in Transbaikalia.

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Biting Bugs

It’s summer and the biting bugs are definitely abundant. Besides mosquitoes, two things to watch out for are horseflies and ticks. The horseflies have bites that hurt like hell, while the ticks here can transmit some kind of encephelitis. Yay.

We found two ticks in four days of hikes, so they’re pretty common. The first was on Stoytcho’s clothing while hiking the (blue?) loop trail to all of the climbing rocks. The second was on me. We climbed part of Manskaya Stenka on the purple trail and on the way back down, while clinging to tree roots I felt a tickle on my belly. I freed one hand and pulled my shirt up to find a tick crawling its way across my stomach. Fighting the frantic urge to flail, I kept one hand on the tree root and used the other to flick it off and FAR away.

So yeah, watch out for ticks.

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Other (more fun) bugs

There are a plethora of bugs in Stolby that don’t bite and can be downright lovely. You’ll encounter a lot of beetles on your hikes, with the largest and most common being black-colored scarabs that shimmer iridescent blue in the sunlight:

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Then there are a variety of ants, including the near-universal golden carpenter ant and ‘farmer’ ants that tend to their flocks of aphids:

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I had no idea what these insects were–they’re probably some kind of nymph and not the mature adult–but they would cluster together on railings along the trail. When disturbed, they would shiver and scatter in unison:

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Here’s a cute little ladybug sporting reverse colors:

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And lastly, snaaaaails!

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Salticids along the Salkantay Trail

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A jumping spider (Frigga spp.) from day 3 of our hike

I really like spiders. They’re interesting animals, from their web-building to their role in eating what we humans generally consider pests (like mosquitoes). They exist nearly everywhere in the world, and there are tons of species, so there’s always something new to learn. But a lot of people don’t like spiders, and I understand that. But hear me out below.

Jumping spiders (salticids) are the adorable stars of the spider world. And while the words “jumping” and “spider” together might horrify you, it’s not as scary as you might think. Jumping spiders are small, nonaggressive, and none of them (as far as I know) are venomous enough to seriously hurt you. You can play with them, as they’re highly sensitive to motion and will react to you putting a finger (or stick, or leaf) near them by jumping on it or jumping away. And their huge eyes make them really cute. Seriously, they’re so cute that I’ve already helped one person conquer their fear of spiders through observing them. So if you’re currently not keen on spiders, jumping spiders might be your chance to see spiders in a new light.

And if you’re already an enthusiast of Salticidae, welcome! Hope you like the pictures, and if you’ve got any identification information please pass it along here or on Project Noah (a website dedicated to cataloging images of all life on Earth).

Lastly, the Swedish word for jumping spider is…’hoppspindlar’. Yes, it is. No, I’m not making this up.

Before the Salkantay Pass

We didn’t encounter many jumping spiders on this side of the pass, although that might be the result of us hiking as quickly as possible and not taking many breaks. We did see this little guy at Parador Hornada Pata. He was stubborn and retreated before we could take any good photos:

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After the Salkantay Pass

Our first jumping spider on the north side of the Salkantay Pass showed up on the trail after Wayramachay, probably at around 2,800 feet. This little lady was shy and trying to avoid the sun, so getting a good picture is hard:

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Hiding out from the sun
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Looking right at us

We saw nearly half a dozen jumping spiders in the span of an hour at Winaypocco, in the valley of river Santa Teresa/Salkantay. All of these seem to be in the genus Frigga, which live throughout South America (and a bit of Central America). We managed to get good pictures of three of them:

Frigga spp. #1

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This spider is looking up at my finger
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The spider checks out a tiny mite (yellow smudge) that crawls by next to her
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Just before hopping off into the underbrush

Frigga spp. #2

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Nice lunch you got there, spider-friend.

Frigga spp. #3

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I got this one to jump onto a leaf for easier photography
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He didn’t have much patience, though, and quickly hopped off into the grass
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What he looks like, mid jump
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These shots are just four of about thirty for this particular spider. They’re sprightly and can be hard to photograph.

These are the references I used to ID the above species:

Reference 1

Reference 2

Wikipedia page (for where they normally live)

Animal Shenanigans: a Case of the Mondays

“Hey. Hey wake up. It’s 7:30 and you’ve got that meeting at 8:15”

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“I…uh…What? What time is it? Like, where am I even? Is this real?”
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I have a meeting. Right…meeting…okay, I’ll get up…
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Yeah, up…getting. Yeah…yeah…yeahnoooooo I can’t do it. I just can’t.
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Look, can you call them up and tell them I’m sick or something? I’ve, uh, got flipperitis. Of the flipper. 
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And now I’m at the hospital and everything is terrible, and that I’m sorry I couldn’t make it, but please ask for their thoughts and prayers as I go into the surgery room for flipperitis….oh, it’s so terrible…
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….think they’ll buy it?
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No?! UGHHHHHHH I DON’T WANNA GET UP.

I feel you, sea lion.

Animal Shenanigans: Awkward Booby Says Hi

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The blue-footed boobies have it rough. After all, they’re called boobies, and they got that name from the Spanish for their ineptitude while on land. (So, uh, thanks Spain for a 100+ years of boobies jokes.)
But what if you’re not only a booby, but the awkward booby? Well, we found him and this what his* life is like.
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Ok, ok. These are the cool birds. I just gotta act real smooth and say hi. Then they’ll think I’m cool,  right?
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Ok, just turning my head slowly. Act cool, act cool…ok, ready?
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“HI GUYS!!!”
I give him points for trying, at least.
*In this case I CAN say with high confidence that this bird is a guy. Turns out you can tell a booby’s gender by the size of the bird’s pupils, so bring that to your next dinner party conversation.

Fifteen Photos: Life on the Galapagos

Bonus post! While digging through the landscape photos that went up here, I also put together an album of life on the Galapagos, from animals, to people, to patterns in the nature here. Enjoy!

Animals

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A blue-footed booby on North Seymour Island
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A curious mockingbird on Isabela Island
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A tortoise on Isabela Island
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A lava lizard on Santa Cruz Island
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A marine iguana on Fernandina Island
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A dead marine iguana mummified by the sun on Fernandina Island

Patterns

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The blue sky over Floreana Island
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The pink-orange waters in a salt flat on Santa Cruz Island
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Anemones partially buried in sand on Floreana Island
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The skeleton of an Opuntia Cactus ear on Santa Cruz Island
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Coral and a sandscape on North Seymour Island

People

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Swimmers at Las Grieats, Santa Cruz Island
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A lava cactus and a tour group at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
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We stumble on a local hangout spot, Santa Cruz Island
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A distiller demonstrates the purity (and flammability) of his alcohol, Santa Cruz Island

Animal Shenanigans: Snake Goes Home

Compared to the iguanas, boobies, and sea lions, snakes aren’t as ubiquitous in the Galapagos. But they are still around. While touring Fernandina, we encounter one snake at the water’s edge, racing back to land across the lava flats before the tide comes in. She ignores our tour group and slithers her way over the rough lava flow.

As we watch, she encounters a ravine a couple of feet across and seems stymed. How will she cross it and get back to land?

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Then, she does something amazing. She stretches out into the abyss, attempting to reach the other side.
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She goes slowly, so she doesn’t stretch past her center of balance; doing so would send her tumbling into the chasm.For a human, this is the functional equivalent of doing some seriously intense planking. In a couple of minutes, our snake is less than an inch from the other side.
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But it’s juuust too far for her to reach without toppling over. She withdraws, slithering away along the cliff edge. She’ll have to find another way across.
We spot our snake a few minutes later, slithering down the edge of the cliff in a small crevice to control her descent.
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She’s down and across in seconds, like it’s nobody’s business. Then it’s off across the sand, back to her home for the evening.
From a little bit of internet detective work, I’ve identified this snake as a Galapagos racer, probably Alsophis dorsalisIt’s one of three snake species native to the Galapagos, and recently got a lot of hate thanks to a clip that aired on BBC’s Planet Earth II. It’s easy to demonize snakes and our culture does it a lot, so hopefully the story above shows people that snakes are like any other animal. They go about their days trying to get food, get a mate, and get home.

Animal Shenanigans: Mom and Pup

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The adventures of mom and pup on Fernandina Island.

 

Part I: Mom gets defensive

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“Hey mom I think that sea lion over there wants to come say hi.”
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“Hello, is this your pu-” “I’LL BITE YOUR FACE OFF”
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“Wow, you sure scared him off…uh…thanks, mom.”*

Part II: Cuddle Time

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Zzzzz….
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*fwp* “Flipper deployed. Commence cuddle time.”
*Mom might seem overly defensive here, but given the huge amount of infanticide that occurs in animals, she’s in the right.