Friday, July 27, 2012

Tiger Cubs!

I am sooooooooooo excited to finally be able to announce that we have 4 tiger cubs at the zoo!  They were born June 24th, so are just a month old.  First-time big cat moms are notorious for being bad mothers so we wanted to make sure everything was fine before a public announcement was made.  Fortunately, Kyra has been an excellent mom and the cubs appear to be doing well.  I am extremely lucky and get to work with the tigers every day.  I've watched the cubs go from blind and completely helpless, to opening their eyes at 2 weeks old, to scooting around on their bellies, to now starting to push up and actually walk on their legs.  It's been a very exciting month.  It will probably be several more weeks before the cubs are steady and sturdy enough to go outside on exhibit. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Birding with Scout

I have about 7 million things to do to prepare for Bowling for Rhinos in two weeks, but the much cooler temperatures today pretty much forced me to procrastinate and go birding. With Scout.

Kaylin went to a 2 day Farm Camp with her friend Zoe on Thursday and Friday. Today was milking day and the kids had to arrive at 6am.  Waking Kaylin at 5am was no treat, but she dragged herself out of bed and was ready when her ride arrived.  I was up and dressed and raring to go by the time I took Logan to Camp Zone at 7:15.  I thought that Scout would love to come along and would enjoy the ride.  I guess I also thought I had done a similar trip with him before, but I don't think that actually ever happened.  Scout whined the entire drive to Banner Marsh.  I felt like tossing him out of the car.  He got much happier when we got out of the car and started walking around.  Scout did eventually calm down and sleep during the drives and I changed my mind from NEVER AGAIN to next time.  We were gone 9 hours and other than the first one, he did great.

Today was egret day.  I saw hundreds or possibly even thousands of great egrets, cattle egrets and snowy egrets.  They were EVERYWHERE at Banner Marsh and Emiquon. I also saw lots of terns, an adorable young killdeer and my first of year bobolink.  Barn and tree swallows were thick.  I was impressed at the surviving numbers of mute swan cygnets this year.  I bet I saw three times as many as last year.  I was hoping to see a nice variety of sandpipers, but I saw one greater yellowlegs at Banner and that was it.  I was still thrilled with the variety of birds at Banner and Emiquon.  I then moved on to Chautauqua.  Lake Chautauqua was completely drained.  The North Pond had water, but practically no birds other than huge numbers of swallows and a small group of great egrets.  Whoop.  Chautauqua always seems to be a jackpot of birds or a huge disappointment- I don't think I've ever had a nice, mediocre visit.  I drove through Sand Ridge and was thrilled to FINALLY get my first of year ring-necked pheasant.  I saw it about a second after I pulled into the park and I don't recall seeing one other bird.  I moved on to Spring Lake to find hundreds of swallows and dozens of great blue herons and little else.  I wonder why one side of the river was teaming with birds and the other was dead?  I think I saw around 45 species and added at least three to my year list.  The second half was a bit disappointing, but it was a good trip.

It was too late to drive Scout home before picking Kaylin up from Farm Camp, so I took him with me.  He was overwhelmed by all the smells and animals.  The ducks kept stalking him, the sheep were afraid of him, the resident dalmatian wasn't thrilled with him, the cows were interested and followed him and the pigs liked him.  I was too scared to take him near the ponies, but I did get a glimpse of the adorable, tiny foal.  Kaylin had a blast!  She milked cows, led lambs around, gathered eggs, worked with the ponies, made butter and cheese, played in a corn crib and helped feed and care for all the animals.  She said it took 2 1/2 hours to milk the 90 cows and they have to do it twice daily.  Wow!  I can't imagine spending 5 hours a day, 365 days a year milking cows!  And then caring for several horses, chickens, ducks, pigs, cats, a dog and a LOT of sheep on top of it.  And I don't even know how many acres of crops they have!  That would be a busy life!  This year's camp was a Kaylin/Zoe thing, but I think Logan would love it and I hope to send him next year.

We left Farm Camp and went to pick Logan up at Camp Zone.  Scout got out with me when I went to sign Logan out, but he was so tired he barely reacted when the kids swarmed around to pet him.  He crashed when we got home and I assumed that after our big day he'd be out the rest of the night.  Nope.  He's playing neverending fetch with Gene as I type :)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Vacation Wrap-Up

My big idea was instead of driving an 11 hour marathon and getting home Wednesday night, driving 7 hours to Wisconsin Dells and spending the night at Great Wolf Lodge.  Everyone was fully on board.  We were in the Dells last year for the 4th and LOVED being in the middle of several fireworks shows put on by all the big resorts.  We had hoped to repeat that experience, but alas, fireworks were banned this year due to the dry conditions and risk of forest fire.  So THAT's why we were able to book a room!  Oh, well.

We made it to the water park by 4:30.  I took the kids and swam while Gene napped and got our room set up.  He brought us a pizza around 7:30 and then stayed with the kids.  I left the water park at 8:15 with the plan to shower and relax a bit before the water park closed at 9. We were then going to go to the arcade and to a light parade the Lodge was having in place of fireworks.  Well, I got out of the shower and instead of playing around on my computer, was so tired I went to bed and fell asleep. I don't know where the kids found their energy, but they did close the water park, go to the light parade and still play at the arcade before bed.  I don't know what time they got back to the room because I was completely zonked out.

Thursday morning I had considered driving up to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, but I was so tired and so tired of driving it didn't make sense to drive an hour each way to stay for an hour.  If I hadn't just been there two weeks ago, I might have felt differently, but this time it just wasn't worth it.  We hit the breakfast buffet, went to the arcade for a bit and then the kids swam from 9:30 to 11.  They were both VERY sad to leave, but Kaylin wanted to go to the Disney Store at the outlet mall next door and Logan wanted to go to the Cheese Store.  I wanted to be on the road by noon so we could be home in time to pick up the pets from boarding. It was weird and kind of sad to be in Wisconsin Dells for such a short time.  We agreed to try to go back for a 3 day weekend sometime before school starts.

We stopped at Fuddrucker's in Janesville for lunch and made it home with plenty of time to pick up the pets.  Scout came snooping out, not paying attention as usual, and when he finally looked up and saw us was incredibly excited and leaping on me to be picked up.  As usual, his little peanut brain got over the trauma of being boarded in about one second and he's happy to be home with the family. The cats were happy to be home and back together (they are boarded in separate kennels.)  They were really cute, laying together all evening.  I think we'll use the rest of our weekend before returning to work/camp to catch up on sleep and just rest.

Overall, the vacation was fun and we all enjoyed it.  The excessive heat put a damper on things and really reduced the time we spent in the Black Hills. The kids considered Badlands National Park a giant playground and would love to go back, but weren't that thrilled with Mt. Rushmore or anything in or around that area. I would have loved to have done many other things, but it was too hot to spend much time out of the car and too boring to spend so much time in the car. I doubt we'll ever repeat this trip, but I'm glad we did it once.  I'm also glad I didn't have to work this hot, hot week!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Still on the Road

Monday morning I went back to Badlands to bird while everyone else slept. My boss had given me the location of a prairie dog town where she had seen a burrowing owl several years ago and I wanted to check it out.  The road was right off the main loop, but was unpaved and the slowest, bumpiest 5 mile drive ever.  The day before we had seen pronghorns, deer and bighorn sheep, but didn't see bison.  I found the bison.  Lots and lots of them!  I also found lots of cool birds, including a blue grosbeak, a large flock of mountain bluebirds and an upland sandpiper with four adorable, fuzzy chicks.  It took me a while to identify that sandpiper because it was so unexpected, being up on a bluff surrounded by cliffs and grassy prairies and no bodies of water.  When I finally made it back to my target prairie dog town (which was huge and full of activity) it was full of bison and I didn't want to get out of my car to carefully scope for burrowing owls.  I guess when you're a spoiled brat who just saw four owls in one small area the day before, you just aren't as willing to put in the work for one possible owl.  Especially when you can't safely get out of the car.

I headed back to Wall and gathered the family for the final leg of our trip- the Black Hills.  We said goodbye to our beloved Basement Suite at the Econolodge and headed for Mount Rushmore.  We looked at the four big faces, hiked the trail that goes under them, went to the gift shop and saw one of the original drillers who was over 100 years old and was signing books and then left to eat lunch in (I think) Keystone.  Keystone was a mini version of Gatlinburg, with a strip of touristy shops and restaurants.  We headed to Rushmore Cave for a cave tour and zipline ride.  In the advertisements, the zipline appeared to go down a huge mountain.  In real life, it was ONE car that went from a hillside to the field below and then they also zipped you back up.  The line was probably 2 hours and the ride was way too lame-looking to be worth any wait!  We let the kids "pan for gems" with the money we saved.  They did the cave tour (that was full of crawls through small spaces I can't handle) while I reconciled the checkbook and entered lots of receipts.  We then headed for Custer State Park and the Wildlife Loop Trail.  This was probably the thing I had most looked forward to on the whole trip and I was a little disappointed.  I'm not sure why, because we saw tons of animals, including huge prairie dog towns, enormous herds of bison blocking the roads, bighorn sheep and lots of cool birds.  I guess I wasn't expecting the long, long, winding drives to get there.  We were all tired and hungry and grumpy when we finally made our way to the town of Custer and found another tiny hotel room in a Best Western for the low, low price of $130 including AAA discount.  We found a small grocery and bought some healthy food for dinner and the kids swam and swam. 

I got up early Tuesday morning and headed back to Custer State Park to bird at Sylvan Lake.  The lake was much smaller than I had expected, but the birding was fun.  I'm still working on identifying one tiny gray-streaked bird that I saw about 10 of.  I almost drove off a cliff trying to get a better look at a hawk that turned out to be a turkey vulture.  It was a fun couple of hours.

We had considered driving to Devil's Tower to say we'd been in Wyoming, but were all sick to death of driving.  We instead opted to drive the ~20 miles from Custer to the Wyoming border, get out just past the border and go back.  We've been to Wyoming for approximately 2 minutes!  We stopped back in Custer and Gene and the kids played mini golf while I replenished our stock of drinks and snacks.  We drove up to see the Crazy Horse monument and then went to the Reptile Gardens.  We skipped Bear Country because the temperature was over 100F.  We had been warned that hotel rooms would be scarce that night.  I would have liked to spend more time at Custer State Park, but Gene and the kids were done with it.  Everyone wanted more time at Badlands, so we said goodbye to the Black Hills and did the Badlands loop again.  We stopped at our prairie dog town and found 2 of the 4 burrowing owls.  The kids did some climbing and we headed east, across the long and boring state of South Dakota.  We pulled into Mitchell ~9pm and found a Comfort Suites with a "water park."  It has a pirate ship play structure and one water slide, but the kids had a blast.  Ironically, this hotel room is BY FAR the nicest AND the cheapest we've found.

Today...  Our options are limitless, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve.  We may possibly drive home tonight or we may stop at another destination.  I'll have to talk to my still-sleeping family. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Burrowing Owls!

Gene and the kids slept and slept and slept.  It seemed like it, anyway...  Kaylin opened her birthday presents and we FINALLY headed out around 10am.  Wow.  South Dakota is a looong state!  It seemed like we drove forever and the vast majority of the scenery was softly rolling grassy hills.  Sometimes you could look for miles without seeing a tree.  We stopped at the Corn Palace and laughed that an entire town was built around something so silly.  We drove to the point everyone was snippy and on the verge of losing our minds when BAM! The Badlands! 

To say we were impressed would be an understatement!  The scenery went from grass to endless "canyons" in two seconds.  The kids were thrilled they were allowed to climb on the hills.  I think we stopped at every pull-off with a parking area and also at some areas that just looked fun.  We climbed, took in the scenery and watched animals.  We stopped at the Visitor Center and got lots of water.  Every once in a while a bird would appear and make it on my year list.

My biggest bird goal for the trip was to see burrowing owls.  They like to hang out in prairie dog towns and use abandoned burrows.  I scanned and scanned prairie dog towns with no luck.  They were just too far away!  Then we happened upon a prairie dog town that had a dirt road we could pull off on.  We drove back among the prairie dogs and suddenly a cute little owl was standing right in front of us!  We didn't even need binoculars to see its yellow eyes.  And then we saw another.  And another.  And one more!  Four burrowing owls in one relatively small area!  I haven't looked it up yet to know if they actually live that close together or if this was a family group and the owlets hadn't dispersed yet.  I do know it was awesome and that Gene and the kids were almost as excited as I was.

We were all starving, so made our way into the town of Wall and found our most ridiculous hotel room yet before eating dinner at Wall Drug.  I had been looking forward to Wall Drug and it did not dissapoint!  What a crazy place!  Kaylin loved the rock and candy shops.  Logan found a South Dakota toy license plate for his collection and got soaking wet at the interactive fountain.  Gene and I got our picture taken on a giant jackalope and in front of the fake Mount Rushmore.  We all had a good time.  We then headed back to our Awesome 80s suite at the Econolodge.

There were 3 rooms left when I checked in.  A smoking room with 2 queen beds, an upper level suite and the Basement Suite that was substantially cheaper than the upper level one.  I chose the Basement Suite.  The front desk woman looked concerned and asked if I'd like to see it first?  Hmmm, I have NEVER been offered to look at a hotel room before renting it.  Especially not in a "cheap" chain. This room must be SPECIAL.  I WANT IT! Sight unseen.  Let's just say I wasn't disappointed and that if it wasn't such a long drive to the other places we want to see, I'd rent this suite a second night.  We swiped our room card at the back of a stairway as directed and then had to descend a long flight of stairs into the basement.  Our room was at the end of a small hallway.  We opened the door to a huge living/dining area with a hide-a-bed sofa, four chairs, tv, kitchen area with counter space and sink, dining table for 4, a good-sized bathroom and two large bedrooms, each with a queen size bed, a desk and a large closet.  The decor is straight out of the 80s and I love it.  The front desk woman was completely relieved that I got a AAA discount, but she couldn't have rented this room to more appreciative people.  Best. Room. Ever.  And the hotel even has a pool and free breakfast.

Well, it's light so I'm getting dressed and heading back to Badlands to bird for a bit while everyone else sleeps.  Then we're heading on to Mt. Rushmore.  So far, so good!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Mount Rushmore or Bust!

Happy 12th Birthday to my amazing, creative, brilliant, beautiful daughter, Kaylin!  You are one of the best and brightest people I've ever known and I am lucky to be your mom.  Keep being your crazy, unique self; I love you!

We are having some strange luck with hotels so far on our vacation.  We left home Friday after Gene got home from work with the goal to drive as far as possible so we could get to the zoo in Omaha close to opening on Saturday.  After encountering a torrential thunderstorm and an accident that kept us parked on the interstate for 45 minutes, we stopped in Dink Town, Iowa around 11pm.  There were many hotels to choose from.  We tried 3 and they were all full!  We tried the AmericInn on the way out of town and got their last room- a room with a king bed, a jacuzzi and a fireplace for the low, low price of $125 including our AAA discount.  Logan slept in a roll-out bed and Kaylin on the floor next to the behemoth jacuzzi.  We laughed and laughed at our bad/good luck and all woke up stiff and sore from our uncomfortable beds or sleeping arrangements.  We of course didn't use any of our "extras" because our whole point was to sleep.

We had an easy drive to Omaha and made it to the zoo around 10am.  It's one of my all-time favorite zoos and we had a great time.  Fortunately, most of the exhibits are indoors, so the heat wasn't too awful.  The highlight of the day was a baby sea lion that was born in early June, so was less than a month old.  It was hilarious watching it gain the courage to dive into the water and then swim around screaming for mom.  I love baby animals, but this was one of the cutest I've seen and the most fun to watch.  We happened to visit during "Moo at the Zoo" and had a chance to see many varieties of dairy cattle, the kids got to milk a fake cow and then play all kinds of games to win cheesy prizes.  We took a sky ride to see the antelope section of the zoo and left around 3:30pm. 

Our driving goal was to spend the night in Sioux Falls so the kids could swim and we all could relax.  We passed a billboard advertising a Ramada with an indoor water park.  Perfect!  Until we got there at 5:30pm and encountered a line of about 50 softball players.  Yikes!  We then checked hotel after hotel until we found an incredibly expensive room with 2 DOUBLE beds for even more than we paid for our "luxury suite" the night before.  The kids swam and we had a late (for us) dinner at Gene's favorite burger joint- Fuddruckers.  It was ~8:45 when we finished and we set out for Falls Park to surprise the kids with their nightly laser light show.  I had grabbed a Sioux Falls guide to read while the kids were swimming and found this.  I thought it would be awesome.  Fail.  The falls themselves were beautiful and the park was fantastic.  The kids had a blast climbing all over the rocks and playing by the water.  Then the laser show started.  It was not the Pink Floyd laser extravaganza I was expecting.  It was a really (REALLY) long history lesson projected onto the side of a barn.  Crappy, lame laser characters spoke to us about the ENTIRE history of Sioux Falls and seemingly every mayor between the years of 1837 and present.  It lasted nearly an hour and I seriously thought Logan was going to start crying he was so bored and tired.  To anyone passing through Sioux Falls- the falls and Falls Park are beautiful and not to be missed, the laser show is boring and should be considered punishment.

Today we're sleeping in and then heading west to Bad Lands National Park.  We'll probably stop at the Corn Palace and Wall Drug.  My goal is to find lodging near the park and then go birding by myself tomorrow morning while everyone else sleeps.  With the luck we've had finding a room, I won't hold my breath.  Despite the crazy throngs of vacationers, we are having a great time and are all looking forward to Mount Rushmore.  Maybe we'll find a parking spot at a rest area to sleep :)