Sunday, March 05, 2023

Snapping turtles and great blue herons

We went to the park on Tuesday morning—a miracle to leave the house before lunch!—bringing quite a lot of our school work with us.

Our first subject of the day was PE. I made the children run laps around the pond. They don't love doing it (especially Miriam) but they do love the results, which are that (a) they feel good after they run, (b) they're able to run longer and faster, (c) they're better at tag-like games because they can run longer and faster, (d) they seen improvement in their resting heart rates when they're regularly running (that last one is particular to Miriam, who is our only child with a FitBit).

I'm a pretty firm believer that it's silly to simply not do things just because you don't love doing them. If they're good things to do—eating vegetables, running laps, changing stinky diapers, washing dishes—you should continue to doing them even if they don't seem to bring you immediate joy...because they'll help prevent long-term issues. 

They might not like running, but they do want to have good cardiovascular fitness so...we run. 

I don't particularly enjoy running these days, either. Pushing a jogging stroller is hard work and it does not bring me joy. Phoebe likes to go fast. But I get tired out while pushing the jogging stroller way faster than when I'm not. But, Phoebe needs to do something while we jog, so I push her in the stroller.

I ran laps in the opposite direction as the children did, so I noticed from across the pond—with increasing concern—as my children dropped like flies after about a lap and a half. What was wrong? Had one of them been injured? Had they decided to stop and stretch?

I couldn't hear any screaming and figured that if something were truly wrong there would have been at least some screaming. And surely one of the kids would have run to me to tell me what was wrong (as they had when Benjamin threw up last week when we thought he had appendicitis). So, I just kept plodding along and eventually caught up to them, where I found they were just looking at a snapping turtle.

All caked in mud, he seemed to have just emerged from a muddy little hidey-hole. Whether he had just been casually wallowing or had been hunkered down for the cooler winter weather, I don't know, but he was caked in mud, slowly making his way from the little boggy area to the actual pond itself.

It was, fortunately, feeling pretty lethargic.

When I first arrived the kids were all much closer to it—Benjamin was even trying to feed it a piece of grass, waving a little nub of grass in front of its chompers—but they backed away pretty quickly when I told them that was a snapping turtle.

We watched this video of an alligator snapping turtle after we got home and Zoë kept saying, "Oh, my goodness, Ben! You were so lucky!"

Granted, we saw a common snapping turtle, not an alligator snapping turtle, but's probably best to avoid its bite. And now all the kids know how to recognize a snapping turtle from more docile turtles!

And Miriam realized how "turtlenecks" got their name—because our friendly little snapping turtle had its neck pulled in as far as it could (unlike other species, the snapping turtle can't pull its limbs or head very far inside its shell) and Miriam said, "Wow! Look at all that extra skin around its neck. It looks like it's wearing a turtleneck...wait a minute..."

After we'd exhausted our appetite for turtle observations, we finished up our run. 

On our third lap, Benjamin stopped me to point out what he'd originally thought was a mouse on the trail. Really it was a pellet. He asked if we could keep it, so on our very last lap (it was a very stop-and-go run, evidently), I dug a napkin out of the diaper bag and he picked it up. 

It was the biggest pellet I'd ever seen, so we figured right away that it wasn't from an owl. We've seen owl pellets and they're much smaller. And it wasn't from a hawk because we've seen those as well, and those were even smaller! This one was sizable so it must have come from a rather large bird.

Here you can see that it's about 4 inches long (compared to two smaller barn owl pellets...that we just happened to have on hand at spread the love of dissection amongst more children):

While we thought about what bird might have regurgitated a pellet that size we dove into schoolwork. Most of the kids brought math work to do. Rachel brought her American Heritage textbook.

While the big kids worked, Alexander and Phoebe enjoyed the sandbox. We'd even remembered to bring along sand toys!

Alexander was telling me about his castle construction plans and said, "And I'm going to use the butt-kiss to make tall towers!"

"You're going to use the what now?" I asked.

"The butt-kiss!" he repeated...and then I realized he was simply metathesizing a couple of phonemes and thus was really meaning to say "buckets."

Here's Phoebe making sure her feet are okay after getting them sandy:

Here you can see Benjamin has joined the little kids in the sand pit and Phoebe has zero reservations left about the sand. She loves it.

She's been obsessed with turning upside down lately, so she kept folding over to put her head on the sand.

So proud of having turned upside down!

I'm fairly sure she'll be turning somersaults within the next couple of weeks. She's got a solid downward dog and is so close to flipping over. She's a wild one!

Here's a turtle Miriam doodled in her math book (she also did some math)...

And here's Phoebe being a stinker about the swings. She's been refusing to sit in the baby swing lately and was screaming about me trying to put the harness on her in this swing. She is a very opinionated child.

Later, back at home...

We baked the pellet in the oven and then dissected it, to help us determine what animal might have made it. My best guess was a heron (because it simply didn't look like the vulture pellets I'd seen pictures of online) and we guessed we would find some aquatic animal remnants in the pellet. 

Here are Benjamin and I working on the mystery pellet:

Here's Zoë and Alexander working on owl pellets:

Rachel and Miriam opted to be the photographer/observer and baby tender/observer. Their loss. 

Anyway, rather than discovering any aquatic animal remnants instead we found what seemed to be...a squirrel (which...I be fair there was obviously a lot of fur in this pellet).

The bones were hefty—large femurs, stately vertebrae. This was no mouse or vole. 

Zoë is pretty sure she found a teeny little bird skull (and I reckon she's right).

Benjamin and I found what we're fairly certain is a squirrel jaw (we looked it up online; the teeth are pretty distinctive).

We found some flat bits of bone that I believe were crushed up it's not like we found an intact squirrel skull...but the jaw seemed to match what we saw online.

Here's Benjamin's squirrel skeleton reconstruction:

So we were still left puzzled over what animal could have produced this pellet. Owls and hawks were out because the pellet was too large. Eagles were floated, but we don't typically see a lot of large eagles around here. So while didn't seem probable. Vultures were a good candidate, but we don't usually see them in the park, either. They like to hang out by the pick up all the roadkill. 

Since we'd found it on the boardwalk by the pond, and because we'd seen great blue herons at the pond, it really felt like that was our best option.

But great blue herons are aquatic birds. Do great blue herons eat squirrels? 

Yes. They. Do. 

They just...swallow them whole. 

Here's a video of a great blue heron hunting gophers:

And here's another video of a heron eating a squirrel (the background dialogue is pretty funny— "He's literally eating a squirrel!" "What do you want me to do about it?" "Is this murder?"):

Anyway, we're pretty sure that our friendly neighbourhood heron caught a squirrel and swallowed it whole and then crushed it in its trash-compacting gizzard. And we missed all the action...but were at least "lucky" enough to stumble upon the after math.

So that was our science lesson on Tuesday.

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