2020 “HANGING OUT WITH ANIMALS” Calendar – October Story

A very sociable young gal indeed!

More like “Sad” Penguin

Before I type anything else, I have to apologize for not having this post up on the blog for nearly the whole month of October. On September 23 I managed to take a nasty fall which resulted in, among other things, a small fracture in the radial neck of my right (of course it’s my dominant) arm. As difficult as that injury made it to type, it was even more difficult to simply sit at the PC for any length of time, even to gather photos together with the mouse in my left hand. As I slowly began to heal enough to spend some time at my desk, I had to put this post on the back-burner for a week or so while I finalized next year’s calendar if I was going to create one at all. That’s now completed and already doing incredibly well, sales-wise; it’s finally time to turn my attention to this late post and then immediately put together November’s version so at least that one will not be late.

There is one upside to this delay, though: during the month of October, Crystal left the Toronto Zoo for African Lion Safari. This is information I obviously would not have had in late September, so there you go.

Snowy owls in 2014

When I first started Volunteering at the Toronto Zoo, there were two snowy owls in the exhibit: a male named Bob and a female whose name I certainly knew back then but cannot for the life of me recall now. I believe she passed away on Christmas later in the year I took this photo; Bob was there for a few years after that. He had one damaged eye but I heard so many “explanations” as to how it became damaged that I never truly found out which was correct. There used to be a sign at the exhibit, though, which informed visitors of the issue, because it could be quite disconcerting to see an owl with one eye wide open and the other one just squinting at you every time you visited. Well, almost every time: in the photo above you can see that both of Bob’s eyes were more or less closed because he was sitting in brilliant sunlight, unlike his mate. Note the size and colour differences between them. Female snowy owls tend to have a very speckled pattern (as opposed to the almost-pure-white of most males) because they need to blend into the scenery when they sit on the nests. As the Arctic is above the tree line, these nests are close to the ground and are often surrounded by dirt and rocks, and not just snow. This (defending the nest) is also why the gals are bigger than the lads.

My first glimpse of Crystal

It seems impossible to me that I did not take any more photos of Bob (or his partner) but for the life of me I cannot find any in my collection. The next shot I seem to have taken of any snowy owl is this one of Crystal, about two weeks after she moved to the exhibit. Bob left on June 21, 2017 on loan to Mountsberg Raptor Centre in Hamilton, ON. (I don’t see his photo on their current site, so I have no idea of his current status.) On the same day, Crystal arrived (apparently unnamed, according to our news reports) from the African Lion Safari in Cambridge, ON. During her month-long quarantine in Toronto she turned three years old and was absolutely adorable when we first got to see her. Well, she remained adorable to the last time I saw her; I just meant to say that the previous pair had been a bit older and less precocious, but Crystal seemed to always be doing something interesting.

I adore those fluffy feet!

Crystal did not respond to her name per se, but she did seem to react when people were visiting her – especially voices. She was quite a ham, too, and I took this photo just before her first Christmas in Toronto, as she was playing in the fresh snow in her exhibit, including picking up and stomping down her feet, She could have possibly been hunting; it could have been a precursor to grooming; but from where I stood it looked as if she was simply just enjoying one of the first big snowfalls of the season. And although she was cute any time of year, when she fluffed herself up against the cold she was positively adorable:

Beautiful feathers and piercing eyes

Here is a post the Toronto Zoo made just two days before I shot the above photo:

That same winter (2017-18) there was an “irruption” of snowy owls in Southern Ontario and people were spotting them everywhere around us. When I could not get anyone to tell me where they were finding the owls they were grabbing shots of, I got fed up. So one afternoon in early February, around 4 pm, I just decided I was going to go out and look for one myself. Somehow, I rather arrogantly just knew I would be successful! So I did a quick Google search for any previous sightings that had been reported over the past few years, and settled on Frenchman’s Bay in Pickering as a likely spot. So I drove over there, parked, walked down to the water, then turned right and went along the path that direction. I could have parked anywhere down there; I could have chosen any path in any direction. But I chose that path. And, 10 minutes after arriving, I saw my first ever snowy owl in the wild. And, because of who I am, I wasn’t even surprised.

Oh, hi, Crystal! Am I bothering you?

I visited Crystal often over the next few years and often enjoyed just standing in front of her enclosure, watching her react to the world around her. Grooming, listening, eating, playing, snoozing, whatever she did was of interest to me and, when I was alone with her, it was almost Zen-like. But the one thing I almost never heard her do while I was there with was talk. She was not even slightly chatty with me. So it was a real surprise when I heard a couple of Volunteers tell me that they had always found Crystal to be chatty, especially when they led tour groups to see her! Finally, on a gorgeous early fall day in October of last year, I brought a school group around the Tundra, and sure enough Crystal spoke to us – not once, but several times. I have no idea why it took that long, but I was thrilled she was so precocious that particular day. And when my tour was done, I changed out of my uniform, grabbed my camera, and hustled back to see her. And that’s how, on October 2, 2019, I took the shot of Crystal that ended up on the 2020 calendar.

And it was literally the last shot I ever took of her.

Not sleeping, just checking what to groom next

At some point shortly thereafter, the Zoo began preparing the Tundra for our Terra Lumina walkthrough, which opened in December. Most of the animals seemed to get used to the stepped-up activity level pretty quickly, but it seems (at least this is how I heard it) that Crystal was particularly bothered by it and was moved off exhibit. Given that she was apparently housed in the Wildlife Health Centre for a few months, though, I am not sure I have completely accurate information about this. What I do know is on February 5 of this year Crystal moved into the raven exhibit in the Kids’ Zoo (run by the Outreach and Discovery team). And then, on October 15, she was returned to African Lion Safari, more than a full year since I last saw her. Her previous exhibit on the Tundra, however, had been filled by a new resident since early in the summer, and he will feature prominently in next year’s calendar no matter where he is living at that time. Yes, that’s a teaser.

I will end this post with a small gallery of some of the other owls who have made the Toronto Zoo their home over the years I have been there, along with a couple of shots of Sarah and me during an amazing visit to a falconry last spring – a birthday present from her to me. In the meantime, I want to apologize once again for the delay in putting together this post… and now I must rush off to create November’s post, which will appear tomorrow morning. At least this time I will easily remember how to use the new WP Editor.

As always, thank you for dropping by. If you are so inclined, please check out my 2021 Calendars from which all the proceeds are going to the Toronto Zoo Wildlife Conservancy. See you next mon–er, tomorrow!