Me and My Llama

So this post has been a long time coming and it’s also a dream come true. I’m really going to let my freak flag fly here and let you in on a not very well kept secret: I love llamas. I mean, seriously, LOVE llamas. It borders on an obsession.

It all started when I was a small child. Sesame Street had segment that featured a little girl leading her pet llama through the streets of New York. They were heading to the dentist. Its soundtrack was an up-beat song, “Me and My Llama.” I desperately wanted to lead my own llama through the streets of Philadelphia, and take him or her to the dentist, to the vet and maybe even a friend’s birthday party. I imagined it would make me the coolest girl on the block, with the coolest companion. I asked for a llama every Christmas for many years, yet Santa never managed to fit one in his sleigh. Years later, my mother confessed that she looked into what it would take to care for a pet llama, but alas, it was more than our backyard, or her patience, could support.

 

So when I got in the car on Sunday to drive out to Granby, MA to Pinetum Farm where Dave and Karen Seiffert own and run a llama farm, my excitement was palpable. I have certainly seen llamas before, at petting zoos, farms, etc. but I was overjoyed that I was going to spend some quality, one-on-one time with my favorite animal. Dave and Karen have owned llamas for about 15 years. They thought caring for llamas, and using their fiber for spinning and weaving would be a great way to spend their retirement (note to self). Since then they have become pseudo-llama celebrities appearing in the Boston Globe, the New York Post and event The Rachel Ray show.

Dave, Stone and Karen

Dave, Stone and Karen

The appeal was instant. “We fell in love with them, just like you,” Dave told me (I found my people!). Karen spoke about how peaceful llamas are, and how they are wonderful companions. “And they have eyelashes any woman would kill for,” she rightfully observed. Dave and Karen lead groups on hikes with the llamas on their 150-acre property. They also shear them and sell items that Karen makes out of their fiber in a small gift shop.

The llamas fiber that Karen uses to spin and weave.

The llamas fiber that Karen uses to spin and weave.

When we walked into the barn I started to giggle uncontrollably, and I think I said “This is so exciting” half a dozen times. While my reaction was not as much of a meltdown as when Kristen Bell met her favorite animal (a must-watch if you’ve never seen it), I could empathize with her near breakdown-producing excitement.

DSC_0031

I feel llamas get a bad rap because they occasionally spit. But as Dave and Karen told me, that is really just a defense mechanism. Llamas don’t like to be touched on their faces, so image how you would feel if a dozen elementary school kids approached you at a petting zoo, screaming and wanting to tug on your ears. I’d spit too. Because I wanted desperately for the llamas to like me I was a little nervous about touching their faces. Although I totally wanted to kiss their noses, I refrained and stuck to patting the soft down on their necks that hides under their so-called “guard hair” which is much coarser.

Stone is ready for his close-up

Stone is ready for his close-up

We hung out in the barn for a while where the females (and neutered males) are separated from the male, Honey Crisp (female llamas can get pregnant any time so they have to be kept apart). Then we put a harness on one of the Seiffert’s sweetest llamas, Stone. Just like the little girl from Sesame Street (sort of) I grabbed Stone’s leash and we walked up a hill to a knoll where he happily nibbled on grass, and I happily pet him as I tried to absorb all the llama knowledge that Dave and Karen were giving me. They were right, Stone was so sweet. And I think he really liked me too.

Just like the Sesame Street video...

Just like the Sesame Street video…

 

Me and my llama

Me and my llama

I was surprised to hear that Llamas don’t take that much attention. Dave spends about an hour in the morning and night feeding and taking care of them. They are sheared about once every-other year, although that can be more often depending on if a llama is pregnant (they can get over heated) or how fast their hair grows. Dave and Karen hike with them, but they are also content to just hang out with each other in the barn.

I’m not saying my next passion in life is to own a dozen llamas (That would be bad, right? Talk me out of it…), but it was so fun to spend the afternoon with these awesome animals (not to mention their amazing owners) and to see that they really lived up to all my hype.

If only my apartment building allowed pets…

I don't know who's more excited me or the llama

The llama wasn’t quite as excited to see me as I was to see her

 Many thanks to Dave and Karen Seiffert for allowing me to spend the afternoon with them and their llamas. If you love llamas as much as I do (although I’m not sure that’s possible), or are looking for a fun activity with kids check out their llama hikes! I was not compensated for this post in any way.

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Playing Hard to Get

Nothing says summer like the 4th of July, fireworks, ice cream and fireflies (or lightning bugs if you prefer). I have such warm childhood memories of these glowing insects; summer nights spent catching them while playing with neighbors. We must have done a lot of gymnastics while we tried to catch them, because I also associate fireflies with my 30-year (and counting) struggle to execute a good cartwheel. But I digress.

When I was asked last year if I would like to experience and write about life as a firefly tracker I thought it would be nostalgic, and relatively easy. Boy was I wrong. This week’s post has been a year in the making.

I first interviewed Don Salvatore, a science educator at The Museum of Science, Boston last June. He runs the museum’s Firefly Watch program where nature lovers, and the rest of us, can take part in studying these blinking beetles by observing and entering data online to create a national database. With this program, “everyone can get involved with science,” Salvatore told me at the time. He opened my eyes to the fact that the color, duration and frequency of their flashes indicates the type of firefly it is plus their gender. It was illuminating…in more ways than one!

Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science Boston

Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science Boston

Armed with this information (which can also be found on the Museum of Science’s website) and a notebook for documenting my findings, I set out to see if I had an inner nature tracker in me. What could be better than spending a summer night outside, with fireflies (and maybe a glass of wine)? Well, I ended up having to set out many, many, many more times than anticipated to find these critters.

I tried to find them last summer in a variety of spots: Avalon, NJ, Quincy, MA, Greenwich, CT and Newport, RI. Each time I sat outside (in fields, marshes, even bird sanctuaries) from dusk until dark looking for fireflies. Sometimes I had company (my mother, aunt and a collection of friends all came along for these hunts), but each outing was marked by a serious lack of fireflies, and an abundance of frustration. While they seemed omnipresent in the summers of my youth, they seemed to be playing hard to get in 2012.

Despite half a dozen outings specifically to observe fireflies, I only saw them once, under less that optimal conditions. I was at a backyard party at a friend of a friend’s house in Connecticut the second week of July. I saw fireflies in the bushes at the edge of the yard, and slowly walked away from my conversation and towards the shrubs as if in a trance. Then I realized that I would hate for my friend to have to explain why her tag-along guest was crawling around in the bushes. “Oh, that’s just the sort of thing that Emily does,” I could hear her saying by way of explanation. I let myself be absorbed back into the party, figuring they would certainly turn up again that summer. They did not.

When summer 2013 rolled around I was determined to find fireflies! Nature had challenged me to a battle of fwaits…if not wits…and I would not go down without a fight.

So far this season I have spent many an evening sitting on a bench along the Charles River or in Boston’s Public Garden, waiting for the bugs to show themselves, and specifically show their glowing butts. I must have looked like a complete weirdo, sitting at attention on these benches, staring purposefully around, yet at nothing in particular, camera in hand. Still I came up empty.

So this past week, while spending some time with my family in Avalon, New Jersey I decided I would give the fireflies one more chance to be a part of this blog. In yet another example of their endless support of me (and this blog), my mom and dad came out with me at dusk to search for the elusive creatures. We stood near a marshy area, as it got increasingly dark. Now, instead of standing alone purposefully staring at nothing, I had safety in numbers; we all looked insane in the membrane. After waiting around for what seemed like hours we had not found a single firefly, but we did encounter numerous mosquitos.

My parents are such troopers for standing in the dark with me...

My parents are such troopers for standing in the dark with me…

We decided to drive to another part of the island to a bird sanctuary to give it one more chance. This time we stayed in the car (I was seriously being eaten alive) after five minutes my mom yelled, “I see a light!” as if we had won the lottery. We jumped out of the car as if it was on fire and ran towards the few tiny flickers in the foliage. We started counting minuscule rapid-fire bursts of greenish light (it looked like they were having some sort of seizure). There were also a few with slow and steady flashes as if they were keeping time by metronome. But if I remember fireflies liking me as a child and hanging out for a bit, 30 years later they have wised-up and after about two or three minutes they flew away and the three of us were left alone in the darkness again.

I’ll admit, I did feel a sense of accomplishment. We had persevered and finally seen a handful of fireflies, although, when I started the hunt last summer I though I would have collected more than two minutes of data. As many of you have read here, my mother has a lot of experience with animals. So she and I analyzed the charts that detail the color and frequency of their flashes and determined that our rapid-fire finds were male, and of the punctatus species of fireflies and our slower friends were of the marinellus species. “This is all very exciting,” my mom said. A year in the making, but yes, exciting indeed.

When I went back to the museum’s website to submit my data I was comforted to see that there is a theory that firefly numbers are dropping, so it’s not just that they don’t like me. I’m glad I’m finally able to cross firefly hunting off my bloggy to-do list, and I can safely say that my next passion in life is not collecting data on lightning bugs…but it may just be my mom’s.

Thank you to Don Salvatore from the Museum of Science in Boston. You too can get in on the firefly watch, and I wish you more luck than I had.

Busy As A…

Edwin’s seven hived on the roof of the Seaport Hotel

Fear, anger, anxiety.  Bees can elicit a variety of emotions in people, depending on your experience with them, your allergy status, or your feelings about insects in general. For Edwin Medrano, the Executive Steward at the Boston Seaport Hotel they are one of the best parts of his job. About a year and a half ago, with the desire to green, the Seaport Hotel decided to harvest honey and herbs on-site to shrink the gap from “farm” to table. Edwin was told he would be managing the bees. At first, with English as his second language, he was confused. Did they say bees? In downtown Boston? Yes, they did so Edwin started learning everything he could about bees, hives and honey.

Me in an utterly attractive beekeeping jumpsuit

He started out with two hives on the roof of the Seaport Hotel and when I joined him one recent afternoon, that number had grown to seven. Before we met the bees, I had to be outfitted appropriately. I arrived, fresh from work in a sleeveless sun dress; obviously this was not going to work. Edwin helped me step into a pair of white coveralls, then put on a jacket that had a helmet with face net attached to it and finally he helped me wiggle my hands into long gloves. As we walked out on to the roof I was surprised by the volume of the communal buzzzzz that was emanating from the bee’s corner of the rooftop (to hear for yourself watch the video at the bottom of the post). It was as if I walked into a wall of sound that was in some ways hard to ignore, but eventually eased into a type of white noise background sound to my beekeeping lesson.

I wasn’t scared, I was actually very calm, even while I sat just a few feet from hundreds, maybe thousands of bees, listening to Edwin and taking notes. Even before I put the net helmet over my head, I watched the bees swarm around their hives — which resembled a narrow chest of drawers — and me, but I didn’t step back or swat them away. I just wasn’t worried, they seemed to be happily doing their own thing. Edwin explained how he got the hives started and how he cares for the bees, feeds them and how he lets them “fly.” The bees come and go as they please, buzzing to visit nearby trees and flowers, but they always return to the Seaport’s roof and their particular hives. Bees are very loyal creatures and will always return to their home, and their queen.

Edwin and his bees

Edwin feeds the bees a sugar solution and checks on them daily. Beekeeping is a lot about maintenance and anticipating what the colonies need to thrive, multiply and produce honey. We opened up each of the hives and Edwin gently pulled out the frames to see what the bees were up to. Each frame serves as staging ground for both larva development and honey production, and it was interesting to see these two different things happened so close together. As the saying goes, these bees are busy. Some of the frames already had honey in them and Edwin let me try some, complete with the honeycomb. Following Edwin’s instructions, I swallowed the very fresh honey and chewed the comb like it was gum. Eventually when the comb lost its flavor I was told to spit it out, which would have been fine had I remembered I was wearing a net over my face.  Needless to say it was a messy moment.

Edwin and I calmly worked our way around the bee’s corner of the roof, checking each hive, looking for their queens, with the constant buzz of the bees as the soundtrack to our afternoon.

Busy as a…you know what

If you can stay calm while bees crawl all over you, beekeeping can be a very serene activity. Watching how busy the bees are made me slow my normally exhaustive pace, and forced me to just be there in that moment, watching them, feeling the sun on my oh-so flattering jumpsuit. Maybe I stayed calm and relatively still because there were bees all over me, but whatever the reason, it felt nice to just exhale and be present.

Edwin and I tended to the bees, but with the exception of one  mouthful, no honey was harvested. Edwin’s goal for this year is to harvest 300 to 500 pounds of honey to be served and sold at the hotel. He invited me to come back when he harvests his next batch next month, so stay tuned for my next sweet and sticky adventure!

Honey!

Many thanks to Edwin Medrano and the Boston Seaport Hotel for allowing me to meet his bees. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

For The Birds

With Mother’s Day just a few days away, I decided to celebrate by trying out my own mother’s passion and see if that old adage of the apple never falling too far from the tree is true. In fact, it is clear that my apple fell a substantial distance from my mother’s tree, so I knew this adventure was bound to be a very interesting experiment.

In the past I have described my mother as quirky on the pages of this blog, but I am not sure if that adequately describes my loving mother.  She is a newly retired professor and occupational therapist, who dedicated a great deal of her life to helping individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities. She is also an animal lover, who raised my brother and me not to be squeamish – and in fact, to love – all animals, including slimy ones such as insects, lizards, snakes and other creatures that typically make people squeal, or jump on top of chairs.  The fact that we pick bugs up and release them instead of squashing them is a point of pride for her. Having said that, just this past weekend she observed, “Emily, we are very different people.” And she is correct.

Since retiring, my mom has stepped-up her volunteering at the Schuylkill Center’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic and she loves it.  I will never forget how giddy she was when she got vaccinated for rabies. She was not giddy from relief after being bitten by an aggressive, rabid animal, but giddy out of excitement, because now she could work with raccoons at the rehab center. As she animatedly told me over the phone, “many wonderful animals are susceptible rabies!”

Fankie the goat and the center’s roosters

The Schuylkill Center accepts all sorts of sick, injured or orphaned animals in need including birds, possums, bunnies, squirrels, ducklings, goslings,  raccoons, hawks, turtles and recently a celebrated bald eagle. A baby chihuahua with cleft palate, and an abandoned goat have recently ended up there as well.  Frankie, the goat, now serves as unofficial mascot for the center.  He hangs out outside with the chickens and roosters and occasionally head-butts visitors (or maybe just me).

Early one morning this past weekend when I was home in Philadelphia for a visit, she took me with her to feed injured and abandoned birds. The bird room is small, with many of the newborn birds in an incubator.  Older birds who are self-feeding are in mesh, cloth cages, so after changing their cages and getting them fresh food they were good to go.  But the newly hatched birds have to be hand-fed and their nests cleaned, once an hour. This is even more attention than a newborn human requires! This task sounded daunting when we arrive bright and early at 8:00 a.m. and the fact that our shift didn’t end until noon, made me thing that maybe I had made a mistake, and would have preferred to spend my morning in bed.

As we got started, my mom demonstrated and talked me through how to feed the birds (she has been trained to handle most of the animals at the center). She mixed up some green goop the color of guacamole and the consistency of french salad dressing that she said is the perfect diet for songbirds. She loaded it into a syringe-like vessel and demonstrated how to stick it down the birds’ throats when they are gaping and squeeze the songbird food in.

My mom feeding a little finch

Birds instinctively gape, and in the wild that is when their mothers feed them from their own mouths. You have to place the syringe far down their throats and bypass their air hole. This all sounded way too complicated, and rather scary. I was very worried that I would choke my new feathered friends so at first I just watched and practiced making clean nests for them out of toilet paper–part of the cleaning process. My mom fed finches, wrens, starlings and a just-hatched robin that resembled an alien or a mystery creature from a horror movie.

My mother also cut meal worms in half and fed them to the wrens using forceps. She apologized to me before she cut the worms, because she had always been very vigilant that we don’t kill living creatures, but in this case it was to feed another living creature so I guess these were special circumstances.

After the first hour of feeding it was time for me to participate. I started with the finches and was hesitant at first – concerned that I would hurt them. But just as my mom assured me, they knew what to do. The birds gaped just as they do with their mothers, and I moved the syringe very close to their mouths.  Before I knew it, my little finch gobbled up the syringe and all I had to do was push the plunger – just a little at a time.  Voila!  I had fed my first bird!

Me feeding my new feathered friend

These rounds of feeding continued for hours, but by the time I started feeding the birds myself the time was flying by. The activity is the definition of “therapeutic,” therapeutic for the birds (obviously) but also for the humans. You can’t really stress about work, or your ever-expanding to-do list if you are concentrating so completely on placing tiny mutilated (for a good cause) meal worms in to the mouths of baby birds at various levels of development and dependency.

I have frequently laughed about my mother’s devotion to these animals, but after spending time with them (the birds and my mom) I can see why she loves them so much. As I have gotten older there have been a plethora of moments, too many to count really, when I have realized that my mother is usually right. I shouldn’t have been so skeptical about animal rehab. Maybe the apple didn’t fall that far from the tree after all…

My mom also races Dragon Boats, maybe I’ll try that next!

Many thanks to Rick Schubert, Wild Life Rehabilitator, Director of Schuylkill Center’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic and the staff and volunteers of the Schuylkill Center for letting me spend a day observing and participating in all the amazing work they do. Additional thanks to my amazing mom.  She asked me not to use her name, she is not too sure about this world wide web, but she is a pretty special lady! I was not compensated in any way for this blog post.