Have spent the last three weeks in Sysma, Finland, writing, drinking Christmas beer, and learning how to sauna. You can read my little blog on the Villa Sarkia website :)
Today I got to tag along on a field trip into the forest with the small mammal team. They had three skunks in the special traps they'd laid out, baited with strawberry jam and sardines. Their job today was to release two of them, and replace the GPS collar of the other.
To be able to change the skunk's collar, they had to sedate him. That meant squeezing him down to the end of the trap with burlap, to stop him from spraying and keep him still enough to be injected. While they swapped the collar, they also took the opportunity to weigh him, check him over, and go through his fur with a nit comb for fleas. Even the fleas are of interest to the team -- they catch them in a little envelope and take them back to headquarters.
For the next two weeks, I'll be writer-in-residence in the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest! I'm in love already.
I met Yeti yesterday, a young orphaned elephant who was caught in a snare two years ago. A young biologist from the Wildlife Conservation Society showed me her ankle where she’d been caught, still pink and scarred. But now Yeti’s fight is a parasite in her belly. She’s been very unwell with it and last week had no appetite at all, very sad for a young elephant who should be fat and strong. But yesterday, Yeti seemed full of energy. She’s eating again, lots of milk and supplements (which seem to be thick stems covered in some tasty nutty stuff), and hopefully she’ll be fully on the mend soon, though she still needs lots of help.
By the fire tower, above the bush with the paddle green leaves, and somewhere beyond the twin pale trunks, somewhere, in the dark brush, is a special bird.
“Pitta,” says Hari. “Pitta.”
He hurries to arrange his apparatus, a tripod and a strong telescope in a green cover, while he plays a recorded pitta call on his phone to try and tempt the bird forward, amplified with a bright blue speaker. When he stops the recording, he leans forward into the forest and cups his hands behind his ears. After a moment, the pitta responds with its own similar call, but faintly, as if he suspects it might be a trick. After repeating the process another three times, playing the recording, listening for the call, Hari has a good idea where the pitta bird is on the forest floor and aims the telescope.
“Just behind horizontal branch,” he says. “Pitta.”
When I look into the telescope I see only the horizontal branch, and not the pitta. Perhaps it’s camouflaged, or it only appears for Hari.
“I don’t see it,” I say, stepping gingerly away from the tripod.
“Here — head coming up and down,” says Hari and steps away again. I look and this time I wait. The bird calls again, and as he calls his orange juice head crowns over the horizontal branch with such a shock of colour that I think it’s lightning.
“Oh!” I say. The head disappears again beneath the branch. I try to peer around the rim of the telescope but the picture bends and becomes nonsense. I wait again, then the orange flash appears along with the call. This time the pitta keeps its head raised and I can see the where the bright orange crown fades to yellow, and then the sleek black mask over its black eyes.
When I look away from the telescope I don’t believe that the pitta bird is truly in the piece of forest in the front of us. For a start I can’t see it, or the horizontal branch, without the telescope and yet both are mere metres away. But also, in the telescope the bird is so perfect, its orange so jewel-like, its eyes so black, that it seems to have been caught there, preserved in glass.
[picture is not mine!]