Monday, December 27, 2010

Nature

It's that time again -- another taxidermy post. I'm finding that I really love to photograph taxidermy in its "natural" surroundings -- that is, mounted animals taken far away from their habitats, transplanted into a strange indoor setting.

To me, there are several distinct categories of taxidermy. There's exhibit museum taxidermy, which is often quite old but usually of good quality, and which usually displays the animals in their entirety. The mounts are accompanied by information of some sort, and are (generally) meant for the public to see. Another category is trophy taxidermy; these animals are "game" animals, hunted for meat and/or sport, and are mounted for personal enjoyment rather than scientific value. More often than not, herbivores (deer, pronghorns, antelopes, etc.) are displayed as shoulder mounts, carnivores (wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, etc.) as well as bears are displayed as full-body mounts or rugs, and birds and fish are mounted in their entirety.

Then, there's nature center taxidermy, an odd assortment of mounts that I think deserves its own category. Usually, these mounts are old and faded. They are often donated, and the skill with which they were constructed leaves much to be desired. I've come to find that nature center taxidermy is a strange mixture of hunting trophies, mounted roadkill, and unwanted museum specimens.

Today, we visited Kensington Metropark. After feeding the chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches, we went to the nearby nature center to warm up. It's a decently-sized building, with several interactive displays, a few live animals (reptiles, fish, and a beehive), and lots of taxidermy.

Crow

This crow was one of the better mounts on display. I found that most of the bird mounts were far more lifelike than their mammalian counterparts; taxidermists seem to have a tendency to mount mammals (especially carnivores) in artificially ferocious poses.

(Albino) Opossum

An albino opossum with a strangely humorous and inquisitive expression. It's standing high atop a display cabinet that features a mounted passenger pigeon.

Great-Horned Owl (?)

A great-horned (?) owl stretches its wings for eternity; the pose seems ironic, somehow, when matched against hardwood boards and a ceiling fan.

American Martens

This pair of American martens (with their red squirrel prey) were incorrectly identified as pine martens -- their European counterpart. In addition, the glass eyes of the marten on the left are certainly not mustelid eyes. They're quite out of place at Kensington Metropark, seeing as how martens are extinct in Michigan's lower peninsula (they're found in select regions of the Upper Peninsula, and even then, they are rather uncommon).

Woodchucks

A group of dramatic-looking woodchucks. The individual on the right is especially rough in appearance. One has to wonder if these woodchucks, depicted as a family, were actually related in nature (chances are, they probably weren't).

Badger

Lastly, an American badger, sporting a manufactured snarl, rests high atop a display cabinet. These animals, in nature, spend much of their time digging burrows underground.

A large portion of the taxidermy displayed in nature centers represents animals that the average visitor will never encounter in the wild in his or her lifetime. Though old and faded, these mounted animals provide a window into the natural world, for children and adults alike. Perhaps they will inspire a child to love and respect nature -- I know long ago, that was the case for me.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Crow

Crows are amazing animals: they're intelligent, vocal, and able to adapt to a wide variety of habitats. Indeed, they're found all across the country, living in forests, farmland, and urban areas. Crows are one of my favorite birds, and they are extremely prevalent in Ann Arbor. At dusk, they will congregate, flocking to roost for the night in certain areas of the city, the most infamous being Forest Hill Cemetery. A few months ago, Steph and I drove to the cemetery and arrived right at sunset, as crows were streaming in from all different directions. They landed on the bare branches of the oaks and hickories, looking like large, moving leaves. Most notable was the noise they made. The sound of a couple thousand crows is an interesting one: certain individuals are louder and croakier than others, and when disturbed, the noise is not unlike a dull roar.

On Thursday, my father found a dead crow resting at the base of a spruce tree; today, I photographed it. Photographing a jet-black bird against white snow proved to be a challenge, but luckily, the sky was overcast. It began to snow, and the result was a sprinkling of bright-white snowflakes against soft, black feathers. The effect was rather attractive.

December Crow IV

December Crow III

Crows, to me, seem fearless: they are brash, cocky, and inquisitive. They eat whatever they can, and will torment hawks and other birds of prey. That is why this next photograph is so interesting to me: instead of appearing indestructible and fearless, this crow looks vulnerable and delicate.

December Crow II

For further reading on crows, I highly, highly recommend Lyanda Lynn Haupt's Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Avian Botulism on Lake Michigan's North Shore

In October, my parents visited Wilderness State Park and were both surprised and distressed to find dozens of waterfowl corpses littered along the beach. They identified both grebes and loons, most of the bodies quite fresh, wet feathers and webbed feet glistening in the sun. Shortly thereafter, they learned that it was avian botulism that had killed all of these birds.

Earlier this month, Absolute Michigan ran a story about this outbreak of avian botulism, and how it is related to zebra and quagga mussels, as well as the round goby -- all invasive species to the Great Lakes.

Also published were 15 superb photographs of these dead birds, as well as a short movie of a dying long-tailed duck, by filmmaker George Desort. The photographs are beautiful and emotive, and also sad and angering, especially since invasive species -- introduced by humans -- are the root cause for the deaths of these animals.

The movie is sad and disturbing, but somehow beautiful:


Long tailed duck from george desort on Vimeo.


I have had nightmares about finding dying, suffering animals. If I had been the one to happen upon this struggling duck, would I have been brave enough to put it out of its misery? Or does one let nature take its course, even if that course has already been altered by humans and invasive species?

Today, the corpses of these birds are buried beneath not only sand, but snow, as well. In the spring, they will be long-gone.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

First Snow Skunk

Today, the Ann Arbor area received its first snow of the season -- not a lot of snow, mind you, but enough to stick to the blades of grass and rooftops. It seemed fitting for the beginning of December.

On her way to work, Stephanie spotted a dead skunk on the side of Ann Arbor-Saline Road, so she called to tell me about it. This scenario has happened a number of times, though this was the first of its kind in Ann Arbor. It was also the first time I've photographed roadkill alone in this city -- which is a rather nerve-wracking ordeal, certainly more so than in Marquette.

This particular stretch of Ann Arbor-Saline Road cuts through farmland, and it's an absolute death trap for animals. I've seen a deer body linger in the ditch (not far from where this skunk was found, actually) for over a month, and raccoon corpses pile up on the side of the road.

At first glance, the skunk seemed to be in good condition. Its winter fur was thick and soft, with the classic skunk markings, and there was no blood -- or stink, for that matter.

December Skunk

I moved the skunk a few feet further from the pavement, and it was then that I realized the body was frozen solid. What I had thought were drops of water on its face was actually ice. I didn't have much to work with, and the steady stream of traffic passing by made me nervous, so I focused on photographing the skunk's face. Its mouth was frozen in a grimace, eyes were shut, nostrils as pink as those on a live animal. Snowflakes fell and stuck to its dense, black fur.

I didn't take too many photographs; the wind was chilling me to the bone, and the cars (all slowing down as they went by) stressed me out. I returned home, and after studying my photographs, I noticed that the skunk's lower jaw was distorted and gruesome -- it was likely struck in the head.

In the past few months, I've gotten to know a live skunk, named Stinky Pete, while volunteering at the Creature Conservancy. He is lively and playful, and behaves very much like an overgrown ferret. He's a delightful animal to interact with, and is a reminder that each of these animals -- including the ones killed on the road -- have a distinct personality.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Raccoon Bones

I see a lot of dead raccoons in my travels and explorations -- in fact, after deer, they're the second-most common animal I encounter. In Ann Arbor they are especially prevalent, and not a day goes by where I don't see a raccoon or two dead on the road. They are large enough that, when they die in nature, their bodies are relatively easy to locate -- unlike squirrels and other smaller animals.

On Monday afternoon, I was exploring more of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens' property, over near Mouse Marsh. I was on the lookout for deer, and I saw a few -- but only their white tails, as they were fleeing from me. At one point, a buck started to snort, but I never caught sight of him. Toward the end of my walk, I approached a sheltered area, surrounded by short trees, and I saw a raccoon skull resting atop the leaf litter. Nearby, peeking through the fallen leaves, were the two halves of its pelvis. The natural whiteness of the skull was beautiful against the earthy brown tones, making for a wonderful scene:

November Raccoon

I sifted through the leaves and soil, and found the jaws of the animal, along with some of the front leg bones (a humerus as well as a pair of tibiae and fibulae), a scapula, a couple dozen phalanges, a few ribs, some vertebrae, and a baculum - meaning the raccoon was a male.

It's interesting to note that most of the ribs I found were damaged (broken), as was the very back of the skull, where the cranium connects to the atlas vertebra. Whether this damage was the cause of the raccoon's death (predation) or whether it was inflicted after the fact (scavenging) will probably never be known. As I mentioned earlier, the skeleton was found in a rather sheltered spot, making it both a more comfortable place for the raccoon to hide before dying, or a protected area for a predator to eat in peace. However, that is all speculation!

How long had the skeleton been there? The bones were all very clean, with not a scrap of ligament remaining, and were all relatively bleached, even the ones found beneath the leaves. However, there were no rodent gnaw-marks to be seen, which is interesting. Perhaps the raccoon died in the spring, and the hot summer months allowed for fast decomposition.

I'm finding I enjoy photographing skeletons just as much, if not more, than photographing recently-dead animals. Though bones are harder to relate to and perhaps not as "beautiful", they are far more intricate and provide for very interesting compositions. I also love to photograph these skulls and skeletons exactly as I find them: their immediate surroundings show just how much nature grows around these dead animals, and is nourished by them.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Feline "Gift"

Here's something I had not yet encountered until now: a cat gift. There are plenty of cats in our apartment complex, and while most of them, when let outside, are supervised by their owners, some are not. Just a few weeks ago, we saw a cat catch and kill a chipmunk, carry it to the concrete step, and begin to eat it -- only to see the owner come running outside, scold his cat, and bury the chipmunk's body. Of course, it wasn't the cat's fault -- cats are carnivores, and they're hard-wired to catch and kill prey.

That said, outdoor cats are a huge strain on wildlife, especially birds. I can't stress enough how it is the fault of the owners -- not the cats -- that bird populations are being impacted. Thankfully, I have yet to find any birds brought down by cats, but last week, I did find a mouse. It was missing its head and front legs, but there was no blood or gore to be seen. It was a very tiny body, so I used the macro lens to photograph it.

November Mouse

This was one animal, I'll admit, that I didn't spend very much time photographing. I was very hesitant to touch the body, as I've heard that mice can carry all sorts of nasty diseases. However, I was pleased with this particular photograph. It's larger than life-size, and it shows the softness of the fur and delicate nature of the mouse's feet.

I'm not sure of the species, so if anyone's got an idea, it'd be appreciated.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Colors of a Junco

Last night, my mother presented me with a junco she had found at her workplace; it had died after colliding with a window. She recounted how, after she had found the junco, she showed it to a family with a child, and they seemed to be very interested in seeing such a beautiful bird so close-up. By the time I received the junco, it was nearly dark outside, so I stowed it in my fridge to photograph today. It was much larger than I expected it to be -- it was about the size of a house sparrow, and certainly bigger than a chickadee. It felt strangely heavy.

October Junco I

Though its eyes were dry when it was found, the bird couldn't have been dead for long; I discovered tiny bird lice on its feathers this morning, leaving their host since it was deceased. Here is a view of a louse on the junco's breast feathers -- greatly enlarged, of course.


I'm always fascinated by bird feet. Not only do birds have very specialized feet depending on how and where they live, their scaly toes and sharp claws are such an interesting contrast to their soft, downy feathers.

October Junco III

I don't know much about juncos. They usually arrive in Ann Arbor around late-fall and stay for the winter. When I see them feeding at a birdfeeder, they're usually on the ground, eating fallen millet seeds. And as far as birds go, juncos are rather nondescript, with gray and white plumage. At least, that's what I thought...

October Junco IV

... until I took a closer look. In reality, all kinds of hues are mixed in with the junco's gray-and-white plumage: tawny browns and slate-blues, blacks and reds. It was amazing to have the chance to see such a beautiful palette of colors, and this has certainly increased my appreciation of juncos.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Two Tales of Deer, Part II

One thing -- as I mentioned at the close of my previous post -- that I've tried to avoid in this series is photographing animals that were killed purposely by humans. I don't hang out at slaughterhouses and haven't been to the buck pole in years, so hunted and slaughtered animals just aren't something I ever encounter. In addition, as I think I might have explained in the early days of this blog, society -- myself included -- has a completely different perception of livestock and game animals that are killed for food.

Hunting is a sensitive subject for me; I both understand it and dislike it. As speciesist as it may be, I am much more open to the hunting of herbivores (such as deer) than that of carnivores (such as coyotes). And, having lived in the state of Michigan my entire life, I certainly understand the hype and celebration surrounding deer season. All that said, all opinions aside, hunting is completely within the law -- that is, if you're doing it legally.

This story isn't about natural deaths, nor is it about deer season -- it's about poaching, and a blatant disregard and disrespect for life and the law.

On Sunday morning, my dad and I drove out toward Pinckney to visit friend and fellow photographer Marc Akemann. About a week earlier, when I had been lamenting the lack of subject matter in Ann Arbor, Marc had suggested I visit, as his property borders the Brighton Recreation Area. He told me that he was finding dead animals all the time out there -- primarily, poached deer.

Upon arriving, the first spot we inspected was a parking area next to a small lake. As soon as I climbed out of the car, the stench of death hit me -- it was a very familiar odor, one that I'd not encountered in many years. It was the smell of recently-slaughtered, rotting deer. The bodies didn't take long to locate. The first two deer that we found had to have been killed within the past couple weeks -- one was extremely fresh: the fat and muscle on his exposed ribcage was glistening, and flies were flocking to his legs and face. The second was only slightly older; the fur had seemingly exploded from his head, creating a most bizarre scene:

Poached Deer

A third deer was found in the most disturbing of places: beneath a heap of garbage. The corpse had been hidden, but not very well, as a simple nudge of the trash uncovered the skull's ghastly smile:

Poached Deer

This deer, too, had not been there for more than a month or so. Skin and fur still clung to the skull, and the mountain of waste atop the body was trapping in the smell, and perhaps slowing decomposition. The deer's teeth, and that perceived grimace, was incredibly powerful to me. Combined with the trash and ditched mustard packet, the scene spoke volumes. Waste... disrespect... uselessness.

Poached Deer

These deer were poached for meat and antlers. After those things were taken, the bodies were thrown into roadside ditches, hidden beneath piles of brush and garbage, and, in some cases, left behind in plain sight without a care in respect to life or the law. I did find the remains of two or three does (both yearling and adult), but the majority of the corpses belonged to bucks. Their antlers were cut from their heads, leaving behind grisly, gaping holes in the skulls.

Poached Deer

This skull, bleached white and starting to grow green moss or algae, had been there for quite some time -- a few years, at the least -- and one must wonder just how many layers of poached deer line the parking lots and roadsides of this area.

Because there were so many bodies, lone skulls, and partial skeletons, it was hard for me to keep track of how many deer we encountered. At the lakeside parking area, I counted at least five deer, but it was probably closer to six or seven, all in various stages of decomposition. Marc showed us some other areas, and led us along a few trails through the (very beautiful) forest. We didn't encounter any ditched deer corpses in the woods, however -- we only found them along the roadsides. One such body, left in plain sight, had been decapitated. The tissue on its ribcage had turned dark, and falling leaves were starting to cover the corpse.

Poached Deer

Though we probably saw more, I can specifically remember seeing the corpses, skulls, and skeletons of eleven separate deer. One of the last bodies we visited was one that Marc had found a year or two prior. It, like the others, had been dumped along the roadside. All that remained were the bones; the spinal column, though disarticulated, still rested in a row.

Poached Deer

Nature, of course, treats these bodies like any other. They decay and fall apart; maggots squirm in the meager flesh left behind, and crows pick away at the skin and connective tissues. But at what cost?

I plan on returning to this area once rifle season has come and gone, as I'd like to do more extensive photography of the bodies, and try some different compositional techniques. I'd also like to shoot with film, in black and white. For this set, I attempted to follow my standard Useless Creatures rule of bringing out the beauty in the dead; however, it's terribly hard to bring beauty into something so evil and wasteful.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Two Tales of Deer, Part I

In the past week, I've had two very different experiences with deer remains. The first, which I'll chronicle in this post, took place at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens (MBG). There's a good deal of land on the MBG property that isn't explored by the public, as there are no trails. Steph and I have only begun our exploration of the area, and there's still plenty for us to discover. Earlier this week, we blundered through the woods, eager to see what we could find.

The first discovery we made was a deer skull -- at least, most of one. Largely chewed away, it had been sitting in the forest for quite some time. Its size was smaller, indicating it was likely from a younger doe. Interestingly enough, there were no other bones nearby. Here is how we found it, upside-down and unmistakable in the leaf litter:

First Deer Skull

We continued on our way, and soon we found a second deer skull, also from a doe:

Second Deer Skull

This skull, like the first, was very clean and white, and had probably been sitting in the woods for at least a year or two. However, unlike the first, this skull was accompanied by a good deal of the skeleton. Steph and I searched through the fallen leaves for quite some time, and found about half of the vertebrae and ribs, a leg bone, and one of the jaw bones. The bone pile that we made:

Bone Pile

Over half the skeleton was missing, which can probably be attributed to the coyotes in the area. In fact, the skull even had some peculiar punctures, one beneath the eye socket, which I think was the result of coyote teeth.

Many of the bones we found were heavily chewed, perhaps by animals scavenging in the winter. Rodent gnaw marks, though, were quite minimal. One animal that was using the skull was this incredibly large slug, who had been snuggled up inside the brain case:

Monster Slug!

Steph and I returned to a nearby area at the MBG a few days later. We found a third doe skull, and like the first skull we found, this one was by itself.

Third Deer Skull

In all likelihood, these three deer probably died natural deaths. They might have succumbed to the winter, or they might have been brought down by coyotes. Dixboro Road is a bit of a distance from where these bones were found, but the deer could have been injured in traffic, only to disappear into the forest to die. At this point, it's really hard to tell, though the tooth mark(s) in the second skull definitely point to coyote activity.

Though it was a bit overwhelming to find the remains of three separate deer in one (relatively) small area, it wasn't to be unexpected: deer are very prevalent in this region, especially in areas where hunting is not allowed. Their population is somewhat controlled by traffic and coyotes, but there still are plenty, and, being the large animals that they are, their remains are quite easy to locate.

Part II, which I will post in the coming days, is a completely different story, because the deaths involve the direct hand of Man -- something I have not yet explored in this project.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dixboro Doe

A doe was hit on Dixboro Road in Ann Arbor Sunday morning; on Monday afternoon, my mother and I pulled over so that I could photograph the body. The doe's corpse lay in the ditch, mere yards from a 'deer crossing' sign; much of her face was obscured by dry, fallen leaves, but her visible eye stared out, dead, yet so emotive.

October Deer II

This is the time of year when deer are more prone to jump into traffic, especially when the sun is low in the sky. If one deer begins to cross the road, always assume that more will follow. By driving cautiously at daybreak and sunset, especially in areas that have a large deer population, you might save a life.

This doe, meanwhile, will become food for roadside scavengers. Hopefully none of the scavengers will meet the same fate.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Squirrel Check-Up

I apologize for the lack of updates. Simply put, I have not been able to find any dead animals suitable for photography -- and not for lack of trying! Steph and I have been outdoors every other day or so, visiting parks and trails both inside and outside Ann Arbor's city limits. So far? Nothing. Leaves are falling from the trees, however, and that can easily camouflage bodies and bones.

What about roadkill, my fallback for when I can't find anything dead in nature? Around here, you don't need to drive far before you start spotting critters in the road, but all the dead animals I've seen in the street have either been a) completely destroyed, b) in a busy and/or dangerous area, or c) both. So -- I've been having a hard time. Not only is this project enjoyable for me, it's something to keep me busy while unemployed. I have been photographing subjects besides dead animals, but it's not as engaging for me.

I knew from the start, though, that this series would be very unpredictable, and the photographs I produce -- and when I can produce them -- depends entirely on the will of nature as well as luck.

All that said, for over a month, I have been keeping track of the fox squirrel killed on our street. For the first two weeks or so, I visited the squirrel quite regularly, and wrote down my observations in a notebook. Here are some of the more memorable snippets:

September 9: "Yellowjacket in squirrel's mouth, many ants in squirrel's eye."


September 13: "Mouth has decayed the most. Mouth/nose area has become a hole, flies laying eggs there."

September 18: "Maggots of all sizes covering the belly/groin of the squirrel, which seems to have burst. There are so many maggots, they have fallen through the carcass and trap, and squirm on the ground. [...] The head of the squirrel is almost unidentifiable, almost could not locate it. The skin (incl. ear) seems to have been pulled through the bars of the trap, but the skull (or what's left of it) has been wedged into a corner of the trap."

September 21: "There was so much movement from the maggots that the squirrel's arm (which had sunk into the body), began to move."


About a week later, as the days got colder and drier, decomposition had slowed, and the body began to mummify. It is interesting to note that early on, the cage was moved on several occasions by an animal; we decided that the culprit was a skunk, looking for maggots to eat! Not only were there flies, ants, and yellowjackets on the carcass, but there were also burying beetles, carrion beetles, and staphylinid beetles.

This afternoon, as the sun sunk lower in the sky, I headed on over to finally photograph the squirrel. Though I had watered it the day before, the body was quite dry, and pulling it out of the trap was relatively easy. I took a series of photographs using the macro lens, and with my close proximity to the subject, I definitely caught a nose-full of dead animal smell.

September Fox Squirrel (October) I

This front paw, as well as a back paw, appear to be relatively unchanged. I couldn't locate the other two feet; I do know that the other front foot sunk into the body at some point.

September Fox Squirrel (October) II

The first thing to decompose was the squirrel's head. The skull was shattered when the animal was hit by a car, but the lower jaws appear to be intact. They (and the skull fragments) are quite clean and detached from the body; the only other visible bones are the scapulae, protruding through the fur and skin.

September Fox Squirrel (October) III

This final photograph reminds me a lot of this scene, colors included.

As a whole, what remains of September Fox Squirrel isn't very impressive; a good deal of the body isn't recognizable, and, upon first glance, seems quite foul. However, using the macro lens to get closer helps me to find those beautiful, if not interesting details.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Noble Beasts of the Mammal Division

This morning, Steph and I had the chance to visit the University of Michigan's Mammal Division, at the Museum of Zoology. Collection manager Steve Hinshaw was kind enough to let us have free reign of the area, so we spent two hours taking many pictures of the various mounts and skeletons -- both the ones on display, and the specimens stored in special collections cabinets.

In June, an individual donated his collection of big game trophy mounts -- that is, the heads and horns of a couple dozen African animals, including many antelopes and even a rhinoceros -- to the Mammal Division. They were all quite impressive to see firsthand, and though the horns were magnificent and all, what really struck me were the faces of these animals. Even though they were all long dead, they looked so alive and calm, and in their state of stillness, were incredibly emotive.

Mammal Division I

Another interesting thing about taxidermy is how incredibly awkward it has the potential to be. If the mount is not positioned correctly -- say, instead of hanging on a wall, an animal's head is against a horizontal surface -- the whole effect is thrown off, and it makes for a very surreal scene.

Mammal Division IV

Mammal Division XVII

(The antelopes and hartebeest hanging on the wall behind the giant eland have been at the museum for some time.)

Of course, we photographed other specimens, too. There are a handful of older taxidermy mounts on display, and although some of them aren't in very good condition, they are important because they are the Mammal Division's only examples of those particular animals.

Mammal Division IX

Stored in the cabinets are the skeletons, furs, and study mounts of almost every species of mammal imaginable. We perused several drawers' worth of coyote skulls and bones; a different cabinet was full of raccoons and mustelids.

Mammal Division VII

Mammal Division XIV

Mammal Division XIX

Though these animals aren't what most would consider "useless creatures", I do feel they relate to my project. Big game trophies and museum mounts are respected and accepted more readily than the decomposing raccoon in the woods; they are useful in that they have scientific value; they are majestic because, in the case of the African trophies, they were hunted and killed by a human. Because people have a hand in their fate -- and because their deaths and subsequent preservation are useful to us -- these animals are perceived quite differently than their ecosystem-feeding kin.

I find taxidermy to be of equal value to the decaying animals in the wild. While museum taxidermy helps us learn and study the natural world around us, the dead animals in the forest and along the beach help feed the world that we study.

Monday, September 20, 2010

September Chickadee

This afternoon, Stephanie and I found a dead chickadee near our apartment building, next to the sidewalk. It had been there for at least a day; the body was limp and the eyes were gone, and ants were crawling in and out of the eye sockets. In the past month we've found three dead birds in the immediate area; I don't know if they are natural deaths, window collisions, or what, but it is something to take note of. Though this chickadee was quite a distance away from any windows, it is possible that a scavenger might have dragged it to where it was discovered today.

I was pressed on time for photography, but nonetheless I attached my dad's 60mm 2.8 macro lens to my camera* and reconfigured my tripod for the situation. Having photographed a chickadee earlier this year and not being completely pleased with the results, I knew that macro photography would probably produce better images, especially with such a tiny subject.

September Chickadee I

September Chickadee II

After photographing the chickadee's head and feet, I took a different approach and made some compositions that were more abstract; I wanted to use minimal depth of field to illustrate both the softness and complexity of bird feathers.

September Chickadee III

September Chickadee IV

This is a bit of a different direction for me, in terms of composition and feel, and I'm curious to know what the general reaction to it is. I'm not, in any way, committed to doing only macro photography now; at this point in time, it's pretty much all I can do, as I've only been finding small animals to photograph. Any feedback is definitely welcome (and I'm always looking for feedback and constructive critique).

*the Nikon D70 body that I'm using is actually my father's; the Nikon D50 that I normally use has a sensor in dire need of professional cleaning or replacing.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Moving Closer

Today, a Swainson's Thrush collided with a window and died. Because this bird was such a small subject (six inches from beak-tip to tail-tip), and because it was so beautiful, I decided to photograph it right this time around. I borrowed an amazing macro lens from my father (Nikon 60mm f/2.8) and had my tripod set up so that my camera would be only inches from the ground.

It was a very gloomy, wet, and chilly September day, and when the rain finally let up, I placed the thrush outside, on our apartment's wooden deck. The surface was dark and wet from the rain, and it provided a nice backdrop for the bird. I spent probably 45 minutes photographing the thrush, and I am very pleased by the results -- I wish I could spend that much time with all of my subjects.

In the end, after taking close to 200 photographs, I came away with five that truly spoke to me. I encourage you to click the following photographs to view them larger on Flickr -- the larger these pictures are, the more powerful they become.

September Swainson's Thrush I

September Swainson's Thrush II

September Swainson's Thrush III

September Swainson's Thrush IV

September Swainson's Thrush V

For me, seeing this thrush so close was very moving. This was the first time in several months that I felt truly sad about the animal I was photographing, and seeing the images closer in Photoshop proved to be emotional. Everything about this bird was elegant and fragile: its speckled breast, whiskers, and blue eyelid; the way its feathers were so tiny yet so lace-like in appearance.

Because many birds are starting to migrate south for the winter, the likelihood of tired birds hitting windows is much higher. Therefore, it is very important to put decals on your windows to keep birds from thinking that reflections are trees for roosting. Decals don't have to be unsightly; some are so translucent that they are hardly noticeable. It is also important to place the decals outside, as when they are inside, they will not break up the reflections.

As much as I like to photograph birds -- they are challenging as well as beautiful -- I'd prefer to never have any window casualties to photograph.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fox Squirrels Everywhere

In my previous post, I mentioned fox squirrels and how they are extremely prevalent in Ann Arbor -- yet somehow seem to avoid being hit by traffic. Sadly, because it is getting to be autumn, and the squirrels are much more active than usual, I have counted several of them dead, on the road, in just this past week. I've seen three roadkill fox squirrels on the not-too-busy residential road that Steph and I live on; the first two were very messy deaths that I simply could not photograph. The third squirrel, which I found this morning, however, was in better shape than the previous two.

I retrieved the squirrel from the road and took it to my parents' backyard, where I would photograph it. I soon found that it was a female, and she seemed to have been in pretty good health before she died. I was surprised by how much she weighed -- I'd estimate at least two pounds, probably more. Even though she'd been hit very recently, she was becoming stiff and smelled of death.

September Fox Squirrel I

The squirrel's whiskers were very long and pretty. Up-close, I feel that the faces of fox squirrels are strikingly different than those of Marquette's gray squirrels.

September Fox Squirrel II

Also fascinating to examine are the paws of squirrels. Their feet are very complex, with many paw pads, and the claws are long and sharp, adapted for both digging and climbing. Unlike the feet of a cat or dog -- and very much like the feet of a raccoon -- the paws of a squirrel have no fur on the underside.

September Fox Squirrel III

After photographing the squirrel with both my Nikon D70 and Nikon F2, I moved her body into a small live trap -- the same trap that we kept April Deer's skull in to finish its decay. For the next couple of months, I plan to observe the body's process of decomposition. Already, flies were inspecting the corpse as I photographed it.

It's interesting to note that as I was writing down my initial observations, a live fox squirrel approached the trap. It was very cautious, and as soon as it sniffed the body, it became very alarmed, flagging its tail and giving the area a very wide berth.

Something else that I'd like to note is a comparison -- and just how much lighting can change the mood, colors, and perceived composition of a photograph (click the image below to enlarge).

These two photographs were taken only seconds apart, but the first photograph was taken when the sun was covered -- if only slightly -- by clouds. The second photograph was taken in full sunlight. Despite the composition being essentially the same -- the squirrel's position has not changed -- the quality of light has dramatically altered the scene. The first image has a softer, cooler characteristic; the shadows are there, but remain subtle. The second image, on the other hand, is sharper; the colors are more saturated and warm, and the shadows are starker and blacker. I prefer the first image.

This afternoon, Steph alerted me that she passed yet another roadkill fox squirrel on our street, only feet away from where I removed this squirrel.

Sociable