Monday, April 26, 2010


Earlier this month, Steph and I took a stroll along the strip of sand on the north shore of the neck of Presque Isle Park. First, we found what was left of a ring-billed gull, complete with a couple of sets of crow tracks meandering toward it:

April Gull II

All that remained were the surprisingly spotless wings, connected to a picked-clean breastbone. The sun was low in the sky but extremely bright, which made picture-taking rather tough, especially when my shadow kept creeping into the frame. The sun did, however, provide for some brilliant backlighting on the bones:

April Gull V

The second find of the evening was the wing of a northern flicker. The feathers were very beautiful but the yellows were impossible to photograph accurately! They were more of a pure yellow than the orangey-yellow that shows in the photo. In this case, I wish I could have photographed it on a cloudy day.

April Flicker III

Often, the wings are the only bird remains that we find. Predators know that there is little meat to be had on the wings, so they leave them behind; mammalian and bird scavengers know this, as well. It is up to the smaller scavengers -- the insects and microbes -- to complete the process of decay.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Week of Birds

As I detailed in my earlier entry, last Wednesday, Steph found a Brown Creeper that had collided with the windows of the NMU art building. Tiny and weightless, it was incredibly hard to photograph. The pictures I took, despite trying to portray the bird from a neutral point of view, still feel very sad; perhaps it is because I know exactly how the creeper died -- and how needless and avoidable the death could have been.

April Brown Creeper II

April Brown Creeper VI

April Brown Creeper IV

A couple days later, while walking along a path in Marquette's Fit Strip, Steph and I happened upon something quite unexpected -- a dead Ring-Billed Gull, right on the trail. The bodies of gulls are a rather common find along the beach, but not in the forest. The gull we found had died quite recently; its feathers were strewn for several yards alongside the trail. I flipped the body over, and there was a large patch of feathers missing. It's quite possible that the gull was attacked by another bird, perhaps a crow or a raven. Nothing was eaten.

Second April Gull III

Second April Gull IV

Indeed, the gull had died so recently that its eyes were intact. It was quite jarring when, upon a closer view of the body, I saw its yellow eye, staring right back at me.

Yesterday evening was the find that truly saddened and angered me: a Black-Capped Chickadee, dead, resting on the ground by the back entrance of the art building. It, too, had collided with the windows.

April Chickadee III

April Chickadee IV

The chickadee's tiny body was still warm.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Windowed Stairwells

Yesterday morning, Steph called to tell me that she'd found a dead Brown Creeper laying on the pavement behind the NMU art building. The bird was in almost the same spot that we'd found a white-breasted nuthatch a year or so earlier, and there was no doubt as to what had killed it: the tall, windowed stairwells of the art building. (The stairwell at the front of the building can be seen here; the stairwell at the back of the building faces Lake Superior and Presque Isle.)

Nothing could have prepared me for how tiny, weightless, and delicate this bird was. I'd seen Brown Creepers before, but never so close; its beak and claws were surprisingly long and sharp, perfectly adapted to how this species of bird lives, clinging to vertical tree trunks and extracting insects from the nooks and crannies of the bark. Despite the apparent delicateness and fragility of this being, I was astonished to learn that they inhabit Marquette year-round, even through the most bitter of winters.

I took a photograph of the creeper right away, the morning sunlight giving it a bizarre and almost foreboding shadow. The glass stairwells have obviously claimed more than just the lives of the nuthatch and the creeper, and the fact that there are no vinyl clings to deter birds is sad. How many more lives will be lost just because the glass looks good? How much would it cost to put up the most basic of bird-deterring static clings?

Later that day, I hung up two 16"x12" posters inside the art building:

This is the first occasion I've done public protest art in any form. A few times, I've considered taking this project in that direction, but I don't think that will happen.

On the way in to class today, we found this in the same area, near the glass stairwell:

Daily Photo: Wing Fragment

I'm not sure what type of bird this wing fragment belonged to, but I'd say it was in the house sparrow- to robin-sized range. Over the years, I've found multiple wing fragments littered around the back of the art building, all near that windowed stairwell.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Installation a Success!

Installation for the NMU School of Art's Winter 2010 Senior Exhibition, 'Untitled', started yesterday morning and ends this afternoon. Luckily, I managed to get almost everything installed rather quickly yesterday -- Steph doing all the hard work, of course. We had a few mishaps with the L-hooks being too close together, and putting a few more holes in the wall than was necessary -- but in the end, installation was relatively easy.

Daily Photo: Useless Creatures

The photographs are flush against the wall, thanks to the L-hooks. There are no backboards -- just the print and the glass, held in place with the hardware. Overall I am quite pleased with the layout and the photos I selected for the show. Ideally, I'd love to have more on display, with more photographs of animals in a more decayed state, but due to time and space constraints, not to mention the fact that I need more photos of decayed animals in the first place, that wasn't going to happen.

Anyway, in the coming days I'll post a few more pictures of the senior exhibition, because it's just so darn awesome, semester after semester. There are a lot of truly talented artists at this school.

Related, I did enter November Skunk (April) into a concurrent show at the Students' Art Gallery (the exhibition hilariously entitled 'Untitled II'), and that piece was accepted, so... photos to come of that, as well! (As a sidenote, there are a few other Useless Creatures hanging up around town. March Gull and January Pigeon are on display at the Kaye House, and January Pigeon can also be found at Donckers.)

The Northern Michigan University School of Art and Design's Winter 2010 Senior Exhibition, 'Untitled', opens Wednesday, April 14 and has its closing reception Friday, April 30.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Final Statement, Installation, and More

Installation for the senior show has begun! I'll be hanging my photographs tomorrow. There's a lot of math involved, which is a little intimidating for me, seeing as how I'm pretty horrible at doing basic tasks like figuring out window-mat measurements. Anyway, also involved are the little bugs that come up along the way -- in my case, a problem with the clip frames I am using.

I've always been the type of person to carefully mat my photographs, but for the Useless Creatures series, I wanted to display my work differently. To me, mats and frames -- elaborate or otherwise -- distance the viewer from the photograph; a barrier is created, and the people, places and things depicted seem far away and perhaps less than real. The whole point of this series is to compel the viewer actually see the dead animals for what they are, and to me, a clip frame does just that. There are no mats or physical frames interfering with the photograph, and it is almost as if a window has opened in the gallery wall, depicting the subject as realistically and physically as possible, short of actually bringing in a decomposing animal and placing it on a pedestal (a thought that I did briefly entertain, by the way).

Anyway, the photographs look great behind glass, but the problem with the clip frames is the hardware that holds the glass to the particleboard backing. The clips just won't stay put, and will snap off, sometimes with only the slightest budge. In addition, the clips double as the hangers, so yeah, that won't work. After asking Melissa Matuscak (spirited teacher, runner-of-the-DeVos-Art-Museum, and amazing, overworked person extraordinaire) what to do, we've decided on L-hooks. Basically, the backboard, photograph, and glass will be held against the wall itself. This is something I've never actually done, but I've seen this method of display in galleries before, and it's quite attractive.

Also included with my photographs will be my artist's statement and a portrait of myself. I've finalized my statment -- at last! -- and this is what will be hanging next to the Useless Creatures:

In our society there is a tendency to shun the corpses of non-human, non-domesticated animals. Their bodies are often viewed as disgusting, offensive, and useless things. In nature, however, dead animals are vital to the ecosystems of which they are a part, and countless animals depend upon the deaths of other animals to survive.

When I encounter a dead creature, it gives me pause. I consider the animal, its life, and how it might have died, but I also wonder how many other animals have depended upon its body, and how many more will in the coming days and months. I regard each dead creature I find as an individual, and I treat it as such. I choose to photograph them respectfully, portraying these animals as the dignified beings they are, in life. In every stage of their decay, they are beautiful if not interesting, and I try to portray that through my photography. Dead animals are not offensive, nor are they repulsive, and they are not useless creatures.

And, of course, the portrait! A few days ago, Steph and I went out to the Presque Isle Bog to photograph one another. For some reason I thought it'd be a great idea to pose with First January Deer -- which, with the warmer weather (nevermind the freak snowstorm we got on Tuesday), was definitely a rather stinky task.

The Northern Michigan University School of Art and Design's Winter 2010 Senior Exhibition, 'Untitled', opens Wednesday, April 14 and has its closing reception Friday, April 30.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Hawk

In January, a juvenile hawk was hit by a car in Traverse City. Its body was then frozen; we later accepted it rather reluctantly, but at the time, Steph and I had the hope that it could be of use to the local nature center, as a taxidermy mount (the nature center, after all, had the necessary permits to possess birds of prey). We presented the idea, but after a month or so of waiting, it fell through, as no interest was shown. We then turned to the ornithology department at NMU. Our contact expressed interest at first, but when emailed for a date and time to meet, dialogue stopped altogether.

In the United States, it is illegal to possess the feathers and remains of almost any species of bird (save for non-native and game species), especially those of a bird of prey, without certain permits. We did the legal and respectful thing: return the hawk's body to nature, where it belonged, from the start.

Last January Hawk V

Last January Hawk

It took us a while to identify what species of hawk this individual was, but Steph and I finally decided that it was a juvenile rough-legged hawk.

We returned a few weeks later and were somewhat surprised to find the body was still relatively unchanged. The hawk's yellow feet and legs had turned a grayish color, and its eyes were gone, but other than that and a few feathers that had been ripped out and deposited nearby, it looked the same as it had when we'd left it there.

In this state of early decay, it appeared more peaceful to me. I'd been unhappy with the photographs I'd taken earlier of the hawk's head. Now, however, there was something far more beautiful and dignified about it.

Last January Hawk (April) I

I look forward to watching the hawk slowly return to the earth over the course of the next few months. Hopefully, it will remain undiscovered by humans. Its feathers will be woven into nests, keeping eggs warm, and its flesh will be eaten by the very insects that are preyed upon by birds. Perhaps the mice that gnaw on its bones will end up in the belly of a hawk.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Sometimes, all I find are small bits of what's left behind.

It was a blue jay

Someone's Meal

Hairy Woodpecker


This evening's find

Daily Photo: Pheasant

Bone Shard

I often find many feathers, as was the case with the blue jay and pheasant pictured above (the down and blood belonged to a hairy woodpecker, which was being consumed by a merlin nearby). Just a week or so ago, I found several crow feathers in one spot; some were split and broken.

Single bones are also a common discovery. Often, they're stashed away, at the base of a tree, chewed by rodents. The bones I find are almost always deer bones. A less-common sight is fur and hair. The fur, pictured above, belonged to a rabbit. It was the meal of some carnivore, likely a fox or coyote, at the bog on Presque Isle. All that remained were several puffs of fur, one of which still had some skin attached.

Finding traces is always interesting; it provides a mystery and a story. Where is the rest of the animal? What ate it? What will eat it? Where are its bones scattered?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Returning to February Deer

Yesterday evening, Steph and I swung by the Forestville Basin area to check up on February Deer. I was half-expecting the body to be gone, but it wasn't -- still, there hadn't been much there to begin with. I'd hoped that after the snow melted, more of the body or skeleton would turn up, but there was no such luck. The flayed hide, with its three legs attached, was still where we'd last seen it in early February, and save for the flies and other insects that were crawling all over the fur, nothing had changed. In addition, it was especially obvious that a trail grooming machine had, in fact, obliterated the ribcage of the skeleton. Shards of bone were scattered many yards down the path; it was actually rather depressing to look at. Between the flies and the destroyed skeleton, I took a few quick photos documenting the scene.

February Deer (April) II

February Deer (April) I

There were a few dirty, broken bones laying beside the carcass -- a leg bone and a couple of ribs. I find it especially odd that there were no vertebrae present; there was no pelvis, and no skull. I suppose it's very likely that coyotes dragged off the head of the deer, or its torso, but the fact that there were broken ribs on the road and no broken vertebrae is still a mystery. Part of me also wonders if the deer was poached for its antlers, or if it was hit by a car and its head then severed for a trophy. This is one of those cases where we'll likely never know what happened.

It's now very much spring in Marquette (it was 80° F yesterday, and the peepers were singing in the evening); the snow is almost completely absent from the landscape and dead animals are resurfacing for the first time in months. As much as I'd like to get out there and photograph everything I can find, it's also the last month of my college career, and it's time to really get working on last-minute assignments and papers. Senior show is being installed in less than two weeks, and I'll be sure to provide some updates about that.