Monday, August 30, 2010

Ann Arbor

If there's one thing I'd forgotten about Ann Arbor while I was living in Marquette, it's that it gets incredibly warm here. It gets so warm that the cicadas stop singing, and the fox squirrels splay themselves out on branches in an attempt to cool their bodies. It gets so warm that I'm fairly certain I don't want to photograph any recently-dead (and especially not bloated) animals until fall sets in, for fear that their smells might never leave my nostrils.

I haven't seen too much in the way of wildlife -- dead or alive -- besides birds. Steph and I installed a few birdfeeders on our porch, and they have been frequented by a wide variety of species. Then there are, of course, the fox squirrels, which are numerous in the neighborhoods; they are everywhere and possess an uncanny ability to not be hit by cars.

To date, I have photographed only one dead animal since our move, and it was a juvenile house sparrow. I discovered it in the parking lot of our apartment complex; it hadn't been there for long, but it was resting in such a way that it looked like the body had, at one point, been run over by a bicycle or car.

August Sparrow I

I moved it off the pavement and placed it at the base of a tree; checking back on it a day later, we discovered not only ants and flies had taken to the body, but a yellowjacket, as well. The next day, the sparrow was gone.

On a later day, while walking outside our apartment complex, Steph found a dead cicada on the sidewalk. Can insects be "useless creatures" too? Of course they can -- and this dead cicada, as it turns out, was full of ants.


Though I find dead insects fascinating, I'm not so sure I want to include them in this project. They are certainly photogenic, and are no doubt despised by many; however, I think that they would make a good, but separate, photographic series.

There are many places I want to explore, but because the vegetation (not to mention poison ivy) is so lush, I'll have to wait until the plants die back in a few months. Until then, I'll photograph what I can find, but subjects may be few and far-between.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Identity Crisis

Hello! It's been a while. Steph and I are just about completely moved in to our new apartment in Ann Arbor. We've spent the past week making the place home, and in doing so, have obtained a DETOLF from IKEA (thanks Mom!) to display some of the skulls and bones we've found. I was moving the second skull featured in this post when I realized, upon comparing it with a raccoon skull, that it looked nothing like a raccoon skull. That's what I get for assuming! To be fair, this skull is in pretty rough shape and has only two teeth:

November Raccoon

I compared the skull with this fox skull I own, and what do you know? November Raccoon is actually November Fox! This is significant, because it proves the presence of foxes on Presque Isle. I've only ever seen fox footprints in the area, and those were found in the bog -- which is easily accessible from the mainland. This skull, on the other hand, was found on the interior of the isle (assuming it wasn't moved by an animal). This discovery is also important because there are few predators to be found in Presque Isle Park. We have seen evidence of coyotes (tracks and scat, and Steph spotted one for a fleeting instant) as well as mustelids, but most of the animals living on the isle seem to be herbivores.

The next question is, was this a gray fox or a red fox? The skull is so chewed and worn that it's hard to tell. However, it's a very close match to my red fox skull (click image for a larger version):

And, for comparison, here is the skull next to a raccoon skull (click image for a larger version):

Lesson learned from this? Always look closer! I never would have guessed, when I found that skull, that it belonged to a fox. Because the underside of the skull is so interesting, I have chosen to display it upside-down.

Soon I will be posting about what I've seen so far in the Ann Arbor area.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Coyote

Yesterday, on the way back to Marquette from Ishpeming's Ren Faire, I spotted a dead coyote in the grass on the side of the road. Steph and I were traveling on US41, though, so we couldn't come screeching to a stop; after taking a Michigan Left or two, we finally parked alongside the highway. I approached the coyote's body carefully; in our quick pass-by I had seen the unmistakable orange-brown fur and a set of very white, very sharp teeth pulled back in a death grimace.

As soon as I was standing next to the body, I immediately felt quite uncomfortable. It was no longer the judgmental stares of passing cars that bothered me, but the subject I was about to photograph. The body was smaller than I expected it to be (though Steph tells me that what I saw was the normal size for a full-grown coyote), and the skin was bunched in strange places, though the body was not bloated. Flies swarmed over the corpse, and for the two minutes I was photographing it, they seemed to drown out the passing traffic.

What I saw first, though, was its eye. The coyote had been there for at least a couple of days -- perhaps its bloating had come and gone -- but the lens of the visible eye was crusty and popped from the eyelid. It didn't gross me out, or make me feel physically ill; it was disconcerting, and, when matched with those sharp, white teeth, almost scary. The photographs that I chose to use, for the most part, hide the eye, though it can be seen somewhat in this view:

August Coyote I

I refused to get too close to the coyote's body. It didn't have a bad smell (the cooler weather we've had for the past few days probably helped), and though the flies were kind of gross in their abundance (one landed on me at one point), they didn't drive me away, either. It could have been the teeth of the coyote that made me keep my distance.

August Coyote II

I think, though, in the end, what kept me from taking my time photographing this animal, and what distressed me so much about it, was that it was a coyote. It was a coyote, so domestic dog-like in appearance and yet, so wild, that was mangled on the side of the road. It was a coyote, so hated by farmers and unjustly feared by hikers, which, in actuality, was so small and defeated and undignified along US41. It was a coyote, an animal I've never seen alive outside of captivity, and have only heard howling on occasion, that was feet away from me, dead.

August Coyote III

In this entry I mentioned, briefly, what I imagined my feelings would be like if I were to photograph a coyote that had been hit by a car. It was a sad experience, but it was also disturbing, owing both to the appearance of the animal and the fact that the coyote is so familiar, but, all the same, so wild.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Of Gulls and Carp

On Sunday, I decided to check up on the carp and herring gull. The herring gull was still there, and mostly unchanged, but the carp...

July Carp III

There was a pair of juvenile herring gulls picking away at it! Upon closer inspection, it was really quite amazing to see how much they'd eaten:

July Carp IV

As a side note, I returned again, yesterday, and the carp was simply a skeleton. To me, it is especially profound that the gulls who reduced this carp to bones were the same species of gull as the one that washed up, dead, only twenty or so feet away. Everything in the ecosystem is interconnected; the insects currently squirming inside the herring gull might be eaten by a fish, and that fish might wash ashore, dead, and be consumed by herring gulls. It's amazing how the lives and deaths of organisms are intertwined and how they become a part of one another.

Also found on the beach was the rather complete skeleton of a ring-billed gull. Compared to the herring gull, it was very small. Sometimes, it's tough to distinguish between herring and ring-billed gulls, especially when they're moving about, but when comparing their skulls, it becomes quite clear which gull is which.

August Gull II

This gull had washed ashore Saturday night. It's amazing just how many dead gulls can be found on the beaches in Marquette -- especially at Presque Isle Park and Picnic Rocks. Many of the individuals I've found have been juveniles, which makes me wonder what their mortality rate is. Of course, as Steph reminds me, gulls are far easier to spot than smaller birds, so their deaths are obviously much more visible.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Along the Shores of Lake Superior

Yesterday afternoon, at sunset, Steph and I found ourselves near Presque Isle's breakwall, which juts out into the bay. The beach in this area is dangerous and rocky, and since it's more than a little hard to walk on, I don't visit it regularly. The sandstone rocks are round and wobbly and not kind to the feet, so I have a feeling that this small stretch of Lake Superior shoreline isn't frequented too often by much of anyone.

Almost immediately, we found the remains of two different gulls. Not much was left of either bird, except for the wings, and on one of the gulls, the wishbone. Judging by the few feathers that were present, they were both juveniles, and probably ring-billed gulls.

First July Gull

The sun was setting fast, so Steph and I continued to work our way along the rocky beach. Quite suddenly, we encountered a foul stench, and I soon found the source: the rather-fresh body of a carp. Unlike the carp skeleton found in June, this carp still had its skin and scales; its eyes, however, were missing, and a large chunk had been taken out of the body. I'm not very well-read on the natural predators of carp -- are there any? I'm sure they're prey for eagles. Anyway, I assume that the damage to the body was done postmortem, either by scavengers or by the repeated washing up against the rocks.

The setting sun was casting a wonderful, rosy light, but the carp was mostly-submerged in the water. I wanted to photograph its tail reflecting that beautiful sunset, so I pulled the (surprisingly heavy) carp out of the water and laid it over the dark rocks. Never again! Touching this carp pretty much felt like touching any other kind of (live) fish, but in its state of decay, it left my hands smelling awful.

July Carp I

Steph made the next discovery, while I was still photographing the carp. It was the body of yet another juvenile gull, but this corpse was amazingly complete. It was also rather large, which makes me wonder if it was a herring gull. The body was draped over the rocks, in a state of advanced decomposition; the head, which was very much skeletonized, was wedged between two chunks of stone.

Second July Gull

Unlike the carp, this gull didn't have a horrible smell. Curious about what the other side of the head looked like, I lifted it, and was unsurprised to find tiny maggots squirming about. I think I might return today to take more photographs, but bodies along the beach are very impermanent, and this gull -- and very likely, the carp -- might not still be there this afternoon.

As we headed back, I took a parting shot of the carp, the sun setting over the body. In the background, the freighter Great Lakes Trader can be seen at the ore dock, being filled with taconite pellets.

July Carp II