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.