Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mister Mallard

While gulls, crows, and songbirds are regular victims of passing traffic, ducks aren't a very common roadside sight. They don't fly low, as robins and blue jays tend to do, and unlike gulls and crows, ducks don't stray too close to traffic to feast on roadkill. Imagine my surprise when I saw a dead mallard along US 41 -- again, in that dangerous strip of highway separating the mainland from the shore of Lake Superior.

The mallard had just been hit; the neck was broken, and the eyes were moist. Thrown several feet from the road, the body rested on the short bridge that crosses the mouth of the Carp River -- an area, I've found, that is a popular spot for ducks. 

Mallards are common birds: they're found almost everywhere, from neighborhood parks to the shores of Lake Superior. Often, small groups swim by on the Chocolay River, quacking loudly as they pass. And yet, in all their familiarity, I had never seen a mallard so closely until I saw this particular duck. Until very recently I thought it was a female, but the yellow bill says otherwise -- I believe it was a juvenile drake.

His plumage was beautiful, and I couldn't help but marvel at how soft and dense the feathers were on his head and neck -- they looked and felt like fur. 

It was also neat to see the signature band of blue on the mallard's wings. Often, I'll see solitary blue feathers washed up on the beach, but to see them all together was quite the opportunity. Depending on the angle that the light was striking them, the feathers would appear blue, teal, green, or colorless.

Since I travel on US 41 into town for work, I see lots of different animals dead on the road. Most common are raccoons and squirrels, but this duck was certainly an unusual victim. Other recent casualties along this stretch of highway have been a mink, a whitetail deer fawn, and a coyote. It's a beautiful drive, between mountains and Lake Superior, but it comes at a price to local wildlife.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Too Late

Usually, when I find a dead animal, chances are it has been lifeless for quite some time. Skeletons, partially-decomposed carcasses, and even most roadkill are almost always long-deceased by the time I find and photograph them. Last night, however, a needless death could have been prevented, had I been paying attention to the road.

No, I didn't hit and kill an animal -- but within two minutes of Steph and I arriving home, someone ran over a small snapping turtle, right in front of our house. Had I been watching the road as I got out of my car, perhaps I would have seen the turtle crossing the street; after all, I could see its smashed body plainly from our living room window.

Judging from the damage to the head, neck, and shell, the turtle died instantly. It was gruesome, gory, and sad, and I moved it off the road immediately. The legs were all limp, but the muscles of the tail were still firing and flexing, which made the scene all the more disturbing. Because the shell was so damaged, and the head and neck were flattened, there wasn't much for me to photograph. I focused on the snapping turtle's scaly, armored feet and its tiny, hooked claws.

Turtles are common victims to both rural roads and highways. Because they move so slowly and are generally dark in coloration, they can sometimes be hard to spot, especially at night (this snapping turtle was hit about an hour before sunset). I have also had the displeasure of seeing motorists hit turtles on purpose, which is a sickening, despicable behavior.

If you see a turtle trying to cross (or in the process of crossing) the road, and it's safe for you to assist it, by all means, do. I once saw a woman holding up traffic on a very busy street in Ann Arbor to let a painted turtle cross, and though it was dangerous, it was also very admirable. Last summer, Steph and I helped a medium-sized snapping turtle cross Highway 550 just outside of Marquette -- a much safer road, for sure. If you do transport a turtle across the road, always carry it in the direction that it was headed (if you just put it back where it came from, it will attempt to cross the road again). And of course, always use extreme caution when picking up snapping turtles!

After I finished photographing this little turtle, I buried it in our backyard with an offering of semaa. Semaa is a mixture of tobacco, sage, and red willow. Oftentimes, it is used by the Ojibwe to give thanks, and to honor deceased family members and ancestors. Turtles hold a very important place in Ojibwe culture; when I took Anishnaabe language classes at NMU, our instructor, Kenn, told us how he would give semaa offerings to the animals he found dead on the road -- especially turtles. They are, after all, our family -- beings we share this earth with.