Saturday, June 30, 2012

Broken Doe

Yet another doe was hit overnight on M-28.

Her body was pushed or dragged across the road, from the middle line, leaving behind a smear of hair and stomach contents. When she finally came to rest, one of her front legs was broken in such a way that it was twisted bizarrely up and over her head.

The ravens had been feasting, as evidenced by the scat and feathers littered around the carcass. Screaming from the nearby treetops, they impatiently waited for me to be on my way.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


After a few gorgeous days' worth of backpacking at Pictured Rocks, Steph and I headed out to the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Before driving the several-mile loop through the refuge's marshland, we stopped at the visitors center – and it's one of the best I've visited! For starters, there is an abundance of taxidermy, and I do mean everywhere. Most of it is at eye-level and is extraordinarily well-done. The mounts represent the native mammals, birds, and fish that call the refuge their home.

One display has an assortment of the owl species that live in Michigan. Barring a natural history museum, I'm not sure I've seen so many taxidermy owls in one place!

Seney is famous for its loons. There's a wonderful taxidermy exhibit that shows an adult loon swimming with its young on its back, as well as a loon diving underwater. It's a display that you have to see firsthand to truly appreciate, because the amount of detail involved is pretty stunning. Amazing, too, is the center's wolf mount. Set in a natural, nonthreatening pose, the wolf stands in a realistic habitat at the edge of recreated water. Beaver tracks are visible in the mud.

Next to the wolf mount is another excellent exhibit at the visitors center: a side-by-side comparison of wolves and coyotes. The display contains photographs of the two canids, as well as tanned pelts and replica skulls, and illustrates well the incredible size difference between them. It's a great hands-on feature that is especially important, as around here, coyotes are constantly mistaken for wolves, and vice-versa.

Perhaps the best part of the Seney visitors center is the "touch table." A common feature of nature centers, this one is likely the best I've seen. 

Touch tables are generally low-to-the-floor and easily accessible by both children and adults alike. They allow visitors to handle objects from nature – things they wouldn't usually find or see – such as animal skulls and bones, antlers, feathers, turtle shells, pelts, and so on. Being able to not only see but touch these items – to feel an otter's dense fur or a raccoon's sharp teeth – opens the door to endless learning.

Touch Table

Accompanied by an extensive collection of furbearer pelts, this touch table even has several older taxidermy mounts. Despite being within reach of young children, they were all in pretty decent shape!

If you're ever passing through the Upper Peninsula and are about to embark on the 25-mile "Seney Stretch" – or, if you have already, and want to stretch your legs – I highly recommend a stop at the Seney visitors center. It's both kid- and adult-friendly, there's a great shop full of amazing nature books and field guides, and while you're there, you can take a drive through the refuge. Chances are, you'll see trumpeter swans, loons, ospreys, and bald eagles!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Another Day, Another Doe

Overnight, a deer was hit on M-28, 10 miles east of the US-41 junction.

Summer Doe I

Before dawn, coyotes had picked away at the doe's rear end. The flies had only just arrived.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

North of the 45th Parallel

From the DeVos Art Museum webpage:

The North of the 45th is an annual juried exhibition of artists living North of the 45th Parallel from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Each year a different juror from outside of the area, but within the Midwest, is asked to select pieces for the exhibition from an open call for entries. The jury process is anonymous and based on image, title, media and dimensions. This year's exhibition is juried by Wally Mason, director of the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

This year, Stephanie and I entered artwork, and both of us were selected to be a part of the exhibition! It's an honor to have our art hanging at the DeVos Art Museum, so this is pretty exciting. Steph's piece, Bloodthirsty, is from her recent and ongoing series of paintings that explore the human perception of Coyote. My piece was taken back in October of 2010, at Pinckney's graveyard of poached deer. Photographed with the medium-format Ciro-flex, it's something that I haven't posted here before:

I had the photograph printed at twenty inches square – the largest print I've ever ordered! This is the artist's statement that I supplied for the exhibition:

My body of work explores a world not often seen or sought. For years I have been documenting dead animals, in an effort to portray decomposition as a beautiful, fascinating, and ecologically crucial process. Accustomed to photographing natural and accidental animal deaths, I was thrown a curve when, on State land, I encountered a veritable deer graveyard. It was a place where poachers had dumped the remains of their spoils, with no regard to law or human decency. It was a disturbing, ugly scene, one that spoke volumes of waste, greed, and disrespect. Yet, in the end, and in the eyes of Nature, these poached deer were no different from any other dead animal: their bodies would decompose, feeding generations of insects, before returning to the earth.

The opening reception for the exhibition was held on Friday evening. There were lots of people at the gallery, along with some great music courtesy of Kerry Yost and, of course, The Chanteymen!

The North of the 45th Parallel Exhibition runs through August 5th. If you're in the Marquette area, be sure to stop by! This is a great show, and there is some truly unique artwork on display.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Strix varia

Barred owls (Strix varia) are a relatively common and widespread species of owl, native to a large portion of northeastern North America. In recent years, their population has moved west across the continent; so adaptable are these owls that they can easily thrive in suburban settings, such as city parks and neighborhoods. As adults, they have few natural predators, their greatest threat being vehicles.

Owl-car collisions are not rare. Oftentimes, owls will perch in trees alongside roadways at night, waiting for rodents and other small animals to appear. Nighttime traffic and swooping owls isn't an optimal situation, and the owls always lose out in the end. Other birds of prey suffer the same fate: hawks, eagles, and vultures are common victims, as well. The difference with owls is that they are active at night, and ghostlike, seem to materialize from thin air.

•          •          •

Steph called me while she was on her way to Munising, and said that about thirteen miles out, there was a large, brown-and-white bird, dead in the middle of the road. I hemmed and hawed for a while, not sure if it was worth driving the almost-thirty-mile round-trip for a mystery bird that could potentially be obliterated by the time I arrived. I finally gave in, however, and set off down M-28 – and I'm glad I did, because it presented me with the unique and sobering experience to see, touch, and photograph a roadkill barred owl.

In the time that it had taken me to get there, the owl's body had traveled another two miles. Just a wing, tail, and feet, held together by some battered bones, the carcass was stuck in the weeds alongside the road. At first glance, I thought that it was all damage from being run over by cars, again and again, but a closer look made it clear that the owl had actually been dead for some time. The bones were dry and gnawed upon, the connective tissue was hard, there was no blood to speak of. In the days prior, the owl had likely been hit on the road, and then subsequently been discovered by a scavenger. How many animals had fed on it, before the owl was deposited in the middle of the highway?

Since there wasn't much left of the body, I focused on documenting the barred owl's feet and feathers. Owls are highly specialized birds, with some unique features that aid them in their nighttime, predatory behavior.

Barred Owl VI

Barred Owl IX 
Barred Owl II 

Barred Owl X

Barred owl feet are special, and are quite different from those of other birds – and even some other owls. The toes are arranged in a way that allows them to grasp onto branches and prey with ease. The talons are long, curved, and sharp, and resemble fishhooks. The entire leg, as well as the top of the foot, is covered in dense, fur-like feathers, which is important for a bird that lives year-round in the northwoods. The underside of the foot, meanwhile, is lined with bumpy scales – also to aid with grip.

Barred Owl VIII 

Barred Owl III 

Owls are famous for being silent fliers. How do they do it? Their flight feathers have a modified, fringed edge, as seen in the first and third photos above. When drawn through the air, the feather – and the entire wing – is noiseless. It makes for a silent flier, and a successful hunter. Also important for the owl is its coloration. Owls have markings that help them blend into their surroundings; in the case of the barred owl, its plumage is dappled and brown, making detection in a forest quite the challenge.

I've never had the opportunity to see or hear a wild, living barred owl. In that respect, finding one dead on the side of the road is both frustrating and sad. However, having the chance to see it up close – the feathers, the talons – allowed me to learn a great deal more about this beautiful animal.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Deer Month

The month of June is notorious for deer-car collisions. Does have given birth to their fawns, leaving them behind, hidden, while they forage; bucks have begun to grow their velvety antlers in a first surge of testosterone. Deer become more active after a long winter, and are more apt to dart across dirt roads and highways alike.

Though many accidents are unavoidable, some steps can be taken to decrease the chance of hitting a deer while driving.

• Be especially vigilant at dawn and dusk, as these are times when deer most frequently travel. This doesn't mean deer won't jump into the road at any other other time, however; morning hours, when the sun is climbing in the sky, are still just as dangerous, as are evening hours, when the sun is setting.

• If the sun is in your eyes, slow down. I have found many deer are hit along stretches of road where the sun is shining against the driver during the aforementioned times of day.

• If one deer is crossing the road, there's a very good chance that more will follow. Slow down, and stop if necessary, until you are sure that all of the deer have crossed. Proceed cautiously and slowly.

• Even if a deer looks to be stopped on the side of the road, or turning away, proceed with caution. Deer are easily spooked and can change their mind in an instant.

Go the speed limit. This can't be repeated enough. The speed limit in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, for example, is 55 miles per hour. This can be pushed to 60 miles per hour, but generally, go no faster than the posted speed limit. Obeying the law will cut down on slower-animal deaths as well, especially turtles, snakes, raccoons, and foxes.

In the past several days, I've photographed two different deer that have been hit on M-28, the deathtrap of a highway that runs between Marquette and Munising. The first was a yearling buck with tiny velvet nubs, and the second, this morning, was a beautiful doe who had swollen teats – evidence that somewhere, there's a hungry, motherless fawn.

Last week's button buck was tiny. His legs and neck were pencil-thin, and he'd still been in the process of shedding his winter fur, resulting in a strange, patchy appearance. The velvet nubs on his head had severe road rash, bleeding profusely; foam had spilled from his nostrils as he died. It was gruesome, and one of the most disturbing results of a car-deer collision I've seen. As I left, the turkey vultures were already on their way.

This morning's doe, however, was beautiful. The scene wasn't gory; her back end pointed toward the highway, while her face was nestled amongst the clovers and grass. So recently had she died, the flies hadn't yet discovered the body; her eyes still looked so alive.