Friday, July 27, 2012

Still Warm

This morning, a coyote was hit on M-28, fifteen miles east of Marquette. It lay sprawled in the center of the two-lane highway, head dangerously close to passing tires, teeth bared. A small puddle of blood had pooled on the pavement beneath its face. I moved the body off the road, carrying it by its legs, and was taken aback to find that it was still warm.

For a moment, I didn't take any photographs. I looked upon this coyote with wonder and pity, touched its scraggly summer fur, removed a dog tick from its ear. An hour earlier, this coyote had been a living, breathing entity, a predator of the northwoods, a hunter in the forest. Like untold numbers before it, this animal had met its end on the highway, and it had died with a look of terror and contempt in its eyes.

Coyote I

Psychologically, photographing this coyote was not easy. Despite the body being motionless, it still looked as if it could awaken, shake the whole ordeal off, and retreat back to the woods. Of course, it was dead; its snout was smashed, its ears bled, and its pupils were dilated, unseeing.

I photographed the coyote for nearly twenty minutes – an incredibly long period of time spent along the highway. Cars raced by, giving me a wide berth, their tires noisily hitting the rumble strip at the center of the road. There were spans of time, however, when there was no traffic, and it was blessedly quiet – just the coyote and myself, silent save for the singing of crickets and the distant calling of crows. At last, I moved the body even further off the road, into a grassy ditch, where I took my favorite photograph of the morning:

Coyote VIII

From the road, the coyote was invisible. All that remained was blood splatter; soon, that too will wash away.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


On the first day of July, a fawn was hit 15 miles east of the M-28/US 41 junction. I photographed it on the pavement of the highway shoulder, where it fell, then moved the body off the road and into the grass, where I photographed it again.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Beetles on a Snake

I've got a sizable queue of photographs to share and topics to write about, but what Steph and I discovered yesterday evening deserves a quick post of its own. Near the bike trail we spotted a dead red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) being eaten by several burying beetles (Nicrophorus sp.). I didn't have my camera on me, but I did have my iPhone, which can take a surprisingly decent video:

It's interesting to note the mites that are swarming the beetles (and the snake carcass), as well as the noises the beetles are making to one another.

Here's a closer look at a burying beetle, photographed in June when I was doing some blacklighting in the backyard. It, too, is covered in mites:

Burying beetles, like carrion beetles, are in the Silphidae family. They're extremely important insect scavengers and play a large role in carcass decomposition.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Old Snapping Turtle

Turtles are amazing animals. They've lived on this planet for millions and millions of years, and over that incredible span of time, they've remained relatively unchanged. Until very recently, they were perfectly adapted to their environment and well-armored against their few predators. Within the last century, however – a mere heartbeat in the evolutionary scale of things – humans have tipped the environment on its head with the advent of roads.

While many animals are quick or cautious enough to cross even highways without being struck, the same cannot be said for turtles. Even the smallest, most quiet of country lanes presents a deadly obstacle. All too often, these roads and highways cut through wetland, or run between a forest and a body of water. Turtles, many species of which will travel miles to lay their eggs, frequently find their way cut off by a constant stream of traffic. Unlike deer or coyotes, which can dart across a road in a matter of seconds, it takes a turtle far longer to cross – and oftentimes, they won't make it to the other side.

A few days ago, I was alerted to a big snapping turtle, hit about fifteen miles east of Marquette on the Sand River bridge. When I arrived at the scene, I was taken aback at just how incredibly large this turtle was. The largest snapping turtle I'd ever seen, it looked absolutely ancient, and it was both sad and humbling. How old was it? What had the area looked like when it first hatched? How fast had the cars traveled back then? Had M-28 been a proper highway, busy like it is today? How many times had this turtle crossed the road, without incident, before being struck?

The body had been there for several days. The long neck had burst open, swimming with maggots; the front of the carapace was shattered. Laying beside the turtle, amongst fragments of its shell, were the remains of its last meal – a crayfish.

How could I photograph something so sad, so grisly? For a while, all I could do was look at this creature with awe and pity. It had survived as a hatchling – a monumental feat for turtles – and had defied countless odds to become the hulking leviathan that I saw, stretched out before me, being feasted upon by maggots and beetles. I noted that the shadow its body cast resembled a dinosaur, and I found it strangely fitting.

I wondered how many generations of snapping turtles this individual had a hand in creating, and wondered, too, how many were still alive. I considered the flies that the body was feeding, and how they would become food for fish, which in turn would become food for snapping turtles.

If you are traveling and see a turtle attempting to cross the road, help it cross, if it is safe for you to do so. Hold the turtle by the back of its shell – or place it in a container or on a tarp – and carry it in the direction that it was headed. Helping turtles cross the road is an oftentimes tense experience, especially if you're assisting a snapping turtle, but it's also a great opportunity to learn and to help an ancient animal in need.

Here is a portrait of a young snapper that Steph and I helped this spring. It was migrating from the Chocolay River to a marshy area near Lake Superior, and would have had to cross two roads:

Snapping Turtle!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Right Foot, Left Foot

Porcupines are awkward animals, and they're often vilified and misunderstood. One of the most common misconceptions about them is that they can "shoot" their quills – this is entirely false. What the quills can do, however, is detach from the porcupine's skin upon contact with an attacking animal.

Porcupines are also well-known for their sometimes-strange gnawing antics – I've heard many stories from the U.P. about porcupines chewing holes into outhouse walls in their search for salt and minerals. Understandably, this sort of behavior has given them a rather poor reputation. Between gnawing holes into property and filling an attacking dog's face with quills, porcupines aren't often well-liked! They are, however, interesting animals that deserve a closer look.

On the Fourth of July, a large porcupine was hit on M-28, 15 miles east of Marquette. Many of the quills had detached from the porcupine's back, resulting in a spray of them across the shoulder of the road. Interestingly, the only insects at the scene were ants, and they sure weren't happy that I was there to photograph the body.

Porcupines are, in a way, quite shapeless. Their long fur and quills give them the appearance of a large, spiny guinea pig, and their eyes are small and beady. As a result, they're hard to photograph, so I ended up focusing on the porcupine's front feet, which are really fascinating.

Right Foot

Left Foot

Porcupines are rodents, and like all rodents, they have four toes on their front feet. Because they spend so much of their time in trees, their claws are highly specialized for climbing. In addition, their paw pads are covered in little bumps, which improve grip.

As shy animals with a hefty defense system, porcupines have few natural enemies. Their number-one threat is probably traffic, but they are also the favorite food of a certain large mustelid – the fisher. Porcupines have no quills and very thin fur on their bellies, and fishers take advantage of this by flipping their spiny prey onto its back before attacking.

Learn more about Erethizon dorsatum, the North American Porcupine, here.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Square Gulls

The stretch of beach near the Presque Isle Park breakwall is rocky, and usually strewn with interesting bits of driftwood, the occasional piece of strange trash, and of course, dead gulls. Last week, I took a walk along that beach, and encountered four gull bodies, all in different stages of decomposition. Some had been recently scavenged, while others had been caught up in the rocks for quite some time, slowly desiccating.

Photographing dead gulls is a bit of a challenge for me. After a while, they all start to look alike, so for this particular series I took a different approach. I kept the compositions more ambiguous, and when post-processing cropped them to a square format. 

First Gull

The first was a ring-billed gull. Though very decayed, the body was mostly complete, including the head. It was tangled up in the debris adjacent to the breakwall, and looked like it had been there for a long time.

The second, also a ring-billed gull, was no more than a pair of wings held together by the keel and breastbone. This is how gulls often end up, as all of the more tasty parts are scavenged, leaving behind the near-meatless wings.

The third ring-billed gull was freshly-dead and very freshly-scavenged, likely by other gulls and crows. All that remained were its wings and feet, held together by a few bones.

The last gull I found was a juvenile herring gull, and compared to the ring-billed gulls, it was huge! Like the previous gull, it was recently-dead and freshly-scavenged. Left over were the wings and feet. The body was positioned in such a way that when the wind gusted, the wings would flap: