Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tiny Creatures

There are animals so small you'd never know they were there. Despite being active both day and night, they are secretive and silent — and there's a good chance they might be living in your own backyard! I'm not referring to insects, or some other sort of invertebrate — I'm talking about shrews! There are several species of shrew in North America; we've already met one of them here, Blarina brevicauda, the Northern Short-tailed Shrew. As far as mammals go, the short-tailed shrew is pretty small — but there's a shrew even smaller, if you can believe it.

The Masked Shrew (Sorex cinereus) is widespread throughout the northern United States and most of Canada. As an opportunistic eater, it preys upon anything from worms and insects to seeds — even salamanders, frogs, and small rodents. A critter with a very high rate of metabolism, the masked shrew must eat constantly, and will consume three times its weight in a single day!

As far as mammals go, it's also incredibly tiny.

Much like last spring's star-nosed mole, this masked shrew was found dead on the bike path that runs past our house. It's very likely that a predator caught and killed it, only to be repulsed by its scent. With a body length of only 3.5 inches — and that's including the tail — this shrew was one of the smallest (vertebrate) animals I've photographed.

It's hard to believe that this tiny creature shares the same organs and skeletal structure as us! It's also amazing that this shrew — so miniscule and delicate, needing to eat almost constantly to survive — can weather the cold, harsh winters of the Upper Peninsula. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

How To Say Goodbye

One of the defining moments of becoming an adult, in my opinion, is experiencing the death of a favorite family pet — one with whom you've shared most of your life. It's that puppy or kitten you grew up beside as a child, confided your secrets to as a teenager, and left behind, temporarily, when you ventured off to college — only to enjoy tearful reunions during holiday breaks. The sudden absence of a being that's always been there for you and with you, through your best and worst of times, is a heart wrenching, helpless feeling — and it's a feeling to which I think most of us can relate.

I have seen the deaths of a number of family pets, cats and dogs alike, but none felt quite like the passing of Kosh, a calico cat we adopted as a kitten in June of 1998. She was my best friend throughout most of my childhood and teenage years — and she was truly my cat. Kosh died this March, at the age of 15. When she passed, I felt that last remaining pieces of my childhood pass, as well.

December 2012

How do you say goodbye to a pet whom you've known and loved since the age of ten? How do you cope? How do you move on? Can you truly move on?

Today, finally, we buried Kosh. It's hard to describe the initial, visceral feeling of seeing her small body, wedged into a cardboard box, frozen in time and position. The last time I'd seen her, in December of 2012, she'd been alive — slow, of course, and not as steady on her feet as she'd been a few years prior — but she'd been alive and loving and sassy as always. It's a horrible feeling, that final, awful realization that your friend of fifteen years — the cat who let you carry her upside-down — the cat that slept beside you every night — the cat that loved to bask outside, in the garden —is, indeed, dead.

The body was cold, stuck in an unnatural position. Freezer burn had nipped the tips of those tiny, pink toes. The fur was thicker and more lustrous than I'd remembered. The ears had thawed quickly, and were pliable and soft. I spent several minutes just petting her fur and crying — running my fingers through that coat, touching the tips of those ears and feeling those toe pads.




And then I took photographs. I've handled and photographed frozen animals a countless number of times before; it's always been an awkward process but in most cases never an emotional one. This, though, was an exception. Unlike anonymous roadkill, it was incredibly hard to photograph this cat — my cat — having known her and loved her and cared for her.






At last the time came to bury her. I tucked catnip and flowers from my mother's garden around her body. As the first shovelful of dirt fell over that glossy, soft fur, it was like a punch to the gut: there was a finality to it, and it hurt. Going into the ground was Kosh, an important part of fifteen years of my life — a strange cat, an amazing cat, a beautiful cat.


In time she will become that ground, in the backyard where she sought patches of sun and solitude.

May 2007

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Burying Beetle Burial

When I finished photographing the robin on Independence Day, I figured the body would have disappeared by the following morning — with scavenging raccoons and foxes visiting our backyard, corpses don't have the tendency to hang around for long. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the robin was not only where I left it — but it was half-buried!

Robin, 10:48 AM
July 5, 10:48 AM

This was, of course, the work of burying beetles. I've read about them at length, and Bernd Heinrich dedicates an entire chapter to them in his book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death. Despite spotting these beetles on numerous occasions — most notably, on the corpse of a red-bellied snake last summer — until now I'd never actually seen them in action, burying a body. I decided I'd periodically check throughout the day, to watch their progress. I was not disappointed!

Robin, 1:57 PM
July 5, 1:57 PM

Robin, 7:34 PM
July 5, 7:34 PM

Robin, 8:08 AM
July 6, 8:08 AM

By this morning, all that remained above ground was the tip of a wing and the tip of the tail. Everything else had been swallowed by the earth! This was incredible to observe, and I can only imagine the confusion of someone seeing this for the first time and not having a clue of what was happening. By all accounts, the body of the robin disappeared into the soil, and frankly, it's both pretty cool and pretty creepy.

I took a video of the scene at 10:47 AM on July 5: dappled sunlight moves over the half-buried robin, while flies continue to investigate the carcass:

Later in the day, at 7:39 PM, I filmed another set of videos. The earth around the robin was literally moving with the activity of the burying beetles! Soil heaved, and the bird itself seemed to shudder and sigh.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day Observations

When I find a dead animal, one of my favorite things to do, if I'm able, is to just sit and watch. This isn't always possible, especially when a subject is on the side of the road or in a very public area — but if it's in the middle of the woods, or in my backyard, the seclusion lends itself well to tranquil observation.

This afternoon, while doing yardwork, I found a dead robin. It was sprawled in the grass, face-down, wings spread. The body was quite the distance from any windows, and there was no sign of predation: the breast feathers were intact, which isn't often the case when a bird is taken down by a cat or other animal.

I moved the robin to the shade and began to photograph it; the eyes were sunken and the flies and ants had found the body before me.

 At this point, I decided to simply start watching. The blue- and green-bottle flies returned, landing on primaries and down; some laid eggs, others sampled the surface. Ants large and small wove their way through the feathery fluff. 

Robin VI 
There's something wonderfully peaceful about sitting next to a dead animal and watching the world go by. The corpse is still, but everything moves around it: flies buzz, ants crawl, birds warble in the trees above. For nearly 45 minutes, I photographed and observed this robin; I felt the sun on my back, the mosquitoes on my arms, and the pine needles beneath my crossed legs. I began to take videos of the flies on the body, and in a nearby jack pine, a robin started to sing.