I was fortunate to get to visit some pretty cool places last year, and to photograph some awesome critters, many of which I had never seen so well before. Here are the best of the lot.

In March I went out to Black Mesa with my mentor, Rich Cifelli, and a Native Explorers crew led by Kent Smith. Rich and I saw this pronghorn on the way in, and I got the shot by holding my phone up to Rich’s binoculars.

Later that same day, I caught these pronghorns crossing the highway in front of us. You can tell from the glare and splotches that I was shooting through the windshield. It was that or no shot.

A few days later, we got absurdly lucky. Everyone was driving back to base at the end of the day, with Rich’s truck at the end of the train. This herd of bighorn sheep picked that time to jump a fence and run across the road, right in front of Rich’s truck. Everyone else missed it, they were too far ahead. The bighorns crossed the road in front of our caravan again a couple of days later, and Kent Smith and Jeff Hargrave got some good photos of their own.

I like this landing-and-recovery sequence, illustrated by four different individuals.

Check out the two at the edge of the road, running in step.

A final wide shot. Thank goodness for burst mode shooting. These are all cropped iPhone photos, by the way.

Then in June I got to go with my son’s 5th grade field trip group to Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park, where we camped for three days and two nights. The dwarf island foxes were always around.

I think people have actually been good about not feeding them because they don’t beg. Neither are they afraid of humans. They treated us as non-threatening and inedible chunks of ambulatory matter. This one was startled by something in the bush and decided that running past me was the lesser of two evils. It might have been another fox, we saw and heard several get into tussles.

Another burst mode catch was this raven on the beach.

Here’s a crop. Not bad, sez me. For a shot of a stinkin’ theropod.

And here’s my favorite shot of that trip, and my second-favorite of the entire year. On the boat ride out to the island, a pod of dolphins came and surfed our bow wake. They did this for quite a while, and everyone who wanted to was able to cycle through the front of the boat and get close-up shots. I’d seen dolphins from shore before, when we lived in NorCal, but I’d never gotten to see them up close from the water. This is yet another burst-mode catch, taken just as this dolphin was breaking the water and before most of the bubbles coming out of its blowhole had popped.

I’m going to use my son’s standing as a tetrapod to sneak this in: sunset at Dead Horse Point, near Moab, Utah. That’s the Colorado River down there, 2000 feet below the clifftops. If you’re ever in that neck of the woods, this is the place to come see the sun set. Trust me on this.

Several drinks later, they all die and somehow become skeletonised, and that’s how they all land up on a table in my office:

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Top left: pieces of monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus. Cervical vertebrae 1-7 on the piece of paper, femora visible above them, bits of feet below them. Awaiting reassembly. The whole skeleton is there.

Top right, on a plate on top of some lizard bits: skull, cervicals and feet of common pheasant Phasianus colchicus. The skull has come apart, and I can’t figure out how to reattach the quadrates. One of the feet is cleanly prepped out and waiting to be reassembled, while the other retains some skin for now.

Bottom left: skull and anterior cervicals of red fox Vulpes vulpes. Lots of teeth came out during the defleshing process, and will need to be carefully relocated and glued after the skull has finished drying out.

Bottom right: skull and anterior cervicals of European badger Meles meles. The skull is flat-out awesome, and by far my favourite among my mammal skulls. If tyrannosaurs were medium-sized fossorial mammals, they’d have badgers’ skulls for sure. A few teeth that came out have been glued into place; once the glue is dry, this skull is done.

 

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire two medium-sized native mammals, both roadkill specimens in good conditions: a fox and a badger:

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But I’ve found from bitter experience that prepping out the entire skeleton of good-sized animals like these is a lot of dirty smelly work. So I decided to make things easier on myself by only prepping the skulls of these two.

Step one: remove the heads.

What follows is not pretty. Parental advisory: you should avoid this post if you feel a misguided sentimentality about the already-dead corpses of deceased animals.

I considered several approaches, as recommended by commenters on this blog and people on Twitter, but ended up taking the butcher’s approach — mostly because I have a good, sharp knife, but lack some of the tools needed for other approaches.

I took on the fox first. I cut through the skin surrounding its neck, and peeled it back far enough to reveal the neck musculature:

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From there, it was pretty easy to slice away the muscles down towards the vertebrae — but impossible to get right to the vertebrae themselves, because they’re surrounded by gloop including not only muscles, but ligaments, fascia and tendons:

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I’d hoped to be able to feel my way to an intervertebral joint, and ease it apart with the knife. But that turned out to be difficult. It was also going to need a lot of force, and I was worried that down in among all that gloop, I might slip and cut myself.

So I used our the axe we use for chopping firewood. It would have been terrible for dealing with the flesh, but it was fine for the bones:

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Then it was the same procedure for the badger. I started by cutting a ring around the skin of the neck and peeling back.

Straight away, it was obvious that the badger is a much more serious piece of kit than the fox. It’s not as long, but it’s heavier, and much more muscular, and it has way tougher skin. I don’t know if foxes and badgers ever fight, but if they do, my money is on the badger every time. It would bite much harder and its claws are epic, too. The only thing the fox would be better at is running away.

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Then, as with the fox, I sliced away the meat till I reached the bony core of the neck:

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And again, the axe finished the job. I was left with a pair of decapitated corpses:

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And, more importantly, a pair of heads:

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Also, some evidence of my activities in the bloodstained chopping block. I hope the neighbours don’t see this and leap to the wrong conclusion:

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What to do with the sadly unloved postcrania? I have no further use for them, so I decided to bury the bodies. I went down to the bottom of our garden, only to find all the sheep in the adjacent field coming over to see what I was doing:

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Best stay back, sheep! Or you could be next!

I dug a hole, which is a lot more work than it looks. Predictably, given than I am England during what passes for springtime, it suddenly stared hailing while I was digging. But eventually, I was done:

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In went the postcranial pair:

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And pretty soon, you’d never have known anything had happened here.

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Next time: exciting adventures with the badger head!