I was absolutely thrilled to spot this bright yellow warbler on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Some more experienced birders in a birding forum on Facebook have identified it as a Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina). When it comes to identifying warblers, I tend to be wrong as often as I am right. I have learned that it is best to ask for help rather than apologize afterwards for my errors.

I was pretty certain that I had never seen this species before, but decided to do a search of the blog to be sure. I was shocked to find that I spotted a Cape May Warbler last year at the start of October—check out that posting entitled Cape May Warbler. I relied on the help of experts last year too and somehow never internalized the identification into my brain. Alternatively, I can simply blame the aging process for this minor “senior moment.”

Cape May Warbler


Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Red-eye Express

This Woodland Box Turtle, a species that is also known as an Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) was chilling out in the grass at the edge of a trail when I spotted it last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It was not moving about very much, but I could sense a real intensity in its bright red eyes.

In order to capture this shot, I got down as low as I could, though I was not quite low enough to be at eye level with the turtle. I was quite happy to be able to capture a lot of detail in the shell and in the portion of the head sticking out of the shell. I encourage you to click on the image to get a closer view of the wonderful details of this strikingly handsome box turtle.

Woodland Box Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Another hidden eagle

As I was wandering the trails early last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I was fortunate to spot this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched in a tree, almost hidden amongst the leaves. I would like to think that my stealthiness permitted me to get close to the eagle, but suspect instead that the eagle was comfortable in its perch and simply did not view me as a threat.

The eagle moved its head from side to side a bit and glanced down at me occasionally, but stayed in place as I took some shots. The trail took me past the tree in which the eagle was perched and after I had passed underneath the eagle, I glanced over my shoulder and was pleasantly surprised to see the eagle was still there. I love it when I am able to capture my images without disturbing my wildlife subjects, though most of the time they are so skittish that they move away as soon as they detect my presence.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Two warblers

It was so cool last week to spot a few warblers at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Every spring and fall a variety of warblers migrate through our area. Quite often I can hear them twittering and tweeting in the trees, but it is rare for me to see one clearly. Usually I will see only a momentary flash of yellow that is quickly swallowed up in the sea of green foliage.

The bird in the first photo is a a Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum). Most of the time I see Palm Warblers foraging on the ground, but this one accommodated me by hopping up onto a tree and giving me an unobstructed shot.  The Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) in the second shot was not quite so cooperative. It was buried in the vegetation and never fully revealed itself.

The migration season for warblers will be drawing down soon. I have only modest shots like these to show for it, but I am not disappointed—some years I have not been able to get any shots at all. In the fall, the colors of the warblers tends to be more muted than in the spring, when the males are sporting their breeding plumage. Somehow the muted tones of the birds matches the mood of the season, as colors fade and we gradually move towards the monochromatic days of the winter.

Palm Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Headless heron

The angle at which I took this shot makes it look like there was a headless heron haunting Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge last week. (As most of you can probably tell a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) was showing off its impressive plumage and wingspan this shot.) I think I have been seeing too many Halloween displays at local stores, causing me to see spooky things everywhere.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Most people are familiar with the words, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Perhaps they have heard them read in a church, where they would be identified as coming from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. For folks of my generation, it is ever more likely that they would be associated with the words of a song by Pete Seeger made popular by the Byrds in the 1960’s.

Recently I have been really conscious of the changing seasons, of the never ending cycle of life and death. I have seen this phenomenon in nature and I have been very sensitive to it in other parts of my life.

Some of you may have noticed that I have not made a blog posting in several days, after more than a year of posting every day. I have spent the last few days in Massachusetts with my family celebrating the life and mourning the death of one of my younger brothers who died a week ago of lung cancer.

So often we think of growing older with grace and beauty, like the female Great Blue Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans) pictured below, thinking that we can somehow live forever. In fact, our days are numbered—life is so precious and yet so fragile. Celebrate life and love freely.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”


Great Blue Skimmer

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.




I was ecstatic on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to finally capture some images of Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies (Somatochlora filosa), a species for which I have been searching repeatedly this past month. Fine-lined Emeralds are one of several species that appear in the autumn, just as the number of most species of dragonflies is beginning to drop precipitously. I had spotted what I think were Fine-lined Emeralds several times earlier in September, but for me the sighting does not really “count” if I am not able to take a photograph.

Fine-lined Emeralds like to spend a lot of time patrolling, and a lesser amount of time perching. Unlike many of species that fly about high in the air, this species often flies at at somewhere between knee and eye-level.

On this day I spotted at least two individuals patrolling along one of the trails that runs parallel to the water. I alternated between chasing after the dragonflies and waiting for them to return—the patrol routes seem to be of a fixed length and the dragonflies would do a U-turn when they reached the end and fly back where they had been.

The dragonfly in the first two images is the same individual with a damaged rear wing, while the one in the final photo seems to be a different individual with an intact wing. I love the beautiful green eyes of this species, a characteristic they share with other members of the Emerald family. Those eyes seem to glow when the dragonfly is flying right at you.

If you look closely at the abdomen of the dragonflies, you can see the thin white/golden lines that I thought were responsible for the “fine-lined” portion of the name of this dragonfly species. However, a sharp-eyed fellow dragonfly enthusiast gently reminded me, after he read my initial posting, that the fine white stripes on the sides of the thorax (the “chest”) are responsible for the “fine-lined” name—you can see them best in the middle photo. I checked my identification guide and he is correct. Humility comes with the territory when it comes to identifying wildlife species.

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Impressions of Autumn

In Northern Virginia, where I live, we generally do not have the spectacular changes in the colors of the autumn foliage that I experienced while growing up in New England, Instead, the leaves often seem to fade gradually from green to brown before they fall off of the trees and are trampled underfoot. I love the reds and yellows of the autumn and am constantly on the alert for patches of these bright colors.

This past Saturday during a visit to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens with some friends, I was very conscious of the transitioning seasons and I tried to capture my impressions in some of my photos. The first image has an almost impressionist feel to it, caused largely by the ripples on the surface of the pond. Although the colors may be the traditional ones of autumn, I believe that almost all of the yellow was a reflection of the goldenrod plants that were blooming in abundance.

The second image is a bit more moody, though you can still see some of the autumn colors reflected in the dark waters, where lotuses and lilies were blooming earlier in the season. The final shot showcases the heart-shaped leaf of a lotus plant that is well past its prime. I was really taken by the way that the light shining through the leaf from behind highlighted its veiny structure. The deterioration of the leaf gives this image a tinge of sadness, a poignant reminder of the inexorable passage of time and the inevitable changes that it brings—nothing in nature lasts forever.

reflection of autumn

reflection of autumn

reflection of autumn

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


This past Saturday I visited Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in nearby Vienna, Virginia with several photographer friends and was pleasantly surprised to see that a lot of flowers are still in bloom. Those flowers kept the bees busy as well as an assortment of small butterflies, including this Variegated Fritillary butterfly (Euptoieta claudia).

This is a species that I do not see very often, so I was happy to capture a mostly unobstructed shot of it when it opened its wings—I am more used to seeing the somewhat similar Great Spangled Fritillary.

Variegated Fritillary

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Quite a mouthful

I spend a good amount of time looking for unusual subjects to photograph, but I also love to photograph the everyday creatures that inhabit my day-to-day life. I spotted this Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) last Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I cannot tell for sure what the squirrel had in its mouth, but he seemed to consider it a treasure.

I love the pose of the squirrel atop the broken-off tree—there is something dynamic about its somewhat precarious position and in fact the squirrel leap jumped to a nearby tree a few seconds after I snapped this photo. I also really like the curve of the squirrel’s tail that adds a kind of whimsical touch to the image.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Environmental portrait

When I can’t get near enough to a subject for a close-up shot, I love to try to create an environmental portrait, like this image of a Great Egret (Ardea alba) that I photographed last week in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Sometimes it is really cool to focus on capturing the mood of a moment more than worrying about the minute details of the subject.

Great Egret

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

At this time of the year, a variety of colorful warblers pass through our area as they make their way south to warmer locations. Warblers are quite small and tend to spend most of their time hidden in the leaves at the top of tall trees.  As a result, it is rare for me to see more than just a flash of color. When the leaves fall from the trees, I have a better chance of spotting a small bird, but most of them are gone by that time of the year.

Last week I was fortunate to capture some shots of a bird that I was able to tentatively identify as a Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens). A lot of warblers look somewhat similar, so I went back and forth in my bird identification guide to try to identify “my” bird. I was a little surprised when some more experienced birders confirmed my identification of the warbler—it was a bit of an educated guess on my part, but a guess nonetheless.

I am in the process of recalibrating my vision now that I have switched to using my long telephoto zoom lens most of the time. Instead of looking down and scanning a close-in area for subjects, I am now trying to look for subjects that are often much higher up and farther away. In this transitional season, though, it becomes a little more complicated, because there are still some insects that I want to photograph.

It requires good camera technique and careful composition to capture images of insects at 600mm, but I have had some success in doing so, thanks in part to the monopod that I use with my long lens for additional stability. For example, my recent shots of Black Saddlebags dragonflies and Monarch Butterflies were all taken with my Tamron 150-600mm zoom lens. As I have noted before, gear does matter, but only to a much more limited extent than most people assume—my basic approach is to get the best photos that I can with whatever I have at hand.


Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


More Black Saddlebags

I have been really fortunate recently in getting shots of Black Saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea lacerata). Early last month I spent lots of times trying to photograph Black Saddlebags as they patrolled overhead, convinced that they rarely come down to earth to perch. As the month progressed, I was ecstatic when I managed to capture a couple of images of perched Black Saddlebags.

The last week or so, I have spotted at least one Black Saddlebags on varying types of vegetation during each of three separate visits to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Have these dragonflies changed their behavior? Have I changed my approach by switching from a macro lens to a longer telephoto zoom lens? Am I growing more alert and patient?

Rather than ponder the answer to these questions, I think it is best for me to celebrate the beauty of what I was able to capture in my photos, to live fully in the moment. Most of the time that I go out with my camera, I do have not specific expectations—I take things as they come and try to make the best of the opportunities that I am given.

Recently I watched a vlog by Nathaniel Drew, a  young YouTube creator whose videos I regularly watch, who stated that, “Unhappiness is wishing that things were another way.” The alternative, he continued, is to have a purpose—”Purpose, on the other hand, is about finding meaning, making sense of how things are.”

How do you find happiness? In many ways I am striving to be like the Apostle Paul, who was able to write to the Philipians, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” True contentment, I believe, can come from treasuring and celebrating what we have in our lives and not complaining or focusing on those things that we do not have.

Have a wonderful weekend.


Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags


Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


Eagle Peek-a-boo

This majestic Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was almost hidden in the foliage when I spotted it on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. If the eagle’s head had not been so bright white in color, I might not have noticed it at all. At this time of the year, when I often can hear the birds, but cannot see them, it is always a challenge for me to photograph birds.

To mark the change of the seasons, I have switched over to walking around with my Tamron 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens affixed to my camera, a recognition that I am as likely to encounter birds as insects. I am still, however, carrying my 180mm macro lens in my backpack, in case I run into the right kind of shooting situation with an insects or other small creatures.

Initially the eagle had its head almost completely buried in the leaves, as you can see in the first photo. I gradually noticed, though, that the eagle was moving its head around a bit and I was able to capture some images that show a bit more of the eagle’s face. I changed my body position slightly as I watched and waited, but tried to minimize my movements for fear of spooking the eagle.

It has been quite a while since I last featured Bald Eagles in a posting, and I am excited at the prospect of seeing them more regularly. If so, you are sure to see the results here, because, as I have said on multiple occasions, any day in which I see a Bald Eagle is a good day and getting good shots is real bonus.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Late September Monarchs

I had given up on Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) for the season, so I was thrilled when I spotted several of them on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I do not know if these are local butterflies, but I like to imagine that they are temporary visitors who stopped in to visit during their magical migration journey to warmer locations.

I photographed these two butterflies in different parts of the wildlife refuge. I thought about using only one of the two photos for this posting, but decided that I really like the impact that the images have as a pair, presenting a kind of yin-yang contrast in light and shadows and overall mood. What do you think?



© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


I will survive

As we rush towards the end of September, the number of butterflies is continuing to drop and many of the ones that I see are faded and tattered. Yet somehow, despite the obvious signs of age and infirmity, they manage to adapt and survive. I photographed this Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

For folks of my generation, the title of this blog will immediately bring to mind the memorable song by that name as sung by Gloria Gaynor in the late 1970’s.

“Oh no, not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive
I will survive”

Black Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


Raccoon on the move

When I spotted this raccoon (Procyon lotor) last Tuesday afternoon at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, it was trotting right towards me on one of the trails, seemingly undeterred by my presence. I stepped to the side as far as I could and grabbed a stick for potential protection. The raccoon swerved a little as it passed me, but did turn its head to growl at me.

Folks in a nature forum on Facebook reminded be that there are a number of reasons why raccoons might be out in the daylight like this, including foraging for food for babies, and that I should not assume that the raccoon has a problem, such as rabies. I try to be really careful when I am out in the wild, particularly because I am usually alone, and avoid direct contact with my subjects. It this case, the raccoon seemed to have a really determined look on its face and I was more than happy to move out of its way.


© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Each September I look forward to the reappearance of three dragonfly species: the Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum); the Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum); and the Fine-lined Emerald (Somatochlora filosa). At a time when most of the other dragonflies are dying off, these species burst onto the scene.

This season, however, “burst” would not be the appropriate verb to describe their activity. At Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where I have photographed all three species in the past, I have seen  Fine-lined Emeralds in flight three times, but have not managed to get a photograph of one. I still have not seen an Autumn Meadowhawk and until last Friday, I have not seen a Blue-faced Meadowhawk.

I was thrilled, therefore, when I spotted this female Blue-faced Meadowhawk on Friday. I had my long telephoto zoom lens on my camera, so trying to focus accurately on my tiny subject was a big challenge, but I am pretty happy with the result. Females of this species have relatively subdued coloration—the males have bright red bodies and blue faces—and they are generally harder to find than the males.

I hope to be able to feature a new photo of a male Blue-faced Meadowhawk soon, but if you are impatient or curious to see what one looks like, check out this posting called Blue-faced Meadowhawk (male) from September 2020.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Cindy’s cats

I am helping this weekend to take care of three cats that belong to my friend Cindy Dyer and her husband. I mention Cindy fairly often on this blog because she is a constant sources of encouragement and inspiration in my photography and has mentored me over the years—she is a freelance photographer and graphic designer. She is also an amazing gardener and most of the times when I feature flower photos, I have taken the shots in her garden.

Cindy works from home, so her three cats are used to having someone around during most of the day. Over the years I have taken care of the cats multiple times and they are relatively comfortable with my presence in the hours. That being said, each of the three cats has his own personality and shows me varying degrees of attention and affection.

I took these shots of Lobo, Pixel, and Queso yesterday afternoon when I stopped in to check on them. All three cats seemed to be evaluating me and I like the way that I was able some of their personality in these informal little portraits.




© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Damselflies in September

Autumn has officially arrived, but I continue to see damselflies at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, albeit in ever-decreasing numbers. The damselfly in the first photo is a female Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile) and the one in the second image is a male Big Bluet (Enallagma durum).

I like the way that I was able to capture hints of the changing season in the images, with the reddish autumn tones in the first shot and the gnawed leaf in the second one.

Familiar Bluet

Big Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Heron and eel

When I first spotted the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) on Tuesday, it was standing in the shallow water of a small pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  I could not tell if the heron was actively fishing, but it did seem to be alert and attentive, so I decided to watch and wait. It moved slowly toward a patch of vegetation and bent over slightly, its head disappearing from view.

Suddenly the heron thrust its body forward, striking without warning. When the heron turned its head, I could see a squirming creature in its beak, but I could not tell what it was. At first I assumed that it was a fish, but when the prey started to coil itself around the beak, I began to wonder if it was a snake. When I examined the images on my computer screen, I began to wonder if it could be some kind of eel.

I am presenting the images in reverse chronological order, because I think the shot of the heron struggling with its prey is the most compelling—I usually try to lead with my best shot, because it is the one that shows up as the thumbnail image for those using the WordPress Reader feed. A few seconds after I took that shot, the heron flew a short distance away, out of range of my camera, and I watched heron subdue and swallow what I am assuming was an eel. The second image provides the best view of the eel, and the final shot shot shows the heron before the action began.

UPDATE: A Facebook viewer has indicated that the catch is probably a juvenile American Eel (Anguilla rostrata).

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron


© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I was delighted to spot this beautiful Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) in a patch of goldenrod on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This angle of view over one of the opened wings provides us with a really good look at the butterfly’s distinctive patterns and colors and we can also see its extended proboscis as it sucks nectar from the bright yellow goldenrod.

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Viceroys in mid-September

It has been a while since I last saw a Monarch butterfly, but I continue to see lots of similar-looking Viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus), like these two little beauties that I photographed in the past few days at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico and parts of southern California each year and may already left our area, while Viceroys do not migrate. I suspect that we will continue to see Viceroys for another month or so before they die off. Viceroy butterflies overwinter here as caterpillars and in spring we will start to see them again.

I just glanced over at a calendar and noted that today is the first day of autumn for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. I have noted already some changes in the weather, though we are still having more heat and humidity that I would prefer.


viceroy butterfly

Viceroy butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Trio of turtles

I love the way that this trio of turtles had arrayed themselves on the trunk of a fallen tree last Friday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. The beautiful reflections they cast on the surface of the pond were a nice bonus. I could not help but note that they all are looking in the same direction—perhaps they all were facing into the sun or simply decided that I would prefer a profile shot to one of the back of their heads.


© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Rainy day photos

When the urge to take photos strikes me, I am undeterred by drizzle or intermittent light rain, though heavier rain and gusty winds tend to keep me at home. Of course, weather is unpredictable and I have gotten drenched in downpours a number of times. I carry an array of plastic bags and coverings to protect my gear, which is usually my number one priority.

Last Friday, it was raining off and on and I decided to visit Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge to see if any creatures were stirring. Not surprisingly, dragonflies were at the top of my list, though I doubted that any of them would be flying in the rain. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I spotted this male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis). I watched him land on a droplet-laden plant and managed to capture the first image below.

As I continued to walk around the small pond, I noticed a Black and Yellow Garden Orbweaver (Argiope aurantia) in its web, patiently waiting for a passing prey to be snagged. I thought the long brown object just below the spider might be a caterpillar or some other insect, but it turned out to be only a small twig.

There were a lot of flowers in bloom and my eyes were attracted to a cluster of small purple asters. The colors seemed really saturated and I liked the way that the droplets of water stood out on the petals.

So, I was able to capture a few photos to share, despite the rain. About the only thing that the images have in common is that they all include raindrops, which I believe add an additional element of interest to what otherwise might have been rather ordinary shots.

Eastern Pondhawk

Argiope aurantia spider


© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Diamond-backed Terrapin

I spotted this really cool-looking turtle on Friday while exploring at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge during a light rainstorm. The turtle does not look like any turtle that I have seen before—its speckled face really grabbed my eye. The turtle was nestled into the thick grass and I did not want to disturb it, so I moved on after grabbing a few quick shots.

When I returned home, I rushed to the Virginia Herpetological Society website to see if I could identify “my” turtle. The Commonwealth of Virginia, in which I live, has 25 species and subspecies of turtle, of which five are sea turtles, so I figured that it would not be very difficult to find a match. I could easily eliminate many species from consideration and finally decided that the turtle looks a bit like some of the photos for a Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin).

However, the map and information about the geographic distribution of the turtle within the state does not appear to include my county or any of the surrounding counties. According to the aforementioned website, the Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin is the only truly estuarine reptile in Virginia and it inhabits coastal, brackish marshes and their tributaries, bays, inlets, and tidal portions of coastal rivers—I was at a small pond adjacent to a larger marshland area. I am still seeking confirmation of my identification from more knowledgeable expert.

Where I live, Terrapins—the species seems to be variously referred to as “diamondback” and “diamond-backed”—is most often associated with the nearby state of Maryland, where the terrapin is the official state reptile and mascot for the University of Maryland College Park.


Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.



Predator 2

Life can be a risky proposition when you are relatively low on the food chain, like a damselfly. Some larger insects may hunt you down while you are flying—see my recent post called Predator that shows an Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly consuming a damselfly. Other creatures may try to trap you and then immobilize you.

Several times this past week during visits to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I have encountered Black and Yellow Garden Orbweaver spiders (Argiope aurantia) that had captured a damselfly. I did not see the actual capture, but the spider in the first photo was in the process of wrapping up the damselfly when I spotted.

Spiders can produce variety of types of silk. In cases like this, the silk (known as aciniform silk) comes out in sheets that look like a gauze bandage and the spider spins around the prey as it wraps it up. If you want to get a better look at how the spider emits these sheets of silk, check out a 2014 posting called Wrapping up a meal. If you have every wrapped presents at Christmas time, you know how difficult it is to wrap an irregularly shaped object. The spider has done an amazing job in making a compact package of the long skinny body and wings of the hapless damselfly—I encourage you to click on the image to see the details of the trapped damselfly.

In the case of the second photo, the spider was content to do a looser wrap, which lets us see the damselfly a little better. I think this damselfly and the one in the first photo are Big Bluets (Enallagma durum), though it is difficult to be certain of the identification.


Big Bluet damselfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


Uncommon beauty

I see them all of the time, but I still think that Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) are really cool, like this handsome male that I spotted last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of those cases when the name of the species actually matches up well with its appearance, at least for the mature males of the species. Still, I always cringe a little when I see the word “common” in the name of a species, because “common” is often used in a way that somehow suggests that beauty is tied to rarity—I am in favor of more species having the word “great” in their names.

Are you familiar with with the Common Whitetail dragonfly? I really like this description of the species found on the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website:

“Without question, this is our most commonly seen and easily identified dragonfly. The male especially is hard to miss and easy to remember. Its bold wing patches, white-blue abdomen and habit of perching on pathways and sidewalks brings it into contact with more people than any other dragonfly…Dragonfly geeks like myself tend to turn our noses up at the ubiquitous and ever-present whitetail – but thank goodness for them! Often seen in large numbers, almost swarm-like, they’re essential members of the urban and suburban food chain. There they are, eating mosquitos (both as larvae and adults) in our urban parks where few other dragonflies can help us out. And literally everything eats them: praying mantids, birds, frogs, raccoons, fish, spiders.”

We often take for granted those things (and people) that we see all of the time. It is so easy to get trapped in a cycle of endlessly pursuing something new and different, of focusing so much on the future that we lose touch with the present. Increasingly I am finding in my life that contentment comes in being conscious of and appreciating what I do have and not worrying about what I do not have, in finding uncommon beauty in everyday things.

Common Whitetail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I was shocked and thrilled last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when I managed to get some shots of Black Saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea lacerata) at ground level—Black Saddlebags spend most of their time patrolling overhead and only rarely do I see one perched.

If you follow this blog regularly, you may realize that this is the third posting that I have done on this dragonfly species in a little over two weeks. There has been a progression in my shots as I have been able to get closer and closer to these elusive dragonflies.

My first of this little series was called Flying Overhead and I was excited to get capture some in-flight images of Black Saddlebags—the dragonflies were pretty far away and the shots were not super sharp, but you could clearly see the distinctive dark patches on the hind wings. The second posting was called Perching Black Saddlebags and I was ecstatic when I was able to get some shots of Black Saddlebags perched high on some dead branches with the sky in the background.

As a wildlife photographer, I am often happy with my images, but rarely am I fully satisfied. There is a part of me that whispers in my ear that I can always do better. Giving in to that siren’s song, I will often return to the same locations to shoot the same subjects again and again.

I went out a bit earlier than usual on Friday—the sun had already risen, but there was still dew on some of the vegetation. If you look closely at the third shot (you may need to click on it to see the details), you can see water drops on some of the plants. I was stunned when I saw the Black Saddlebags dragonfly almost dive into the greenery from the air and perch really low. I have seen photos of dragonflies covered in dew and I have always aspired to take such a shot—this is not yet that aspirational shot, but I am getting closer to my goal.

I captured the first two shots a bit later in a totally different part of the refuge. Once again the dragonfly chose a low perch and I was able to position myself to capture quite a bit of detail. I was even able to change my shooting angle without spooking the dragonfly.

I am still on the lookout for a few more autumn species that I have not yet seen, so I will be heading out as often as I can, wide-eyed and hopeful that more cool encounters in nature await me.

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.




Wild Turkeys in September

How do you tell the age of a Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)? Strangely enough, that was the first question that came into my mind when I encountered a small group of Wild Turkeys on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Many of the turkeys that I have spotted at this refuge over the year have been considerably larger than the members of this group that seemed mostly young to me.

I went searching on-line for an answer to my question. Most of the information that I could find seemed to be designed for hunters, who could measure the length of the spurs and the beard and carefully check the patterns of the feathers after they had “harvested” the bird.

I was more interested in trying to capture the distinctive way in which these turkeys were strutting as they moved slowly toward the underbrush after they had detected my presence. It is probably my imagination, but the open mouths of the the two turkeys in the second photo makes me think that they were carrying on a conversation as they were walking.

The beautiful shades of brown and the different patterns of the feathers of a wild turkey never fail to impress me. The warm coloration of these beautiful birds reminds me that autumn, which starts next week for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, will soon be upon us.

As I was verifying the date for the Autumnal Equinox for this year on the Old Farmer’s Almanac website, I came across this Irish proverb that seemed appropriate, “Autumn days come quickly, like the running of a hound on the moor.”

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Milkweed bugs galore

I was excited to stumble across a cluster of Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) last Friday as I was exploring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It had been several years since I had last seen these colorful little bugs that not surprisingly were gathered together on milkweed pods. There are so many cool insects that are associated with milkweeds that I often stop to examine the plants whenever I come upon them.

A little over nine years ago, I studied these bugs  pretty closely and documented their stages of development in a posting that I called Life phases of the large milkweed beetle. Be sure to check it out for more information and fascinating photos of these colorful little bugs.

The short version is that as a “true” bug, milkweed bugs undergo incomplete metamorphosis. They go through a series of nymph stages, known as instars—the large milkweed bug has five instars. At each stage, the bug is covered by an inflexible exoskeleton that constrains its growth. Periodically it bursts out of the exoskeleton and can grow to twice his size as the new exoskeleton develops and hardens.

If you look closely the image, you will see that there are milkweed bugs at various stages of development. The youngest ones are smaller and are completely red. In some of the older ones you can see the development of tiny black wing pads. The orange and black one at the top of the group appears to be an adult.

Every time that I see this combination of bright red and green, my mind immediately thinks of Christmas. However, I doubt that anyone would choose to feature this image on their annual Christmas card.

large milkweed bugs

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


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