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When I am intently searching for dragonflies, my eyes are drawn to anything that is moving through the air. Once I detect movement, I will try to track the subject until I am able to identify it. Early in the season, things were a bit easier, because there were not many insects around, but as the weather has warmed out, it has gotten tougher and the air now seems filled with grasshoppers, bees, and other flying creatures as I move about in the fields and forests.

As I was wandering about last Thursday in Prince William County, I detected a black and yellow insect and tracked it until it landed on some vegetation. Ten years ago, I might have simply called it a “bee”—my knowledge of insects was so limited that I would have divided insects into broad categories like bees and butterflies. If pushed for more specificity, I might have called this a “small bee.”

My identification skills and my knowledge of insects has grown exponentially over the years. As soon as I saw the way that the insect was flying, I could tell that it was a hover fly, a member of a group of flies that you may know as flower flies, because of where they can be found most often. I was immediately attracted to the beautiful, elaborate patterns on the insect’s body and recalled that I had seen a similar one last year in the garden of my friend Cindy Dyer.

I believe that this cool-looking hover fly belongs to a species known as the Eastern Calligrapher Fly (Toxomerus geminatus), though there are over six thousand hover fly species worldwide, so it could also be a related species. Nevertheless, I love the thought of someone hand drawing the delicately etched pattern with pen and ink, creating a miniature work of art.

As I was composing a shot, I grew fascinated with the details of the leaf on which the hover fly was perched—it is easy for me to lose myself when looking at the world through a macro lens. It appears that some other insect had been chewing on the leaf before the Calligrapher Fly arrived and I like the way that I was able to capture the holes in the gnawed-on leaf.

Eastern Calligrapher Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

As I was wandering about last Saturday in Prince William County, I was thrilled to spot my first flower on a Mountain Laurel shrub (Kalmia latifolia). I had been noticing lots of buds during recent trips, but this was the first one that I spotted that was open. I think there may be cultivated versions of mountain laurel, but it is naturally found on rocky slopes and in mountain forest areas, which was exactly the environment that I was exploring.

I simply love the shape, colors, and pattern of the gorgeous flowers of this plant. After I published this post, I decided to add a second photo, one that shows the unopened buds of a mountain laurel, their additional beauty waiting to be revealed.

mountain laurel

mountain laurel

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Colorful irises

More bearded irises? Yes, I decided to do another posting on the colorful bearded irises in the garden of my neighbor and photography mentor Cindy Dyer. We are probably near the peak period right now and there is a wide variety of irises  in bloom. There is only a stem or two of some of the irises that I photographed, each with several blooms, but there is also one patch, shown in the final photo, where there are at least several dozen irises of the same type concentrated in one area.

One of the challenges of photographing these irises is that the background tends to get very cluttered. I have tried to blur the background by choosing my angle of view and camera settings, and the results are ok.

Cindy has come up with a more elegant solution—she photographs them in situ against a black velvet-like background, which requires the assistance of another person to hold the background in place. Usually her husband Michael is drafted, but yesterday in the late afternoon I was an emergency fill-in when the late day light spontaneously prompted her to photograph the irises that were blooming outside of her yard around an electrical junction box. The final photo is one that Cindy took with her iPhone of me in “action.”

What kind of results do you get with this process? Check out Cindy’s blog postings Bearded iris blooming in my garden and Bearded iris (taken last year) to see some samples of the stunning studio-like portraits of these flowers that Cindy has taken.

bearded iris

bearded iris

bearded iris

bearded iris

bearded iris

bearded iris

photo assistant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Whenever I can, I like to give a sense of the environment in which I find a dragonfly by including natural elements in the image. For example, I really like the fern in this photo of a female Painted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula semifasciata) that I spotted last Thursday while wandering about in Prince William County.

Many of you know that I enjoy taking photos at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a grassland and wetland habitat at the confluence of the Potomac and Occoquan Rivers where I am able to find an amazing assortment of birds, animals, and insects. This past month, however, I have been spending a lot of time in a different habitat.

I have traded the coastal plains for a hilly, forested area in Prince William County and replaced the broad river expanses with small mountain creeks and streams. Why? Many of the early spring dragonflies are found only in very specific habitats and the area that I have been exploring meets the requirements of several of those species.

It is difficult to describe these “new” areas, so I have included a couple of photos to give you a few indications of what I see and feel there. The second photo shows a relatively flat area adjacent to a stream. The forest floor is covered completely in ferns and dragonflies can sometimes be found perching in that vegetation, as you can see in the first photo.

The final photo shows one of the streams that I love to explore. Sometimes there will be dragonflies flying over the water or perching on the banks. I don’t want to give you the false impression, though, that there are lots of dragonflies here. My sightings are infrequent, but it is easy for me to spend hours on end in places like this—any photos that I manage to take are a bonus.

Last Saturday, for example, I explored for little over six hours and covered 10.8 miles (17 km) on a day when I knew the weather was too cool and cloudy to find many dragonflies. Yeah, I am a bit of a fanatic sometimes.

Painted Skimmer

forest ferns

creek

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Smiling cruiser

Can a dragonfly smile? I seemed to detect a cocky little smile when I moved in close for this shot of a handsome male Stream Cruiser (Didymops transversa) last Thursday in Prince William County. The macro view also allowed me to appreciate the beauty of his two-toned eyes and to note the curious-looking “chin strap.”

The second shot shows the entire body of the Stream Cruiser, a medium-sized dragonfly that is about 2.2 inches (56 mm) in length. The image also gives you a sense of the environment in which I spotted him—a large expanse of interrupted ferns adjacent to a stream.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Almost a month ago, fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford spotted a Selys’s Sundragon dragonfly (Helocordulia selysii), the first time that one had been spotted in Prince William County, Virginia where we were searching for dragonflies. This is an early spring dragonfly that is quite uncommon and we were both happy to get shots of it, though as I noted in my blog posting about the encounter, we did not realize until after the fact that this was a new discovery—we thought that it was a Uhler’s Sundraagon, a closely related species that I had previously seen at that location.

Whenever I encounter a brand new species in a location, I wonder if it is a one-off sighting, a vagrant who has wandered out of its normal territory, or if perhaps there is an established population. I may have gotten a partial answer to that question on Thursday when I spotted several Selys’s Sundragons a couple of miles upstream on the same creek where Walter made his initial discovery.

I managed to photograph two of these beautiful dragonflies while they perched on interrupted ferns that were growing in abundance in the area, including the dragonfly featured in the first two photos. The markings on the dragonfly’s body were quite distinctive and unfamiliar to me, given that this was the first time that I had seen this species at close range. Whenever I am out in the field, I tend not to worry about identification of my subjects and instead focus on getting the best shots that I can—I can sort things out when I get home and pull up the images on my computer screen.

A short time later, I also was able to capture some in-flight images of a Selys’s Sundragon when he cooperated for me by hovering a bit over the water. That made things marginally easier, but it is still a challenge to focus on a moving subject that is only 1.6 inches (40 mm) in length. Perhaps it is my imagination, but the dragonfly in the final photo seems to be glancing up at me, as though he was wondering if we were done yet with the photo shoot.

So, it looks like we may have at least a small established population of Selys’s Sundragons in this county. What is the flight season for the species? Walter and I were recently joking about that—as Walter pointed out, we are the baseline. We know that the season for this species in our area lasts at least from 13 April, when Walter had his initial sighting, to 6 May, when I took these photos. According to available information, the flight season for this species in our home state of Virginia lasts from 17 March to 23 May.

I hope to be able to make a return trip to this location to add another data point (and hopefully some new photos) to our information about this species or maybe some additional dragonflies are waiting to be discovered.

Selys's Sundragon

Selys's Sundragon

Selys's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I spent a lot of time tracking this Common Green Darner (Anax junius) as it patrolled over a field of vegetation yesterday in Prince William County and was thrilled when it finally perched for a moment. Like most darners, this one was hanging vertically and as I got closer, I was immediately struck by the muted color of its abdomen.

I could tell from its terminal appendages that it was a female and I suddenly realized that most of the Common Green Darners I have photographed in the past have been males that often have bright blue abdomens. It had never really struck me that female Common Green Darners have tan-colored abdomens. It is not that surprising, though, because, as is the case in much of the animal kingdom, female dragonflies generally tend to have more subdued colors than their more ostentatious male counterparts.

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Got milk?

Last week I was delighted to spot several more Stream Cruiser dragonflies (Didymops transversa) while wandering about in Prince William County. This handsome male Stream Cruiser  looked like he could have starred in the well-known “got milk?” publicity campaign in the United States that featured photos of celebrities with milk mustaches and was designed to make milk more interesting and to emphasize its wholesomeness.

The print campaign with the the milk mustaches was started by the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) as a follow-on to a very popular series of television commercials in which people went to extraordinary lengths to make sure they did not run out of milk, according to this Fast Company article about the history of the Got milk? campaign.

Celebrities almost literally lined up to participate in this campaign and famous photographer Annie Leibovitz photographed more than 180 of the advertisements, according to the aforementioned article. One of the few requirements for participation in the campaign was that the celebrities had be milk-drinkers—I think they might have waived that requirement for Kermit the Frog—which was a problem for Whoopi Goldberg, who is lactose-intolerant. However, she was featured when the campaign ran an advertisement for lactose-free milk.

I don’t drink very much milk these days, but have fond memories of growing up with milk in my cereal bowl each morning. Got milk?

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Raindrops on flowers are among my favorite things. Yes, I am a huge fan of The Sound of Music and as soon as I see drops of rain on the petals of a flower—it doesn’t have to be roses—Julie Andrews starts singing in my mind the memorable song “My Favorite Things” that begins with the words, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…”

I captured these iris images yesterday morning in the garden of my dear friend and neighbor Cindy Dyer during a break in the rain. Right now there are probably at least thirty irises of various colors in the process of blooming in her wonderful garden, an endless source of delight for me when I feel a need to take some photos or just desire to lift my spirits.

“I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad.”

bearded iris

bearded iris

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Tattered wings

It is still relatively early in the dragonfly season, but already I am running across dragonflies with tattered wings, like this Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina) dragonfly that I spotted yesterday at Occoquan Regional Par. Despite the extensive damage to all of its wings, the dragonfly did not appear to have any problems flying. In fact, I tracked it for a lengthy period of time as it patrolled over a small pond, waiting and hoping that it would finally land.

When the dragonfly decided to take a break, it perched on several pieces of vegetation that were covered with old spider webs. The vegetation was about as tall as I am, so I was able to shoot at a slight upwards angle that let me capture the wing patches that reminded someone of “saddlebags” when they were naming the species.

I was shooting almost directly into the sun, which gave a nice effect by illuminating the dragonfly’s wings from behind, but I kept having to adjust my camera to keep the body from appearing as a silhouette. I experimented with a number of different techniques, including using my pop-up flash for the final photo, which gives the image an almost studio-like appearance.

Carolina Saddlebags

Carolina Saddlebags

Carolina Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

On a recent visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I stumbled upon a Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura) at the edge of a pond that was in the final stages of the process of emergence. The first photo shows the dragonfly only seconds after it popped open its wings for the first time—note how shiny and clear the fragile wings are at this stage. The second photo shows the dragonfly a few minutes earlier, when its wings were still closed and its markings were just beginning to appear.

The dragonfly remained in place for a few minutes as its wings began to harden. It then made a short fluttering flight to some nearby vegetation, a safer and less exposed location to rest and complete its amazing metamorphosis.

 

 

Common Baskettail

 

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Bearded Irises

Although I don’t have my own garden, I am blessed to have a neighbor and friend, Cindy Dyer, who loves to plant photogenic flowers, like these beautiful bearded irises that are now in bloom. Cindy is a self-employed photographer and graphic designer who I consider to be my photography mentor and muse. She and her husband Michael make up the rest of my “pod” that has helped to sustain me through this past pandemic year.

What else does Cindy do? Here is a little extract from the “Stuff About Me” page of her blog.

“Oil and acrylic painting, photography (portraits, glamour shots, nature, macro, floral/botanical, travel), cement leaf casting, crocheting hats like crazy come winter time (what else can a gardener do when it’s cold out?), needle felting, sewing, murals, faux painting, Polaroid transfers (if it’s something crafty, I’ve probably at least tried it once), biblioholic (any topic, you name it—we probably have at least one book on the subject…don’t even begin to guess how many gardening books I’ve amassed!), animal lover—currently three cats…”

You can get a look at some of Cindy’s photography and writing on her blog at cindydyer.wordpress.com. If you want a real treat, though, you should check out the slide show of her portfolio at cindydyer.zenfolio.com, where your eyes will be delighted as you see an amazing series of stunning images.

bearded iris

bearded iris

bearded iris

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

If you want a fun photographic challenge, try to photograph a dragonfly in flight. It is definitely a test of your skill and patience to track and photograph a subject this small (about 1.6 inches (41 mm) in this case) while it is flying past you. I captured this image of a male Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura) last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I will try to photograph dragonflies in flight at least several times every season. Some dragonfly species, like this one, will hover a little at times, which gives me a slightly better chance of getting a shot that is in focus. My camera does not focus quickly and accurately enough for me to use autofocus, so I end up focusing manually most of the time.

This shot is unusual in that I managed to freeze all of the motion of the wings—most of the time the wings are blurry. If you click on the image to see it in higher resolution, you will also note the way that the Common Baskettail (and many other species) folds its legs up under its “chest” (technically it is called the “thorax”) while flying to minimize wind resistance.

For those of you who might be curious, I ended up cropping the original image significantly, because I took the photograph with “only” my 180 mm macro lens and the dragonfly was flying over the water—I would have to have been in the water to get any closer.

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

It was pretty cool to spot this male Aurora Damsel damselfly (Chromagrion conditum) on Friday while I was exploring in Prince William County. I love the accents of brilliant yellow on the sides of its upper body that make this damselfly stand out from many others that are also black and blue.

I also managed to get a shot of an Aurora Damsel couple in what is known as the “tandem” position. The female of this species, the lower damselfly in the second photo, also has the yellow accents, although her body coloration is more subdued, as is often the case with damselflies and dragonflies.

When they are mating, damselflies join together in a heart-shaped position, known as the “wheel position,” and afterwards the male will often remain attached to the female, including while flying, as she lays her eggs. He does this by retaining his grip on the front part of the female’s thorax, as you can see in the second photo, using claspers located at the tip of his abdomen.

If you have never seen the distinctive sidewards-heart that damselflies make when mating, check out a posting that I did last year entitled Sidewards heart that shows a pair of Ebony Jewelwing damselflies forming the aforementioned heart.

aurora damselfly

aurora damselfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Native orchid

I was really excited yesterday to spot some Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), a type of native orchid, while exploring in Prince William County. Last year I saw some for the first time in the wild and managed to find the same spot again this year. When I posted the first photo in Facebook a number of people noted that it brought back memories of their childhoods.

Happy May Day. There are a lot of different types of celebrations on this day throughout the world, many devoted to celebrating spring.  Best wishes to you all however you choose to celebrate this day, perhaps with a walk in the woods to discover or re-discover hidden treasures like these little orchids.

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I have been having a really successful spring season in photographing dragonflies. Shaking off some of the winter doldrums, I have spent endless hours this month tramping about in a variety of habitats searching for these magical little creatures. I feel like I am now sprinting to the finish of a marathon on this final day of April

I was amazed to spot Stream Cruisers (Didymops transversa) on Monday at Occoquan Regional Park. I have seen Stream Cruiser dragonflies before, but never at this location. I was able to get shots of both a male (in the first photo) and a female (in the second photo). You can easily see the difference, I think, between the two genders, especially at the ends of their abdomens (the “tail”). Both of them, though, have the same long legs that always make their perching positions seem. a little awkward.

Earlier this spring, I spotted a large exuvia, the discarded exoskeleton of a dragonfly that has emerged, that my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford was able to identify as being from a Stream Cruiser. I have included a photo of that exuvia as a final photo to give you a sense of the shape of the final stage of the water-dwelling nymph before it crawled onto dry land and began its metamorphosis to a new and exciting stage of its life as a dragonfly.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser exuvia

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I was quite surprised and delighted to spot a male Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I thought I would have to wait another couple of weeks to find one of these tiny dragonflies that are only 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length, but perhaps our recent warm weather prompted this dragonfly to emerge early.

The Calico Pennant is one of a small group of dragonflies known as “pennants.” As you can see from these two images, pennant dragonflies like to perch on the very tips of flimsy stalks of vegetation where they are whipped about by the slightest breezes like pennants in the wind.

Calico Pennant

 

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I was thrilled to spot this beautiful male Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifasciata) on Monday, at Occoquan Regional Park, the first dragonfly of this species for me this season. I just love the way that the distinctive markings on the wings really make this dragonfly “pop” with a golden glow.

Painted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Black Racer snake

I got a definite “Don’t mess with me” vibe when I encountered this Northern Black Racer snake (Coluber constrictor constrictor) last week at Occoquan Regional Park and moved on quickly after capturing these images. Most snakes slither away when they first detect my presence, but this one reared up a bit and started to feverish flick its forked tongue at me.

Black Racers are somewhat similar in appearance to the Eastern Rat Snake that I featured last week (See the posting Ready to shed?), but are a bit smaller in size and have shinier, smoother skins. Several of my Facebook friends noted that Black Racers also tend to be more aggressive and reported having been chased by one.


Black Racer

Black Racer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Life can be rough when you have fragile wings. I spotted this Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) last Friday at Occoquan Regional Park and could not help but notice the significant damage to its wings. The damage might have actually happened last fall, given that this species overwinters with us as adults, awakens in the spring, and has a lifespan of 11-12 months, one of the longest lifespans for any butterfly.

As I poked about on the internet, I was intrigued to learn that this species is known as the Camberwell Beauty in the United Kingdom. I do not see Mourning Cloak butterflies very often—most of the time it is only when I am in a wooded area, rather than in a marsh or open field. When I do spot one, it is usually hyperactive and I rarely have the chance to capture an image.

The second photo below is the only other photo that I have managed to take of one this spring, and I took it from quite a distance away. Still, I like the way that it shows some of the butterfly’s habitat. I always have to remind myself of the value of these kind of environmental portraits—my normal tendency is to get close with either a macro or a telephoto lens and isolate the subject from its background.

Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I have been seeing Common Green Darner dragonflies (Anax junius) in the air for several weeks now, but only this past Monday did I finally catch one taking a break from patrolling while I was tracking it at Occoquan Regional Park. It is quite common to see Common Green Darners patrolling high overhead in a wide variety of habitats, darting to and fro, feeding on the fly.

These large colorful dragonflies—about three inches (75 mm) in length—are among the first to be spotted in the early spring and among the last to disappear late in the autumn. How is such a long flight season possible? The simple answer is that Common Green Darners are a migratory dragonfly species. Kevin Munroe described the migratory cycle on his wonderful Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website in these words:

“Common Greens seen in our area in early spring are in fact migrants from points south. They emerge in the Southeast and fly north, arriving here late March thru May. After their long flight, they mate, lay eggs and die. Their young emerge in July and August. Congregating in large swarms, this second generation begins flying south in September. They lay eggs that fall, after arriving in their southern destinations, and die. When their young hatch in March, they fly back to Northern Virginia and it starts again— a two generation migration.”

I love the bright and cheery colors of the Common Green Darner, colors that reminded one of my Facebook viewers of a tropical parrot. I also really like the bullseye pattern on the dragonfly’s “nose,” just below its large compound eyes. Be sure to click on the image if you want to see these details better.

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Emerging dragonfly

Have you ever watched a dragonfly-to-be break out of its exoskeleton and undergo a remarkable metamorphosis from a water-breathing nymph to an amazing aerial acrobat? It is an amazing and fascinating process that rivals (or maybe even surpasses) the more familiar transformation of a butterfly that many of us studied in school.

On a recent excursion to look for dragonflies in Prince William County, my good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford excitedly called out to me that he had spotted a dragonfly that was midway through the process of emergence. We had not had much success up to that point in the day, so Walter’s news was especially welcome.

When dragonflies are in the process of emergence, they are very vulnerable. Their bodies are undergoing some incredible changes and they do not yet have the ability to fly. If you look at the first photo and compare the size of the exoskeleton (often referred to as an exuvia) to that of the dragonfly, you can get a sense of the magnitude of the changes that were occurring.

I moved a little closer for the second shot, being careful not to disturb the dragonfly, in order to capture some additional details. The exoskeleton shows, for example, little wing pads that are tiny when you compare them to the wings that are still closed over the dragonfly’s body. A little later in the process, the dragonfly will unfold the wings and will be be able to fly, albeit weakly at first.

At this stage, we could tell that the dragonfly was a female, because of the shape of the terminal appendages, but we could not determine its species, because its colors and markings were still really pale. Depending on the species, this transformation process can take as long as several hours and it can sometimes take a few days for the colors and markings to darken. (If you are interested in this whole process, I witnessed the it from start to finish several years ago and took a series of photos that documented the process in a blog posting called Metamorphosis of a dragonfly.)

Walter was eventually able to determine that this was a female Uhler’s Sundragon (Helocordulia uhleri). My final photo shows an adult female Uhler’s Sundragon that I photographed later that same day, so you can easily see that the dragonfly was not yet done with her transformation when we photographed her. 

How did Walter do it? For the answer to that mystery, check out Walter’s blog posting today called Uhler’s Sundragon dragonfly (emergent female) for the fascinating story of his detective work and additional photos and details of our encounter with this emerging dragonfly.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragonfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

I was excited on Friday to capture this image of a colorful male Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis) as I was wandering about at Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton, Virginia. I love the color combination of the light green thorax and the turquoise accents near the tip of the abdomen.

Generally when I see these little damselflies they are perched flat on the ground or on vegetation close to the ground—this slightly elevated perch made it a bit easier for me to get a good shot of its entire body. In case you are curious about the size of this damselfly, Eastern Forktails are only 0.8-1.3 inches (20-33 mm) in length, so you have to look really carefully to spot one.

Eastern Forktail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

When I photographed this dragonfly on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I had no doubt in my mind that it was a Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura).  I had seen dragonflies of this species several times near that area of the refuge, including once earlier this year. Besides, what else could it be?

I got a quick response to that question when I posted a photo to the Virginia Odonata group, a Facebook forum devoted to dragonflies and damselflies. One viewer suggested that it looked more to him like a Slender Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca costalis) than a Common Baskettail. Eventually several experts weighed in and also opined that it looked like a male Slender Baskettail, though one acknowledged that it was difficult to make a definitive call based on my photos that he judged to be “suboptimal.”

So how do you tell the species apart? Slender Baskettails tend to have a narrower waist and are relatively slimmer, but the only way to know for sure is by the length of the cerci, the dark black terminal appendages at the tip of the abdomen (the “tail”). The cerci are longer on male Slender Baskettails than on Common Baskettails. (If you want to know more about dragonfly terminal appendages, check out a posting by fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford entitled Dragonfly terminal appendages (male, female).)

The folks who suggested that this dragonfly is a Slender Baskettail did so on the basis of my photos, but that is not really a reliable method, because the angle and lighting can distort perceptions. How do you know for sure? One expert stated that “you can really only ID them by measuring the cerci which I do of a specimen under a microscope.” I may be a little geeky when it comes to dragonflies, but I am not about to measure a specimen’s anatomical parts with a microscope.

I am left therefore with a bit of a scientific mystery. Is it a Slender Baskettail or a Common Baskettail dragonfly? It might be a bit of heresy to some, but it does not really matter to me. I was simply happy to capture these cool photos of a beautiful creature.

Shakespeare’s words about a rose in “Romeo and Juliet” could easily be applied here, “A rose (or a dragonfly) by any other name would smell (or look) as sweet.”

 

Slender Baskettail

Slender Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

I was thrilled yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to spot my first Blue Corporal dragonfly (Ladona deplanata) of the season. This little dragonfly—about 1.4 inches (36 mm) in length—is one of the earliest dragonflies to reappear each spring in my area and was one of my target species for the day.

If you look carefully at the upper part of the thorax (the “shoulders”) you can see the two light-colored stripes, the traditional military insignia for a corporal, that are responsible for the name of this species. Blue Corporals most often perch flat on the ground, which can make them really hard to spot when they land. In this case, the ground was so cluttered with dried reeds that I could barely detect the dragonfly’s wings. (You can see the wings more easily if you click on the image to enlarge it.)

Blue Corporal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I was thrilled yesterday to spot this Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) as I was wandering about in Occoquan Regional Park. This fascinating insect looks a lot like a bumblebee, but acts a lot like a hummingbird and hovers when it is feeding. Unlike a hummingbird that has a long pointed beak, members of this species have a long proboscis that they curl up when it is not in use, as you can see in the first photo.

The active little moth was very focused on the tiny violets and did not seem bothered by my presence, so I was able to move in quite close for these shots. However, the moth did not linger long on any flower, so I had to move quickly. I do not know how fast the moth was moving its wings, but the shutter speed for these photos was as high as 1/2000 of a second and there was still some wing blur. In case you are curious, Snowberry Clearwing Moths are about 1.25-2.0 inches (32–51 mm) in length.

 

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Ready to shed?

I never quite know what I will encounter when I am out wandering in the wild with my camera, like this rather large snake that I almost literally stumbled upon on Monday while exploring in Prince William County. I am fairly certain is an Eastern Rat Snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis), the most commonly seen snake in the state of Virginia where I live, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society. On average, an Eastern Rat Snake in our state is 42 – 72 inches in length (107-183 cm) and I estimated that this one was at least four feet long (122 cm).

The snake was completely stretched out perpendicular to a stream and did not react as I initially approached, which shocked me a little. When I took my initial shots, in which I was not as close as it seems, I noticed that its eyes were somewhat cloudy, an indication that this snake may have been preparing to shed its skin. Knowing that snakes are vulnerable during this stage and more likely to be aggressive, I captured my shots quickly and backed away.

I decided to try something different to capture a view of the entire snake and created a panoramic image in Photoshop using three separate shots. The last image is the result of that little project and I encourage you to click on the image to get a look at the entire length of the snake. In case you are curious, the process is really easy and the software does most of the work aligning the images.

I was inspired to try the panorama by the work of Reed Andariese, an amazing photographer whose blog, Photo Art Flight, I follow. Over the years, Reed has done panoramic composite shots using a wide variety of cameras (including his iPhone) and lenses—check out his recent posting in which he featured multi-image composites taken with a fish-eye lens. Wow!

Eastern Rat Snake

Eastern Rat Snake

Eastern Rat Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I spent most of my time looking for birds during a trip last week to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I managed to capture the images of the bald eagles that I featured yesterday. The day had started off cool and overcast, more suitable for birds than for dragonflies, but when the sun finally broke through in the late afternoon, I decided to swing by a small pond on my walk back to the parking lot on the off chance that I might find a dragonfly.

My hunch paid off when I spotted this female Ashy Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus lividus) perched low to the ground. At that moment I had my Tamron 150-600mm lens attached to my camera and that presented a challenge, because its minimum focusing distance is 8.9 feet (2.70 meters), so I had to back up. At that distance it is hard to locate and focus on a subject that is only 2 inches (50 mm) in length. Fortunately I have been in this situation before and I steadied myself, focused manually, and captured the first image before the dragonfly flew away.

Having established that there there was at least one dragonfly in the area, I switched to my Tamron 180mm macro lens, my preferred lens for dragonflies, and continued my search. A few minutes later I spotted another female Ashy Clubtail when it flew up into some low hanging vegetation and I captured the second image. There is a good chance that this was the same individual that I photographed earlier—both of them are pale in color, suggesting that they had only recently emerged from their larval state.

As I moved a little closer for the final shot, the dragonfly closed its wings overhead, reverting briefly to an earlier stage when it was in the process of emerging. I have seen this happen before when a newly emerged dragonfly, sometimes referred to as a teneral, flew for the first time and its wings were still in a very fragile state. At this point, I decided to stop shooting, fearful that I might spook this newly emerged dragonfly into flying at a time when she clearly needed to rest.

If you are unfamiliar with the amazing process that a dragonfly goes through in transforming itself from a water-dwelling nymph to an aerial acrobat, check out my blog posting called Metamorphosis of a dragonfly that documents the entire process in a series of photos.

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Eagle duet

Perhaps these Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were singing or maybe they were trying to scare off incoming osprey, but most importantly they were doing it together as a couple on a shared perch when I spotted them on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge at a moment when the skies were completely overcast.

Bald Eagles

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Cleared for landing

Both members of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) couple were active on Monday in and around the big nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge—neither of them appeared to be sitting continuously in the nest.  Perhaps there are eaglets already, though the nest is so deep I could not see any little heads.

I captured this image as one of the eagles was making its final approach to land on the nest. I really like the position of the wings that help the eagle slow its forward progress and the way that the light coming from the side was illuminating the tail feathers.

I will be continuing to monitor this nest and the other one at the wildlife refuge for signs of baby eagles and hopefully will have the chance to capture some shots of them soon.

bald eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I was pleasantly surprised last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to spot a few Zebra Swallowtail butterflies (Eurytides marcellus), including this one that posed momentarily for me. Generally this butterfly species is associated with the pawpaw tree, on which its larvae feed exclusively, but this one apparently spotted something of interest in the dry vegetation at the edge of the trail and decided to investigate it.

It is so exciting to see familiar spring species begin to reappear one-by-one.

Zebra Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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