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It is now rare for me to spot an insect when I am walking about in nature with my camera. There is still a chance that I might spot a dragonfly—a few Autumn Meadowhawks are normally around in late November—or maybe a butterfly. I held off posting this image of a butterfly that I spotted a couple of weeks ago at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the hope that I would continue to see more.

Now I accept the distinct possibility that this beautiful little Pearl Crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos) may be the last butterfly of the season for me. Fortunately there will be new photographic opportunities for me in the coming months as I turn my attention and my long telephoto zoom lens almost exclusively to birds.

Pearl Crescent butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Bathing House Sparrow

As I was walking around a small suburban pond recently, some movement in the underbrush caught my eye. Several small House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) were splashing about in the shallow water of a tiny rivulet that ran into the pond. I managed to capture this whimsical little portrait of one of the bathing sparrows, whose glance suggested to me that my presence was not exactly welcomed.

House Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Turtle in late November

Although the daytime temperatures keep dropping, turtles still come out to bask on sunny days. I spotted this beautiful turtle, which I believe is a Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), last Friday at the same suburban pond where I saw the Ring-necked Ducks and Canada Geese that I featured in previous postings. The subject and composition of this image are fairly ordinary, but the beautiful interplay of the light and shadows help to make the image stand out.

Red-eared Slider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Thanksgiving Day 2020

How often have you heard the platitude that you should cultivate an attitude of gratitude? Many of us will nod our head in agreement when we hear those words and then continue on in our self-centered lives, firm in our conviction that we are independent and self-sufficient, and that all that we have is the result of our own efforts. Wikipedia describes a platitude in these words, “A platitude is a trite, meaningless, or prosaic statement, often used as a thought-terminating cliché, aimed at quelling social, emotional, or cognitive unease. The statement may be true, but its meaning has been lost due to its excessive use.”

In the United States, one day a year is set aside to give thanks, Thanksgiving Day. Traditionally Americans will gather around a table and before they eat, each person will be asked to name one thing for which they are thankful. Some people find it difficult to be put in that position.

Why is it so tough to be thankful? Our society bombards us with messages that we should never be satisfied with what we have and should always want more—we can easily be trapped into focusing on what we do not have rather than on what we do have.

Last night at a Zoom church service I heard again the words of Scripture that reminds us to give thanks “in everything.” In everything? Yes, we should be thankful in absolutely everything. The experience of the last nine months has caused me to reexamine a lot of things that I had previously taken for granted. All of the sudden I was increasingly thankful for essential workers, for fellow citizens who wore masks and stayed at home, for the food that was present on the almost empty shelves at the grocery stores, for my relative good health, and for the roof over my head.

As many of you know, I have been blessed to be able to continue to find refuge in nature and to share my photos and experiences in this blog. I recently noticed that I have done a posting every single day so far this year. I really want to all of you for your overwhelming support and encouragement, which has been one of the few constant factors in my life as the world around me has swirled out of control.

Whether you are in the United States or not, I hope that today you will pause for a least a few moments and reflect on those people and things for which you are truly thankful. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving Day 2020.

In case you are curious, I photographed this handsome Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) earlier this month at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Some people hunt wild turkeys, but the turkey that I will consume later today will be one that I purchased at the supermarket.

wild turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Synchronized Goose Yoga

Thanks to Tchaikovsky, swans seem to have cornered the market for bird ballet, so some local Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) decided to organize themselves for synchronized yoga competitions instead. At a recent practice that I observed at a small suburban pond, they were having some issues in coordinating their left single-legged pose—one of them had trouble remembering which leg was the left one. What a silly goose. 🙂

Canada Goose

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Goldfinch and Sweetgum

It was windy yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but that did not deter some American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) from foraging for seeds in the spiky seedpods still hanging from the leafless Sweetgum Trees (Liquidambar styraciflua). The goldfinches were amazing daring and acrobatic in their efforts high in the trees to extract the seeds.

It is a testament to the strength of the stems of the seedpods and the light weight of the goldfinches that the birds were able to place all of their weight on hanging seedpods and poke into their perches with their pointed beaks, as you can see in the first image. The final image shows that the finches knew that there were seeds throughout the seedpods and were willing to turn upside down to reach some additional seeds.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

As the weather gets colder, ducks and geese begin to arrive at a small suburban pond not far from where I live. Most of these birds will overwinter with us, though some others may just be passing through our area. It is still a bit early for most species, but I was delighted on Friday to spot a small group of Ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris). Even from a distance it is easy to identify this species with its prominent yellow eyes, distinctive bill, and pointed head.

The ducks drifted about in the deeper water, never coming very close to the shore, so I was not able to capture any close-up images this time. I’m sure, however, that I will be back to this pond multiple times this winter to check on the ducks, so you may see these colorful characters again in the coming months.

Ring-necked ducks

Ring-necked ducks

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Cedar Waxwing Portrait

Not long ago I posted some shots of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) foraging for berries. In many of those shots, however, the beautiful birds were partially obscured by vegetation. On Monday this past week I managed to get a clearer view of a Cedar Waxwing at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and captured this portrait image.

I really like the fact that this image shows the distinctive shape of this bird and its wonderful coloration. From top of its crested head to its yellow-tipped tail, the Cedar Waxwing is one of the most photogenic birds that I am privileged to photograph.

Cedar Waxwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Deer at dawn

The sun had just risen over the horizon as I started walking down a trail on Monday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I noticed a dark shadow at the edge of the trail and slowed down. When I got a little closer, I could see that it was a small White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). There are probably quite a few deer at the wildlife refuge, but I rarely see one.

The deer sensed my presence, raised its head, and stared right at me with what looked to be mostly curiosity. Our eyes remained fixed on each other for quite some time before the deer crossed the path and disappeared silently in the underbrush.

White-tailed Deer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Warbler in the bushes

The remaining leaves on the trees and other vegetation complicate my efforts to get clear shots of the numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) that I have seen and heard during my recent trips to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. On Monday, however, I manage to capture two images of these colorful little birds, the only warblers that stay with us throughout the winter.

It is always a delight to catch sight of the colorful patches of yellow feathers on these birds. The second image shows the yellow rump that is responsible for the name of this species that is affectionately known to birdwatchers as “butterbutts.”

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Autumn raccoon

I do not see Raccoons (Procyon lotor) very often at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, so it was quite a treat when I spotted this one on Monday.  The raccoon was leisurely making its way across the leaf-covered trail and I was happy to capture this image while it was mid-stride.

At a time when most of us are wearing masks that cover our noses and mouths, this is the second wild creature that I have seen recently with a black eye mask—I previously featured masked Cedar Waxwings in a posting entitled Cedar Waxwings in November.

raccoon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I was thrilled on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to see this handsome Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), another one of our winter visitors. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the Hermit Thrush in these words—”An unassuming bird with a lovely, melancholy song, the Hermit Thrush lurks in the understories of far northern forests in summer and is a frequent winter companion across much of the country.” Wikipedia notes that “the hermit thrush’s song has been described as “the finest sound in nature” and is ethereal and flute-like, consisting of a beginning note, then several descending musical phrases in a minor key, repeated at different pitches.”

When I first spotted the bird, I thought it might be an American Robin, because of the shape of its body and bill. The American Robin is also in the greater thrush family, but close examination showed that “my” bird lacked the reddish-orange breast color of the robin and had instead a distinctive pattern similar to that of some sparrows.

Hermit Thrush

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Looking up at a hawk

The crows were making a racket yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I wondered if they were harassing a raptor. Even though they are a lot smaller than most hawks, eagles, and owls, crows are fearless in their efforts to force the much larger birds to leave their area.

As I walked down the trail scanning the trees, I spotted the bright underside and tail of a large bird that looked to be hiding. Rather than perching upright, the bird seemed to be perching horizontally. I approached as stealthily as I could and eventually managed to get almost directly underneath the the bird, which I believe is a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). The hawk looked straight down at me with a look of mild disapproval. I managed to capture this image in the seconds before the beautiful bird reluctantly took off.

Red-shouldered Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Unhappy turkey

On Friday I spotted a flock of Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. At least one of them was not very happy—perhaps the turkey knew that Thanksgiving Day is fast approaching.

The turkeys were all clustered together, so it was impossible to isolate one for a cleaner shot. I was happy, though, to be able to capture the beautiful coloration and patterns of the turkeys’ feathers.

wild turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Most sparrows are brown in color, but as winter approaches slate-colored  Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) move into our area from locations farther north. This past Friday I spotted a small flock of juncos at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge poking about on the ground and low in the trees and managed to capture a few clear shots of juncos.

The second shot shows quite clearly the color pattern that I generally associate with juncos—mostly gray with a white belly. On the west coast of the US, however, juncos have a dark brown hood, light brown back, and a white belly.

 

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Autumn Eagle

The foliage partially blocked my approach to this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) this past Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I was able to sneak up pretty close to it. In fact, I was standing almost directly below the tree in which the eagle was perched when I captured the second shot. Although my view was partially obstructed, I was thrilled to capture these images of this majestic bird.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Kingfisher rising

The female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that I spotted last Friday at Huntley Meadows Park was too quick and too far away for me to photograph in flight when she took off several times to try to catch a fish. I did manage, though, to capture a short sequence of shots when she was returning to her perch after an unsuccessful attempt. Unlike many birds that would have approached the perch horizontally, the kingfisher came up out of the water vertically, appearing almost to levitate as she rose to her perch.

Normally I lead a blog post with my favorite or my best image, but this time I decided to leave the shots in the correct time sequence. The middle image in which the kingfisher was fully spread her wings is my clear favorite of the three, though I like the way that each shot shows the different body and wing positions as she stuck her landing–I would give her a perfect score of 10.

 

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Many birds are pretty, but few are as sleek and stylish as Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I love their rakish black masks, slicked-back hair, and yellow-tipped tails.

I spotted a small flock of these wonderful birds on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, acrobatically snagging berries high in the trees. In the final photo, a Cedar Waxwing was upside-down as it reached for some colorful porcelain berries, a plant that is considered an invasive species in our area.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Swamped eagle

Normally when I see a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) catch a fish, it is a grab-and-go affair. The eagle reaches out with extended talons, pulls the fish from the surface of the water, and keeps flying.

Yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the scene was quite different. I spotted an eagle flying low over the water and watched as the eagle went deep into the water feet-first. I was shocked when the eagle was briefly submerged. It made multiple unsuccessful attempts to lift itself out of the water before it ultimately managed to fly away.

What was the problem? I have heard of cases when the eagle snagged a fish that was too heavy to lift. I have also seen videos of eagles swimming to shore with large fish. This eagle was far from shore, so that was not really an option here. I wonder if perhaps the fish was stuck in vegetation and the eagle had somehow gotten its talons entangled. As I look at the final photo, I am not able to tell if the eagle has its prey, but by the time the eagle was airborne, the talons were empty.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

House Finch

When I caught a glimpse of the body of this bird at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge last week, I initially thought it was some kind of sparrow. However, even though I was shooting into the light, I could see that its head was read. What could it possibly be?

Some experts in a Facebook birding forum informed me that it is an immature male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus). According to Wikipedia, this species was originally only a resident of Mexico and the southestern United States. It was introduced to eastern North America in the 1940s when the birds were sold illegally in New York City as “Hollywood Finches.” To avoid prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, vendors and owners released the birds into the wild and they have since become naturalized in largely unforested land across the eastern U.S.

House Finch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Buckeye in November

There are still a few butterflies flying around, like this beautiful Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike most other butterflies that I have seen late in the season that were faded and tattered, this one seemed to be in perfect condition. As several of my Facebook friends noted, there is nothing “common” about the beauty of this butterfly.

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Kingfisher and fish

As I was exploring in Huntley Meadows Park last Friday, I heard the unmistakeable rattling call of a kingfisher. After a bit of searching, I located this female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) on a perch high above an osprey nesting platform jutting out of the water. I watched and waited and eventually kingfisher flew down from the perch in an attempt to catch a fish.

The kingfisher was successful and returned to the perch with a sizable fish. The first challenge for the kingfisher was to subdue the fish and it beat the fish repeatedly against the perch. At the same time it adjusted the fish in order to swallow the fish headfirst, in the same way that a great blue heron does. In the second image, you can see that the kingfisher has maneuvered the fish into almost the proper position.

I am a bit more used to watching ospreys and eagles consume fish, which they accomplish by tearing away pieces of the fish with their sharp beaks while holding down the fish with their equally sharp talons. Kingfishers have differently-shaped bills and talons, so they have to swallow their fish in a single gulp.

The kingfisher has little margin for error as it makes its forceful movements while balancing itself on a narrow perch high above the water. The final photo shows that mistakes can happen—the fish slipped out of the kingfisher’s bill when she lifted her head upwards to swallow it.

I am able to happily report that the kingfisher was able to fly down to the water, retrieve the fish, and eventually consume it. As always, I encourage you to double-click on the images to get a closer look at the wonderful details of the photos.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Eye on the prize

This Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) was totally focused on a single remaining berry when I spotted it last Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The “prize” seems modest, but this little bird was determined. I believe it was successful in achieving its goal.

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Close-up Coots

In addition to the large raft of American Coots (Fulica americana) that I spotted in the waters off of Occoquan Bay Wildlife Refuge last week and featured in a posting entitled A raft of coots, I also saw three coots near to the shore swimming around in a little circle like they were lost. I do not know if they had somehow gotten separated from the group, but they struck me as being very vulnerable—as several readers have noted, coots are vulnerable to being picked off by bald eagles.

This close-up shots highlight some of the notable characteristics of this species, including their red eyes and their legs that are placed rather far back on their bodies, making walking a bit of a challenge.

American Coot

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Bluebirds in November

It is a bit of a cliché, but I have to admit that bluebirds really do make me feel happy. I was therefore absolutely delighted to spot a small flock of them flitting in and out of the vegetation on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The rusty color on the breasts of these Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) fit in well with the fall foliage palette.

These three images show different approaches I used in trying to capture images of these beautiful little birds. Sometimes I tried to take shots when the blue birds were almost imbedded in the vegetation; sometimes I tried to get an unobstructed angle with the natural landscape providing a visual backdrop for the bird; and sometimes I tried to isolate the bird and use an uncluttered background such as the sky in the final photo.

I am not sure that any of these three approaches is necessarily better than the others. Instead I personally like the visual variety that comes from using somewhat different approaches when shooting a subject. What do you think?

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Goldfinch in November

I was happy to spot this somewhat scruffy looking American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) as I wandered the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge yesterday seeking a respite from election news coverage. As is often the case, nature served as a soothing balm to calm my anxieties and reestablish my internal balance.

 

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Another Palm Warbler

I was excited to spot this beautiful Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I had more or less given up on seeing any warblers except for Yellow-rumped Warbler, which will remain with us for a while, so this was a pleasant surprise. The little bird was full of energy and shortly after it leaned forward a little, as you can see in the second image, it flew to a more distant part of the field in which it was foraging.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Ginkgo grove

This past weekend I traveled with several photographers to the large grove of ginkgo trees (Ginkgo biloba) at Blandy Experimental Farm of the State Arboretum of Virginia in Boyce, VA. It was a beautiful autumn day and lots of other people also decided to check out the bright yellow foliage, which made it quite challenging to capture images that were not full of posing people. As the final photo shows, I too was posing for my own version of a selfie.

I have visited this grove of gingko trees several times over the last seven years and never fail to be amazed by the exotic beauty of the ginkgos. The grove, one of the largest outside of the trees’ native China, was established in 1929 when Dr. Orlando White decided to do an experiment. He hypothesized that the sex ratio of the 600 seeds that he planted from a single ginkgo tree would be 1:1. He did not live long enough to find out if he was right, but of the 301 trees that survived to maturity and for which gender could be determined, 157 were female and 144 were male.

For more information about the ginkgo grove, check out my blog posting from 2013 entitled “Journey to a ginkgo grove” or this brochure on the ginkgo grove put out by the Blandy Experimental Farm. In the brochure you can learn some cool things about ginkgo trees, including the amazing fact that the earliest ginkgo leaf fossils date from 270 million years ago.

 

ginkgo grove

 

 

gingko grove

gingko grove

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

A raft of coots

Normally when I see American Coots (Fulica americana) I see only a few of them at a time, but last Friday I spotted a whole raft of them in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. They seemed to be of mixed ages, not just old coots like me.

I zoomed out with my 150-600mm lens to capture the whole raft and then zoomed in to capture some details. I recommend that you double-click on the images, especially the second one, to see wonderful details, like all of the red eyes. There seem to be a number of different colored beaks in the group, suggesting the possibility that there are some other species mixed in, though it appears to be mostly coots.

American Coots

American Coots

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Cooper’s Hawk

I spotted this bird from a distance on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when it was perched and when it took to the air. The tail struck me as being exceptionally long and the wings seemed relatively short in length, so I decided it was probably not a Red-shouldered Hawk or a Red-tailed Hawk, the two most common hawks where I live. Was it a falcon or one of the smaller hawks?

As I usually do in situations like this, I asked for help in a Facebook group devoted to birding in Virginia. Some experts there identified this as a mature Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology described the species with these words, “Among the bird world’s most skillful fliers, Cooper’s Hawks are common woodland hawks that tear through cluttered tree canopies in high speed pursuit of other birds…Finding a Cooper’s Hawk is typically a matter of keeping your eyes peeled – they’re common but stealthy, and smaller than other common hawks like the red-tailed, so your eye might skip over them in flight.”

Cooper’s Hawks are about the size of crows, although males are significantly smaller than their mates. Mating can therefore be a tricky proposition for a male Cooper’s Hawk, given that females Cooper’s Hawks specialize in eating smaller birds.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

When I first started photographing birds, all sparrow looked the same to me—they were all nondescript little brown birds. Over time I have come to appreciate the subtle variations in color and markings that help to differentiate the species, although identification is still a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition for me.

I spotted this handsome sparrow on Monday as I was exploring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I believe that it is a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), one of the relatively common sparrow species where I live. I really like the sparrow’s perch and the fact that it includes some of the dried leaves that will soon be falling from the branch. The white skies in the background give this image an almost wintry feel, though it is way too early for me to be even thinking of snow.

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.