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As summer progress, the once pristine wings of dragonflies and butterflies become increasingly tattered and torn. When I spotted this handsome Spangled Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula cyanea) last week at Occoquan Regional Park, I couldn’t help but notice that he has varying degrees of damage on the trailing edge of all of his wings. Comparatively speaking, the damage is minor and did not seem to inhibit his activity in any way—I have seen dragonflies with much more severe damage that were still able to fly.

How did his wings get damaged? Predators such as birds or even other dragonflies could inflict damage as could vegetation with sharp branches and thorns. When I looked closely at this dragonfly’s abdomen, I also noticed scratches there, which made me think of another potential source of some of the damage. It is now the prime season for mating and like most male dragonflies, this dragonfly is vigorously trying to do his part to perpetuate the species.

Dragonfly mating can be rough and could be the source of some of the visible damage. The final photo shows a mating pair of Spangled Skimmer dragonflies and, judging from the locations of the damage to its wings, the male in the first photo appears to be one of the participants.

In case you are curious about identifying this dragonfly species, the white “stigmata” on the trailing edge both male and female Spangled Skimmers, i.e. the “spangles” responsible for its common name, make this species an easy one to identify.

Spangled Skimmer

Mating Spangled Skimmers

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Sunday color

It is early Sunday morning, almost two hours before sunrise, still dark and silent outdoors. What shall I post? Some bloggers prepare their postings well in advance, but I tend to select photos and decide on an approach only when I am ready to begin composing the actual posting. I do keep a mental catalogue of candidate images that I have shot recently, but my final selection is frequently influenced by my mood and feelings.

This morning I am thinking of color and composition, a consequence perhaps of my recent efforts with watercolor. As many of you know, watercolor painting often forces you to mix your own colors, a critical factor if you want to create a mood or match something in real life. So, for example, to paint the flesh of a watermelon recently, I had to combine two different shades of red and to paint some gray stormy clouds, I had to mix a blue and a reddish brown.

I was thinking of colors when I spotted these beautiful daylilies on Thursday in the garden of my friend and neighbor Cindy Dyer. I was struck by the deep red of the flowers and the yellow-tipped stamens that reminded me of flickering matches. I also really liked the triangular arrangement of the three flowers that presented itself. It is so much harder to compose an image with multiple subjects than one with a single subject, which is why you will rarely see me photograph groups of anything.

I hope that you enjoyed this little burst of color as you start (or continue) your Sunday activities. Have a blessed day and be sure to keep an eye out for the wonderful colors in your life.

daylilies

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Some of you may recall that I periodically dabble in watercolor painting. July is World Watercolor Month, a month-long challenge is which watercolor painters of all ages and skill levels are encouraged to paint daily and post their work on-line. I have joined this challenge and am trying to paint something every day using the daily prompts at worldwatercolormonth.com.

Last Sunday I posted photos of my first four little paintings in a posting called “More fun with watercolor.” The response to that posting was so overwhelmingly positive and encouraging that I feel emboldened to post a second installment, showing my efforts of the past six days in reverse chronological order.

The prompt for 10 July was “Fast” and I quickly attempted to paint this stormy beach scene using only two colors, Ultramarine Blue and BurntSienna. My inspiration came from a YouTube video lesson called Watercolor Postcard Paint-Along: Beach with Rocks and Stormy Sky. The wonderful instructor, Lynne Baur, runs a channel called Dragonfly Spirit Studio. How could I not be attracted to a channel with that name? Lynne has a PhD in mathematics, but abandoned that career track to pursue art and now is “an active participant in the “healing arts” movement, in which original artwork is used to help create a welcoming, soothing and uplifting environment in hospitals, medical clinics, wellness or fitness centers, nursing homes, and other places of health and healing.” You can learn more about her and her work at dragonflyspiritstudio.com.

The prompt for 9 July was “Fruit” and I painted some watermelon slices. The shapes are a little wonky, but I like the different colors that I was able to mix for the painting.

The prompt for 8 July was “Fall.” I did not feel inspired to paint something autumn-themed, so I went in an entirely different direction. It is a bit of a stretch, but the three downward-facing petals of an iris are called “falls,” so I struggled to paint an iris.

The prompt for 7 July was “Free” and I decided to free my inner child by using really bold color colors to create a hummingbird-like critter and stylized flowers in shapes and colors that I don’t think exist in the real world. My bird was not totally from my imagination, though, but was very loosely based on a bookmark that I had received in the mail from a wildlife conservation organization.

The prompt for 6 July was “Flow” and I decided to try to paint some Chinese goldfish in a style borrowed from sumi-e ink painting. I had watched several videos on this subject and was most inspired by a YouTube video by Henry Li of blueheronarts.com entitled “How to Paint Goldfish Step by Step with Henry Li.” I really am attracted to the idea of capturing the essence of a subject using a minimum number of strokes, but some of the brushstrokes demonstrated in the video seem to work more effectively on the thin rice paper used in Chinese painting than on my thicker watercolor paper. I may return to this subject in the future

The prompt for 5 July was “Favorite Color” and I chose Ultramarine Blue and completed my painting with only that color. My little scene with the cyclist was inspired by the design on a dishtowel that hanging from my oven door. I was feeling a bit bold that evening and began to paint the central figure without any kind of preparatory sketching. I like the overall feel of the little painting and the blue and white color combination reminds me of the designs on some of the china and pottery that I have seen during my travels in the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and elsewhere.

I had a lot of fun producing these little paintings, mostly in a sketchbook. I am starting to feel slightly more comfortable with my materials and a little less self-conscious about what I am doing. I think that all of us need some kind of creative outlet. Even though I am comfortable expressing myself with my words and photography, it is good, I think, for me to deliberately make myself uncomfortable by trying something new from time to time, which may allow me to stretch and grow. As I stated in my previous painting posting, “There is no shame in being a beginner.”

If you want to learn more about World Watercolor Month, click on this link or go directly to doodlewash.com. In addition to raising awareness and interest about watercolor painting, World Watercolor Month raises support for The Dreaming Zebra Foundation, a charity providing support so that children and young adults are given an equal opportunity to explore and develop their creativity in the arts.

Fast

Fruit

Fall

Free

Flow

Favorite Color

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

Some dragonfly species are special to me because of their beauty; some—because of their rarity; and some—because of the specific circumstance under which I found them. Swift Setwings are in the latter category.

Four years ago I photographed a strange-looking dragonfly at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and could not identify it. I was a little shocked when experts told me it was a male Swift Setwing dragonfly (Dythemis velox), a primarily southern species that had never before been spotted as far north in Virginia as Fairfax County where I live.

Every year since that first encounter, I make a pilgrimage to the spot of my first sighting to check on “my” dragonflies, which now seem to have a well-established breeding population. Alerted by a Facebook posting by a fellow photographer, I visited the refuge this past Tuesday and was thrilled to spot several male Swift Setwing dragonflies.

As you can see from the two photos below, Swift Setwings have a distinctive posture—they typically perch on the tip of branches with their wings angled down and forward and their abdomen slightly raised. Apparently the stance reminded some scientist of a sprinter at a track meet on the blocks in the “ready, set, go” position” and that is supposed to be the source of the somewhat unusual name for the species.

Usually the vegetation on which a Swift Setwing is perched hangs over the water and the dragonfly faces the water. As a result, I too often have to hang over the water to get a decent angle for a shot. So far, I have managed to keep from falling into the pond, though I must admit that I have come close to doing so a few times.

Swift Setwing

Swift Setwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I chuckled when I read this recent posting from one of my faithful followers, Molly Lin Dutina, the author of the blog “Treasures in Plain Sight.” While she was out walking her dog, she stopped to photograph damselflies, a feat that I would never even think of attempting, and thought of me.

Be sure to click though on the “View original post” link to read her entire posting. It is also worth your while to check out her blog for inspiration and to learn more of her delightful adventures in Ohio. Her admiration of my photography, though, does have limits—she is not at all fond of my close-up photos of snakes.

Treasures in Plain Sight

Walking the dog on a trail I had only taken once before on a night walk, I was startled and delighted to see an Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly, I think! I have been following Mr. Powell’s site for quite some time. His photography is amazing.

This photo was taken with my iPhone 8+ and the new dog on a leash in the other hand. I was delighted to capture this. And I immediately thought, “I am playing Mike Powell!”

Then I spotted one I could not photograph as it was too jumpy. It was a delightful almost turquoise. Have no idea what kind of damsel or dragonfly it was. Wished someone else was with me to capture the image.

We left that area and headed back to the car. And voila! There was another sort!

And another shot of same one. I even captured the shadow of it’s wings 🙂

Mike!…

View original post 80 more words

Where can you find dragonflies? You can find them almost anywhere where there is some kind of water nearby, but different species have preferred habitats. Some dragonflies can be found at lakes or ponds or streams or in sunlit meadows or in the margins of the forest.

Some of my favorites, including the Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi) are creatures of the seeps, those mucky forest areas where skunk cabbages are likely to grow. Most of the photos that I have published of Gray Petaltails have shown them perching vertically on sunlit trees near those seeps. That is where they are found most often, although they will sometimes perch on people with gray shirts, perhaps mistaking them for trees. I have had it happen to me on multiple occasions and, even though I love dragonflies, it is a little disconcerting when one of these large dragonflies flies by your head with an audible whir and lands on you.

As I was exploring a seepy area in Occoquan Regional Park on Wednesday, I was thrilled to be able to capture a shot of a Gray Petaltail perched horizontally on some skunk cabbage. What was he doing there? My first thought was that maybe he had just emerged and was waiting for his wings to harden. Unlike many other dragonfly larvae that live in the water, Gray Petaltail larvae live in the moist leaves in and around the seeps, so that is were they undergo their amazing metamorphosis from larvae into dragonflies.

When the dragonfly flew to a nearby tree, as shown in the second shot, it appeared to be a full-grown adult. I am still at a loss to explain why he was previously perched on skunk cabbage. Who knows? However, I do like the way that way that the background of this image is diagonally broken up into a kind of yin-yang pattern, a wonderful backdrop for this dragonfly’s muted colors.

The final photo is a quick shot to give you a visual impression some of the elements in a sun-lit forest seep, the preferred habitat for a Gray Petaltail dragonfly. This seep is on the side of a hill, so the water is not stagnant, but instead slowly oozes its way into a stream. If you want to find a Gray Petaltail on your own, this is the kind of place where you need to search.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

seep

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Hidden garden

A little over a month ago I did a posting entitled ‘Flower wall’ that featured a hanging panel of flowers and plants on the interior portion of the fence that encloses the back yard of my friend Cindy Dyer. At that time the plants were just getting established and one of my viewers asked me to do a follow-up post when they all fill in.

As I went into Cindy’s backyard garden this morning to take an update photo of the hanging garden, I decided to try to capture the atmosphere that she has created in this small space. We live in a townhouse community and each of us has a tiny space behind our houses that is enclosed with a privacy fence. Cindy lives in an end unit (as do I) and her yard is slightly larger than the inner units, with a neighbor on only one side.

The first image shows the current state of the hanging garden. Some of the plants have grown more quickly than others, giving the wall a slightly wild look that I really like. I deliberately framed this shot wider than necessary to show you part of the rest of the garden that Cindy has decorated with statues, figurines, and all kinds of plants and flowers. It feels like a secret refuge, a world apart from one of the main streets in our neighborhood that is barely visible through the slats of the fence.

The second image shows a portion of the fence that separates her yard from that of her neighbor. Here she has created an almost meditative space featuring a wall hanging and a spectacular bird bath that rises up out of a bed of hostas. If you click on the image and examine the details, you will see that Cindy had decorated the blue grid with dozens of colorful dragonflies.

As you can readily see from these two images, Cindy is amazingly creative and is an incredible gardener and designer. You might have thought that I was a little over the top in yesterday’s blog anniversary posting in which I expressed my admiration and gratitude for all that she does to inspire me—here is visual evidence of why those words were well-deserved.

cindy's garden

cindy's garden

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I was happy on Tuesday to spot this male Lancet Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus exilis) perched in the vegetation overhanging the small pond at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I would like to have gotten a closer shot, but the bank was steep and the water in the pond appears to be deep at that spot. Staying dry, I was content to capture this environmental portrait of the handsome little dragonfly with such striking blue eyes.

lancet clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Eight years ago yesterday my dear friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer sat me down and told me that I was going to start a blog. She is a professional photographer and graphic designer and already had a well-established blog. I had gone shooting with her multiple times and we had spent countless hours together reviewing my photos to improve my skills in capturing images and processing them. She had decided it was time to broaden my audience beyond that of Facebook.

Cindy showed me the basics of WordPress editing and navigation and helped me to set up my initial pages. I do not think that either of us anticipated the degree to which I would grow to love the process of blogging, a process that has allowed me daily to express myself creatively in both words and images.

WordPress data show that I have published 3628 posts, which probably includes the occasional re-blog of a post written by someone else, and have had almost 249 thousand views. Those posts have included over 580 thousand words (about 160 words per posting) and well over 4000 photos.

Although I look at the numbers from time to time, they are not that important to me. It is personally more important to me that the blog has helped me to develop relationships with a lot of different viewers, to share with so many of you my sometimes faltering  steps on my meandering journey into photography.

Thanks to all of you for helping me along the way and sharing your comments, suggestions, and recommendations. I especially owe a debt of gratitude to Cindy Dyer for motivating me throughout this entire period, for pushing me at times when I was hesitant, and for serving as my muse. Many of you probably feel that you already know Cindy, given that I have featured flowers from her garden repeatedly during this year as I have been forced to stay close to home. Thanks, Cindy.

To celebrate this anniversary, I thought I would reprise two of my favorite photos. These are not necessarily my most popular images or my “best” images, but they are ones that are particularly memorable to me. I am also including links to the original postings so you can read the accompanying text and additional commentary about the circumstances under which they were captured. Links to original postings: Visible Song (8 March 2016) and Fox on a frozen pond (31 January 2016).

But wait, there’s more. As a bonus, I am including an image that I captured last week of a spectacular male Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina). Most of you know that I am somewhat obsessed with dragonflies and they have been an almost constant focus of my photography during the warm months over the last eight years. In fact, my very first blog posting featured a dragonfly. So, I feel it is only appropriate to include a dragonfly as I look back at where I have been.

Thanks again for all of your support and encouragement over these past eight years. The journey continues onward. I hope to continue to walk side-by-side with so many of you as we support and encourage one another. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.” (Gal. 6:10)

Visible song

fox on frozen pond

Halloween Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

If you are lucky and persistent, it is not hard to photograph a perched dragonfly. Some of them are amazingly tolerant of the presence of a human and will let you get really close to them. Even when they do fly away, many of them will return to the very same perch.

If you want to really challenge your skills as a photographer and perhaps even your sanity, you attempt to photograph members of dragonfly species that fly almost constantly and rarely perch, like this male Prince Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca princeps) that I spotted late in June at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. This dragonfly was flying irregular patrols low over the waters of a small pond at the refuge—sometimes he would fly relatively close to the shore, but often his flight path was unpredictable.

So how do I do it? I generally use the same 180mm macro lens that I use for close-up shots of dragonflies. However, I know that the lens tends to focus slowly and autofocus simply can’t acquire the subject, because it fills such a small part of the frame, so I switch to manual focus. I pre-focus on a general area and then as I track the dragonfly, I adjust the focus on the fly as he zooms by and fire away in burst mode. As dragonflies go, a Prince Baskettail is relatively large, almost 3 inches in length (75 mm), but it is really tough to get an in focus shot of one while he is flying.

On a second occasion when I was visiting the same refuge, I got a chance to try a variation of the technique. The dragonflies were patrolling  high overhead as I stood in a grassy area at one end of the pond. The second shot was the best that I could manage—the wing pattern suggests that it is also a Prince Baskettail, but the eye coloration and the terminal appendages at the tip of the abdomen make me wonder if this one is a female. What I discovered is that it is actually a lot harder to focus on a dragonfly when I am looking straight up than when looking down at the water and my arms get tired a lot quicker when holding my camera up hight for an extended period of time.

Prince Baskettail

Prince Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

Inner peace

Wishing you all a sense of inner peace as you begin a new week, something that we all need during these troubled times. That was definitely the feeling that enveloped me as I contemplated this beautiful water lily last Thursday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens during a short photography expedition there with my friend Cindy Dyer.

water lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I spotted this mating pair of Halloween Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis eponina) last Thursday during a brief visit to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia with my dear friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer. The wing patterns and coloration of Halloween Pennants have always attracted me, making them one of my favorites. As most of you know, however, I tend to have lots of favorites when it comes to dragonflies.

I was in stealth mode as I slowly moved closer to this couple and attempted to frame the image in a way that was interesting and creative, while trying not to feel too much like a voyeur. Yes, I will boldly assert that this is art, and not insect porn.

Halloween Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

July is World Watercolor Month. I was inspired by that celebration two years ago and, after gathering a bunch of supplies, I finally put brush to paper and made my first little watercolor paintings. They were not very good, but the experience was a lot of fun and I documented it in a posting called Jumping into Watercolor. I produced a few more small paintings during the summer of 2018, but somehow my interest waned.

I spent three weeks last November in Paris and brought along some art materials. Paris reignited my desire to play with watercolor and I was inspired enough to produce some more little paintings that you can see in the posting Playing with watercolor in Paris. My skill level had improved marginally and I eventually painted a few more times before I left Paris.

Alas, I did not continue with watercolors, although I kept buying supplies and watching lots of YouTube videos. A few days ago, I downloaded the list of daily prompts for World Watercolor Month and decided I would try to paint something on as many days as I could this July. I chose to paint in a relatively small watercolor journal that is 5.5 x 8 inches (14 X 20 cm) so I would not feel intimidated by a big sheet of blank paper.

So here are my paintings for the first four days of July in reverse order. The prompt for 4 July was “Quiet” and as I though about it, my mind transported me back to an early morning last November when I watched the sun rise slowly over the Seine River.

The prompt for 3 July was “Playful” and I chose to reprise a painting style and subject that I had used once before. I used a style based on Chinese ink painting (sumi-e) that emphasizes using a minimum number of strokes to capture the essence of the subject, in this cases some frogs and dragonflies.

The prompt for 2 July was “Texture” and I decided to try to paint a wart-covered toad that I had photographed earlier this year. The prompt for 1 July was “Rejoice” and I painted a chubby little bird that was singing.

It is both rewarding and humbling to post these paintings. I feel like a little kid who is excited about producing something with his own hands and this posting serves as a virtual refrigerator door on which I can display my art. Of course I realize that my current skill level is pretty low, but was one video that I watched recently emphasized, “there is no shame in being a beginner.”

I am confident that if I can carve out some time each day to paint this month, I am sure to improve. Most importantly, I am having fun. I was chatting recently with a friend who is an accomplished watercolor artist. She confessed it is a little tougher for her to have fun, because she is a perfectionist. As our skill levels increase in any area, I think there is a danger that we may lose our initial sense of joy and wonder. I consciously try to remain on guard against that danger when it comes to my photography.

If you want to learn more about World Watercolor Month, click on this link or go directly to doodlewash.com. In addition to raising awareness and interest about watercolor painting, World Watercolor Month raises support for The Dreaming Zebra Foundation, a charity providing support so that children and young adults are given an equal opportunity to explore and develop their creativity in the arts.

 

Quiet

Playful

Texture

Rejoice

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Perhaps it was a territorial dispute, but whatever the reason, a male Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) came screaming in determined to dislodge a perched male Banded Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis fasciata) on Thursday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens and achieved his goal. A few moments earlier I had spotted the two dragonflies perched in a moment of peaceful co-existence (with appropriate social distancing), but that moment of tranquility did not last very long.

Can’t we all just get along and live in harmony with one another?

Halloween Pennant and Banded Pennant

Halloween Pennant and Banded Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

More than enough

There were only a few lotuses in bloom on Thursday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, but they were more than sufficient to sate my senses. How much beauty is “enough?”

Increasingly I am finding that I enjoy beauty in small doses. So many voices in our society try to convince us that we need “more,” when perhaps “less” is even better, especially when we slow down and take the time to explore and appreciate that beauty.

I love the layers of  petals of the lotus flower; the details of the center of the lotus, revealed when the petals open up and begin to shrivel; and the promise of future beauty in the lotus bud on which the Slaty Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula incesta) had chosen to perch.

Sometimes when searching for beauty, it is more beneficial to search deeply, focusing on a few things, than to search widely, always looking for something newer and better.

lotus

lotus

slaty skimmer on lotus bud

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris rapae) are so small and plain that many people mistakenly believe they are moths. I find real elegance in their simplicity, especially when I am able to see their striking speckled green eyes. I spotted this little beauty during a brief visit yesterday to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia with my friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer.

Cabbage Whites are always hyperactive, in constant motion as they flit about from flower to flower, stopping only momentarily for a short sip. Consequently they are hard to track and you have to be quick on the trigger to have a chance of getting a shot. In the first photo I was lucky enough to capture a “bonus bug,” a hoverfly that was in action below the much larger butterfly. Cindy coined the term “bonus bug” to refer to insects that are in the frame that you never even noticed when you were taking the shot.

Be sure to double-click on each image to get a more detailed view of this beautiful butterfly, including its mesmerizing eyes.

Cabbage White

Cabbage White

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Most dragonflies are slender and acrobatic, prompting one of my friends recently to call them “dainty.” There is absolutely nothing dainty, however, about Dragonhunter dragonflies (Hagenius brevistylus)—with their massive upper bodies and powerful legs, they remind me of powerlifters. Dragonhunters, unlike some other large dragonflies, do not fly patrols overhead in their search for food. Instead, they are patient hunters who perch, waiting for passing prey, and then use their powerful back legs to snag their victims, which are often other dragonflies.

One thing that always strikes me when I spot perched Dragonhunters is that they seem uncomfortable. Their back legs are so long and ungainly that Dragonhunters’ poses look awkward, bringing to mind gawky teenage males who have undergone recent growth spurts and have not yet gotten used to their longer limbs.

I was thrilled to spot this Dragonhunter last week while exploring a stream in Fairfax County with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. It was a hot, humid day and we did not have any success in finding Eastern Least Clubtails, our main focus for the day. In fact, during the day we did not see many dragonflies at all. Walter had been at this location repeatedly and at the start of the day had commented to me that he had often seen Dragonhunters perched on branches overhanging the stream. In fact, we spotted Dragonhunters several times during the day, but did not manage to get good shots of them.

As the skies began to darken, signaling an approaching rainstorm, I knew our time was drawing to an end. I decided to return to a fallen tree where we had seen a Dragonhunter earlier in the day and was pleasantly surprised to see a Dragonhunter holding on to the very tip of a branch. I waded into the stream and moved a little closer to the dragonfly, slowly making my way across the slick, uneven rocks. I called out loudly to Walter, who was a good distance downstream from me, and eventually I heard his response.

I became the patient hunter now as I stood in the calf-high waters of the stream, trying to minimize my movements as I struggled to get a decent shot without disturbing the dragonfly, waiting for the arrival of my friend and hoping that the dragonfly would stay in place. Well, Walter arrived and we both managed to get some shots. I then felt free to move a bit more and crouched low to get a better angle for a shot. Lost in the moment, I did not initially notice that my backside was getting wetter and wetter as I squatted lower and lower. Fortunately I had moved my wallet and keys to my backpack which remained dry.

Eventually the Dragonhunter flew away from its initial perch, but the flights were short and relatively direct and we were able to track the dragonfly to its subsequent positions. The Dragonhunter looked a bit more comfortable at its new perches, but I was not. The rocks underfoot were getting bigger and more uneven and navigation through the water was increasingly difficult. At one moment I encountered an unexpected small drop (maybe 6 inches or so) and I slipped and momentarily lost my balance, but somehow managed to stay dry.

I was tired and wet when we began the uphill trudge back to the parking area, but I was feeling happy about our encounter with this Dragonhunter, one of the powerful giants of the dragonfly world. If you would like to see Walter’s photos and commentary on our Dragonhunter adventure, be sure to check out his blog posting today entitled “Dragonhunter dragonfly (male).” While you are there, be sure to poke around on his site—he has lots of cool images and fascinating information on all kinds of dragonflies and other creatures too.

Dragonhunter

Dragonhunter

Dragonhunter

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Some folks are a bit shocked when I post photos of mating insects, so here is a more discreet look at a damselfly couple in tandem that I encountered last week at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Somehow I can’t help but think of the old doo wop song “Silhouettes,” which recounts the story of a man who sees two silhouettes on a shade. He thinks his girlfriend is kissing another guy, only to find out that he is at the wrong house.

I may have heard the original version by The Rays that came out in 1957, but suspect I actually recall the cover version done by Herman’s Hermits that came out in 1965. In case you have never heard the song or are simply feeling nostalgic, here is a link to YouTube for the original version and a link to the cover by Herman’s Hermits.

damselflies

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Almost tropical

The lilies blooming in the garden of my friend and neighbor Cindy Dyer are so lush and the colors so vivid that they seem almost tropical.

lily

lily

lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Some of the dragonflies that I feature in my postings are uncommon species in my area. They are found in very small numbers, have a short flight period, and require very specific habitats. My good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford did an extensive amount of research two years ago and re-discovered the Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Stenogomphurus rogersi), a species that is considered to be rare in Northern Virginia. Several of us were able to capture numerous images of this beautiful species during the 2018 dragonfly season.

Since that time, however, the habitat at that location has deteriorated significantly. As a result of some imprudent dumping of dirt and the resulting runoff, the stream habitat has been compromised by increased silt and higher levels of vegetation. Last year, as far as we know, there was only a single sighting of Sable Clubtails at this spot.

Had the population of Sable Clubtails been wiped out? During May and June this year, I made repeated trips to this location and on 12 June I captured the second shot below. When I took the shot, I was not sure if it was a Sable Clubtail, so my excitement was somewhat muted while I was in the field.  However, when Walter confirmed that it was in fact a male Sable Clubtail, I was really happy. In many ways, though, my excitement was no match for Walter’s the next day, when we returned to that location and, after much searching, had several encounters with Sable Clubtails, including the one shown in the first image.

For more background on the saga of the Sable Clubtails, be sure to check out Walter’s posting from last Friday entitled “Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Male No. 1).” The posting includes Walter’s photos, range maps for the species, and fascinating details on the backstory. Walter has a background in science and his systematic and analytical approach allows him to view things from a different perspective than I do with my background in languages, literature, and political science. Our approaches are quite different, but are definitely complementary.

 

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

How much does the  background matter in a wildlife photograph? Is it merely a potentially distracting element or should it help convey a sense of the environment? Like many photographers, I often obsess over the background when I compose my images, trying to frame the shot and to adjust the camera settings to produce a certain effect. I suspect that my mindset is frequently more like that of a portrait photographer, who wants to draw your attention to the main subject, than that of a landscape photographer, who wants everything in the viewfinder to be in focus.

During the month of June I have been blessed to spot Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) on multiple occasions at several locations. I have taken lots of photos of them and the majority of those photos show the dragonfly perched vertically on the trunk of a tree—that is what petaltails do most of the time. My personal challenge has been to capture some images of Gray Petaltails doing something a bit different.

In the first image, the Gray Petaltail was perched horizontally, a position that I have rarely seen. The background in this shot is completely blurred—you don’t know for sure what is behind the dragonfly, though the colors suggest that it is vegetation. The blurred background forces you to focus on the main subject and to a limited extent on its perch. It is the type of portrait image that I strive to capture most often, though rarely am I this successful in doing so.

The second image uses a different approach. I visually separated the dragonfly from its perch by shooting from the side so that the details of its body are not lost in the shadows of the tree. The background is slightly blurred, but it lets you know that the dragonfly was perched in a sea of interrupted ferns. I like the way that you can see the patterns and color of those ferns. I took the shot from a lot farther away than I did with the first image, so the dragonfly occupies a much smaller part of the frame. As a result, the details of the perch grow in importance and in many ways the tree shares the spotlight with the dragonfly. This is the kind of environmental portrait that I really like, but often forget to take. Too often I am so driven to fill the frame with my subject that I forget to try different approaches.

The final shot is a kind of compromise shot, taken from a medium distance with a background that is more suggestive of the environment than in the first image, but not as detailed as in the second one. The perch has some details, but is intended to play a supporting role, rather than be the co-star as in the the second image. The dragonfly fills less of the frame than in the first image, but more than in the second.

In the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, she repeatedly tried two extremes, before setting on one that was “just right.” Is that the moral of the story here? Au contraire, mes amis. You can come to your own conclusions as you look at these three images, but for me it is clear that there is no single solution to the question of backgrounds. Blurry backgrounds can be good, but not always. Close-up shots are great, but may come with a cost. Showing some details in the background can enhance an image, except when it doesn’t.

What is best? Some folks may be unhappy with the lack of clarity, but the best answer seems to be, “it depends.” With backgrounds, as with so much in photography, we are left in an ambiguous situation in which “rules” are at best general guidelines, intended to be broken as the situation dictates or as the photographer decides. That gives me unlimited possibilities and a maximum amount of freedom to create more cool images.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

The alien-looking plant in the first photo is a seedpod of ‘Love in a mist’ (Nigella damascena), one of my favorite flowers, that I spotted during a short visit last Monday to Green Spring Gardens with my friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer. It was a little late in the season, but I managed to spot a few flowers still in bloom, as shown in the second image. This flower is typically blue, but love-in-a-mist also comes in shades of white, pink, and lavender.

When I did a little research on-line, I learned that the striped, balloon-shaped object that I call a seedpod, is actually an inflated capsule composed of five fused true seedpods, according to an article by Wisconsin Horticulture. I also learned that the thorny-looking spikes that make up the “mist,” which are not sharp, despite their appearance, are technically bracts, a specialized kind of leaves.

This is one of the few local places where I know I can find this exotically beautiful flower. If you want to see love-in-a-mist yourself, you should probably go to a large garden. Otherwise you could waste a lot of your time looking for love in all the wrong places.

 

love in a mist

Love in a mist

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Flat heron

The shape of the silhouette is familiar and if the lighting is bad, you might be able to convince yourself that a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is standing in the corner of a small pond at Green Spring Gardens. I have visited the pond dozens of times, so I know that the heron is not real, but it still makes for a fun subject to photograph.

I love the heron’s distorted reflection in the first photo and the touches of green provided by a small tree to the side and the duckweed floating on the surface of the water. I was equally thrilled when a male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) perched on the heron’s head after I had moved in closer. I doubt that a real heron would have been quite as accommodating in permitting the dragonfly to perch and seem to recall having seen a Great Blue Heron attempt to snatch a dragonfly out of the air as it flew by.

Great Blue Heron

Blue Dasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Powdered Dancer

Bright, saturated colors can be wonderful, but in large doses they can overwhelm the senses and confuse a viewer’s eyes. I am often drawn to simple scenes with a limited palette of colors, scenes in which light and shadows and shapes and textures play a more prominent role than colors.

Those were my thoughts when I started to review my images of this male Powdered Dancer damselfly (Argia moesta) that I spotted on Thursday while exploring a stream in Fairfax County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. The Powdered Dancer is the closest that we come to having a monochromatic dragonfly or damselfly—the thorax and tip of the abdomen of males becomes increasingly white as they age.

I love the way that the coolness of the white on the body contrasts with the brownish-red warmth of the branch, the leaves, and the out-of-focus rocks in the background of the initial image. I like too the texture in the images, particularly in the bark in the first photo and in the rock in the second one. Shadows help to add some additional visual interest to both of these images, drawing a viewer’s attention to the damselfly’s head in the first image and to the details of its entire body in the second.

Powdered Dancer

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Female Blue Dashers

In some of the locations that I visit, Blue Dasher dragonflies (Pachydiplax longipennis) are the most common species that I encounter. They are pretty easy to photograph, because they hunt by perching and waiting for suitable prey to come within range. When it does, they dart from their position to catch it and often return to the same perch.

Over the years, I am sure that I have taken hundreds of photos of Blue Dashers, but I still enjoy trying to capture new and potentially better images of these beautiful little dragonflies. Blue Dashers have a special place in my heart in part because my very first posting on this blog almost eight years ago featured a photo of one. My gear has changed over those eight years, but my approach has remained pretty consistent. If you are curious about the kind of images I was capturing way back then, check out the posting that was entitle simply “Blue Dasher dragonfly.”

One thing that has changed, though, is that I now have a greater appreciation for female dragonflies, which are generally less colorful than their male counterparts. Some might see the females as drab and uninteresting, but I often find a special beauty in them that is more subtle and refined than the garish males.

The images below are shots of female Blue Dashers that I have taken during the month of June. The final photo shows a younger female with brighter colors and a more distinct pattern on her abdomen. The first two images feature a more mature female—both sexes of Blues Dashers develop a waxy, frosted color with age, a phenomenon known as “pruinescence.” One of the coolest features of these females is their two-toned eyes, with a prominent red color on the top half of the large compound eyes.

 

Blue Dasher

Blue Dasher

Blue Dasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

When I was photographing bees on Monday at Green Spring Gardens, I had no idea that it was the start of Pollinator Week (22-28 June 2020), “an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles,” according to the pollinator.org website. All I knew was that I love bees and enjoy trying to photograph them.

I was reminded of this week’s celebration yesterday in an e-mail from Benjamin, a knowledgeable budding naturalist who is almost certainly the youngest reader of my blog, and his grandmother Ellen (Gem). The two of them were busily making special honey treats to celebrate the week.

A honeybee came buzzing by me as I was attempting to photograph a poppy on Monday. Although the poppy was quite beautiful, I quickly abandoned it and decided that it was more fun to focus on the bee. The bee seemed to have been quite successful in gathering pollen and, as you can see in the first two photos, one of its pollen sacs seemed to be filled to its maximum capacity.

The final photo shows a honeybee at work in a Stokes’ Aster flower (Stokesia laevis) that I spotted in another part of the gardens. If you double-click on the image, you will see little white grains of pollen covering different many parts of the bee’s body.

 

honeybee

honeybee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

Smiling at me

Can dragonflies smile? It sure looked like this male Great Blue Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans) was flashing me a toothy grin when I spotted him last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps it was just my imagination, running away with me.

smiling dragonfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Out of the more than 3500 species of skipper butterflies worldwide, there is only one that I can reliably identify, the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). I spotted this little beauty on Monday during a brief visit to Green Spring Gardens with my friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer.

Silver-spotted Skipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Mockingbird in June

During a brief visit to Green Spring Gardens on Monday with fellow photographer Cindy Dyer, I was thrilled when this Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) landed close to me on an evergreen tree and I was able to capture this shot with my macro lens. I was focusing primarily on flowers and bugs, as one tends to do when visiting a garden, and simply reacted when this unexpected opportunity presented itself.

One of my goals in spending so much time in the field is to become so familiar with my camera gear that I can instinctively capture an image like this without having to think consciously about my camera. It is hard to explain, but it was one of those magical moments when I felt at one with my camera. Yeah, that sounds a little weird, but it is hard to put into words.

 

Northern Mockingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Although Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) are quite small, about 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length, they pack a lot of color into their tiny bodies and wings. Adult females have bright yellow markings, as shown in the first photo, and wonderful designs on their wings that appear to be outlined in gold when the sun hits them from the right angle. Adult males have bright red markings that look almost like little hearts and have similarly detailed patches on their wings, although the pattern and colors are different from those of the females.

What about the dragonfly in the third photo? Its coloration is similar to that of the adult female, but it is in fact a juvenile male that will eventually turn red. How can I tell it is a male? If you look closely at the tips of the abdomen (the “tail”) in all three images, you will note that the terminal appendages are similar in the final two photos and are different from those in the first photo. Normally I will try to rely on those anatomical features when trying to tell the gender of a subject, because in quite a large number of dragonfly species, juvenile males and females have the same coloration.

I spotted all three of these Calico Pennant dragonflies during a visit last Friday to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, one of my favorite places to spend time with my camera. This refuge was one of the few facilities in our area to remain open during the stay-home period and got a bit too crowded for my taste. Now that other parks have reopened, the number of visitors has dropped to much lower levels and I am able to enjoy the solitude of nature once again.

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

One water lily

There was only a single water lily in bloom at a pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge last week, but its beauty brightened the entire area and brought a smile to my face. Water lilies are one of the reasons why Claude Monet is one of my favorite painters.

Monet did some 250 oil paintings of water lilies (“Nymphéas” in French), many depicting the garden at his home in Giverny, and they were the main focus of his artistic production during the last thirty years of his like, according to Wikipedia.

 

water lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.