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Female scaup

This cool-looking bird is a female scaup—I love the white stripe on her face and her striking eyes. If I were a bit better at bird identification, I might be able to figure out is she is a Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) or a Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). The differences between the two species are pretty subtle, especially when it comes to females, so I will generally identify them simply as “scaups.”

Throughout this month, I have seen quite a few scaups in flocks in the deep waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Scaups are diving ducks and therefore rarely seem to come as close to the shore as dabbling ducks like mallards and pintails. It is therefore quite a challenge to get a detailed shot of a scaup.

On the day when I took this photo, the wind was kicking up and the waters were rough, which slowed down the scaup enough for me to be able to capture this image—I recommend clicking on the image to get a good look at the facial features of this distinctive duck.

scaup

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Snowdrops in January

In the deepest darkest days of winter, there is still new growth, like these snowdrop flowers (g. Galanthus) that I spotted yesterday at Green Spring Gardens, a county-run historic garden not far from where I live.

I decided to mix things up a bit and put my macro lens on my camera for the first time in months, hoping that I might find flowers in bloom. What can I possibly find that would be flowering in late January? We have had over a foot (30 cm) of snow already this month and some frigid temperatures, a harsher winter than in recent years. I knew from past experience, though, that there was a good chance that some snowdrop flowers would be in bloom—my challenge was to find them.

I searched in vain in flowerbed after flowerbed, until finally I found several small patches of these pretty white flowers. The words to the song Edelweiss from The Sound of Music, one of my favorite musicals, came to mind. Although edelweiss is a completely different flower, the words of the song seemed to fit my snowdrops so well.

“Every morning you greet me
Small and white, clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever.”

snowdrops

snowdrop

snowdrop

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

In the crook of a tree

Sometimes Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) will perch out in the open on branches or in prominent trees where they are relatively easy to spot. At other times, though, they perch in the crooks of the trees, almost hidden from view. I encountered these two semi-hidden eagles last Tuesday as I was wandering the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I really like the contrast between the two expressions and poses of the two eagles. The eagle in the first image seems stern and serious—I don’t think that I would want to mess with him. The eagle in the second image seems almost a little goofy with a whimsical smile and windswept hair—for some reason he reminds me of Big Bird from Sesame Street.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Almost perfect

Quite often my most beautiful photos are of the simplest, most common subjects that I find in nature, like this White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) that I photographed recently at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The elements of this image—the lighting, the pose, the framing, and the color palette—work together almost perfectly to create a harmonious, warm feeling for me that is hard to describe with words.

It is a bit of a cliché to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it is nonetheless true. Perhaps you’d dismiss this photo because the main subject is a nondescript little bird or maybe you prefer more colorful images with more “pop.” In my photography I try a variety of approaches to capture the beauty that surrounds us and have varying degrees of success in doing so.

For me, this one image is almost perfect.  There is always the chance, however, that I will be able to capture something even more perfect in my next photos, so I’ll keep trudging on with my camera.

White-throated Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Flicker in flight

Have you ever noticed the different ways that birds take to the air? Some of them flap their wings and seem able to almost levitate themselves as they rise vertically. Others make a running start in order to gain additional momentum before they lift off. No matter how they do it, the birds have to coordinate a complex series of small actions by their various body parts for a takeoff to be successful.

On Tuesday I was observing this Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in a tree at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, when it decided to depart without warning. Instinctively I pressed the shutter and was able to capture this fun little photo. It looks like the first step in the takeoff process for this flicker was to leap from the branch and then perhaps glide a bit before engaging its wings.

Northern Flickers always fascinate me. I cannot help but marvel at the amazing combination of colors and patterns on the bodies of these woodpeckers whenever I see one.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Northern Flicker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Kingfisher in January

If I am patient and persistent, I can usually end up with pretty good shots of most types of birds that I see. The Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), however, is a notable exception—I only rarely get a clean look at a kingfisher and don’t think that I have ever gotten a close-up shot of one.

Why? Belted Kingfishers are small, fast, and extremely skittish, which makes them remarkably elusive. Most of the time my first indication that a kingfisher is in the area is when I hear its distinctive rattling call as it flies away from me. It sometimes feels like the bird is taunting me. It will often fly only a short distance away, giving me hope that I will be able to creep closer, and then it will fly away again as soon as I start to move.

I have several encounters with a Belted Kingfisher this month and was happy to get this shot recently of a female. You can tell that it is a female because of the chestnut stripe on its breast. Males have only a blue stripe—it is really unusual with bird species to have the female more colorful than the male.

Kingfishers have a very distinctive look with their stocky bodies, large heads and thick, pointed bills. I always enjoy seeing photos of kingfishers from other parts of the world, including the brilliant blue Eurasian Kingfisher, a species that I hope to see in person in the future, when it becomes safe enough to travel internationally again.

Belted Kingfisher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Spiky gumballs

I watched in utter fascination on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as this Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) worked to extract seeds from the spiky seedpods of a sweetgum tree. The little bird would hang upside down with all of its weight on the stem of the seedpod and poke about with its bill inside the seedpod. Once it had found a seed, the chickadee would yank back its head to extract the seed.

Most of the time the bird would then fly to a nearby branch to consume the seed and then resume the process. Occasionally, though, the momentum generated in extracting the seed caused the chickadee to fall away and momentarily lose its balance and I was lucky enough to capture one such moment in the first image below.

The other two images give you an idea of some of the acrobatic positions used by the chickadee in its foraging. In the final photo, I believe the chickadee was using its extended wings to help stabilize itself as it sought to snag another seed.

It is good to know that there are potential food sources available during the winter for these little birds, but sure looks like the chickadee has to work really hard to gain access to those tiny seeds inside of those spiky gumball.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

Bluebirds in January

Yesterday I was absolutely delighted to spot a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The bright, cheery blue of their feathers never fails to bring a smile to my face, especially during the long gray days of winter.

The bluebirds spent a lot of their time foraging in a field of what I think is sumac. I may be totally wrong about the plant and would welcome a correction. Whatever the case, the bluebirds really liked it. Most of the time they foraged as individuals or as pair, but occasionally a small group of them would work in the same area, as you can see in the first image.

It was a challenge to photograph these pretty little birds because they were quite a distance away. Most of the time when they bent over to pluck a berry, they disappeared from sight.

On occasion I was able to isolate a bird and create a portrait of the bluebird. The second and third images show two different approaches that I used, with the final shot showing much more of the overall environment rather than the details of the subject. From my perspective, both images work well, albeit in different ways.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Looks of disapproval

This Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) definitely did not seem to be thrilled with my presence last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Despite its looks of disapproval, though, it remained in place for our little portrait session and was still perched when I continued down the trail.

You never know how wildlife will react when they detect your presence. Most often they will crawl, swim, or fly away immediately, because they perceive you as a predator. Occasionally, particularly when they are young, they will look back at you with a mixture of wonder and may even come a little closer. On rare occasions, you seem to come to a silent agreement with your subject to peacefully coexist.

Generally I photograph wildlife subjects from a good distance away (with the notable exception of insects that I like to photograph at close range) and try not to spook them. Sometimes, though, you just can’t help it. This eagle was perched on some branches overhanging the trail that I had to use to get back to where my car was parked—I had to pass right under the perched eagle.

I tried to move slowly and stealthily, but I knew from past experience that an eagle’s eyesight is much keener than mine and its reaction time much quicker—there was no way I was going to pass by unnoticed. As you can undoubtedly tell, I took these shots shooting upwards from almost directly below the eagle. I made small adjustments to my position as I tried to frame the eagle through the branches, but I did not want to scare away the eagle.

As I departed, I was really happy with the encounter and the fact that the eagle was able to retain its chosen spot. The eagle, for its part, was probably equally happy to return to basking in the warmth of the winter sun after being momentarily disturbed by a pesky photographer.

 

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Regal eagles

Last Wednesday was a wonderful day for photographing Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I spotted them at several locations on the refuge and even managed to get a few portrait-style shots in which the eagles look particularly regal and majestic.

Earlier in the day the sun was shining brightly and I had the brilliant blue sky as a backdrop, as you see in the second photo below. However, that eagle was buried a bit in the vegetation and the background is a little more cluttered than I would have preferred. Still, I like the expression on the eagle’s face, the kind of semi-smile that some people make when you ask them to pose.

Later in the day the skies clouded over and the color of the background was much more subdued. Somehow, that seems to fit well with the serious expression on the face of the eagle in the first image. I like too that he was perched on a “snag,” a dead or dying tree that is still standing, so there were no distracting small tree branches.

I am always happy when I manage to see a Bald Eagle, one of the symbols of the United States, and even more thrilled when I can capture images like this one.

bald eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Unattended nest

The Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) left their big nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge unattended last Wednesday and several Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) decided to check it out. I don’t know if the eagles were eating fish in the nest in the past or if the vultures were merely curious.

Later in the day I passed the same nest and both of the eagles were perched near the nest, including the one shown in the second image below. That shot gives you a good sense of how big that nest really is. The eagles have been using it for many years and each year they seem to add on to it. It is so deep now, that it is almost impossible to tell if an eagle is sitting on eggs, but I will be checking periodically for other signs.

Turkey Vultures

eeeagle nest

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Chickadee and sweetgum

This Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) was busily extracting seeds from the spiky sweetgum seed balls when I spotted it high in a tree on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The chickadee would dangle upside down from the branch to snag a seed with its bill and bring the seed back onto the branch to eat it.

In this image, the chickadee appeared to be eying its next target—the seed ball in the lower left of the shot.

Carolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Flying eagles

I spotted Bald Eagle couples (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) near each of the two bald eagle nests at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge this past week, but I have not yet seen them in the nest itself quite yet. I believe that it is now mating season and it probably will not be long before the eagles start nesting.

This past Wednesday I spotted one of the eagle couples perched on an osprey nesting platform that is not far from one of the eagle nests. This seems to be one of the favorite spots for the eagles to hang out together and I have seen them at this spot multiple times in the past. I was a good distance away from the eagles, but was monitoring them through my telephoto zoom lens.

I sensed that they were getting prepared to take off, so I got ready prepared in case they happened to fly in my direction. I was delighted when they zoomed past me and was even more thrilled when I managed to capture this image with both of the eagles in flight.

It is pretty hard to photograph a bird in flight under the best of circumstance and really difficult when there is more than one bird. I would consider this one to be a successful shot.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Bald Eagles

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Odd couple

They made a bit of an odd couple, but this scaup and this Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) seemed happy together as they paddled around in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Monday. I have the distinct impression that birds are increasingly willing to tolerate the presence of other species during the winter months and it is not uncommon for me to spot mixed flocks of birds in the water and on the land.
The Pied-billed Grebe has a very distinctive look and is easy to identify. When it comes to the scaup, however, identification is a bit more problematic, because there are Greater Scaups (Aythya marila) and Lesser Scaups (Aythya affinis). Lesser Scaups are somewhat smaller than Greater Scaups and their heads are shaped differently (the Lesser has a thinner, more peaked head than the Greater Scaup, which has a more round head), but I have never been able to tell the two species apart.
I really like the visual comparison in the photo between the size and shape of the bodies and bills of these two swimming birds as well as their very different coloration. Birds that look different from each other can live together in peace. Why is it that we humans can’t do the same?
odd couple
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Kinglet in January

Does a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) have a neck? Many birds look round in the winter, when they fluff up their feathers to retain heat, but that effect is exaggerated with Ruby-crowned Kinglets, because they have really large heads and no visible necks.

All in all the proportions seem all out of whack, giving the bird a cartoonish look. (Speaking of “whack,” I saw a wonderful cartoon recently. It showed an elevator with a sign that said “Out of Whack” with a subheading that added “More whack on order.” Sorry, I should have warned you that I have a warped sense of humor.)

I spotted this tiny little Ruby-crowned Kinglet on Monday as I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There is still a lot of snow in the untrodden, shaded areas of the refuge and there was a thin coating of ice on some of the ponds. Many birds were active, foraging feverishly in the trees and in the brush. This kinglet was full of nervous energy, constantly in motion, flicking its wings as it darted in and out of the vegetation.

Although the species name includes a ruby crown, that crown is almost always hidden. In the second photo, you can just barely see a little red stripe on the top of the bird’s head. Apparently when an adult male is excited, he flashes his brilliant red crown, but I don’t recall ever having seen anything that dramatic.

Given the modest size of the bird’s “crown” it is no wonder that he is known as a “kinglet”—if he had a more impressive crown, perhaps he would have been called a “king.”

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Slim pickings

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I am sure that this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) would have preferred to find the juicy insects on which it gorges during warmer weather, but they are off the menu for the season. Instead, like many other birds, this warbler has to settle for whatever berries it can find during the winter.

In this case, even the poison ivy berries seemed to be picked over, with only a few wizen berries remaining. The warbler had to work had to snag those berries, using all of its acrobatic prowess. Momentarily satisfied it moved on, hoping perhaps that the pickings would not be so slim at its next stop.

I am always shocked to see any warblers in the winter. Most warblers pass through our area during the spring and the autumn, but Yellow-rumped Warblers hang around for most of the winter. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website:

“Yellow-rumped Warblers are perhaps the most versatile foragers of all warblers. They’re the warbler you’re most likely to see fluttering out from a tree to catch a flying insect, and they’re also quick to switch over to eating berries in fall. Other places Yellow-rumped Warblers have been spotted foraging include picking at insects on washed-up seaweed at the beach, skimming insects from the surface of rivers and the ocean, picking them out of spiderwebs, and grabbing them off piles of manure.”

In addition to its versatility in foraging, the Yellow-rumped Warbler has an amazingly robust digestive system. “The Yellow-rumped Warbler is the only warbler able to digest the waxes found in bayberries and wax myrtles. Its ability to use these fruits allows it to winter farther north than other warblers, sometimes as far north as Newfoundland.”

We may complain about poison ivy when we encounter it during the summer, but its berries serve as an important food source for birds like this Yellow-rumped Warbler that help them to survive the winter. Are you willing to put up with some minor inconvenience for the sake of these beautiful little creatures with whom we share this planet?

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warblers

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Woodpecker tongue

Did you know that woodpeckers have tongues? They use their long sticky tongues to probe the holes they peck for grubs or other small insects. Last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I observed a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) pecking away feverishly and was delighted when reviewing my photos to see that I had gotten some shots of its tongue at work. You can see the tongue clearly in the first photo below, though you may need to zoom in to do so.

As I was doing a little research, I came across a fascinating article by Rebecca Heisman on the American Bird Conservancy website entitled “The Amazing Secrets of Woodpecker Tongues.” The article explained the anatomy and function of a woodpecker’s tongue in a way that was both understandable and fun. For example, when talking about the length of a woodpecker’s tongue, it stated:

“The total length of a woodpecker tongue can be up to a third of the bird’s total body length, although the exact proportions vary from species to species. This includes both the part that sticks out past the end of the beak, and the part that stays anchored in the head. If our tongues were the same proportion, they would be around two feet long!”

So where does the tongue go when it is not in use? The tongue is retracted behind the skull and helps to protect the woodpecker’s brain when it is hammering away at a tree. Wow!

There are so many cool things to learn about nature—I often feel like I am only beginning to scratch the surface of a whole range of secrets that are waiting to be revealed to me as I explore more and more.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Do Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) have long necks? If you looked at the first image, you undoubtedly would respond that they most certainly do. If you looked at the second image, though, you might hesitate in responding to my question.

Where does the neck go? In the first photo, the heron seems to have a neck-to-body ration relatively equivalent to that of a giraffe, but a giraffe, as far as I know, is not able to retract its neck the way that the heron can.

I sometimes imagine that a heron can contract its neck like the Slinky that I remember from my childhood. You could stretch out its coils a long way and it would return to its original shape. On a side note, my favorite “trick” was getting the Slinky to walk down a set of stairs.

I do not know heron physiology very well, but I think the heron’s neck is flexible enough that it can pull the neck into a tight S-curve against its body. From certain angles, it looks like the heron’s neck has gotten considerably shorter when it does this.

So what about you? Are you willing to stick out your neck when something grabs your attention or do you tend to hunker down and move slowly and cautiously forward? It is a good question to ask yourself as we begin a new year, full of new opportunities and possibilities. How bold or fearful do you feel?

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Field Sparrow

I used to think that all sparrows looked alike and would dismiss them all as nondescript little brown birds. Over time I have started to be able the differences among several sparrow species.

When I spotted this sparrow on Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I could tell it was not one of the ones that I am used to seeing. Its rounded head, pinkish bill, and white eye ring gave it an unusual look that I had never seen before. As is usually the case, I did not think a lot about identifying this little bird while I was out in the field.

Upon returning home, however, I went through my bird identification book and decided that it looked like it might be a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla). I posted the image in a birding forum on Facebook and several experts there confirmed my initial identification. 

Most of the sparrows that I saw that day were White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows. I was intrigued to read on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that Field Sparrows are be found in mixed flocks with these other sparrow species during the winter—it pays dividends to look carefully at all individuals when you see a group of birds as there may be some surprises, as was the case for this Field Sparrow, which was a new bird for me.

“In winter, Field Sparrows may form mixed feeding flocks with other species, including White-throated and Song Sparrows. Smaller and less aggressive than other sparrows, Field Sparrows are usually at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy in these mixed flocks. Their subordinate role means that they may have to take extra risks to gain access to food, such as returning to a feeding site first after a predator has flushed the flock.”

Field Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Winter bluebirds

I finally managed to venture out of my snowy neighborhood for a visit to my favorite photography destination these past few years, Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There were lots of birds—mostly sparrows—pecking about on the trails that had been exposed by the sunshine and warming of the days since the big snowfall.

I was absolutely delighted when I saw a flash of brilliant blue among the drab sparrows on the ground and tracked the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) to some nearby vegetation. There is something really specially about seeing bright colors during the wintertime, when the world often seems colorless and monochromatic. With lots of snow still on the ground, the intensity of the colors of cardinals and bluebirds seems to be magnified even more.

I was able to capture an image of the bluebird as it perched for a moment before returning to foraging. Later in the day, while I was exploring the edge of an open field, I spotted another bluebird in the distance. He was perched high on a slender stalk and seemed to be calling out to his friends or maybe to his partner.

I zoomed in as much as I could, but the little bird still filled only a small part of the frame. However, I really like the way that the final image turned out. The minimalist composition really helps to draw the viewer’s eye to the bluebird and its expressive cry. The vast expanse of white space in the shot helps to emphasize the sense of isolation that this bird may have been feeling.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

There is something really soft and gentle about Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura), and we seem to have quite a few of them in my neighborhood, as I discovered while walking about on Tuesday after our snowstorm the previous day. Some of the ones that I saw were by themselves, like the dove in the first and second photo, while others were in pairs, like the two in the final photo.

Mourning Doves always seem long and angular to me. In these shots, the birds seem to have puffed up their feathers a bit in an effort to stay warm. I am always amazed that birds and other wildlife manage to survive when conditions get this harsh and inhospitable. On this day, at least, there was some sunshine, which allowed the birds to warm up a bit.

mourning dove

mourning dove

mourning dove

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

It was delightful on Tuesday to photograph cardinals with a brilliant blue sky as a backdrop, but many of the birds that I try to photograph do not perch high up in the trees. Birds like this White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) spent most of the time near the ground, poking about in the undergrowth. If I am lucky enough to get a clear view of one of these birds, the background is likely to be cluttered and distracting.

Snow has a way of decluttering the image, obscuring some of the pesky background branches. This was the case in the first image when I was able to capture the intensity of the sparrow in mid-cry. His little white “beard” is a perfect for the match for the snow and I was happy to be able to capture his little yellow eye stripe.

The second image has a much more gentle feel to it. The blurred snowy background allows us to focus on the puffed-up sparrow perched on the tiny branch protruding from the snow. The sparrow seemed to be taking a break, resting and recovering as it contemplated its next moves. As is usually the case, the sparrow did not sit still for very long and resumed its foraging a short time later.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Cardinals in the snow

Yesterday afternoon I trudged through the snow in the wooded areas of my townhouse community and was thrilled to spot a few birds. The sun was shining brightly and the skies were blue, but the temperatures never really rose above the freezing level.

It felt invigorating to be outdoors, though I must admit that I felt a little self-conscious skulking about behind my neighbors’ houses with a camera with a long lens. However, nobody called the police to report a peeping Tom, so I guess that I was ok.

When it comes to iconic shots of birds in the snow, nothing beats the impact of a bright red Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). The only problem was that I could not find one. Fortunately I was able to spot an equally stunning female cardinal that appeared to be basking in the warmth of the sunlight. I had to maneuver about quite a bit to get a clear shot of her, but am pretty happy with the composition that I was able to get, especially in the first photo that captured some of her personality.

Eventually I did find a male cardinal, but he was not very cooperative. I could see his color clearly—it is impossible to hide when you are that brightly colored—but branches kept me from getting a clean shot. The final image shows the only unobstructed view I could get of the cardinal when I was almost directly below him as he steadfastly ignored me and refused to look down at me. Still, I really like the shot, which has an abstract feel to it that I find really appealing.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

It has been several years since we had a substantial snowfall in our area. Last winter we had a total accumulation of 5.4 inches (14 cm) of snow and the year before that we had a total of only 0.6 inches (15 mm). This storm started as rain at night and then turned into a steady snowfall of wet snow throughout the morning and early afternoon. One of my neighbors measured the total amount of snow we received at 10 inches (25 cm).

Not surprisingly, schools were closed for the day as were the federal and local governments—the road crews in this area are simply not equipped to removed this large a quantity of snow. Eventually people emerged from their cozy homes to dig themselves out. I live in densely-packed a townhouse community and one of our biggest challenges when it snows is finding a place to pile the snow.

About half of the cars in the neighborhood are now cleared and the roads have been plowed—the first photo shows my little KIA Soul with its blanket of snow that I have removed. However, temperatures overnight dipped to 19 degrees (minus 7 degrees C) and the roads are an icy mess this morning. Schools have another snow day and recovery will continue.

Unlike in some areas, we were fortunate not to lose power. However, the weight of the heavy snow caused numerous tree branches to fall—several large branches from pine trees fell into my back yard, but did not cause any damage. Additional, a large pine tree toppled over behind my townhouse as shown in the final photo. Luckily it fell away from the houses and managed not to hit any fences or cars, though it is now blocking a sidewalk.

I think I am going to stay put most of today and not venture out on the icy roads with my car. The temperatures are forecast to rise to the freezing point around noon and I may try to venture out with my camera and see if any of the neighborhood wildlife creatures are active. I’m be careful, though, because I am very conscious of the fact that the winter snow can be dangerous as well as being beautiful.

snow

snow

snow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Yesterday I featured my five most-viewed posts in 2021, all of which were published in previous years. Today I decided to show you photos from my five most-viewed posts in 2021 that were actually written in 2021. In many ways, these photos are a better representation of my me and my blog than yesterday’s set of images.

What do I mean? As I noted yesterday, most of the views for my older posts probably came from someone doing a Google search for a particular subject or combination of words. My posts popped up in their results because of the words in the posts themselves and the keywords that I have associated with the posts. I like the way that my posts take on a life of their own after they are published, but there is a kind of randomness to the process.

Most of my views for the postings below almost certainly came from folks who currently follow my blog and viewed the posts within the first few days after they were written. These viewers, many of whom I now consider my friends, are much more likely to read the entire text of the posts and to provide detailed comments. I really value that sense of engagement and the feeling of community that this process builds, which has been of even greater importance than ever during the ongoing pandemic.

In terms of the quality of the photos and the variety of the subjects, I like today’s images a lot. Many people know of my fondness for dragonflies and I am tickled to see that two images of dragonflies made the cut. Those two images (and the other three as well) show of some of the skills and creativity that I strive to apply to my photography—they are not merely documentary shots.

I encourage you to click on the titles of the individual postings to visit or re-visit the original posts. If you, you will discover that most of these postings contain a lot a lot “me”—my personal philosophy, priorities, and personality. You can see that approach in my use of titles like “Hope and happiness” and “To everything there is a season.”

I should warn you, though, that these postings might be a little longer than some of my other posts. WordPress tells me that my average post for 2021 had 204 words, and these five may be longer than that. When I sit down to write a posting, I tend to use a stream-of-consciousness style. I compose as I am thinking, letting my mind run in whatever direction it happens to go. As a result, I may ramble a bit or go off on tangents, but the results are often a direct reflection of the genuine me.

It is snowing our right now, our first snow of the season and we are forecast to get up to 10 inches (25 cm) of snow. In many ways, this is a White Christmas for us. I attend an Episcopal church and we begin our celebration on Christmas Eve, followed by the Twelve Days of Christmas, leading up to the Epiphany, when the Magi appeared. If I remember the lyrics right, today my true love should bring “ten lords a-leaping.” Hopefully my day (and yours too) will be more peaceful than that and we will all have a silent night.

Hope and happiness: 213 views, originally published—22 January 2021

Northern Cardinal

Nine year anniversary: 189 views, originally published—7 July 2021

Gray Petaltail

Early morning fox: 142 views, originally published—6 February 2021

Red Fox

A kaleidoscope of butterflies: 138 views, originally published—6 April 2021

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

To everything there is a season: 134 views, originally published—11 October 2021

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

How to you measure success in your life and in your activities? When I was still working, I was repeatedly told that “impact” was more important than raw numbers. When it came time for a performance evaluation, however, raw numbers inevitably came into play because they are quantifiable, while “impact” was much harder to measure. So many of our managers tended to focus on things that were easily measured rather than on what was important.

WordPress provides lots of data for those of us writing blogs on this platform. In 2021, for example, the data show that I published 425 blog posts with a total of 86,891 words and 54,680 views. Is that good? How do you answer that question? What is the best metric to use? To whom do you compare yourself?

For me, 2021 was a successful year. Despite the ongoing pandemic, I got to see lots of cool things in nature and had plenty of wonderful photographic opportunities. I had some great interactions with readers and sparked some fascinating discussions. In case you are curious about the numbers, in 2020 I published 436 posts and had 53,156 views, so my total views in 2021 were a little higher despite a slighter smaller number of posts.

I take WordPress stats with a grain of salt, however, because I am never sure how they are calculated. What counts as a “view,” for example? Some readers view the posts in the Reader portion of the WordPress feed, while others click through to the blog itself. Do they both count, or only those in the latter group?

I am always intrigued at the end of the year to see which posts were viewed the most often. As is usually the case, none of my most viewed posts in 2021 were written during that year. Here are my top five most viewed posts this past year with indications of the number of views in 2021, the total lifetime views for the post, and the date of its original publication. I have extracted a photo from each of the posts to give you an idea of the content and added links to the title of each post that you can click to read the original posting in its full “glory” and original context.

As I view these images, I am struck by several things. First of all, it is obvious to me that these are far from being my best photos. They are cool records of some interesting encounters, but they are not the kind of images that I would enter into a contest. Additionally I note that most of the shots were taken quite a while ago.

What do these images have in common? It seems to me that the titles of all of these posts are fairly generic and are the kinds of search terms that someone might enter into Google. Your results may vary, but when I enter “groundhog in a tree” in Google, for example, my blog post is the first entry in the search results and my photo below is the first image shown. Do you get the same results?

Nobody knows for sure how the Google algorithms work, but it seems to me that I might have inadvertently “cracked” the code this year, and the result was 1,055 views of my groundhog post from two years ago out of a total of 54,680 views this past year for the entire blog.

Don’t worry, though, I can almost guarantee that I am not going to switch to totally generic titles for my posts. As is the case with the text of the postings, I sometimes like to have titles that are quirky, humorous, or have lame puns in them.

I will probably do at least one more retrospective posting soon with a look at some of the most viewed or best postings of 2021 that were actually written in 2021. Stay tuned for that post and in the meantime those of you who still use checks can start practicing writing “2022”—I am sure that I will have trouble writing dates for at least the next few weeks.

Groundhog in a tree ; 1055 views (total lifetime views: 1157); originally published—11 April 2019

groundhog

Blue-eyed garter snake ; 791 views (total lifetime views: 2211); originally published— 9 May 2016

garter snake

Fuzzy white caterpillar ; 511 views (total lifetime views: 2758); originally published— 3 August 2013

fuzzy white caterpillar

Tiny orange butterfly ; 374 views (total lifetime views: 822); originally published— 17 September 2013

tiny orange butterfly

Male and female garden spiders ; 367 views (total lifetime views: 462); originally published— 12 August 2020

Argiope aurantia

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

Reflections on 2021

It is a cool, rainy morning here as I sit here, trying to think about what I want to say as I begin the new year. I planned on watching the ball fall at Times Square at midnight, but dozed off on the sofa and missed the moment—I guess that is a sign that I am getting old.

I am feeling pensive right now as I think about the year that has just concluded and wonder what the new year will hold for me. I decided to share some photos that I took last week at the little pond that I featured yesterday. I was utterly fascinated by the reflections of some of the trees at the edge of the pond and the textures that appeared in the ripples on the surface of the water.

Normally I have much more of an identifiable main subject when I am taking a photo, but in those moments I was mesmerized, feeling a little bit like I was looking at a Monet painting. Sometimes I get into an “artsy” trance of sorts and I have no idea how long I stood there with my camera pointing down at the water on the opposite shore.

A few people passed by, but fortunately did not pose the sometimes annoying question that I am frequently asked about what I was photographing. I often have to bite my tongue and not reply with the words resounding in my head—”I was trying to photograph a bird that you spooked with your noisy arrival.” In this case, there was no live subject to scare away, but it would have destroyed my meditative concentration.

I have to admit that I am a little selfish when it comes to sharing my wildlife experience in person with others—I prefer to enjoy the beauty of nature in solitude. I often avoid locations that have abundant wildlife, if I know there will be crowds of photographers. As I like to tell my friends, I was avoiding people long before it became popular during this pandemic.

I will probably do some kind of more organized retrospective look at the postings of this past year in the next few days. For today, though, I wanted to share some musings and reflections.

Best wishes to all of you for a happy and healthy New Year.


ripples

ripples

ripples

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Local pond

Early in the winter, several species of water birds migrate to a water-retention pond in a nearby community called Kingstowne and they generally remain there until spring. The water in the center of the pond is quite deep  and the species that like to dive for their food (versus those that “dabble” on the surface of the water) spend most of their time there.

Last Sunday I managed to capture a few long distance shots of the newest visitors, including a Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) and a Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps). A quick visual comparison of the two species shows how remarkably different they are in appearance.

Ring-necked Ducks have beautiful markings and striking yellow eyes, but their overall shape is fairly typical for a duck. Pied-billed Grebes, on the other hand, has such distorted proportions with overly large heads, short bills, and chunky bodies, that they always looks cartoonish to me. You can’t see it in the photo, but Pied-billed Grebes also have lobed feet, rather than the webbed feet of most ducks.

This pond is only a mile or so from where I live, so it is a really convenient location when I want just a short outing with my camera. It is adjacent to a shopping center, so it is not exactly like going out into the wilds, but it serves as a kind of oasis for me, a place where I can drink in the beauty of nature and restore my inner balance.

 

Ring-necked Duck

Pied-billed Grebe

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

I love getting photos of big, spectacular birds like the Bald Eagles that I have featured recently, but I also enjoy photographing smaller birds that others often ignore, like these industrious little Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) that I have spotted in December at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest woodpeckers in our area and are the ones that I am most likely to see. I have always admired their work ethic—they appear to have endless energy and are constantly in motion as the poke, probe, and hammer with their bills in search of little insects.

Normally I see Downy Woodpeckers in an upright position, but the one in the first photo was perched horizontally as he investigated a fallen branch. I can tell it is a male because I can see a little bit of the red patch on the back of his head that females do not have.

I am fascinated by the pose of the Downy Woodpecker in the second photo. The woodpecker is perched on a small branch with poison ivy berries, which many bird species eat during the winter, but seems to be attracted to the tree in the distance. Does the woodpecker think that the pickings may be better on the tree (or maybe I should say “peckings” rather than “pickings”)?

As I was preparing this post, I was shocked to discover that the Latin name for this species had changed. From the very start, my photography mentor Cindy Dyer encouraged me to include both the common names and the Latin names for my subjects and I have tried to follow that practice. I am used to using the Latin name Picoides pubescens and learned that it is now referred to as Dryobates pubescens.

What happened? I do not know all of the details, but, according to Wikipedia, as a result of a 2015 molecular phylogenetic study, the Downy Woodpecker was moved out of the genus Picodes and placed with four other species in the resurrected genus Dryobates. It is intriguing to see that scientists are constantly learning new things about the birds and other creatures that I have the privilege of photographing. Wow!

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Another eagle takeoff

Last week I managed to maneuver myself so that I had a clean line of sight to one of the Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the time my view is at least partially blocked by vegetation or the eagle flies away before I can get myself into position.

This eagle was perched on a broken off tree, not far from a nesting site. I extended my 150-600mm telephoto lens to its maximum length and watched and waited. Fortunately I was using a monopod to steady my camera and lens, so I was able to keep my camera and raised for an extended period of time and the eagle adjusted its feathers and monitored the area from its high perch.

After a while, I noticed that eagle was getting a little fidgety and I correctly anticipated that the eagle was preparing to take off and managed to capture a couple of images as it was doing so. It may sound like a pretty straightforward process, but in fact the eagle has lots of options when it takes to the air—it can fly off in any direction and at any height.

When I am in this kind of situation, I feel a bit like the goalkeeper for a penalty kick in a soccer (football) match. I know that there will be a moment of decisive action and that I will have to react quickly. I will watch my “opponent” for telltales signs of his intentions, but ultimately I will have to commit to one direction as I “guess” when and how it will act. Sometimes the goalkeeper makes the save and sometimes he is outsmarted by the offensive player—that, in essence, is the story of the life of a wildlife photographer.Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Pensive vulture

Last week I spotted this Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) pacing about in an area adjacent to a small stream at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I don’t know if there were fish remains nearby or if the vulture was simply on its way to get a drink of water.

It looked to me like the vulture was in a contemplative mood, totally lost in its thoughts as it moved slowly forward. Of course, I may have been merely projecting on the vulture my mood at that moment—nature often has a soothing, calming effect on me and my long walks with my camera are a wonderful time for reflection.

Black Vulture

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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