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Archive for January, 2013

Inspired by the marvelous posts of fellow blogger Allen of N.H. Garden Solutions, I decided to keep my eyes open for mushrooms and other such growths when I made my forays into the woods last weekend. Allen always seems to discover a veritable cornucopia of vegetation, mushrooms, lichens, and slime molds, but my “catch” was much more modest (and I can’t even really identify the items I saw).

The first photo depicts what I think is a somewhat weathered mushroom that was growing on a tree mostly surrounded by green vines with very sharp thorns. I really like the texture of the surface of the mushroom and its coloration.

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The second photo shows some kind of mushroom, possibly a kind of turkey tail mushroom. I like the concentric multi-color pattern, which reminds me of the growth rings of a tree.

fungusblogIn many ways these mushrooms are as beautiful and as colorful as the flowers that will be coming up in a few short months—I will have to keep my eyes even more wide open when I am outdoors now.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Most of the time I like to focus on individual birds, but in this case I think I prefer this panoramic-style shot of Canada Geese coming in for a landing on a snow-covered field. The expansive white backdrop allows us to see better the different body and wing positions of the geese (and I recommend clicking on the photo to see the details).

The snow is now gone from Northern Virginia, a victim of warmer temperatures and heavy rains. For many readers, snow is much more an everyday reality of the winter, but it’s rare enough here that it has a special beauty (as long as I don’t have to drive to work in it, in which case I tend to forget its beauty and view more as a nuisance).

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I have seen some rotund cardinals this winter, but this male Northern Cardinal has to be the roundest one yet. He looks a bit to me like an overinflated balloon figure. I saw him fly away, so I know he is airworthy, but I am pretty sure that his current shape produces more aerodynamic drag than usual.

On the other hand, maybe he is merely big-boned.

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The beaver had disappeared from the small open water area of the ice-covered beaver pond.  Wondering if he would resurface, I stood in silent readiness with my camera still in my hand.

My eyes were focused on one area of the pond, but my ears detected a sound emanating from another location near the edge of the pond. Somehow I knew instantly what was about to happen—the beaver was about to achieve a breakthrough. The light had faded a bit and I couldn’t see well enough to focus perfectly, but I aimed at the source of the sound and got this shot of the beaver poking his head through a newly-created hole in the ice. From this perspective, it looks like the beaver is pretty small.

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As I watched, the beaver placed his front paws on the ice, which appeared to be able to support his weight, and gradually pulled his body out of the water. Naturally, the small hole became a lot bigger as his large body came increasingly into view.

breakthrough4_blogbreakthrough2_blogAfter the beaver was completely out of the water, he bent down over the opening that he had just created. Perhaps he was trying to decide if he needed to enlarge it further or was trying to free a tasty-looking stick from the ice. It almost looks to me, though, that he is peering into the water, wondering if one of his fellow beavers is going to be popping up to join him.

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The beaver did not linger long at the new location. After a few seconds on the “outside,” he dove back into the icy waters of the pond.

There are few moments in life that are truly “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences, ones that would be impossible to replicate, but I have the sense that this was one of them. So many things had to work together to make these photos happen—the timing, the location, and the ice, to name a few.

It is supposed to get up to 70 degrees (21 degrees C) today and the ice will almost certainly be gone by the time I am able to return to the marsh this weekend. Perhaps I will get to observe the beavers eating or working or playing or maybe they will remain in the lodge. In either case, I can be happy, knowing that we shared a really special moment together.

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Who knew that a beaver could be so cute while he is eating?

I am still working on putting together a series of photos of the local beavers, but thought I’d post another one of my favorite images in the interim. I was surprised that the beaver did not notice me (or simply didn’t care) when I was taking this photo. Not only was I looking straight at him, but I also got as close to the level of the ice as I could to get this low-angle shot.

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I got down pretty low to take this shot of a beaver at my local marshland park as he swam in my direction. I especially like the the reflection of his face in the water and the fact that his tail is visible. The ice in the foreground helps to give some interesting context to the photo.

During other seasons, the beavers would immediately dive whenever they sensed my presence, but the last week or so the beavers have been much more wiling to tolerate me (and others). Maybe the ice on the pond forces them to stay closer to home and to venture out more during the daylight hours rather than at night.

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The crisscrossing pattern of the vine and the cooperative pose of the Song Sparrow combine to make this photo one of my recent favorites.

It is always exciting for me when the elements of an image work together in interesting and unexpected ways. I was attempting to photograph this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) when he flew onto this stalk. He was facing away from me, but I kept shooting and them he turned his head. I am not sure that I could have intentionally come up with a more interesting pose—I love the way we are looking down his back and get to see his wings and also get a clear view of his face.

When I first looked at this photo, though, what caught my eyes the most were the crisscrossing vines, an unanticipated bonus. The X-shape of the vine is both linear and curved at the same time and I chose to crop the photo to highlight this feature.

One of the things that keeps me thrilled about photographing nature is the balance between preparation and spontaneity, between technical excellence and creativity. I try to put myself into situations outside in which I know there is a chance that I will see something interesting and then prepare myself (and my camera) to take advantage when something does happen (and it’s usually not what I anticipated).

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The beavers at Huntley Meadows Park, my local marshland park, have been unusually active during daylight hours the last few days and I managed to get some pretty good shots of them feeding. I am still going through my photos and probably will post some more later, but I thought I would give a sneak preview by posting this image. Spoiler alert—my photos today, which I am still uploading, included some shots of a beaver pushing its way up through the ice and I hope they look as good on my computer screen as they did on the back of my camera.

Here is a profile shot from this weekend of one of the beavers munching on a stick (more like a twig) in the icy waters of the pond outside their lodge. I love the delicate way the beaver is holding the twig in his front paws, which look a lot like hands to me. Be sure to check out the nails on the left paw—they look to me like they were manicured.

Who knew that beavers have lips (at least that’s what it looks like in this photo)?

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This is as close as I can get to showing you what the full moon looked like to me last night, with an orange tinged glow surrounding it. The image includes some tree branches on the right side of the photo in a mostly futile effort effort to frame the moonlit sky.

Last night I posted a photo that showed the moon and the clouds, but I wasn’t satisfied that it represented really well what my eyes had seen. So I went over the images again that I shot and came across this one. It required a bit of tweaking in Photoshop Elements to tone down the really bright light of the moon, but I had managed to capture some of the details of both the moon and the clouds.

I shot quite a few photos as I searched for a combination of f-stop and shutter speed that would capture the moment. This one was shot at f20 with a shutter speed of .8 seconds and was overexposed. Some of the other shots with faster shutter speeds rendered the moon well, but the sky was black and no amount of tweaking could bring out the clouds. Longer exposures, on the other hand, resulted in beautiful clouds, but the moon was a perfect circle that was pure white and, again, I couldn’t tweak the settings to get details.

As I was shooting, the light kept changing as the moon moved in and out of the clouds, which complicated my efforts. Learning from my previous efforts to shoot in the dark, though, I had a small flashlight with me to assist me as I repeatedly changed the settings on my camera.

I’m a little more content with this photo than the other one that I posted of the full moon but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be outside again this evening experimenting further with capturing this tricky subject.

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The tall plants in the marsh have withered and faded, but they are still standing, defiantly displaying their interesting shapes and textures against a snow-covered backdrop. Two pods are standing together and one is apart, three others are bent over in the center. The bits of orange add a touch of color and the silken strands to the left add a different texture. In a few months, brighter colors will return, but for now this serves as a reminder that there is still life in the winter.

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Click on the photo to see more details.

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The full moon tonight was so bright that I had trouble getting the right exposure to capture it and also the light reflected on the clouds. I got some nice shots of the clouds, but the moon was a solid white orb and I got nice shots of the moon, but the clouds were invisible. Here is a shot in which both of the elements are visible, although I didn’t catch entirely well the glow surrounding the moon. I’ll have another chance next month.

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When I saw a Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) on Friday, I expected that it was a once-in-a-lifetime sighting and was really happy to have gotten some photos. I never imagined that I would see the bird (possibly the same one) the very next day in even better lighting conditions. I may eventually post some other photos, but I wanted to share this one in which he is visible against a snowy background that is mostly blown out. I think it helps to highlight some of the wonderful colors and textures of this long-billed shorebird.

Somehow the word “snipe,” which is used in all kinds of other contexts, doesn’t seem dignified enough for this beautiful bird, so I have taken to calling him the “Pinnochio bird”—for obvious reasons.

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Simple in composition and simple in color palette, I find something really appealing about this photo of a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The backdrop is made up of the gray composite elements of the boardwalk that wends its way through the marshland area of Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, VA. The gray “wood,” with its horizontal and diagonal lines helps to give a little structure to the image.

The cardinal cooperated by cocking his head in an interesting way and giving me a sidewards glance. I believe that the red berry-like fruits are rose hips. The cardinals seem to enjoy eating the inside part of the fruit, but seem to discard most of its flesh. Several areas of the board walk are littered with these red remains.

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Against the backdrop of a frozen pond with a dusting of snow, the colors of this male Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) stood out even more brightly than usual yesterday morning. The flicker is perched on a rotted stump that is poking out of the beaver pond at my local marshland park.

I love the colors and the markings on this beautiful bird, who seems to be making a fashion statement by mixing stripes and polka dots and accenting the ensemble with touches of bright colors.

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Yesterday I encountered the strangest-looking bird I have ever seen in the wild.

As I was marveling at the fact that some of the water surrounding the beaver pond at my local marshland park had not frozen despite multiple days of temperatures in the 20’s (minus 4-6 degrees C), I heard a sound in the water. Most of the birds that I had seen earlier in the day were sparrows, pecking away in the undergrowth, but it was clear that this was no sparrow.

The bird was standing in the shallow water and was bent over. When he withdrew his bill from the water, I was amazed at its length—it looked to be almost freakishly long. When I first looked at my images on the computer screen, I though of a recent posting of fellow blogger Calee in which she comment that an orchid she had photographed looked like a cartoon character. Truly, this bird looked like he could have been playing the role of Pinnochio.

I think that this bird is a Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata), judging from the information that I was able to find on the internet and in my Peterson’s guide. I really like the way that he blends in with the surroundings in which I found him.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology lists some fascinating facts about the bird’s extra-long bill, “The long bill of the Wilson’s Snipe is flexible. The tips can be opened and closed with no movement at the base of the bill. Sensory pits at the tip of the bill allow the snipe to feel its prey deep in the mud.”

It’s a bit early for the mating season, but it seems that the family life of the Wilson’s Snipes is as  dysfunctional as that of some humans. According to the Cornell Lab, “The clutch size of the Wilson’s Snipe is almost always four eggs. The male snipe takes the first two chicks to hatch and leaves the nest with them. The female takes the last two and cares for them. Apparently the parents have no contact after that point.”

The range maps for this bird show that I am close to the northern edge of the wintering area for these migratory birds, so I am hoping that I’ll have a chance to see one again.

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It was cold (about 24 degrees F or minus 4.4 C) this morning and the sky was completely covered with clouds as we awaited the coming snowstorm. Nonetheless, I went out with my camera to my marshland park to see what animals and birds were active.

Previously I had identified a tree where a hawk is frequently present and one was there today. The perch is pretty high up and there is a field of cattails between the boardwalk and the tree, so I can’t get very close to the hawk. As I stood watching the hawk, he suddenly flew almost straight down into the field and returned to a different tree after what had obviously been a successful hunt. I attempted to photograph the action, but my camera was not adjusted properly for the reduced light in the field and my photos were blurry and out of focus.

All was not lost, however, because a short time later a hawk came flying from the same area and I was able to get some photos of him. When I looked at the photos on my computer, I discovered that the hawk, which I am pretty sure is a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), is carrying  a rodent in his talons.

I am not sure why he chose to transport his prey to another location, but it provided me a really cool photo opportunity.

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I came upon a rock last weekend and my eyes were drawn to its shape and texture and the way that it seemed to be floating in the sky. Normally I don’t shoot abstract shots, but I somehow felt compelled to take this photo. I like the way it turned out—it’s simple and graphic.

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This week I have been posting a lot of photos of soaring birds that I photographed last weekend. This last batch, which includes some of my favorites, features a young hawk soaring in a number of different positions. I was fortunate that he flew almost directly overhead and the light was reasonably good.

The strength and beauty of a bird like this is hard to capture in photos, but it was really impressive to watch him effortlessly soaring on the winds.

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I was looking up in the sky watching a hawk soaring through the air this past weekend when I noticed that there was another bird there too, a black bird that I eventually identified as a crow. The two of them seemed to be soaring on the same updrafts, each virtually mirroring the movements of the other. My first thought was that they must be having a lot of fun, gliding along together. When I looked at my photos, though, I realized that a more serious drama probably had been taking place at high altitude.

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Now, I have never had a hawk come rushing at me with talons flashing, but the crow seems to have decided that it was probably not a good idea to wait around and see what the hawk’s intentions are. The hawk began to chase the crow, it appears, and the crow took immediate evasive action. As far as I can tell, the crow got away. Here are some shots that I took of the chase. They are not very high resolution, but they help illustrate a fascinating encounter.

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Since last weekend when I took these shots, I’ve done some research on the internet and learned that crows and hawks don’t get along very well and each has been known to pester the other. I’ll keep my eyes open now for any additional encounters between the two species.

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I was outdoors a lot this past weekend enjoying the beautiful weather and managed to catch a glimpse of a pair of Hooded Merganser ducks (Lophodytes cucullatus). As is usually the case, they headed in the opposite direction as soon as they perceived my presence.

I was able to get a couple of clear shots of the male (the female kept ducking under the water). I especially like the duck’s reflection in the water, which looked almost turquoise. and the ripples on the surface of the water.

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This past weekend I saw more hawks than I have ever encountered before. I am not sure if some are migrating through the area or if the ones already here were more active than before.

This hawk, who looks to be immature, was sitting on a tree limb across a small field from me and I was able to get shots of him a few different positions. I need to figure out a way to get closer to him or use a longer lens in order to get clearer images, but I am still at a stage in my photographic journey at which I am excited to take any photos of hawks and eagles in which they are recognizable. As some readers are well aware, I have been trying to take photos of birds in flight and I managed one so-s0 image of this hawk when he flew away.

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The Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) needs to improve its public image and what could be better in these times of economic difficulty than emphasizing its energy efficiency?  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states that the Black Vulture “soars on thermals to gain altitude and to cover large distances with little energy expenditure.”

This past weekend we had warm weather and a breeze, which made it perfect for soaring. Normally I see Black Vultures very high in the sky and in groups, but this time I spotted a solitary vulture soaring at a a lower altitude, which permitted me to get some decent photos. The Cornell Lab notes that Black Vultures have a less well-developed sense of smell than Turkey Vultures and rely more on sight than smell to find carrion, which may be why they soar at greater heights than Turkey Vultures.

I propose that the Black Vulture become the new symbol for energy-saving practices. What do you think?

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Have you ever tried to will a bird or animal to change its position slightly to enable you to get a better photo? That happened to me this weekend when I came upon this Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).

I crept close to him and positioned myself for an unobstructed shot with a beautiful blue sky in the background. The only problem was that the mockingbird was facing the wrong direction and his head was in the shadows.

So I started a mental conversation with the mockingbird, imploring him to turn slightly in my direction so that the light coming from the right would put a catch light in his eye. I didn’t dare to get any closer and continued to repeat the thought, “Please turn your head toward me, but don’t look directly at me.” Without moving his body, the mockingbird slowly turned his head and offered me an almost perfect profile shot and held the pose.

I like the way his tail and his claws turned out, but most of all I like his face. I think the mockingbird would be happy with this portrait.

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I spent several hours on Sunday and Monday stalking a female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). Does that make me a bad person?

I first encountered this beautiful bird a couple of weeks ago and was immediately smitten. Like a paparazzi photographer, I started snapping photos frantically when I saw her. I included some of those photos in a previous posting that I creatively entitled “Belted Kingfisher.”

Now I have started to hang out what I think are some of her favorite places, hoping desperately to catch a glimpse of her. She is still quite standoffish and won’t let me get close, but perhaps she will get used to having me around. Maybe she has commitment issues.

Here are a few shots from my recent encounters, including two in which I captured her as she was flying away.

For now, it is a classic case of unrequited love.

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I am catsitting again for my neighbor and fellow blogger Cindy Dyer and her cats are amazingly photogenic.

Pixel was the most cooperative. He posed on windowsill this morning and was even willing to lift his head so that the light coming from the side would take away any shadows.

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Pixel’s brother, Lobo (Cindy was going to name him JPEG, but her husband objected), was a little less cooperative. I captured him in his favorite spot, looking down on the main entry from the second floor with his head dangling over the edge.

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The third and final cat, Zena, an older female, was even harder to photograph. She gave me a look that seemed to indicate that she was not going to put up with any nonsense from me.zena1_blog

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Yesterday I returned to the little lake near where I live in hopes of seeing the Belted Kingfisher again. As I was scanning the trees near the water’s edge, I caught sight of a Great Blue Heron.

Most of the time when I see Great Blue Herons, they are in the water. This one, however, seemed quite content to just stand in the shade of a tree on a slanted bank, surrounded by all kinds of roots and vines.

As I was inching my way down the slope of the opposite bank, he caught sight of me and took off immediately. Acting on instinct, I raised my camera to try to capture him in flight and lost my footing.  Sliding down the bank. I dug in my heels and managed to stop just before I reached the water.

Needless to say, I did not get any good shots of the heron’s departing flight.

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This past weekend I was fortunate enough to see a few hawks. I am still having trouble identifying the different types of hawks, especially when they are immature, as I think this hawk might be.

I spotted this one perched on the top of a old broken-off tree overlooking one of the fields of the marsh and was able to creep close enough to get a clear shot (although nor close enough to get an image that didn’t require significant cropping). For me, there is something regal about the hawk’s position, as though he is a monarch surveying his domain.

I have a few more shots of a hawk in a tree that I probably will post later, but wanted to share this one first.

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Yesterday late in the afternoon I noticed that the moon was already visible and ascending. I took a few shots and deliberated underexposed them in order to darken the sky. Sometimes it’s possible to get good shots of the moon without waiting for it to get dark.

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Today when I was observing Canada Geese at Cameron Run, a tributary stream of the Potomac River, I noticed one goose that looked really different. His bill and his legs were pinkish in color, unlike his companions, who had black bills and legs; his cheek patch was brownish in color rather than bright white; and there was a black and white mottled area between his eyes and his beak.

I went searching through identification guides on the internet and it seems likely to me that this is a hybrid goose and not a separate species. One of the problems with hybrids, of course, is that there are lots of different combinations that are possible. I saw one photo that looked a little like this goose that was a probable hybrid of a Canada Goose and a Greylag Goose, but it was from the United Kingdom. Some of the photos of the dark morph of the Snow Goose also look a little like this goose.

If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to have assistance in identifying this goose.

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After a week away from home in a far-off city, it was great for me to get back to nature. Somehow my senses seemed to be heightened yesterday as I took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the little marshland park that has become a second home for me.

Even so, I almost missed this female Northern Cardinal, whose muted tones provided almost perfect camouflage for her in the vine-filled underbrush. A slight amount of movement and the bright orange color of her bill, however, were enough to permit me to see her despite all of the visual obstructions.

I realize that most people don’t get excited about photographing such ordinary subjects, but there was something comfortable and reassuring about returning to the familiar, like putting on a pair of my favorite jeans.

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We have had a strange winter here in Northern Virginia, with some unseasonably warm days. Today, for example, it was over 50 degrees (10 degrees Celsius). As a result, some flowers may be starting to bloom earlier than normal. My neighbor and photography mentor Cindy Dyer has a wonderful garden and I noticed today that she has a whole lot of little blue flowers that are in the process of blooming.

I can’t identify what kind of flowers they are, but they are really pretty. I put my macro lens on my camera, put the camera on a tripod, and attempted to use the techniques that Cindy taught me for photographing flowers. I shot the first photo with an aperture setting of f20 in an attempt to capture the details of the flowers. The second and third images were shot at about f9, which let me blur the background a little. I like the way in which the buds look like little roses.

Temperatures are supposed to drop way below freezing during this coming week and I hope these little flowers are hardy enough to endure the cold.

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