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Archive for February, 2013

I’m finally finishing up with the shots from my trip last weekend to see the orchid exhibition and thought I’d post a couple of abstract images.

The first shot is a close-up of an elephant ear plant. I like the way its veins pop out, like a bodybuilder with a heavy weight. The image is somewhat symmetrical, but the two sides are not mirror images.

The second shot is a close-up of an orchid. Is it just me, or does it look like the flower contains a pink Darth Vader helmet?

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Borrowing a longer telephoto lens earlier this week,  I was able to get some shots of the tiny birds that I often see, but rarely am able to photograph.

On Monday, my photography mentor, Cindy Dyer, lent me a Nikon D300 with a Nikon 80-400mm lens. It was a lot of fun to experiment with a much longer telephoto than I am accustomed to using. We spent only a limited time at a local nature center, so I did not have a chance to photograph anything too exotic, but I did get some shots of a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus),  and a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor).

The background in the first image really grabbed my attention when I pulled up the image on the computer—the tree branches look an awful lot like a suspension bridge.

I included the blurry final image of the chickadee flying away just for fun. I get this kind of image on a regular basis, although usually the bird is out of the frame. The Nikon I was using has a much higher frame rate (up to 7 images a second) than my Canon (a more modest three frames a second), so the chickadee is still in the frame.

I am pretty sure that I will stick with Canon and not switch to Nikon, but, as fellow blogger Lyle Krahn predicted, I am starting to hear the siren call of a longer lens.

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Lately I have been playing around with the auto-focus settings on my camera, trying to figure out how they work and deciding when it is appropriate to use each of the modes.

After doing some reading and watching some videos on the internet, I decided to remap one of the buttons on my camera. As a result, I no longer engage the autofocus by pushing down halfway on the shutter release—I engage it by pushing on the * button with my thumb. If you are interested in the reasoning behind this process, you can Google “back-button autofocus.”

Next I decided to experiment with AI Servo mode, which is supposed to be the best mode for moving subjects. Previously, I had been shooting in One Shot mode or AI Focus (which is a hybrid mode). Most of the time, that meant I had to achieve focus separately for each image. I am still having some difficulties with the Servo mode, in part because it’s hard to know for sure if the focus has locked on the subject, since, unlike the other modes, the camera will shoot even if nothing is in focus.

The way that it is supposed to work is that you focus on the subject with the center focus point for 1-2 seconds and then the camera will follow that subject as it moves. In the situation below, I focused on the front goose that looked like he was about to take off. When he took off, I took a sequence of six photos, only two of which were in focus. They were the second and fifth in the sequence and they came out pretty sharp.

I may be overtaxing my ancient Canon Rebel XT by shooting in RAW, shooting bursts, and having the autofocus engaged continuously. Still, it’s fascinating to experiment with the different settings and see what works best for me.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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My challenge this weekend was to capture the delicate beauty of a wide variety of orchids and I decided that the best way to do so was to look at them closely, very closely and to use my macro lens.

I took these photos at an orchid exhibition at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, VA, about 90 minutes from where I live. The orchids were displayed in a glassed-in conservatory at varying heights in many different ways at varying heights—sometimes as single plants and sometimes in groups. It would have been amusing to make a video of my body’s contorted positions as I struggled to frame the photos and to look through the viewfinder of my camera, which was on a tripod most of the time.

In some of these images, like the first one, I tried to increase the depth of field to show more details and in other cases, like the last image, I intentionally limited the depth of field to capture one element. In some photos, I was most interested in the lines and colors.

If forced to choose a favorite, I’d probably select the first image, because of the interesting shapes, which are set off by the white petals. Do you have a preference?

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Using a borrowed Nikon D300 camera with an 80-400mm lens, I was able to get a lot closer to birds than I am used to, permitting me to  to get shots like these ones of a Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura).

Yesterday was a mostly sunny, spring-like day and Cindy Dyer, my photography mentor, and I made a brief visit to a local nature center to shoot some photos. She was excited to photograph the purple crocuses (or is that croci) that were in bloom. (Be sure to check out her blog regularly as we move into spring for lots of gorgeous flower images.)

I, on the other hand, was eager to play around with the camera that she had lent me. Most often I shoot with a Canon Rebel XT and a 55-250mm zoom lens. It is a lightweight combination that has served me well, but it has some limitations. Cindy shoots with Nikon gear and is a self-professed “gadget girl,” so she had more than enough gear to share.

It took a while to get used to the settings on the Nikon, but the real challenge was learning to shoot with the large lens. My hands and arms were not used to the weight of such a lens and I definitely would need a lot more practice to take fuller advantage of its capabilities (and I probably should have put aside my male ego and followed Cindy’s recommendation to put the camera on a tripod).

Here are two images of a Mourning Dove that I photographed. Cindy tweaked the first one in Photoshop and it is striking to see how she was able to bring out the details in the dove. I produced the second image, working in Photoshop Elements. The starting images may have been of equal quality, but it is clear to me that Cindy’s greater experience in Photoshop helped her produce a superior final image in a shorter period of time.

What did I learn? Well, I think that the most important lesson to me is the value of constant practice, whether it be in using camera equipment or in using photo software. There are always new things to learn—and that helps to keep me energized about my photography.

Mourning Dove lorezmourning_blog© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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When most people think of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, they think only of the black granite wall with all of the names, but the Three Servicemen Statue is also part of the memorial.

Frederick Hart, the sculptor of these statues, described his work in these words (according to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund):

“The portrayal of the figures is consistent with history. They wear the uniform and carry the equipment of war; they are young. The contrast between the innocence of their youth and the weapons of war underscores the poignancy of their sacrifice. There is about them the physical contact and sense of unity that bespeaks the bonds of love and sacrifice that is the nature of men at war. And yet they are each alone. Their strength and their vulnerability are both evident. Their true heroism lies in these bonds of loyalty in the face of their aloneness and their vulnerability.”

I visited the memorial one evening this past weekend and took these photos of the statue. The first photo shows the torsos of the grouping (the statues themselves are full body, but I wanted to show the details of the upper bodies) and the others show the faces of each of the three soldiers.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Here is a splash of color to start the work week—a close-up shot of the inside of a deep purple tulip called Negrita.  I photographed this flower while visiting an orchid exhibit at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, Virginia this past weekend.

Tulip Negrita

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In an effort to chase away the dullness of another gray winter day, I traveled yesterday with some friends to Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, VA to see a spectacular display of orchids.

There was an amazing variety of orchids of all sizes and color, displayed in several areas of a large indoor glass conservatory. I know very little about orchids, but my eyes were especially drawn to a variety called Lady’s Slippers that are in the sub-family Cypripedioideae. According to Wikipedia, orchids of this type are characterized by slipper-shaped pouches that traps insects so they are forced to climb up past the staminode, behind which they collect or deposit pollen, thus fertilizing the flower.

Here is a front view of a green-and-yellow Lady’s Slipper. Although the orchids were amazingly beautiful, it was often difficult to get good backgrounds for images of the flowers, because of visual clutter. I dealt with the issue by using my macro lens and concentrating on small elements of individual flowers.

My friend and photography mentor, Cindy Dyer, however, was better prepared for this by carrying along a piece of white cardboard to help isolate the flowers and simplify the background. (You should check out her blog for beautiful photos of orchids and other flowers and insects).

The second and third images, which provide a side view of the Lady’s Slipper, were taken with a few seconds of each other, one with the existing background and one using Cindy’s white cardboard. In many ways, I like the look of the white background—it reminds me a little of a botanical print, but it is definitely unnatural.

Which version of the side view do you prefer?

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Slipper Side ViewYellowGreenSlipperOrchid

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Fog, low-hanging clouds, and reflected light gave the skies of Washington D.C. an orange-colored glow last night, which made for dramatic shots of the Washington Monument.

I don’t really understand the scientific basis for the phenomenon (perhaps air pollution contributed to it), but tried to capture it with my camera. I took these shots at about nine o’clock in the evening using my tripod and a long exposure, even thought they look like they might have been shot at sunset.

A friend convinced me to go with him to Washington D.C. with the goal of getting some photographs of the Washington Monument shrouded in heavy fog, which turned out not to be the case. Instead, we got something totally unexpected that turned out to be even better than that for which we had hoped.

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Thanks to my fellow bloggers, I have become much more attuned to the little bits of color and texture that surround me when I walk through the woods. I used to look up and forward for animals and birds, but now I am also looking down for interesting mushrooms and tiny plants.

Here are some photos of one of the strangest looking things—I think it is a fungus—that I encountered recently. It looks a little like coral or something that you would see underwater, although it was growing on a downed tree. The texture and shape remind me a little of cross-sections of a human brain.

Whatever it is, I really like its color, shape, and intricate contours.fungus1_blogfungus2_blog

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I tend to look at cattails primarily as a place for interesting birds and insects to perch, but earlier this month I was really struck by the beauty, texture, colors, and lines of the cattails themselves.

How do you capture the uniqueness of the cattails? Here are the results of a couple of different approaches that I used to try to respond to that question.

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When they were soaring through the sky, the vultures were beautiful, even majestic, but when they started to swoop down toward a nearby location, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy.

This past weekend, I was walking along the C&O Canal path, approaching Washington D.C., when a number of large black birds started swooping down in my direction. I could tell immediately that they were Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), because of their red heads and distinctive feather pattern.  As they got closer, they veered off toward the road that parallels the path—perhaps there was a recent bit of road kill that attracted their attention.

I don’t know why, but everywhere that I go, I seem to see vultures. In this case it was an urban setting, but I see them often when I am in the wild too. I’m trying not to develop a complex about this, but I do make sure that I take a shower before I go shooting.

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Last weekend as I was hiking along the Potomac River in Virgina, following the narrow, rocky Potomac Heritage Trail, I came several large metal objects that appear to have been abandoned. They are shaped like some kind of water or fuel tanks and have lots of bolts and/or rivets. To me, they look very industrial. There also was a large wheel-like object. Although I was only a few miles from Washington D.C., the area where I saw these items was very isolated.

Does anyone have any idea about what these objects were used for and why they might have been abandoned?

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I don’t manage to go the zoo very often, but when I do, I tend to spent a lot of time with the cheetahs. There is something about cheetahs that I find irresistible, their combination of beauty and power, of strength and speed. In the largest enclosure in the cheetah exhibit area, there are normally three or four male cheetahs and they are the ones that I usually observe.

Last September I did a posting about the cheetahs at the National Zoo and this is an update of sorts. This past weekend I tried to concentrate on taking shots of the cheetahs in action. This was a challenge for a few reasons. It was late afternoon and the light was starting to fade and there were limited angles for the shots and some of the backgrounds were very undesirable.

I did finally manage to get some shots that I like, although I have trouble deciding which one is my favorite—I like each of them for slightly different reasons.

I’ll let you decide for yourself which one you like most.

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Continuing the theme of transitions from this morning, I thought I’d post a photo of several geese transitioning from rapid flight through the air to a complete halt on a frozen pond.

I love to watch geese coming in for a landing as they noisily announce their arrival, which is often accompanied with a big splash and energetic flapping of wings.

The situation is a bit more problematic when the ice is solid and any miscalculation could lead to physical injury.  It appears to me that the geese flap their wings as hard as they can to decelerate and attempt to carefully place their webbed feet. That is what the goose on the left appears to be doing. If that doesn’t work, as a last resort the goose can lower his tail to slow down his forward momentum, as the goose on the right is doing.

Judging from my observations, some geese are much more adept at this type of landings than others, who slip and slide and skid for a while until they finally stop moving forward.

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Can you figure out what is going on in this photo of a goose posing in an unusual position?

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The pre-spring season is a often a period of transitions, as winter gradually looses its hold and gives way to spring. The old lingers, but is gradually replaced with the new.

In the first photo, the goose is transitioning from the ice, which still covers much of the pond, into a small pool of open water. I captured him at the moment when he took the plunge and gradually eased his body into the icy water.

I watched him as he approached this area slowly and cautiously, staring intently at the ice, as shown in the second photo. He seemed to hesitated, uncertain about whether to continue to move forward.

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I know that I approach transitions in much the same way as this goose, hesitating and cautious, frozen in uncertainty. He had the courage to move forward and embrace the change. Will I be able to do the same when these moments arrive?

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The American Trail is one of the newest and coolest exhibit areas at the National Zoo, highlighting North American wildlife, including the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis), that I featured in an earlier post, and the North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis), pictured here.

When I arrived, the zookeepers were spreading food all throughout the area inhabited by two otters. It was a lot of fun to watch the otters scurrying about, searching for the food. They were incredibly energetic and curious (and difficult to capture in a photo).

This is my favorite shot, because I think that it does a good job of expressing some of the otter’s essential traits.

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How do Great Blue Herons manage to stay warm when it’s bitterly cold outside?

Yesterday morning was cold and windy and the beaver pond was iced over again. As I scanned the area, looking for activity, I noticed this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) perched on the limbs of a fallen tree in a back area surrounded with undergrowth. He was hunched over with his wings wrapped tightly around himself and he seemed to be doing his best to maintain his body heat.

When I moved a little, he lifted his head slightly from his chest to look in my direction. Eventually he decided I was not a threat and he placed his bill back on his chest, between the feathers, and resumed his rest. Perhaps he was sleeping, though it seemed to me that the perch was a bit precarious for serious sleeping.

A few hours later, after it had warmed a bit, I saw a heron flying in the distance. Perhaps it was this blue heron, who had decided that it was time to begin his day’s activities, which I am sure included finding some unfrozen water where he might be able to locate something to eat.

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I don’t know where the male lions were this weekend when I visited the National Zoo, but there were three or four female lions and it was fun to watch them play together.

I tried to get a group photo, but they were about as cooperative as kids, with one of them turning her back and another sticking out her tongue.

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After a while they seemed to get bored with me and I caught one of them in a big yawn.

lioness2_blogI wanted very much to get an action photo, but the lions seemed content to lounge around together. This is the closest thing I got to an action photo. I like it a lot, even though it is not super sharp, primarily because of the body position and the angle of the shot.

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To supplement their diets, the beavers at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. get crunchy vegetables like carrots and corn.

I had the chance to watch them eat this past weekend and took some fun photos of one of the beavers munching away on part of an ear of corn. This beaver, a female named Willow, was able to manipulate the corn really easily with her front paws and seemed to enjoy each bite as she slowly consumed the entire piece of corn.

I watched some videos on photographing animals at a zoo before this shoot and followed some of the tips, like shooting close-ups and paying attention to backgrounds. I did not, however, switch to shutter-priority mode, as suggested, but kept the camera in aperture-priority mode. I may have lost a few shots, because the shutter speed was too slow, but I was able to get decent results by using a more familiar approach.

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The clicking sound of my shutter caused the napping cheetah to raise his head yesterday afternoon and look directly at me. He didn’t move the rest of his body at all, but stared intently at me for a minute or so. Reassured, he laid his head down again in his den and resumed his nap.

I visited the National Zoo yesterday and took photos of a number of different animals that I will share later, but I wanted to share this one immediately.  I like the cheetah’s expression and the positioning of the head and body. The darkness of the den really helps to showcase the beauty of the cheetah (and fortunately for me the cheetah was at the front of the den where natural light illuminated his face).

National Zoo does a good job in taking care of the animals there and, as is the case with the cheetahs, in working to ensure the survival of animals with a limited gene pool. For me, it is enjoyable to visit the different animals and to practice my photography skills to show the animals in the best possible light.

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Yesterday while I was walking  in Washington D.C. along a path through Rock Creek Park, I came across a small cluster of daffodils that are already blooming. The day was cold and gray and eventually we had a small ice storm, but these hardy, bright yellow flowers remind me that spring is not very far away.

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The weather yesterday was so nice that turtles emerged from the mud for the first time in months to bask on logs and enjoy the warmth of the sun.

My understanding is that the turtles have been spending the cold winter months buried in the mud with their metabolism slowed way down. I would call this state “hibernation,” although there apparently is some argument in the scientific community about whether that term should be reserved for mammals and the term “brumation” used for reptiles, because the physiological processes are different. Whatever you call it, reptiles can move in and out of this state and seem to have moved out of it to soak up some sum.

The turtle in this photo looks like he has not had a lot of time to clean off the mud that fills all of the creases and crevices in his body and shell. He almost looks like he is smiling and he is definitely alert.

Most of the turtles that I have photographed previously at my marshland park have been Red-eared Sliders, but I can’t tell if this one is a member of that species or is a different type. I did note that there is a semi-circular pies missing from both the left and right front areas of the shell. Has something been gnawing on the shell? What would have caused the damage?

I looked around to see if I could see any frogs yesterday, but they are still in their wintering mode. I suspect that it won’t be long before the frogs and snakes are back and I’ll soon be keeping a look-out for my first dragonfly of the season.

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I love the way this Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) turned its head to look back at me yesterday and how the soft background complements and enhances its beauty.

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Spring is not here yet, but we had a foretaste of its pleasures yesterday, when the skies were sunny and the temperature rose to 60 degrees (15.5 degrees C). As I was walking along the Potomac River, I encountered a group of American Robins (Turdus migratorius), a traditional harbinger of spring, and got these shots.

Today is about twenty degrees colder and there’s a possibility of snow showers later in the day. Spring has not yet arrived, but we are moving inexorably toward the moment when winter finally gives way to spring.

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The familiar often looks new when perceived from a different angle, as I found out last weekend when I hiked along the Potomac River and looked across the river toward Georgetown University.

Although I have lived in this are for almost 20 years, I had never heard of the Potomac Heritage Trail, a narrow trail that begins in Washington D.C. and continues upstream, mostly at at river-level. I have driven past this scene many times and the buildings of Georgetown really stand out, but I never really saw the green boathouse tucked in at the base of Francis Scott Key Bridge, which crosses from Virginia into the District of Columbia.

The first shot shows a view from the Virginia side of the Potomac River, looking directly toward Georgetown University, and the second one shows the Key Bridge. I love the arches of the bridge, which I have crossed many times.

My little hike was a good way to force me to look at the familiar in a different way—I hope to be able to do the same with some of my other subjects too.

Georgetown1_blogGeorgetown2_blog© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Feeling almost compelled to post a photo about love on Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d post some photos from last May (before I started this blog) of a really cool flower called Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). It is extraordinarily beautiful both as a flower and as a seed pod, although the seed pod looks a bit like an alien life form. Special thanks to Cindy Dyer, my photography mentor and fellow blogger, for introducing me to Love-in-a-mist—you should check out her blog photos of this amazing flower by clicking on her name.

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Although I was excited to discover a male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) in an industrial setting, later that day I returned to my first love, a female kingfisher in a more natural environment.

Previously I posted photos of the male kingfisher and female kingfisher as I continue in my quest to get some really good photos of these amazing birds. If you compare the male and the female, you can see that the chestnut stripe really makes the female stand out (and the Belted Kingfisher is one of the few birds in which the female is more colorful than the male).

I continue to get interesting photos (and I am posting some new ones here), but I still am trying to get some better ones (these are grainy and a bit soft). By the way, can anyone figure out what she has in her bill in the last photo?

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This past weekend I hiked on the Potomac Heritage Trail, a trail that follows the Potomac River beginning near Washington D.C. on the Virginia side of the river,  and is very narrow and rocky. In several places, I passed waterfalls as various streams fed into the river, including this one that was partially frozen that really caught my eye. Given that we don’t generally get much snow, this is about all I can muster for a wintery photo.

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Born in Boston, Massachusetts, I have an affinity for things from the north and was amused to find that two of my favorite birds from this past weekend are called “Northern”—the Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) and the Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).

Sometimes it seems that I shoot subjects in cycles. At one point this past summer, I felt like I was shooting a lot of new and interesting subjects that turned out to have “Common” in their names. In addition to the two Northerners that I am featuring today, this winter I have also photographed Northern Cardinals, Northern Flickers, and Northern Mockingbirds.

The day that I took these photos was gray, misty, and overcast, which gave the water an interesting gray tinge. Fortunately there was  enough light to cast interesting reflections onto the water’s surface.

I like the contrast between the body shapes and colors of these two ducks.  The elegance of the long neck and understated, conservative colors of the pintail are quite different from the bold colors and the counter-culture look of the shoveler’s bill. In some ways, they seem to represent the establishment, on the one hand, and the rebel, on the other.

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Male Northern Pintail at Huntley Meadows Park

Male Northern Shoveler at Huntley Meadows Park

Male Northern Shoveler at Huntley Meadows Park

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I love the dreamy look of the morning mist that provided such a beautiful backdrop for the flight of these two Canada Geese this past weekend.

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