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Archive for August, 2013

In the townhouse community in which I live in Northern Virginia, many of us have crabapple trees in our front yards, and the fallen crabapples are a nuisance at this time of the year. However, they do provide food for certain butterflies that prefer rotten fruit to flower nectar, like this Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) that I photographed this morning.

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If you were an insect or even a hummingbird, you would definitely not want to encounter this large insect with the macabre moniker of Red-footed Cannibalfly (Promachus rufipes), also known as the Bee Panther.

This insect is considered to be a giant robber fly. Robber flies in general are predators that wait for their prey to fly by and then attack it. Wikipedia describes the attack in this way, “The fly attacks its prey by stabbing it with its short, strong proboscis  injecting the victim with saliva containing neurotoxic and proteolytic enzymes which very rapidly paralyze the victim and soon digest the insides; the fly then sucks the liquefied material through the proboscis.”

It’s hard to believe that a fly could actually take down a hummingbird, but bugguide, which I have found to be a good reference for insects, notes that there have been reports of a Red-footed Cannibalfly attacking a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

When I first saw this insect fly by, I thought it was some strange kind of hairy dragonfly, but the more that I looked at it, the more I realized that it was not a dragonfly—the eyes and wings were all wrong. I have spotted several of these flies already, but so far have not seen any with captured prey.

I came across a wonderful commentary on these insects in a blog called Ohio Birds and Biodiversity that sums up my feelings about them—”Be thankful these insects aren’t the size of Sandhill Cranes.”

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My goal for this photo was pretty simple—move slowly toward this grasshopper and get a good close-up shot. I think that I achieved my goal. I love shooting with my macro lens.

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Without fill-in light, a backlit subject is often in the shadows and becomes a silhouette, which is what happened in these shots of a Great Blue Heron taking off from a watery area of my local marshland park. The same sunlight in front of me also created beautiful reflections of the heron in the water, and I really like the combination of the silhouettes and reflections in these images.

This heron was getting ready to give chase to another blue heron and was squawking loudly as it took off. I watched the two herons for quite a while and this one went out of his ways several times to harass the other one and force it to search for prey in the vegetation away from the pool of water. As you can see in the second and third photos, a Great Egret was a spectator to the action, lifting up its head to observe what was going on. When things calmed down, the egret returned to its fishing until the next round of activity from the herons.

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I love the look of this black-colored swallowtail butterfly feeding on a cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) in the marsh—I just wish that I could identify the butterfly with greater certainty.

I used to think that there were only a few varieties of black-colored swallowtails, but as I learn about more species, I get more confused when trying to identify them. Most of the time I think that this is a Pipevine Swallowtail, but at other moments I convince myself that this is a Spicebush Swallowtail or even a Black Swallowtail. Whatever species it is, this butterfly kept its wings flapping pretty quickly as it was feeding, which accounts for the motion blur in the wings.

I really like the color and shape of the cardinal flower and wanted to show some of the buds and petals, so I decided not to crop the shot any tighter. I was a little surprised to find this butterfly on the cardinal flower, because I read in one document on the internet that these flowers are pollinated almost exclusively by hummingbirds.

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Looking into a Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), I immediately noticed the distinctive colors of a Handsome Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum pulchellum), feeding on the center stalk of the flower.

The katydid did not move from its position and merely cocked its head a little to the side and glanced up at me with its striking blue eyes. It seemed to be a little irritated to be disturbed, though I must confess that it’s really hard to gauge the emotions of an insect from its expressions.

The Handsome Meadow Katydid is one of my favorite insects and, in my humble opinion, truly deserves its name. In addition to its rainbow coloration and distinctive eyes, it has the cutest little feet and toes.

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I love backlit subjects, especially when the light shines through from behind and provides a stained glass effect, as was the case with this Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus).

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Do Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) have a sense of humor? What would prompt one to burst out in laughter?

Maybe one of the many turtles surrounding the heron’s feet decided to tickle them. (Click on the photo to get a better look at the turtles).

Perhaps he is preparing for an audition for the reality television show America’s Got Talent. What’s his talent? Judging from his appearance, I’d say this heron might have a future as a stand-up comic. I might have captured hims as he was trying out new material on the turtles, which are notoriously tough as judges—you have to be really funny to be able to penetrate those thick shells.

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It’s hard to imagine an odder couple than this dragonfly and this turtle, sunbathing together on a log in the beaver pond. What do they see in each other? How do they communicate? Love seems to find a way to overcome obstacles like these.

One thing is clear—they are happy together, sharing this special moment in the warmth of the sun. If you don’t believe me, check out the smile on the turtle’s face.

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Most dragonflies choose perches high in the air, but this male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) decided to land on a little plant just inches above the surface of the water at my local marsh, creating a photographic challenge for me.

Hanging over the edge of the boardwalk, I tried to get at eye level with the dragonfly and simultaneously sought an uncluttered background.  In the first image, I was successful in shapes of the leafs, achieving a kind of three-dimensional effect. The water turned into an almost even gray, totally lacking in details. The second image gives you a better sense of the context, with the ghostly plants in the background.

The Blue Dasher dragonfly is the most common one that I see and it’s always a challenge to come up with creative new ways to show off its beauty. For this one day, I feel like I successfully met that challenge.

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When drops of rain bead up on the surface of a leaf, the effect is magical—a world of crystal orbs is created. Most of the time the drops appear almost solid, reflecting back the light.

From certain angles, though, the raindrops serve as lenses, offering us a miniature view of the world. Within the drops, the inner world and the world beyond come together and create a beautiful effect.

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I seem to be seeing spiders everywhere recently, so I thought I’d feature photos of three of them to represent the wide diversity of the population that I have observed.

The first one was very small and appeared to be hiding at the bottom of this leaf, waiting for its prey to come along. It did not appear to have made a web.

The second one had a web suspended over the water and is, I believe, a kind of long-jawed orb weaver of the Tetragnathidae family. It has awfully long legs compared to most other spiders. I usually see them making webs late in the day as the sun is beginning to go down.

The final one is a kind of spider that I see pretty regularly, though I don’t know what kind it is. It appears to have captured some prey, perhaps a grasshopper.

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Who makes up these crazy names? Freddy Krueger? Jason? Believe it or not, this colorful little caterpillar is called a Smeared Dagger Moth caterpillar (Acronicta oblinita). Someone obviously had been been watching too many slasher or horror films.

Fortunately, it has another name—it is also called a smartweed caterpillar.

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I probably should have come up with a more creative title for this posting than the name of the featured insect. I mean, really, how many readers will be enticed to read a posting about a Dusky Stink Bug (Euschistus tristigmus)?  I word “stink” is enough to turn off some people.

Stink bugs are pretty much all shaped the same, but they come in different colors and patterns, many of which are similar, so identification is not always easy. In this case, for example, I had to determine if the shoulders were rounded or pointed to distinguish between two brown stink bugs—they look pointed to me.

The stink bug was hanging upside down, feeding on a plant that I can’t identify, when I encountered him. He seemed to be feeding, although I never did get a look at his face in order to verify my assumption. The upside down perspective is a little odd and I thought about rotating the image, but ultimately decided to leave it with its original orientation.

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When it started to rain yesterday, I pulled out my umbrella and kept shooting for a while, permitting me to get this close-up shot of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias).

The heron was stoically enduring the rainfall, as drops of water began to bead up on its shoulders. The wind started to kick up a little too, ruffling some of the feathers on the heron’s chest. I was afraid that my white and green umbrella would spook the heron, but I was able to get pretty close to the heron to get this shot at the far end of my 55-250mm zoom lens. If you click on the photo, you can see these (and other) details in a higher resolution image.

There are many flowers blooming in my local marshland park right now and I really like the little splashes of yellow in the background of this image.

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Have you ever seen a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) attempt to do a vertical takeoff from the water? Most of the time, blue herons gain altitude with a few thrusts of their powerful wings as they move forward into the air.

This heron, however, looked like he was initially trying to levitate straight up into the air, like a Harrier jet, a jet that is capable of taking off vertically. It looked like the heron could not perform a normal takeoff because his feet were tangled in the weeds at the bottom of the little pond.  Before he could take off, he had to untangle his feet and his initial upward wing movements were intended to accomplish that task. Only then was he cleared for takeoff.

You’ll probably noted that I posted the images in reverse chronological order, so if you want to follow the takeoff process, you should start at the bottom. The first two images are more impressive as photographs, because I was able to capture the heron in the air, with the wings in interesting positions, despite the fact that I was using “only” a 180mm lens. (Some of the bird photographers that I encounter have 500mm or longer lenses.) The last two images are interesting and a little whimsical, because of the heron’s actions and the angle at which we are viewing the heron. Did you notice how skinny his face and neck look when shot from a head-on position?

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Click on the image for a higher-resolution view.

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Before you can take off, you have to untangle your feet.

Before you can take off, you have to untangle your feet.

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It’s not hard to see where this dragonfly gets its name—the Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina)—when it is perched on the very tip of a stalk of grass and is blown about by even the slightest wind.

I took this shot from a very low angle to try to show the sky and I am pretty happy with the way in which I was able to separate the dragonfly from the background.

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Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, I was never exposed to muskrats and my first impression of them may well have come from the Captain and Tennille version of the song “Muskrat Love.” So every time I see one now, that song comes into my head and I think of Muskrat Susie and Muskrat Sam doing the jitterbug out in muskrat land.

This past Monday I came upon this little muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) at my local marsh as I was trying to get some shots of a Green Heron. I was on the boardwalk, maybe 18 inches (about 45 cm) or so above the level of the land and the muskrat was close enough that I was able to get this shot with my 180mm macro lens. Once it became aware of our presence, the muskrat slipped into the water and swam away, perhaps returning to Muskrat Susie.

One interesting note about “Muskrat Love” is that the Captain and Tennille chose to sing that song at the White House in 1976 at a bicentennial dinner that included Queen Elizabeth as a guest, according to Wikipedia. If you have never heard the song (or if you want to relive memories of your childhood), here’s a link to a YouTube version. In the introduction to the song, Toni Tennille describes an impassive Henry Kissinger during the performance at the White House (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBYV_7a0FQs).

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As the light was starting to fade this past Monday, I made one final trip along the boardwalk at my local marshland park and suddenly heard some loud chewing sounds coming from the cattails. Although I couldn’t immediately locate the source of the noise, I suspected that one or more of the beavers was out and about.

Slowly I crept forward until finally I caught sight of a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis), vigorously chewing on cattail stalks. My camera was already attached to my tripod, which was a good thing, because the shutter speed was pretty slow, even when I cranked up the ISO. I didn’t have a really clear line of sight to the beaver and the best that I could manage was the second shot below.

After a short while, some other folks came walking by on the boardwalk and spooked the beaver. The beaver stopped what it was doing, grabbed a piece of a stalk in its mouth, and began to swim in my direction. I did not have much time to react, because there was not much distance between the beaver and me.

The third image shows the beaver as it was headed toward me. I decided not to crop the photo to give you an idea of how close I actually was to the beaver. I was shooting with my Tamron 180mm macro lens for these shots, so I had a moderate amount of telephoto capability.

The first image, which is also uncropped, shows my final view of the beaver before it dove and swam away under the boardwalk. Those of us of a certain generation can’t help but think of the Drifters’ song when we hear those words “under the boardwalk,” sparking memories of the days of summers past.

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In most of my dragonfly shots the dragonfly is perched on an upright object, so, for variety, I decided to post this shot of a male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) in a different position—posing on a lily pad.

The dragonfly made multiple touch-and-go landings on this lily pad, sometimes landing near the edge, as in the first image, and sometimes in the middle, as in the second image. I couldn’t tell if he was using the lily pad as a platform for hunting insects or was merely resting. (It seems to me that it would be more advantageous for hunting to be higher up, unless you are hunting aquatic insects, which didn’t seem to be the case here.)

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Until I got a really close-up shot, I never realized that the body of a grasshopper had so many amazing textures. Previously, I had naively assumed that the body parts were relatively smooth. Click on the image to see a higher-resolution view of the details of the “shoulders,” legs, wings, and antennae.

I hope that no one opened this posting thinking that it was a culinary one. I’ve never tasted a grasshopper, but assume that it would have a crunchy texture. Who knows, maybe it tastes like chicken, which seems to be the default flavor for exotic animal protein sources.

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As I noted in an earlier posting today, some of my favorite images are almost minimalist in their approach. This recent image of a male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) fits into that category.

Once again, the composition is simple, the color palette is fairly limited, and there is a good amount of negative space. The brown-colored background is the water in one of the areas of my local marshland park.

I like the position of the dragonfly—I think he was trying to cool off on a hot day by raising his abdomen—and the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the dragonfly, because it is the most colorful and the most sharply-focused object in the photo.

This image reminds me a little of a painting in which the artist has arranged the elements to make a pleasing composition. In this case, though, nature did the arranging.

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Some of my favorite images are almost minimalist in their approach, like this shot of a male Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia).

The composition is simple, the color palette is limited, and there is a pretty good amount of negative space. The subject is not unique and unusual—its name even indicates that it is “common.”

I managed to capture some of the details of the dragonfly, though, like the “hairs” on the legs (click on the image to see a higher resolution view), though the image is not super sharp. The shadow of the wings on the green leaf adds an additional touch of visual interest to the image.

The photo is not spectacular and showy, but I find a real beauty in its quiet simplicity.

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I usually think of bees as being yellow and black, but I encountered this cool-looking metallic green bee (of the Agapostemon family) yesterday at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia.

I remember The Green Hornet on television when I was a child, but I had never seen a green bee before. At first I was not even sure that it was a bee, but as I watched it gather pollen, I concluded that it had to be a bee.

It seems appropriate that I would be suffering from color confusion at that moment, because the bee was perched on a Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea purpurea), a flower that in my experience is rarely purple—they normally appear to be more pink than purple.

Now that I have freed my mind and broken the bonds of my conventional thinking about the color of bees, perhaps I will be able to bee all that I can bee.

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It had been years (and maybe even decades) since I had last seen a toad and somehow I had forgotten that they have lots of warts and bumps, unlike the smooth-skinned frogs that I am used to seeing.

I encountered this brown toad, which I think is an Eastern American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus americanus), at a garden in Maryland. According to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, there are only two types of true toads in the state, so my changes of being correct are pretty good. The other toad is a Fowler’s Toad.

Apparently, you can distinguish between the two types by the number of warts per dark spot on their backs. Maybe you can tell them apart—I wouldn’t even know where to start counting.

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I am in awe of photographers who can capture amazing shots of birds in flight and I continue my quest to improve my own skills. So many things have to come together to get such shots including the timing, location, lighting, and focusing.

Here is one of my most recent efforts, a shot of a Great Egret (Ardea alba) in flight. The focus is a little soft, but I really like the position of the egret that I managed to capture, with a beautiful sweep of the wings.

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One of the many reasons why I love dragonflies is their amazing wings, which are so delicate and yet so powerful, like those of this male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis). In this shot, I tried to capture some of the intricate detail of the structure of the wings of the dragonfly. They remind me a bit of the leaded glass windows that I sometimes see in old homes, with each small piece of glass outlined in black.

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Usually it is hard for me to find frogs, because they blend in so well with their surroundings, but that certainly was not the case with this bright green frog. Doesn’t he realize how much he stands out in that environment? I was able to spot him from quite a distance away.

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When I first caught sight of this male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the air, I thought that he had captured some sort of prey. I was wrong, yet I was also right.

The male dragonfly’s prey was a female dragonfly and they were in a mating position that I later learned is known as the wheel. The sheer flexibility and athleticism involved seems worthy of the Cirque de Soleil. Apparently it starts when the male grabs the female’s head with special claspers at the tip of his abdomen.

I came across a fascinating article by Jennifer Ackerman in National Geographic Magazine entitled Dragonflies Strange Love that provides some amazing insights into the mating habits of dragonflies. One sentence really sums up the process, “Grab, shake, bite, puncture, punch—that’s just the courtship ritual of these dazzling aerobats.”

The male dragonfly seems to be driven by an incredibly strong biological drive. I can almost hear one of them repeating the words of the Tina Turner song, “What’s love got to do with it?”

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This bee might argue that it’s just the camera angle, but my initial impression of this bee was that he looked chubby—I don’t think that I have ever encountered a bee with such a round face. He reminds me of a sumo wrestler at the start of a match.

The bee pretty much ignored me, though, and seemed to really get into his work, literally, gathering pollen from some kind of milkweed plant, perhaps swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

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It was just starting to rain when some fellow photographers and I encountered a very strange-looking caterpillar. I couldn’t believe my eyes and was immediately reminded of the dogs in my neighborhood that sometimes wear colorful raincoats in inclement weather.

It turns out that this is a Saddleback caterpillar (Sibine stimulea), the larva of a type of moth. Once you get past the green “saddle,” it’s hard to miss all of the spines, which happen to be venomous. According to Wikepedia, stings by this caterpillar can cause swelling, nausea, and leave a rash that can last for days. Yikes! If I had known that in advance, I might not have leaned in to get a close-up shot of the head, though fortunately my 180mm macro lens allowed me to stay at a safe distance.

I can safely say that this is the most bizarre caterpillar I have ever seen. It’s hard to imagine that I can possibly encounter anything stranger than this, but my local marsh continues to surprise and amaze me.

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