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Archive for September, 2013

When a scope-toting birder told me that there was a cuckoo in a tree in the distance, I had not idea what to look for. My parents had a German cuckoo clock when I was growing up and somehow I thought the cuckoo would look like the little bird that popped out of the clock each hour.

I could see the white breast of the bird, so I pointed my telephoto lens at the tree and focused as well as I could. I had to crop quite a bit, but the bird I photographed is definitely identifiable as a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus). What shocked me the most was the length of the bird’s tail. According to my birding guide, this cuckoo is about 12 inches (30 cm) in length.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these birds like to eat large quantities of hairy caterpillars. Those readers who follow my blog know well that there have been lots of hairy caterpillars recently at my local marsh, so it makes a lot of sense that these birds would be present.

The background in the image is cluttered, but I like the bright colors of the autumn leaves, so I am not bothered by it, particularly because they do not conceal very much of the cuckoo.

cuckoo_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Whenever I see large birds soaring in the sky, I will try to get photos of them. Often the birds turn out to be vultures, but this weekend I managed to get this shot of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Any day when I can get a shot of an eagle is a successful day of photography.

The bald eagle was far away and my zoom lens maxed out at 300mm, but the resulting image is still recognizable, especially if you  look at it in higher resolution. As I get more experienced with birds, I am starting to look at features like the position of the wings, which, in this case, immediately make this bird recognizable as a bald eagle. I am very much in awe of experienced birders who can identify a bird quickly and accurately from the shape of its bill, the markings on its wings, or even its call. I am pretty confident that I will never reach those levels of expertise.

There are lots of signs of the changing season—for me, it’s the switchover from a macro lens to a telephoto as the default lens on my camera when walking around in a natural environment and birds start to replace insects as my primary subjects.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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The early morning light from the side illuminated the bright fall leaves and the equally bright red male Northern Cardinal at my local marsh this past weekend.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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A familiar subject can look quite different when viewed from an unusual angle. It’s a lesson that every photographer is taught early on, but I need constant reminders to vary my approach.

I took this shot of a Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) yesterday while lying on the ground and pointing my telephoto lens up toward the sky. The perspective caused the shape of the wings to be different and permitted me to see the butterfly’s legs in a way that was completely new.

Not all such experiments are successful, of course, but I think that this one worked out pretty well.

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Click on the photo to see a higher resolution view.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Yesterday I noticed several small flocks of blackbirds swooping in and out of the cattails at my local marsh and suspect that they are migrating birds. The marshland park seems to be favorite stopping-off spot for all kinds of birds as they move south.

I managed to get his shot of one of a male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) in a rather typical pose on a cattail stalk. Unlike in the spring, when males seem to spend a lot of time calling out to potential, the blackbirds yesterday seemed to be much more focused on foraging for food.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Yesterday I went shooting on Theodore Roosevelt Island, a small nature preserve in the Potomac River, just opposite Washington D.C.  that is accessible by a small bridge from the Virginia side and got this shot of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). The heron took off when I got a little too close to it.

One of the interesting problems of shooting in an urban environment is that it is hard to control the background. The long shape behind the heron is a one-man crew scull. If I hadn’t cropped the image, you would have been able to see the brightly clothed rower.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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No matter how quickly I try to focus on a bird, they often are quicker than I am. Often I am left with merely an image of an empty branch, but every now and then I’ll get a cool image of the bird taking off.

That was the case yesterday, when I tried to get a shot of this small, dark-colored bird. I really like the position of the tail and the detail of the wings, which help to form an almost abstract portrait of the unidentified bird.

unknown_takeoff_blog

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Before long, the White Egrets (Ardea alba) will leave this area for more temperate locations, so I was happy to get a few shots this past weekend of one of them at Cameron Run, a tributary of the Potomac River.

The egrets like to roost in trees that overlook this stream and the first shot shows an egret relaxing in a tree after I inadvertently flushed him. I am deliberately underexposing the image in an effort to keep from totally blowing out the highlights of this very white bird, but it is still very hard to capture any details on the body.

The second shot shows the egret out of the water and its pose reminds me of a dancer, with its slim body and long elegant neck.

If things follow last year’s course, the blue herons will remain in my local area for most of the winter, but the egrets and green herons will soon depart. I’ll be looking for more photo opportunities with them before they leave.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Far away from any adult supervision, this baby snapping turtle seemed to be having trouble figuring out how to forage for food on his own.  He stretched out his neck as far as it would go, but was still not within reach of the plants that he was eying. The realization had not yet struck him that was going to have to move his body closer. Just above him you can see a little fish that was monitoring his progress, but staying beyond the reach of those jaws, in case the turtle decides he needs a little protein in his diet.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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When the family of Red-eared Slider turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans) adopted an orphaned turtle, they had no idea that the baby would grow so big. Despite his disproportionate size, the larger turtle, an Eastern Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentina), likes to participate in all family activities and doesn’t seem to realize that he is different from the other members of his adopted family.

I chose a natural setting for this family portrait and managed to catch almost everyone in a good pose—unfortunately, one of them had an attitude and refused to look directly at the camera and smile. Most of us have similar informal family portraits with the same problem. I don’t know how professional portrait photographers get everyone to cooperate.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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This large bullfrog was so content in the mud that he did not budge at all when I moved closer to take this shot. Compared to the tiny tree frogs that I have been photographing recently, this frog seemed enormous.

The mud may not be the best backdrop for a photo, but I like the way that the image has become a study in greens and browns, with a golden eye as a accent.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The days are getting cooler and leaves are starting to wither and fall, but there are still signs of the lingering summer, like this beautiful Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) that I photographed this past weekend. viceroy_bokeh_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray as fall arrives in my local marsh, but there are still occasional spots of bright color, like this beetle that I encountered yesterday, crawling down a withered leaf. I have not been able to identify it, but its bold pattern and colors remind me of the art and fashions of the late 1960’s, when no combination was too wild. I graduated from high school in 1972 and still recall wearing some pretty wild-looking clothes.

Somehow I think the pattern on the beetle’s back would work well on a necktie. I guess it’s a commentary on how my life has progressed that I now think more in terms of neckties than tie-dyed t-shirts.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Imagine how skinny this fuzzy white caterpillar would appear if its fur were “groomed,” like some of the dogs in my neighborhood. There is one fuzzy white dog, in particular, that looks huge, which I think is a Great Pyrenees. I was shocked one day when I saw that dog with closely cropped fur—it looked to be only half of its normal size.

For some reason, this caterpillar’s hair seems to be more tufted than usual, compared to similar caterpillars that I have seen. Maybe the hair is bunched because of the heavy dew or the way that the caterpillar slept. Clearly the caterpillar is having a bad hair day.

Do you think it could get away with wearing a hat to cover the bad hair?

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Walking along the boardwalk at my local marsh, I encountered this fairly large, hairy red spider in a web almost at eye level.

It was a little disconcerting to look a spider in the eye (eyes) at such close range, but it did allow me to get a pretty detailed shot at close range against an uncluttered background. I’ve been searching around on the internet, attempting to identify the spider but so far have not had any success. Can anyone identify this cool-looking spider?

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As was watching this Handsome Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum pulchellum) through my viewfinder,  it suddenly arched its body and assumed a position worthy of an world-class gymnast or yoga master. What was it doing?

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My first thought was that the katydid was merely stretching, getting ready for the day’s activities. When you jump around as much as these insects do, you can’t risk a pulled muscle or other injury by not warming up properly.

Over the past year, this rainbow-colored katydid has become my favorite insect, but I confess that I don’t much about their anatomy. Looking over my photos, I realized that I needed to identify the orange-colored body part, a part that I don’t recall observing before, in order to figure out what was going on. What could it possibly be?

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Well, it looks like this katydid probably is a female and the orange-colored thing is her ovipositor, the organ used for depositing eggs. So, is she depositing eggs in the photos? I am not sure.

A University of Arkansas website describes the ovipositing for a similar katydid with these words, “An ovipositing female embraces a plant stem with her prothoracic and mesothoracic legs and brings the curved and sword-like ovipositor far forward so its tip can scrape the substrate.” It’s not really helpful when the explanation contains so many words with which I am unfamiliar. I think that I will leave this kind of science to the scientists.

As a photographer, I continue to be amazed by the multi-colored beauty of this fascinating insect and especially by its alluring blue eyes. I know that it’s an illusion, but those eyes often seem to be looking right at me. I’m not sure if this Handsome Meadow Katydid is depositing eggs in these photos, but I am sure that  I like the images a lot, including the final image, which shows the katydid in a more “normal” position following her brief series of gymnastics.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the time, when I see these green snakes, they are half-buried in a bush and it is impossible to get a decent shot.  yesterday, however, I almost stepped on this Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus) on one section of the boardwalk at my local marsh and was able to compose this shot before he slithered away.

The snake had stopped moving and was surveying the situation, sticking its tongue out repeatedly. I got several shots with the tongue extended, but I especially like this one, because it shows the forked tongue.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday at my local marsh, I noticed some large dragonflies flying over the cattails and realized that it was migrating season for Green Darner dragonflies (Anax junius). I don’t usually think of dragonflies as migratory creatures, but I recall from early spring that Green Darner dragonflies spend their winters in the south and migrate north in the spring (or at least their offspring fly north).

Green Darners are pretty big dragonflies, with bodies up to 3 inches (75mm), so I decided to try to photograph one in mid-flight. Another photographer and I spent almost an hour trying to track and photograph the dragonflies. Unlike other times, when I photographed dragonflies when they were hovering, I was attempting to capture these dragonflies as they were flying at a normal speed, which greatly complicated the task.

I knew that there was no way that I could isolate a flying dragonfly against the green plants of the marsh, so I concentrated on the dragonflies in areas in which I would have the sky as a backdrop. I used my 180mm macro lens and would try to follow a dragonfly in the viewfinder and track it, hoping it would fly close enough for me to attempt a shot. As I was tracking the dragonfly, I would focus manually. Needless to say, my success rate was really low, but I am happy that I managed to get the shot below of what I believe to be a female Green Darner. My fellow photographer, who was using a 70-200 telephoto zoom lens used a different approach and pre-focused on an area and took a shot when a dragonfly entered that capture zone.

It was a beautiful, sunny fall day and I enjoyed this challenge, which gave me a greater appreciation for the aerial skills of dragonflies—they are really tough to track. This practice, though, should help me later in the fall when I start to take more photographs of birds.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I can’t seem to get enough of these little green tree frogs and continue to try to get photos of them whenever I can.

In this shot, my eyes were drawn textures and colors—in particular, the bumpy texture of the frog’s skin and the contrast between the light olive green of the frog and the darker green of the leaf on which it is sitting.

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Autumn is my favorite time of the year, a time when bright spots of spring-like color co-exist with the fading fall colors, a foretaste of the bleak winter landscape to come. Areas of my local marsh are dotted in bright red right now, the berries of a plant that I have been told is Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).

I’ve traipsed through lots of museums in my lifetime and seen innumerable paintings in which artists have arranged fruits and flowers and other objects into paintings that are generally known as “still life paintings.” I had those paintings in mind when I framed this shot in my viewfinder, attempting to capture a pleasing composition of colors and shapes. It’s rare that I don’t crop an image at all, but I decided to show this one composed just as it came out of the camera.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Summer is fading rapidly, but some flowers continue to bloom, like this beautiful Orange Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) that I photographed recently at my local marsh.

Wikipedia claims that hummingbirds are the main pollinators of these flowers, which is not surprising, judging from their shape. Every time I pass by a cluster of these plants, I keep my eyes peeled for hummingbirds, but have not seen a single one and suspect that it is too late in the season for them.

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Most of us have heard that female praying mantises eat their mates after mating, so what happens when a pair of cannibal flies mate?

I was quite a distance away when I spotted this pair of insects, but I immediately recognized them as  Red-footed Cannibalflies (Promachus rufipes), a species of giant robber flies. These flies are really big and have a very distinctively shaped body (and I had done some research on them for a previous posting). Cannibalflies are fierce predators and are reportedly very aggressive. Would the male survive the mating process?

I observed the pair for quite a while and concluded that the “cannibal” in this insect’s name refers to its behavior toward other insects. The male cannibal fly flew away unscathed.

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When almost everything that you see looks like a bug, you know it may be time to take a break from photographing insects.

Recently I have been getting shots of different kinds of very fuzzy caterpillars and a posting on a fuzzy, white caterpillar has become my most viewed posting by a significant margin. This has whet my appetite to look even more intently for caterpillars and Monday I was pretty sure that I had spotted one with spiky tufts of hair on the thin branch of a plant. It was only when I got really close that I realized that my eyes had deceived me—it was not another fuzzy caterpillar.

Don’t get me wrong, it ‘s a pretty cool collection of seed pods and tendril-like branches, but it’s definitely not the caterpillar that I had in my mind.

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Last year at this time of the year there were lots of large Argiope orbweaver spiders at my local marsh, but I couldn’t find a single one this past Monday, when I showed up just after sunrise. I was able to find a number of smaller spider webs, however, on the railings of a raised section of the boardwalk. The photo looks to be more appropriate for a Halloween posting, but hopefully I can find something a bit creepier for that day.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was observing a tiny green tree frog in the cattails, a large fly suddenly buzzed into the frame and landed right next to the frog. Did the fly initially consider the frog to be a potential prey? Was the fly a daredevil who liked to flirt with danger? Was this an initiation test into a fly fraternity or perhaps the result of a bet between drunk buddies?

The unlikely juxtaposition of these two creatures makes me smile every time I look at it. As a child, I watched lots of cartoons in which frogs would flick out their very long tongues and snag unsuspecting flies from a great distance. I waited and watched, anticipating the moment when the frog would turn and strike. That moment never came—the fly eventually flew off to safety.

Real life doesn’t always live up to life in the cartoons.

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(Click on the photo to see a higher resolution view.)

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I always seem to have real problems making positive identification of the smaller, nondescript butterflies, like this little orange skipper butterfly that I photographed recently at my local marshland park.

If I had to go out on a limb, I’d hazard a guess that this is a Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan), although with more than 3500 recognized species of skippers, the odds are not in my favor.

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As summer fades, I have been seeing fewer and fewer dragonflies, so I decided to attempt some in-flight shots and managed to capture these images of a female Great Blue Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans).

Photographing dragonflies in flight is one of my toughest photographic challenges, but I have learned a few tricks about capturing these kinds of shots. One way is to find a favorite perch of a dragonfly and try to photograph the dragonfly arriving and departing from that perch, given that dragonflies often return to the same perches. That was not the approach that I used this time.

The approach I used is to capture the dragonfly while it is hovering and is therefore in the same spot for a few seconds. I  watched as two blue skimmers mated quickly and I knew that I had a target of opportunity, because the female would soon deposit the eggs in the water. She hovered in the air and then dipped her tail end down to the water to deposit some eggs and returned to the hover position and repeated the process. It was during this process that I got these shots.

I am always struck by the beautiful blue eyes of the Great Blue Skimmer, particularly in the female. The male is all blue, so his eyes don’t provide the same visual contrast as the drabber colored body of the female.

The dwindling dragonfly population is yet another sign of the changing of the seasons—it won’t be long before I begin to focus my camera lens more frequently on birds than on insects, but I am not giving up on my insects quite yet.

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The Great Blue Heron stealthily moved into position and leaned forward, preparing to strike. Would he pull a great big fish out of the water? The second photo provides the answer.

The catch was relatively modest, a tiny fish, dwarfed by the size of the heron’s bill. The heron obviously did not believe in the “catch and release” policy used by most fisherman for such small fish. Turning his head back a little, the heron had no trouble swallowing the little fish. He even seemed to smile a little as he did so, content that he had been successful in his fishing.

Having consumed his appetizer, the heron got back to fishing, hoping to catch a more substantial dinner.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The lighting and the pose add some drama to this almost formal portrait of a Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea) that I encountered at my local marsh.

Most of the tree frogs that I have seen have been snoozing in the cattails and it’s been tough to get a clear shot, but this one was conveniently perched on a horizontal leaf, giving me pretty good latitude to compose the shot that I wanted. Even the frog was cooperative and stayed put while I made adjustments to the camera in between shots.

I’m really happy with this image and think that the frog too would be content with this portrait.

frog_leaf_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It’s been gray and rainy almost all this week in Brussels, so many of these shots feature raindrops. When I am away on a trip for business, I generally carry only my point-and-shoot camera, an old Canon A620.

This trip I decided to experiment with the macro mode and see what kind of shots I could get. I was pleasantly surprised with the results and even managed to get some insect shots, despite the fact that I had to get really close to them, compared with the macro lens that I normally use. I never had to worry about harsh sunlight—I never saw any the entire trip—and mostly had to shoot a a high ISO and an almost wide-open aperture.

I did get some shots of the buildings in Brussels, which looked almost monochromatic in the gray light, but will post some of those images when I return home from the trip.

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I love the mix of colors that resulted when a male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) that I was observing chose to perch on a plant with red leaves.red_obelisk_blog

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