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Archive for December, 2013

Have you ever seen a bird that looked like it was wearing a costume? When I caught sight of  this female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) in the cattails last week, it looked to me like she had donned a large head scarf and an additional coat of feathers as protection from the cold.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Do you like long walks in the rain? Although this sounds like a question for an on-line dating service, it’s really about your style of photography.

I enjoy taking wildlife photos in the rain, if the rain is not coming down too hard and if it is not too windy. Of course, I can’t control the intensity of the rain, so I have various levels of protection. Generally, I’ll try to hold an umbrella in one hand and shoot one-handed, steadying my shot by leaning against the umbrella handle, if possible. If the rain starts to fall harder I’ll cover up my camera inside my raincoat or sometimes will pull out a plastic trash bag for additional protection until the rain slows down.

Last week, I was walking in the rain at Huntley Meadows Park, my local marshland park, when I came upon a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), standing on the boardwalk. I approached the heron quietly and stopped. The heron was looking right at me and somehow I knew that it was going to take off.

I dropped to one knee, turned the camera sideways, and pulled way back on the zoom lens, hoping to fit the heron into the frame. This image was shot at 75mm on a 70-300mm lens, so you can tell that I was relatively close to the heron. The other settings were f5, 1/400 sec., and ISO 500 for those who might be interested in the technical aspects of the shot.

It’s always interesting to see which birds are active in the rain and I did get some shots of other birds that day, but I will save them for another blog posting.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Starlings are supposed to be common birds, but I never knew what they looked like up close, so I initially had a lot of trouble identifying the odd-looking bird in these photos that I took in early December.

I’m pretty sure now that it is a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), a bird that was first introduced into North America in the 19th century by Shakespeare enthusiasts, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. What does Shakespeare have to do with it?

Well, Shakespeare mentions them in one of his plays. Steve Mirsky explained the reference in an article in Scientific American entitled “Shakespeare to Blame for Introduction of European Starlings to U.S.

“In the late 1590s Shakespeare noted the mimicking ability of the starling while writing Henry IV, Part 1. Hotspur is contemplating driving King Henry nuts by having a starling repeat the name of Hotspur’s brother-in-law Mortimer, whom Henry refuses to ransom out of prisoner status. “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ ” Hotspur whines.”

In 1871, a group called the American Acclimatization Society was formed in New York, dedicated to introducing European plants and animals and birds into North America, according to Wikipedia. The group’s chairman was an avid admirer of Shakespeare and is said by some to have desired to introduce every bird mentioned by the playwright.  The Cornell Lab notes that the more than 200 million starlings now in North American are descendants of the original 100 starlings released in New York’s Central Park in the early 189o’s. Yikes!

I am always curious about the origin of bird names and learned from the Cornell Lab that the starlings got their name because their wings are short and pointed, making them look rather like small, four-pointed stars when they are flying.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I don’t ever go out shooting with the express intent of taking landscape shots, but sometimes when I am looking for wildlife to photograph, the natural beauty of the setting virtually compels me to try to capture it.

That was the case last week, when I was at the location where I had photographed the otter and the fox and happened to glance up into the sky. I was surprised to see how well the colors of the moon, which was pretty prominent for mid-morning, matched the colors of the clouds. It was almost like the moon was a perfectly round cloud.

I didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver in the thick underbrush to help me frame the shot better, so I tried to capture the scene in both portrait and landscape format. I think I like the first image a little better, but decided to include both views.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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My heartbeat accelerates every time I see a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), a combination of patriotism and awe at the power and beauty of this majestic bird.

Normally the eagles are soaring high in the sky, making it almost impossible for me to get a decent shot. Last Saturday, though, one of them seem to be hunting and circled around me a couple of times at a somewhat lower altitude, which allowed me to get some shots of the eagle in different flight positions.

I took these shots from the same spot at my marshland park where I recently saw an otter, a fox, and a raccoon. If only the park would let me pitch a tent in there.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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With the temperature in the 20’s (-5 C) the last few days, it’s hard to remember that we had record-breaking temperatures less than a week ago, when temperatures soared to 72 degrees (22 C).

During a trip to my marsh on one of the warm days last Saturday, I was a little shocked to see some frogs out of the water, which not long before had been covered with a thin sheet of ice. I thought they would be in a hibernation state by now. The frogs were in the reeds and the ones that I could see were Southern Leopard frogs (Lithobates sphenocephalus), like the one in this photo.

I figured that frogs buried themselves completely in the mud like turtles do, but was surprised to learn that is not the case. According to an article in Scientific American, aquatic frogs, like the leopard frog, do hibernate underwater, but they would suffocate if buried in the mud. Instead they remain on top of the mud or only partially buried.

In addition to the frogs, a lot of small turtles took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and could be seen sunning themselves on logs in the marsh. Unfortunately, there were no cameo appearances by dragonflies—my fellow photographer and blogger Walter Sanford and I searched diligently for Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies, which we had seen earlier in December, but we came up empty-handed.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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“Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing…”

In this case, “nature” is a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) that I photographed one recent morning, singing with all of its might.

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On Christmas Day, many of us recall the message of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Yet sometimes I feel like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow must have felt when he wrote the words, “And in despair I bowed my head. “There is no peace on earth,” I said. “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

My prayer this Christmas Day, is that we will all be encouraged and blessed and filled with love for one another. Longfellow did not conclude his poem, “Christmas Bells” in despair, but instead ended with these words:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Merry Christmas to all of you.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It’s a bit of a cliché, but I really want to capture an image of geese in flight against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset.

There is certainly no shortage of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) around here and they seem to take off and land so often at my local marsh that it sometimes seem as busy as a regional airport. Beautiful sunsets, though, are harder to come by and many of our days seem to simply fade into darkness. Getting the geese to fly in a proper formation is an additional complication.

This is my most recent attempt at my aspirational image of geese at sunset. There are a few streaks of color and the formation is a little ragged. It’s not quite what I envisioned in my mind—I’ll keep working on bringing that image to life.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Last night I made a trip into Washington D.C. with some friends to see the National Christmas Tree. Despite the fact that I have lived in this area for more than 20 years, this was the first time that I had seen it live—I have seen the tree-lighting ceremony on the news many times.

The large Christmas tree, which is a live tree, is surrounded by 56 smaller decorated live trees, representing the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the unincorporated territories of the United States. Underneath the tree was an elaborate set-up of model trains, reminding me of my childhood.

It’s the day before Christmas and most of us are in high gear for the coming holy day. Best wishes to all of you for a joyous Christmas and a wonderful and blessed New Year.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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This past week I have observed female Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) at a couple of different locations at my marshland park and tried to capture them in flight as they dove into the water from their perches in the trees. It was challenging, because the kingfishers were pretty far away, but I did get a couple of decent shots (with a fair amount of cropping).

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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The beavers have moved out of the lodge right under the boardwalk that made it possible for me to get relatively close-up shots of them last winter. This weekend I was determined to get a photo of them and had to wait until it was almost dark to catch sight of one of them swimming in the distance. There was just enough light to focus and I had to crank up the ISO to 1600 (with the resulting increase in noise), but I was able to get a recognizable image.

This completes an incredible week for me of photographing mammals in the wilds of my suburban marshland oasis—I managed to get shots of an otter, a raccoon, a fox, and a beaver. I also saw a few deer, but didn’t get any photos of them. What’s next? I have been told that we have coyotes in the park, but I refuse to follow the advice I heard that the best way to draw in the coyote is to go walking in the park with a small dog after dark. Meanwhile, I can only hope that I am fortunate enough to see the same animals again and get better shots.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Like a sprinter, this Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) seems to be lunging forward toward a finish line, pushing hard to be the first to break that invisible tape.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I continue to be amazed at the diversity of the wildlife at Huntley Meadows Park, the local marshland park where I capture most of my wildlife photos. Monday, as I stood at the spot where I had previously spotted an otter, I caught a glimpse of this beautiful red fox (Vulpes vulpes) as it walked around part of the perimeter of a beaver pond.

This was the first time that I had seen a fox in the wild and the wonderful red coloration was breathtakingly beautiful. I was amazed too at the bushiness of the tail. Wow!

The first photo was actually the last one in the sequence, but I really like the way that it helps to show you the setting, with the cattails surrounding the beaver pond (there are woods beyond the cattails).

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday, I returned to the pond where I had previously seen the river otter, hoping to see it again. As I stood silently at the water’s edge, I heard something pretty big moving about in the underbrush, something that seemed to be bigger than an otter.

I was surprised to see a raccoon emerge—generally they are nocturnal and previously I had seen them only at twilight. The raccoon seemed to be rooting around, looking for food. He didn’t seem to be aware of my presence and as I watched it move about, I managed to get a few clear shots before it moved away into the deeper brush.

It you are of a certain age, you remember the fun little Beatles song “Rocky Raccoon”—every time that I see a raccoon, that song comes to mind.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Peering through my telephoto lens at this tiny bird, I couldn’t help but smile—its energetic personality, round body, and tiny wings and tail were cartoon-like.  It looked like a wren, but it certainly didn’t resemble the Carolina Wrens that I am used to seeing.

I did a little research and have concluded that this is probably a Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis). According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these little birds are “incomparably energetic in voice” and per unit weight deliver their songs with ten times more power than a crowing rooster. I can only imagine groups of scientists with tiny scales and microphones conducting the research to back up that statement.

I noted on the statistics page of my blog that this will be posting number 1,000. I never imagined how much I would come to enjoy the process of blogging when I started this blog on July 7, 2012 with a photo of a Blue Dasher dragonfly. The support and encouragement from innumerable readers has helped to sustain me on my journey into photography. Thanks to all of you.

The journey continues.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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In the weak early morning light, the sky and the water merged together, providing an uncluttered backdrop for this portrait of a Great Blue Heron.

I’ve taken quite a few photos of Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), but rarely have I encountered one as cooperative as this one was early on Monday morning. He looked to be cold and may have been trying to snooze as he huddled near the edge of the boardwalk. He let me get pretty close to him and didn’t seem to object to my presence, though he did follow me with his eyes. As a result of his tolerance, I was able to capture more detail in the heron’s feathers than I usually can manage.

After a few shots, I left him in peace to catch a few more winks.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Monday I was checking out what looked to be a beaver lodge at one of the ponds at my local marsh, when suddenly a head popped out of the water. It was not a beaver–it was a Northern River Otter (Lontra canadensis laxatina). I was amazed (otterly amazed, you might say), but had the presence of mind to capture the moment with my camera.

I had been told that otters occasionally had occasionally been sighted at the park and that very day I overheard part of a conversation about otter scat, but I never expected to actually see an otter myself. (The conversation revolved around some scat on the boardwalk, and how it was almost certainly from an otter, because of the fish scales and shells in in it).

The otter turned his head in all directions, surveying the situation. Then all too quickly, the otter submerged itself and swam away.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Even when the weather is cold and overcast, I can usually count on finding sparrows in the marsh and in the field, cheerfully pecking about in the undergrowth. Their positive, hard-working approach and predisposition to spontaneously breaking out in song never fails to lift my spirits.

I have gotten to the point where I can identify some sparrows, but many of them continue to confound me. I think the one in the first photo is a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana), but I am not sure of the identity of the rotund little sparrow in the second photo.

I remember when I used to categorize all sparrows as “little brown birds,” but have grown to appreciate their beauty and individuality.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you have a list of subjects that you really want to photograph? I do and ever since I caught sight of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) through the window of the visitor center of my local marshland park, I have been possessed with an overwhelming desire to photograph one. That first time, the woodpecker was hanging from a suet feeder usually used by nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers and I was impressed by its size and its beauty.

Last month, a year after the initial sighting, I finally got a photo of one and featured it in a posting My First Pileated. The photo was a little blurry and the bird was partially obscured by branches, but it was clearly a Pileated Woodpecker. This past Saturday, I came upon another one as I was walking through the woods. Not surprisingly, I heard the woodpecker before I caught sight of it high in the trees, barely visible.

The dry leaves crackled loudly as I tried to get closer to the woodpecker and it flew to other trees several times during this protracted process. I had heard from others that Pileated Woodpeckers sometimes work on fallen logs, but this one never left the higher reaches of the trees. Eventually it flew out of sight.

I ended up with a slightly better photograph of a Pileated Woodpecker, but am confident that I can do much better this winter as I continue to stalk “big game,” which for me includes this woodpecker, hawks, and maybe even an owl.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is pretty cool that a website (cracked.com) chose to use one of my photos in an article entitled “6 Insanely Colored Versions of Normally Boring Animals.” It is this photo that I took during the summer of my favorite insect, the Handsome Meadow Katydid and I featured in a posting called Rainbow Grasshopper.

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Check out the article at http://www.cracked.com/article_20811_6-insanely-colored-versions-normally-boring-animals.html .

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How do you capture speed? Sometimes I will pan the camera and track the moving subject, as I did yesterday with the flying Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Usually the background is a little blurry, but this time the background became abstract, almost like a painting, an effect that I really like.

What happened? Generally, I shoot in aperture priority mode and I had my camera set on f/5.6, as wide open as I could get at the far end of my telephoto zoom. The weather was cold and gray with the threat of precipitation—it eventually rained for hours—so I set my ISO to 500. It turned out that I would have needed a much higher ISO to stop the motion completely, for my camera provided me with a shutter speed of only 1/60 of a second. That is why there is some motion blur in the wings.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Back home from a week overseas in Vienna, I felt the need to reconnect with nature and headed off to the marsh at Huntley Meadows Park early this morning. The weather was cold and gray, but I was able to get some shots of birds, like this Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus), surveying the frozen pond from an overhanging branch.

It’s nice to be home.

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The streets in the pedestrian area of Vienna have spectacular displays of lighting for Christmas that are simple and elegant. Each of the streets has its own motif that is repeated in white or gold lights. My favorites are the giant chandeliers in one of the main streets, but others are equally impressive. Do you have a favorite?

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I am including a selection of photos in a gallery to show you some of the different lighting schemes—click on a photo to see the photos in  the gallery at higher resolution.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There are so many beautiful, historic buildings in Vienna that I often walk around with my eyes looking upward (fortunately I haven’t run into anything yet). These are shots of a couple of elements of the Hofburg Palace, a former palace that is right in the center of the city. Vienna does a nice job of lighting up many of these buildings at night, which makes for some nice opportunities for me to hone my skills in night photography.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The Christmas markets in Vienna are full of brightly colored lights and I attempted to capture some of their beauty at night in these photos. I did not have a tripod and my point-and-shoot does not permit really high ISO speeds, so I resorted to leaning against various objects to steady my shots. The big sign in a couple of the shots is a “Merry Christmas” sign in German at one of the main entrances to the biggest Christmas market at the Rathaus (City Hall).

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It finally stopped raining in Vienna and I was able to take a walk through the Christmas market in front of the Rathaus (City Hall). There are rows and rows of stalls set up with all kinds of products and food.

In the midst of all of the artificial lights, I was struck by the beauty of the moon, which kept peeking in and out of the clouds.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was windy and rainy all day in Vienna and I got drenched during a short walk today. Fortunately I was able to get this shot of a carriage that ferries tourists around the city—I think they are known as fiacres. The horses were had on some kind of blankets, but were otherwise unprotected from the weather. The driver was nowhere to be seen, though I suspect he was inside the carriage or maybe inside one of the nearby coffee houses.

I took this shot outside of the Volksgarten, a beautiful garden in the center of Vienna that has a wonderful rose garden with hundreds of different species. The rose bushes are now covered with individual burlap coffee bags for protection.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was a little jetlagged, but managed to take a short walk through part of the city this afternoon, the day of my arrival, and got these photos of some of the notable buildings in Vienna, Austria.

There are so many beautiful and interesting buildings in Vienna that you could easily spend weeks photographing them. I have been in this wonderful city quite a number of times, so many of these buildings are familiar to me. I realize, however, that is not the case for most of my readers, so I thought I would share some of that beauty in a few photos from the point-and-shoot Canon that I have with me during this business trip.

Burgtheater, Vienna

Burgtheater, Vienna

Detail of Austrian Parliament Building, Vienna

Detail of Austrian Parliament Building, Vienna

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Detail of Rathaus (City Hall), Vienna

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It rained all day yesterday, so it was especially nice to see the sun rise this morning. I didn’t get a photo of today’s sunrise, but thought I would share this shot from two week’s ago.

I was sitting at my computer in my bedroom in the top floor of my townhouse, early in the morning, when I happened to glance out the window. The colors of the sunrise were spectacular in the distance. Although the temperature was close to freezing, I ran out of the house with flipflops on my feet to try to capture the fleeting effects of the rising sun. I searched for a gap in the trees and the townhouses and managed to get this image at a moment after the sun had risen (I missed the peak moment), when the sunlight was reflecting off of the clouds.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) was circling around me last week, so I followed the advice given to me by one of my fellow photographers—I made sure that I moved periodically as I captured shots of this large bird with an impressive wingspan.

I will be away from home on a business trip starting tomorrow and I am not sure how often I will be able to update my blog. I wanted to alert readers in case they are concerned if they don’t see any movement for me for a number of days—the vultures probably have not made a meal of me yet. turkey_vulture6_blogturkey_vulture5_blogturkey_vulture4_blogturkey_vulture3_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you ever sit by a window and daydream as you look out into the world with unfocused eyes? Somehow that was what came to mind when I spotted this Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) perched on a branch, framed by the trees. The dove seemed gentle and pensive, unlike so many of the birds (and people) in this area that are so driven, always intense and tense.

There is a real value in slowing down and daydreaming more in order to recharge my creative batteries. Sometimes I need a gentle reminder.

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