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Archive for January, 2014

What’s the coolest thing that could happen to you as a photographer? All of us would like greater exposure and I was thrilled on Monday when I learned that my dear friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer had five of her fern photos issued as stamps by the US Postal Service. They are being issued in coils of 3,000 and 10,000 stamps with a total printing of 95 million stamps. Wow! That’s broad exposure.

Check out her blog to see some of her amazing photos. Her teaching, support, and inspiration have played (and continue to play) a huge role in my evolution and development as a photographer.

Cindy Dyer's Blog

Yesterday, after more than a year in the making, my series of USPS-licensed fern photographs were released as 49 cent stamps in large coil format for business use. Special thanks to art director Phil Jordan for being so great to work with on the series! I’ll be back with more details on how we can POSSIBLY get a smaller amount than the issued 3,000 and 10,000 quantity rolls!

Read more about the stamps here: http://uspsstamps.com/stamps/ferns

Order a first-day-of-issue set within 60 days here:

http://about.usps.com/postal-bulletin/2014/pb22381/html/info_013.htm

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Another photo of a chickadee? Chickadees are so common that they fade into the background to the point where we no longer notice them. Nobody would travel a great distance to see a Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinens) like this one and there were no throngs of curious spectators to ask me what I was photographing.

What was the attraction for me? One of my fellow bloggers, Mr. K.A. Brace, a thoughtful and insightful poet who writes in a blog called The Mirror Obscura, posted a poem today entitled “The Brilliance” that really resonated with me. In the poem, he spoke of the “brilliance of the ordinary.” I encourage you to check out this poem and other wonderful poems—one of the cool features of most of the blog postings is that they feature an audio clip of the poet reading the featured poem.

“The brilliance of the ordinary”—I love that combination of words. Children (and pets) approach life with boundless curiosity and endless fascination with the most mundane, ordinary aspects of our everyday world. I want to regain more of that childlike sense of wonder.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Although I rarely see them, the animals in the woods at my local marsh were out and about after our recent snowstorm and their tracks made fascinating patterns in the fresh snow. What animals made the tracks and what were they doing?

I took these photos in a remote area of my local marshland park, near what I believe to be an active beaver lodge, the location at which I have previously spotted a fox, an otter, and a raccoon.

I suspect that there are resources on the internet that would help me identify these tracks, but for the moment I am content with the reminder that I am a visitor in the home of these unseen woodland creatures.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I love to watch energetic little Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) at work, like this one that I observed last week in my own neighborhood.

Most of the time these little powerhouses are in constant motion or are obscured by branches, so it’s difficult to get a clear shot of them. This one, however, was in a location where I could get an unobstructed photograph and the woodpecker even cooperated by lifting its head for a moment (though it did appear to be a little irritated at the interruption).

As soon as I was done with the brief photo shoot, the woodpecker went back to work, pounding away at the wood in search of some tasty morsels of food.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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There is something magical about the moon and I have been seeing it more often this month in the frigid early morning hours, as I let the dog out in the backyard or pick up my newspaper from the front stoop. I took this shot of a sliver of the moon a few days ago, when the moon phase was somewhere between the last quarter and the waning crescent. I know I should use my tripod, but that would mean getting dressed warmly—it’s much too tempting to grab a few quick shots and to rush back into the comfort of the heated house.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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When you see a white, rounded object in a bird’s nest, your minds tends to assume that it is an egg. Of course, when it is the middle of the winter and the temperature is well below the freezing point, you know that it can’t be an egg (unless it’s from a snowbird, but I think they have already migrated south to the beaches of Florida).

I came across this little nest as I was making my way through the thorny vines at the edge of one of the ponds at my local marshland park. I still have trouble identifying many birds and I haven’t the slightest clue about what kind of bird would use a nest like this.

Still, this nest caught my eye as a kind of visual reminder that spring will arrive in just a few months, full of the promise of new life.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I finally made it out to my local marsh this past weekend to check out the wildlife activity following our recent snowstorm and protracted period of cold weather. The boardwalks are still mostly slippery and covered with packed snow and almost all of the water in the ponds is frozen solid, which means that most of the geese and ducks have relocated. The cold spell is forecast to continue this week, so I don’t expect to see the water fowl returning any time soon.

The sparrows seemed even more active than normal, though, in constant motion as they moved from one set of vegetation to another. Often it seemed that they chose to hop from place to place, rather than fly, and I caught this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in mid-hop. (It looked like they would extend their wings a bit when they would hop down from a higher point on a plant to a lower spot).

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Another unexpected bird that I sighted during a recent walk around my neighborhood was this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis). I don’t think that I have seen one before during the winter—during the spring and the summer the goldfinch’s bright yellow plumage makes it easier to spot one.

I guess I need to pay more attention to the birds of the neighborhood, for it appears that more of them overwinter than I originally thought. What else is out there, waiting to be seen and photographed?

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I didn’t think that there were many birds in my suburban neighborhood at this time of the year, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of different species during a post-snowstorm walk, including this White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). For most of hte time that I was observing it, the nuthatch was in the typical head-down position, but it finally turned its head to the side and I got this shot.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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How do you convey a sense of the winter season? Do you take wide-angle shots of snow-covered mountain peaks? Do you show vast fields or forests or frozen ponds, all blanketed in white?

I didn’t really have a plan when I set out for a walk in my neighborhood after a recent storm that dumped over six inches of snow (about 15 cm) on us. The sun was shining and the snow was beautiful, though it was windy and cold. I walked for a while, taking in this uncommon view of the common scenery (we don’t get snow very often in Northern Virginia), when I caught sight of some motion out of the corner of my eye—an oak leaf was dancing across the surface of the powdery snow.

When the leaf came to rest, I hurried toward it, wanting to capture the simple beauty of this winter still life that conveyed to me a sense of the winter season.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Despite the frigid cold and snow, the squirrels in my neighborhood are out and active (and looking surprisingly cute).

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Little kids get pretty excited about snow, but it’s hard to match the enthusiasm of a puppy as she propels herself face-first into the freshly fallen snow.

These shots show Freckles, a year-old Cocker Spaniel, a few seconds after she dove into the snow in my backyard. The yard had areas of sunshine and shadows and the snow appears white when Freckles was in the sun, as in the first image. The snow took on a bluish cast  however, when the snow in the background was in the shadows. I liked the effect and cropped the second image to make the background more uniform, causing it to look a bit like a formal studio shot.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are one of my favorite birds, in part because they stay with us throughout the winter. The bright red color of the male cardinal never fails to lift my spirits, even on a dreary, rainy day in mid-December, when I took this photo. The feathers on the bird’s body seem to be more subdued than usual, but the spiky red feathers on the cardinal’s head give it plenty of color as well as attitude.

We are covered in snow, thanks to yesterday’s daylong snowstorm, and I would love to get some shots of a cardinal in the snow. The bitterly cold temperatures (it’s 9 degrees F (minus 13 C) and windy right now), gusty winds, and treacherous road conditions, however, may limit my photo opportunities for the next few days.

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Yesterday when the sun was shining and the temperature soared to the high 50’s (15 degrees C), I was blissfully ignorant that snow was headed our way. Like this Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) that I observed at my local marsh, I wanted only to bask in the warmth of the sun.

Today in the Washington D.C. area, the federal government and most of the schools are closed and we are all hunkered down as we await the arrival of what is forecast to be the biggest snowstorm we’ve had in a few years, as much as eight inches (20cm).

During the summer, I often see a whole row of turtles on this particular log, but yesterday this was the only turtle that had bee roused from its slumbering state by the surprisingly warm, sunny weather. The mud on its shell suggests that this turtle did not swim around a lot, but made a beeline for this log after rose to the surface.

I suspect that this turtle is already back in the mud at the bottom of the pond today, comfortably dreaming of spring, when it will reemerge into the sun.

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Click on the photo to see a higher resolution view of the turtle.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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So many factors have to work together perfectly to get good shots of a bird in flight—the lighting has to be right, the exposure needs to be correct, the shutter speed needs to be fast enough to stop the motion, and, most critically perhaps, the camera has to focus properly on the moving subject. Of course, it helps also to be able to capture the wings in an interesting position and to have a background that is not distracting.

I have been working on taking photos of birds in flight, especially Canada Geese, but it has been rare for me to get all (or even most) of the variables to fall into place at the same time. However, in late December I took a series of shots of a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) that turned out really well. The background was the sky, which some folks don’t find to be very interesting, but at least the goose was not obscured by branches. Click on the photos to see them in higher resolution—I was thrilled that I even managed to get a catchlight in the visible eye.

The challenge for me will be to repeat this success with smaller birds that fly faster and less predictably.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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The moon looked amazing at 7:00 this morning when I went out to get my newspaper from my front steps. It was still dark and in the opposite direction, the sun was just beginning to rise. I rushed back into the house, put some socks on my sandaled feet, and ran outside with my camera to get some shots.

I used the longest lens that I have, a Sigma 135-400mm lens, and leaned it against the roof of a parked car to stabilize it.  I was surprised at the detail that I managed to capture of the craters near the dark side of the moon. (I think the full moon was a few nights ago.) Click on the photo to see it in higher resolution.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It’s nice to be back home from my recent overseas trip and to have the chance to go out in the wild for some photos. Urban shooting is ok, but somehow I feel more comfortable chasing after wildlife.

Yesterday I spotted this Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) high in the trees at Huntley Meadows Park, the local marsh that is my favorite spot for wildlife shooting. I’ve been trying for quite a while to get some good shots of this spectacular woodpecker and they are getting better, though they are not quite there yet.

These two shots are part of a series that I took as the woodpecker moved its head from side to side as well as up and down, chiseling out a hole in the tree. I was amazed to see how far back the woodpecker pulled its head before each stroke and the powerful force with which it struck—it was enough to give me a headache.

I’m still hoping that I will find a Pileated Woodpecker a bit lower in a tree (or working on a fallen log) in a location that will permit me to get some better shots, but I am content that I was able to get these shots when I caught sight of this woodpecker yesterday.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Most birds seem to seek shelter when it is raining (and most people too), but this male Red-winged Blackbird (and this photographer) were an exception to that rule in late December.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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The city was mostly deserted when I took a walk through the center of Brussels at 5:00 this morning, my last day in Brussels for this trip.  It was a little eerie to visit some of the major tourist sites in the moonlight and to be mostly alone.

Mountains of bulging trash bags and folded cardboard were piled up outside the businesses as I made my way through the cobblestone streets of the pedestrian area. The buildings of the Grand Place were as beautiful as ever, though I didn’t really care for the series of off-and-on lights that illuminated them (and they made it tough to get a proper exposure). I finished up my early morning stroll with a visit to the Mannekin Pis, the little boy who is one of the symbols of Brussels. Occasionally I have seen him in one of his many costumes, but this morning, he was au naturel.

Despite seeing again some of the famous landmarks, my favorite subject this morning was the moon as it lit up the clouds in the sky. I tried to capture some of the feeling in the first photo, where the moon shows itself in between parts of the roofs in a downtown house.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Words exist in a cultural context and here in Brussels, perhaps nobody smiles when they pass this sign for the “Bimbo Fashion Store.” As an American male, though, my imagination goes into overdrive as I imagine the type of clothing that would be deemed suitable fashion for a bimbo. Tight jeans and a tube top? Plunging necklines?

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I really like the different types and colors of light in this shot of a portion of Brussel’s nightime skyline, taken from an overlook near the city’s Central Train Station.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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What kind of music can they possibly play in a place that advertises itself as an Irish pub disco bar?

I did a double-take when I saw this sign as I was walking around in the center of Brussels and suffered a moment of cognitive dissonance—there is little room for overlap in my preconceived notions of the clientele of an Irish pub and that of a disco bar and the main activities seem different too.

I wonder if the pub has a big mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It rained most of the day in Brussels, but finally the skies cleared a little in the evening and the moon was visible from time to time, peeking through the clouds. I enjoy walking through this old city at night and observing the interplay of the light and shadows.

It’s a fun challenge to try and capture the effects of light at night with an older point-and-shoot digital camera and I am always looking for solid objects against which to lean to steady myself.

This was my most “artistic” shot of the evening, an attempt to balance the effect of the weak light of the moon with the artificial lights that illuminated this statue.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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I am drawn to the colors and shapes and patterns in this image of the roof of the Brussels City Hall, one of the iconic buildings of the central square of this beautiful city.

I am back in Brussels for a brief business trip and have not yet had a chance to shoot any new photos. I took this shot last year in mid-January, when the city was covered with a light coating of snow. This year, it looks like it’s a bit warmed and I was shocked to see some sunshine yesterday, the day of our arrival. In my experience, the skies are usually gray and cloud-covered and it is unusual to see the sun at this time of the year.

I hope to have some new photos of Brussels soon, work permitting, which you should be seeing for the next few days.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It concerns me that this young Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) at my local marsh may be too tolerant of people and desensitized to the reality of genuine predators that could do it harm. I worry too about its ability to catch enough food to survive, especially if this is the same young heron that I observed during the fall striking in vain at leaves in the water.

On a cold, wet day this past week, the heron was hunkered down on a log not far from the boardwalk. Other than a few movements of its head as it watched me, the heron didn’t budge a bit as I snapped away and even stayed in place when a noisy group of people walked by us.

When I see this little heron, I try to get a few pictures and then move on, thankful for the photo opportunity, but not wanting to reinforce its comfort level with the presence of people.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Yesterday’s cloudy, rainy, foggy day made it a little tough to take photos, but I like the effect it had on the landscape, creating almost monochromatic scenes of different shades of gray. This is an unfamiliar style of shooting for me, so I played around a bit, trying to capture both a wide view of the marsh, and some close-views of isolated areas.

The snow here is gone now, but the ice is still hanging on.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I’m not sure if and when we will see more snow in Northern Virginia this winter, so I am posting a couple of shots as an homage to the departed snow.

As you can tell, I was looking up a lot when I walked through my neighborhood and captured somewhat similar images of the snow that had accumulated on a pine tree and an oak tree.

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Winter is the time of the year when I am finally able to photograph some of the small birds that are with us all year, but are hidden in the leafy branches and undergrowth during the other seasons, like this Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis). Generally I see these little birds at the feeders at the Visitor Center at my local marshland park, so I was really happy when this chickadee posed for me in a more natural setting.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Winter days are often so drab and gray that any splashes of color are especially welcome during this time of year.

I am always happy to encounter the cheerful red color of male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), which brighten any landscape in which they find themselves. During our recent cold snap, I took this shot of a cardinal foraging in a cattail field covered in snow and ice. I think that he was busy extracting the center portions of the rose hips. (I often see the abandoned shells of rose hips scattered about, so I figure the cardinals don’t eat the entire fruit.)

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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On New Year’s Day, as I was hiking with a fellow photographer to one of my favorite spots at the local marsh, she spotted this skull, flipped upside down on a mossy log. Had it been placed on the log by a fellow hiker or had it been abandoned there by another animal?

Judging from the length of the one remaining tooth, it looks like this is a skull of a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis). There is no way for me to tell how this animal died, but the tooth marks around the eye socket suggest that something has been gnawing on the skull.

We both took some photographs of the skull and then hurried along, hoping to see a live beaver at its lodge. We  saw the lodge, but, alas, did not see a living beaver that day.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Like most Downy Woodpeckers, this little male woodpecker started spiraling his way up the tree as soon as he landed on it. Then to my surprise, he worked his way back down the tree and stopped at eye level, where he stayed long enough for me to take a number of shots and even make a few adjustments in between the shots.

I really like Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens). Their high energy and acrobatic activities are a constant source of interest for me as I watch them at work in the trees and in the cattails. I’ve usually had a tough time, though,  getting an uncluttered shot of a Downy Woodpecker.

I took this shot in an area where there were mostly young trees, which made it easier for me to isolate the woodpecker as he moved about and to slowly move closer and fill the frame with the little bird. The area was shaded, so I ended up using my pop-up flash to add a little fill light. I opened up the aperture as wide as I could, which had the effect of blurring out the background.

I ended up with a portrait-like shot of the Downy Woodpecker that I really like. Click on the image to see it in higher resolution.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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