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Archive for April, 2014

What’s your first reaction when you see a snake? I was walking through the woods at my local marsh this past weekend when I spotted a snake curled up on the leaves. My first reaction was to move closer to get a shot of the snake.

The area was relatively open, but there were lots of leaves and sticks on the forest floor, so it was not really possible to get an unobstructed shot of the snake. I took a shot anyways, fearing the snake would leave, and include it as a second image here so you can see how the snake was positioned. I noticed that the snake’s head was in an uncluttered area and a clear shot seemed possible. I changed lenses from my telephoto zoom to my macro lens, set up my tripod as low as it would go, and moved really close, until the snake’s head almost filled the frame of my viewfinder. I took some shots in natural light and some with my popup flash. The snake seemed unbothered by my actions until I inadvertently moved a small branch when adjusting my position on ground and he slithered away.

When I looked at the images on my computer, I was struck by the degree to which my reflection is visible in the snake’s eye. If you click on the first photo, you’ll get a higher resolution view that shows me taking the shot (with flash this time).

I am not sure what kind of snake this is, but it looks a bit like a Northern Black Racer snake (Coluber constrictor constrictor) as described on the webpage of the Virginia Herpetological Society. I’d welcome a confirmation or correction of my identification from anyone with more experience with snakes.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Memories of this past winter’s unusually heavy snowfall are beginning to fade, but were revived when I saw these beautiful little Snowflakes during a recent visit to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, VA.

There are two varieties of Snowflakes—the Spring Snowflake (Leucojum vernum) and the Summer Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)—and I am not absolutely certain which variety I photographed.

I love the simple beauty of this delicate flower and am happy that I was able to isolate a couple of the blooms to showcase that beauty.

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Tree Swallows have been flying about for several weeks, but it was only this weekend that I finally observed one of their multi-colored brethren, the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). Last year, the Barn Swallows built a nest underneath a raised observation platform of the boardwalk at my local marsh, and it looks like they are doing the same thing this year.

I was able to photograph this swallow as it perched on a small branch coming out of the water directly opposite the platform. The sky was mostly overcast during the day, which caused the reflections in the water to look mostly white. As I made a few adjustments to the image, the background essentially disappeared, resulting in a photo that looks almost like it was shot in a studio.

I really like the swallow’s serious pose and the fact that I was able to capture its signature swallow tail. It won’t be long before I see swallowtails on some of my favorite butterflies.

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Damselflies are beautiful, delicate insects that are often hard to see and photograph. I captured this image of my first damselfly of the year at Huntley Meadows Park this past Friday. I am not very good at identifying these tiny insects, but think this might be a Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita).

I was standing my the edge of my favorite beaver pond when I saw the damselfly in flight. I followed it with my eyes and was delighted when it landed on a nearby stalk of grass. I didn’t have a lot of maneuver, because much of the area at the pond’s edge is covered with thorny bushes, and I had to pull back a bit to get within the minimum focusing distance of my 70-300mm telephoto lens , i.e. 4.9 feet (1.5 meters). At that range, the dragonfly filled a reasonable amount of the frame.

Lighting was a bit of a challenge and I tried a couple of different settings as the damselfly lifted its tail from time to time. Eventually, it climbed to the end of the stalk and I changed position too and tried a couple of shots (including the final shot) using my pop-up flash.

Most of the time the first shot below is my favorite, but sometimes I like the others as well or more. In any case, I am happy that I was able to get some good shots of my first damselfly of the spring.

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Female Hooded Merganser ducks (Lophodytes cucullatus) raise their ducklings as single Moms, which must be pretty tough when you have so many offspring to look after. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the male Hooded Merganser duck abandons his mate once she begins incubating eggs and it’s not known if they reunite the following season.

Last year, when the level of water at my local marsh was pretty low and there seemed to be lots of snapping turtles, most of the ducklings did not survive. After a lot of construction at the marsh, water levels are higher and I am hoping that things will be a little easier on the duck families.

I don’t know how old these ducklings are, but they appear to be tiny—even adult Hooded Mergansers are pretty small. A family of Hooded Mergansers was spotted earlier this week and I suspect that this is the same one, so they may be a week or so old.

I was not able to get very close to the ducks and the conscientious Mama duck started swimming away as soon as she sensed my presence early yesterday morning. You can see details in the first two shots, which are cropped a fair amount, but I included a final shot, which shows more of the setting, because I love the beautiful ripples in the water.

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Within minutes of seeing the elegant honey bee that I featured in a recent posting, I encountered this Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica), which is built more like a sumo wrestler than a dancer, especially when viewed face-to-face, as in the second image below.

 

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Folks may have mixed emotions about adult Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and many consider them a nuisance, but I think that just about everyone agrees that goslings are really cute.

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While visiting a garden during an event advertised as “A Million Blooms” I looked hard, but didn’t find any bees among the many tulips and other spring flowers. It was a bit ironic that I discovered this honey bee on a bush while waiting for my fellow photographers outside the gift shop of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia after seeing lots and lots of flowers.

I was hand-holding my 180mm macro lens for these shots, so I couldn’t close down the lens too far. In some of the shots, therefore, you can see that the depth of field was pretty narrow. Still, I am happy that I was able to capture some of the beautiful details of this honey bee, one of the first bees that I have observed this spring.

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Blossoming trees get a lot of attention this time of year, but as I looked upward at the trees in my neighborhood, I was struck by the beauty of the seeds of what I believe are maple trees. When I was a child in New England, I loved to watch these seed spinning through the air like little helicopters as they fell from the maple trees.

According to Wikipedia, the US Army actually developed a special air drop supply carrier during World War II that could carry up to 65 pounds of supplies and was based on the maple seed.

It was fun trying to come up with different ways to highlight the beauty of these seeds by moving closer or farther away and by varying the background.

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Yesterday afternoon, I again observed a blue parakeet (which is also known as a budgerigar) in the trees in my suburban townhouse neighborhood, two weeks after I first spotted it in the “wild.”

Since that first spotting, we’ve had some heavy rain and the temperature has dipped down to the freezing level.  Somehow, though, the parakeet (Melopsittacus undulatus) has managed to find shelter and food and avoid predators.  The parakeet seems to stay in the same general location, not far from several bird feeders on the back decks of nearby houses.

The general consensus seems to be that this is an escaped pet. I worry about its long-term survival, but so far it appears to be adapting pretty well to the outdoor environment.

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Isn’t “beautiful wasp” an oxymoron? Can a wasp really be considered to be beautiful? I may be insect-deprived after a long winter and my perceptions may be skewed, but I find the wasp in these two images to be exceptionally beautiful.

The rich reddish-brown of its upper body, with a pattern that looks like some exotic wood, and the bluish-purple of its wings make for a stunning combination, and the holly leaf provides a perfect backdrop.

I took this shot during a visit Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, VA this past weekend, a garden that featured thousands of tulips and other spring flowers in bloom, but almost no insects. I actually was not inside the garden, but was waiting outside the gift shop for some fellow photographers when I spotted this wasp sprawled out on the leaf, as shown in the second image. The nice thing about my 180mm macro is that I didn’t have to get right on top of the insect to capture some good detail. When I moved in a little closer, the wasp slowly climbed up the leaf, as captured in the first shot, before it flew away.

It was nice to see insects start to reappear and I suspect that I will start using my macro lens more and more as we move deeper into spring and into summer.

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A few dandelions have popped up recently, but I was surprised to see one yesterday that had already gone to seed. Despite the wind that kicked up from time to time, the dandelion remained a perfect sphere.

April continues to be a mass of contradictions, with a mixture of signs of winter, spring, and even summer.

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Sometimes the beauty of Easter reveals itself in subtle ways, like this delicate orchid that I photographed yesterday in the conservatory at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, VA.

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This brightly colored American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) reminds me of the marshmallow Peeps that I grew up with and the brightly colored spring outfits that people would wear to church to celebrate Easter (including some pretty outrageous hats).  Best wishes to all for a Happy Easter, no matter how you choose to celebrate it.

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Although I live in the Washington D.C. area, I didn’t feel like fighting the crowds to get images of the iconic cherry blossoms. However, the blossoming trees in my neighborhood were pretty spectacular too, albeit on a smaller scale.

I think the first two images are Bradford pear trees, the third is a forsythia bush, and I am not sure what kind of tree the final one is. The shapes and colors and lighting make each of these shots quite different, but I think my favorite is the first one, which reminds me of a Japanese painting.

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After seeing three of my recent postings that featured unopened tulips, some readers might come to the erroneous conclusion that I don’t like the colorful flowers of blooming tulips. How could that be possible? Everyone seems to like the cheery colors of tulips.

My neighbor, and fellow photographer and blogger Cindy Dyer, has planted quite a variety of tulips in her garden and I recently took some photos of two very different species. The first is a small, delicate tulip know as the “Lady Jane” (Tulipa clusiana var. ‘Lady Jane’). I am not sure that I have every seen a more petite tulip and I really like its subtle colors.

The second tulip is big and bold and multi-colored, almost a visual equivalent of shouting. This style of tulip is known as a “broken” tulip, because of the way that the colors are broken, resulting in intricate bars, stripes, streaks, featherings, or flame-like effects of different colors on the petals. According to Wikipedia, this effect was originally produced by a tulip-breaking virus, and bulbs with this effect went for exorbitant prices in 17th century Netherlands, during a period known as “tulip mania.” Today, tulips displaying a “broken” effect are stable variants and the result of breeding, not viral infection.

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The moon was shining brightly in my neighborhood this morning at 6:00, just a few days after the full moon.

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Like tiny bunches of grapes, growing out of the ground on a stalk, grape hyacinths are one of my favorite spring flowers. I moved in really close with my macro lens in the first shot to emphasize the beautiful details and the rich dominant bluish-purple color of the plant and moved back a bit for the other two shots to highlight the varied shapes and colors of the individual “grapes.”

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This final image of my mini-series on unopened tulips is my favorite—I love the simple composition, the almost monochromatic palette (with the slightest touch of pink at the tip), and the  sensual curves of the leaves.

It was almost six o’clock in the evening when I took this shot and the light was still pretty strong, but was starting to fade. I knew that I wanted to shoot some close-up shots of flowers, so I was using my 180mm macro lens. I probably should have been using my tripod for increased steadiness, especially because the lens does not have image stabilization (VR for Nikon folks), but I hadn’t brought a tripod with me.

As is often the case with my macro lens, I ended up focusing manually, trying to get as much of the tulip in focus as I could as I carefully composed the shot. The settings for this shot, for those who might be interested in such technical details, were ISO 400, f/8, and 1/50 second. The shutter speed is a bit slow, I’ll admit, but I was able to brace myself pretty well and I was trying to avoid increasing the ISO and introducing more noise.

If you haven’t seen the other images in this mini-series, Anticipation I and Anticipation II, be sure to check them out. Is there one that you like more than the others?

 

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With the cold, gray days of winter receding in my memory and the world exploding with color, I’ve taken a brief break from focusing primarily on wildlife photography and have turned my attention to capturing the beauty of flowers and blossoms.

I’ve never quite figured out how to photograph broad expanses of color, so I tend to focus more on the details of a single flower and try to isolate it from the background.  (One of my favorite bloggers, Camilla, of Calee Photography did an amazing job in capturing the beauty of tulip fields by photographing them from a small airplane. Check out her posting.)

In this case, my eyes were drawn to the not-yet-open tulip, where the color of the flower was beginning to be revealed. The composition is simple and graphic and a little abstract.

I can already sense the beauty that is to come—the anticipation makes it even more sweet.

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Anticipation, waiting for the moment when a tulip will burst open. For now, all we can see is a little tongue of color, a foretaste of the beauty that is to come.

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The flowering trees in my neighborhood are spectacular right now. Here’s a couple of shots of the flowers of one of them, which I think is some kind of magnolia or tulip tree.

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I am always happy to visit the garden of one of my neighbors, Cindy Dyer, a fellow photographer and blogger, at this time of the year, because there is always something new in bloom. Yesterday’s treat was this simple little purple flower. I have no idea what it is, but I love its shape and colors.

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Spring is here and I am once again chasing dragonflies, on a quest to capture images of these beautiful insects. Common Green Darners (Anax junius) rarely seem to perch, so I was forced to try to photograph them in flight.

This early in the spring, there aren’t yet a lot of dragonflies, so my patience was tested as I waited for one to fly by. I tried a lot of different approaches and the one that worked best on this day was to focus manually, which is a bit of a challenge at 300mm when the subject is moving pretty fast.

I hope I’ll get some better shots later this season—this is my best one so far.

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This red tulip may have been at its peak a few days ago when it was in full bloom, but it has retained its beauty in its current faded state.

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Sometimes a coiled snake is prepared to strike, but this Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) was definitely not ready for action. The snake seemed total relaxed as it basked in the sun, curled up above the surface of the water on some dried up vegetation.

I really like the texture of the snake’s skin, but there was no way that I was going to reach out and touch it. Telephoto lenses are a good thing in situations like this.

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Unlike the Great Blue Herons that stay in Northern Virginia all winter, Great Egrets (Ardea alba) depart for warmer locations during the winter. I was happy to note this past weekend that the egrets are now back at my local marsh, where I took these shots of one coming in for a landing.

The wing span of this bird is impressive and I love the way that it points its toes as it comes in for the landing. As is often the case, I had challenges getting a proper exposure—I try to expose for the brilliant white body, but often blow out the highlights. I am pleased that I was able to capture some of the details of the wings in these images, though the shadows caused much of the plumage to look gray, rather than white.

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At first I thought that the black and orange birds rooting about in the fallen leaves were American Robins (Turdus migratorius), but a closer look through the undergrowth revealed that there was white on their breasts and that their eyes were red.

It turns out that they are Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), a strikingly marked oversized sparrow. It was quite a challenge to get somewhat unobstructed shots of these birds. They seemed to be in constant motion, hopping about and rummaging through the leaves—I had to chase them around for quite some time to get these modest shots.

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What kind of birds do you have in your neighborhood? I live in the suburbs of Washington D.C. in a townhouse community in Northern Virginia. There are quite a few trees and some green spaces, so I am able to find birds to photograph when I walk through the neighborhood, though the birds tend to be small and elusive.

This past weekend, I encountered a reasonably cooperative Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) that remained perched in a tree in a fenced backyard as I desperately sought to compose the shot. I was hoping to have the sky as the background, because I was shooting upward, but the branches of the tree made it impossible to get that shot. I quickly realized that my only hope for an uncluttered background was to use the white siding of the townhouse as the backdrop. As I moved from side to side, I noticed that the blue shutters of the townhouse kept creeping into the frame and decided to incorporate them as an element of the image.

I really like the final result, a pleasing portrait of a little chickadee with a simple, almost minimalist composition.

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Spring has definitely arrived, bringing with it an abundance of snakes in addition to the profusion of flowering plants.  Most of the snakes have been all curled up, basking in the sun.  This Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon), however, was slithering through the water and stuck out its tongue and hissed at me before disappearing below the surface of the water.

I really like the way the colors of the snake’s skin match those of its surroundings and even the reddish color of the forked tongue is repeated in the fallen blossom.

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As I strolled through my suburban neighborhood on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I expected to see cardinals, chickadees, sparrows, and goldfinches in the trees—I had no idea that I would also encounter a brightly colored tropical bird.

I first saw the bird as a flash of brilliant blue, when it flew from a bird feeder on a back porch to a nearby tree. I love the blue colors of the Eastern Bluebirds, but this was an entirely different shade of blue. Initially the bird was in the shade and I tried to figure out what it was from its shadowy shape, but I was stumped, because it didn’t seem to have a bill.

When I circled around and got a better look, I could see that it was a blue parakeet. What was a parakeet doing outdoors in Northern Virginia? Had it recently escaped from one of the nearby townhouses? Can it survive for long outside?

I did a little research on the internet and learned that the birds we know as parakeets are more technically known as Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus). In the wild, they live in parts of Australia and are naturally green and yellow. In captivity, they have been bred to have different colors, like the electric blue of this one. Judging from the brown color of the cere (the waxy structure that covers the base of the bill), this appears to be a female.

I’ll keep my eyes open to see if I can spot this beautiful bird again. Meanwhile, I will post the photos in the Facebook group of my homeowners’ association and see if I can learn from others how long this bird has been living in the wild.

 

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