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Archive for September, 2014

As I reached the boardwalk, I glanced to my right and realized that I was eye-to-eye with a snake that was loosely coiled on top of a bush. This Common Ribbonsnake (Thamnophis sauritus sauritus) seemed to have appointed himself as the official greeter of the day at the marsh, though I suspect that not all visitors welcomed his presence so close to them as they walked by.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you photograph some subjects over and over again, hoping to get better (or at least different) images? I never grow tired of observing herons and egrets at my local marshland park. Most of the time, they (and I) are standing still, waiting for a brief moment of action, generally when they are fishing or when they take off into the air. These birds look gangly and awkward when on the ground or in the water, but when they are flying, it’s like watching an aerial ballet.

I took this shot last Friday as a Great Egret (Ardea alba) was just taking off from the muddy waters of one of the small ponds at the park. I was thrilled to be able to capture both a shadow and reflection of the graceful bird. Although I often have trouble getting a good exposure and frequently blow out the highlights, in this case I as able to capture some of the details of the wing feathers.

The egrets will be migrating out of this area soon, but I will continue to have the herons to keep me occupied in the upcoming months (and I’ll be trying to get more shots like this one).

Great Egret

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When the urge to take some photos strikes me and I don’t want to travel very far, I can usually depend on Cindy Dyer, my neighbor and photography mentor, to have something interesting to shot in her garden. About five o’clock today, I photographed what looks to be a tiny metallic green bee on one of the colorful flowers still in bloom at the side of her townhouse.

I like my fall colors to be bright and vivid, not muted and faded.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the joys of arriving early at the marsh at this time of the year is having the chance to see spiders’ handiwork, backlit by the rising sun.

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It won’t be long before most of the dragonflies are gone for the season, so I am really enjoying them while they are still around. A little over a week ago, I was able to capture images of some male Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula pulchella), a species that I had not seen previously this summer.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

In the first shot, the dragonfly seems to be eating something that is bright red in color. I can’t tell for sure, but when I zoom in, it looks like it might be a ladybug. Whatever the case, I am happy that I was able to frame the shot to be able to get some of the yellow meadow flowers into the background.

In the other shots, I worked to get the wings into focus by shooting on a plane horizontal to their position. The dragonflies were reasonably cooperative and I am pretty happy with the resulting images.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What do dragonflies eat for lunch? I stumbled upon this dragonfly earlier in September as it was beginning to enjoy a freshly caught insect. Judging from the long legs and wings of the prey, it looks like the dragonfly is munching on a crane fly.

The dragonfly was so focused on eating that it let me get pretty close without flying away and I was able to take a number of shots from different angles and with different settings. I defer to others on identification of the dragonfly species. I initially thought it was a Great Blue Skimmer, but the eye color seems wrong.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It’s autumn now and my thoughts (and my camera) are starting to focus more on birds than insects. This past weekend, I returned to a location where I had previous seen a female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).  The kingfisher would perch on the limbs of some trees overlooking a small trout-stocked pond called Lake Cook, which is really more like a small pond, and periodically make a foray across the surface of the water and grab a fish.

I realized this time that I had a problem—there are so many leaves still on the trees that I couldn’t spot the kingfisher when I heard its very distinctive, rattling call. I could get a general idea of its location, but couldn’t see the kingfisher until it was already in flight, which mean I had to react really quickly to acquire and track it, hoping that I would be able to focus on it.

As it turns out, hope is not really an effective photographic technique and not surprisingly I ended up with a lot of blurry, improperly exposed images, in part because the kingfisher was flying in an out of the shadows. I was pleased, though, that I was able to capture a few decent images of the kingfisher in flight. I was shooting from across the pond from where the kingfisher was perched, so the shots are not close-ups of the bird, but are more like environmental action shots. Maybe I need a longer lens!

Belted KingfisherBelted KiingfisherBelted KingfisherBelted Kingfisher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve repeatedly seen a Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) sunning itself on a log at my local marsh. I don’t know whether it was hunger or boredom that prompted it to move, but I was utterly fascinated this past weekend as I watched the snake make preparations to dive into the water.

The snake initially sensed the conditions by sticking out its tongue and then gradually slid its head into the water. After testing the water with its head, it slowly slithered into the muddy waters of the marsh, probably in search of fish or frogs.

Northern Watersnake

I’ve never before used the slideshow feature on my blog, but decided to try it out here to show a sequence of shots of the snake diving into the water. (I think the slide show starts automatically. If not, click on one of the photos and it should start.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The alternative to the slide show is to do the gallery look, in which you click through the images at your own pace (and the images show up a lot bigger). Here’s the same images in that format. You start by clicking on any one of the images. Do you prefer this look?

Just for fun, here’s a blown-up view of the image in which the snake is sticking out its tongue. Click on the image (if you dare) to see a higher resolution view of the snake.

Northern Watersnake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Can you react faster than an eagle can? Yesterday, I was getting ready to step out of the brush that surrounds one of the ponds at my local marsh, when I spotted a large dark shape in a dead tree that overlooks the water. I suspected that it might be a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), since I had seen eagles perched on this tree a couple of times in the past.

As I stepped forward and was starting to bring my camera to my eye, a juvenile Bald Eagle took off. The eagle flew upwards so quickly that I had trouble finding it and keeping it in my viewfinder, as you can see in my first shot. I got a few more shots as I tracked the eagle’s flight, but in most of them, the eagle’s head is obscured by its outstretched wings. Just before the eagle flew behind the trees in the distance, I got a reasonably clear shot, the second image below.

What did I learn? If an eagle spots me at the same time that I spot him, his reaction times are going to be quicker than mine. Someone I’m going to have to figure out a way to be more stealthy and more ready the next time I find myself in a situation like this. That will be my challenge this autumn as I start to take more shots of birds as the insect population gradually decreases.

eagle1_blog_sepeagle2_blog_sep© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you have a favorite insect? I realize that’s a strange question and, if pressed, most people probably would respond with the name of a butterfly or perhaps a ladybug or a dragonfly, but my favorite is unquestionably the Handsome Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum pulchellum).

Two summers ago, I had my initial encounter with the rainbow-colored grasshopper-like insect at my local marshland park and it was love at first sight. It was so unexpected to see those beautiful blue eyes staring at me with apparent curiosity. The amazing colors of the body are so vivid and varied that one of my friends accused me of creating them in Photoshop. I can’t help but be cheered up by the mere sight of one of these beauties.

There was a lot of reconstruction work at my marsh this past year and water levels are a lot higher than in the past. All summer I waited for my friends to reappear, fearing that the changed habitat or the polar vortex of this past winter had adversely affected their survival. Suddenly, two weeks ago I started hearing from others that the Handsome Meadow Katydids were back.

Last week, I finally saw a few of these beauties myself and took this shot of one of them. In addition to the gorgeous colors, you can’t help but notice the really long legs and antennae (is one of them missing).

I don’t care who you are—you have to agree that these katydids really are handsome, even if it’s not at the top of your list. As for me, it’s still my favorite.

Handsome Meadow Katydid

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Sometimes when the Great Egrets (Ardea alba) are moving from one place to another at Huntley Meadows Park, my local marshland park, they fly really low, almost like they are in stealth mode and are trying to avoid being picked up on the radar.

Great Egret

Great EgretGreat Egret

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There is perhaps nothing more ordinary than this, a simple Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae) on a small white flower (which is possibly a weed), but the ordinary can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Cabbage White butterfly

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One of my fellow photographers, Walter Sanford, pointed at the water and exclaimed, “Spider!” A spider in the water? Yes, fishing spiders don’t make a web and instead hunt by sensing the vibrations on the surface of the water.

There are numerous species of fishing spiders, but I think this may be a Six-spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes triton). Yes, I realize there are more than six white spots on its back—apparently the name refers to six dark spots on the underside of the spider, a part of the spider that I have never seen.

Six-spotted Fishing Spider

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As I was walking through a meadow at my local marsh this past Monday, dragonflies would take off from the high grass and low vegetation as I approached. Most of them appeared to be Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia), a species that seems to like to perch on the ground.

One of the dragonflies, however, really caught my eye, because it was larger than the rest and was a pastel green in color. At first, I thought it might be a female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), one of the few green dragonflies that I have encountered. The green dragonfly flew weakly away and came to rest on some low vegetation a short distance away. As I drew closer, I noted that the dragonfly was hanging from the vegetation and was not perching on it, so I knew it was not an Eastern Pondhawk, which perches horizontally.

When I got a clear look at the dragonfly’s body, I could see that it was shaped like a darner, and I concluded the beautifully-colored dragonfly was probably a young Common Green Darner (Anax junius), judging from its shape and pale coloration. I hadn’t really considered the possibility that this might be a Green Darner, because dragonflies of this species are really strong fliers and I had never seen one behave like this.

I’m going out shooting later today, searching for more beautiful butterflies and dragonflies, enjoying the good news that they are still here with us.

Common Green DarnerCommon Green Darner

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Strange as it seems, I have been seeing more butterflies in the waning days of summer than I did at its height. I think that this little beauty, which I spotted on Monday at my local marshland park, is a Clouded Sulphur butterfly (Colias philodice).

Clouded Sulphur

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I love to photograph insects with cool or unusual names, like this caterpillar known as the Smeared Dagger Moth Caterpillar (Acronicta oblinita). Who makes up these crazy names? Freddy Krueger? Jason? Someone obviously had been been watching too many slasher or horror films.

The first time that I photographed this caterpillar, I called it the Pittsburgh Steelers caterpillar, because its colors matched those of the Steelers’ uniforms. I even proposed that the Steelers adopt the caterpillar as a mascot, but the idea didn’t catch on—a fuzzy caterpillar probably doesn’t match the Steelers macho image anyways.

Now that I have captured the Smeared Dagger, I’m searching for one of my previous subjects, the Twice-stabbed Stink Bug (Cosmopepla lintneriana). Yes, that’s a real insect. You can’t just make this stuff up, or maybe you can.

Smeared Dagger Moth caterpillar

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I ran into a painted lady yesterday in a meadow at my local marshland park. No, I did not have a secret rendezvous with a tattooed female, but a chance encounter with this beauty, a Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui).

Painted Lady

The weather is getting cooler and the days are getting shorter, but as long as butterflies are still flying, it feels like summer to me.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As this Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele) moved about on a flower, the light hit it in different ways, beautifully illuminating its colorful wings.

 

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When you photograph something really cool, do you return to the same location with the hope of finding your subject again? In late August, I spotted a Mocha Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora linearis) for the first time and was really excited, but I wanted to get some better shots.

Over the course of this summer, I have learned that some dragonflies are very habitat-specific—you can only find them in places where the water or vegetation have certain characteristics. So I returned on the 5th of September and followed the same shallow stream and was thrilled to find another Mocha Emerald. Initially I caught sight of the dragonfly in flight and wasn’t sure that it was a Mocha Emerald until it landed. Only them could I see the really narrow abdomen and unusual terminal appendage that are characteristic of this species.

Getting a shot was a bit of a technical challenge. The area was heavily shaded, but there was some light coming in from directly behind the dragonfly, creating a silhouette. I cranked up the ISO to 1250 and underexposed a bit and got the second image below after a bit of post processing. I decided to use my pop-up flash to try to balance the light coming from the back and got the first image, my favorite one.

However, I really wanted to get more of the wings into the photo and I started to circle around the perched dragonfly. Unfortunately, one foot slid into the water of the shallow stream and I composed the third shot with one foot in the water and one on the bank, not exactly an optimal shooting position.

When I tried to continue my movement to frame the dragonfly from a different angle, it flew away. I suspect that the Mocha Emeralds are now gone from the season, but I may return one last time to that location to see if there are any stragglers. I might get lucky again.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During these last few days of summer, the bees seem especially busy. I love the sight of bees covered in pollen, especially unusual ones like this striped bee (I think it is a bee, but would welcome corrections to my identification).

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Although I am here in Brussels for work, I did have some time to play tourist and visit some of the beautiful sights of the city, including the wonderful historical buildings on the Grand-Place, the ancient center of Brussels. Even with my old point-and-shoot camera, the details of the buildings really sparkle.

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What is street art? I tend to think of street art as a category that encompasses a broad range of artistic expressions in a public area. As I walked through the streets of Brussels during this trip, I saw art everywhere—underfoot, in the form of a brass grate in the street; in the air, in the form of a Tintin mural on the side of a building; and at eye level, in the form of a grafitti-covered security cover for a shop and in a stenciled image on the side of a potato delivery truck.

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One of Brussels’s notable tourist landmarks, the Manneken Pis, was wearing a different set of clothes today. The costume is that of the Red Knights of Belgium 1, the local branch of an international firefighters motorcycle club. According to a city website, “The costume was offered to honor the many firefighters, but also the American Red Knights, who vanished during the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001.”

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You can find fine Belgian chocolate everywhere in Brussels, but if you want other kinds of candy, this is the place to go to find almost every kind of sweet treat that you can imagine. Of course, I smile every time that I pass by the store and read its name—I can’t quite imagine a candy store with the name of SUCX succeeding in the United States.

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Whenever I am in Brussels, I always try to be sure that I see the Manneken Pis, the little boy who is one of the symbols of the city. Normally, he is naked and is peeing into a fountain, but on special occasions he is clothed in one of his many costumes. Yesterday, he was wearing an athletic suit, with what appeared to be a Belgian flag, and running shoes. The statue of the boy is not very big and I am also posting a shot of the alcove in which he is located to give you an idea of his size.

I will try to check him again before I leave and see if he has changed into a different set of clothes. If so, I’ll be sure to post another photo.

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One of favorite things about walking around in the old area of Brussels near the Grand-Place is that you can unexpectedly come across giant murals on the sides of buildings illustrating scenes from the Adventures of Tintin.  This series of comic books was created by Belgian artist Georges Remi (who wrote under the pen name of Hergé) and was one of the most popular European comic series in the 20th century.

Although I am fortunate to make trips to Brussels a couple of times a year, my trips are short in duration and I never get to know the city very well. As a result, it’s a real joy to rediscover a Tintin mural when I am wandering through the winding streets of Brussels, as I did yesterday, when I stumbled onto one of my favorite murals, depicting two boys walking together.

CORRECTION: It turns out that there are a lot of different comic book artists have works depicted in murals throughout Brussels and this mural from a series by Frank Pé with a main character called Broussaille, not from the Tintin series. Broussaille is the blond character on the right and his girlfriend Catherine is on the left. The mural was painted in 1991 and then repainted in 1999 to make Catherine appear more feminine—many believed the mural depicted a gay couple, given the proximity of the mural to Brussel’s gay district.

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You also can see some interesting signs in the streets of Brussels, like this one, which seems to be advertising a beer by using a baby.

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One of the dangers of shooting with a macro lens is that I am often so focused on shooting close-up that I forget to step back and look at the bigger picture.

A couple of days ago, I posted a photo of a dragonfly basking in the sun and felt pretty content that I had been able to capture a detailed shot of its eyes and face. I had instantly gravitated to several close-up images to the point that I temporarily forgot that my initial shots had been from a greater distance. As a result, I made my preliminary identification on the basis of the facial shot alone.

After I posted the image on Facebook, one of my fellow photographers, Walter Sanford, who is much more of an expert on dragonflies than I am, asked me if I had any shots of the dragonfly’s entire body, probably with a desire to check my identification. When I reviewed my more distant shots of the dragonfly, I was immediately struck by how tattered the wings were of this female Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans). Sure, I’ve seen lots of dragonflies with minor damage to the wings, but these are seriously tattered.

When I posted these follow-up images on Facebook, Walter replied, “Definitely an old female Great Blue Skimmer dragonfly, as indicated by its tattered wings, coloration, and flanges beneath the eighth abdominal segment. The flanges are used to scoop and hold a few drops of water when laying eggs (oviposition), hence the family name “skimmer.” ”

Be sure to check out Walter’s blog for his wonderful shots of dragonflies and his more  scientific descriptions of his subjects. My background was more in the liberal arts area rather than in science, and my writing in my blog tends to be a reflection of that background.
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I don’t know where they have been hiding, but for several months this summer I hadn’t seen a single woodpecker at my local marsh. Consequently, I was really happy when I sighted this Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) right in front of me this past weekend. Downy Woodpeckers are small, but they make up for what they lack in size with an amazing amount of energy—they never seem to stand still.

downy_fall_blog

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I was suffering in the heat and humidity on Friday, but this dragonfly, which I think is a female Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans), seemed to enjoy basking in the sunlight and let me get really close for this shot.

dragon_superclose_blog

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As I gazed across the little creek that I was following, I spotted a spider hanging in midair. The spider scrambled up one of its silken threads as I approached and stopped just short of the branch from which it had been hanging. It was pretty dark in the shade, so I cranked up the ISO to 1250, popped up the built-in flash, and propped the camera against another tree for stability.

Of the images that I attempted, this is the best one I managed of what I believe is a Spotted Orbweaver spider (Neoscona crucifera).

Neoscona crucifera

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For the first time in my experience, ospreys have been hanging out at my local marsh this summer, probably because of the higher water levels as a result of a massive wetland restoration project. I love watching the ospreys soaring high in the air. They are generally too far aware for me to capture their high-speed dives into the water, but occasionally I will see one catch a fish. Recently I captured some shots of the various wing positions of an osprey flying away with its freshly caught fish.

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