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Archive for January, 2015

When I was growing up in New England, the appearance of robins was viewed as a harbinger of spring. Although I rarely see them during the winter, American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are with us throughout the entire year here in Northern Virginia. Yesterday was sunny, but cold and windy, and on a walk around a local lake I spotted a small flock of robins, looking a little bedraggled in the winter weather.

It’s a little early, but I’m ready for spring to arrive, though we have a lot more winter to come.

American Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Looking at the birds in the trees in my neighborhood this past week, I spotted a dark-colored bird that I could not identify (and had never seen before). I managed to get some clear shots and have been looking at identification guides on the internet and have tentatively identified it as a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), though I must confess that I don’t feel really confident about my identification.

What do you think? I’d welcome any assistance that more experienced birders could provide in identifying this little bird.

Dark-eyed JuncoDark-eyed Junco

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I mistakenly thought that goldfinches left our area in the winter, so I was surprised earlier this week when I saw a group of them in the trees in my neighborhood. Since then I have checked the range map for the American Golfinch (Spinus tristis) and learned that this bird is with us all year.

Maybe I am so used to seeing the brilliant yellow color of the males in the spring that the duller winter plumage blended in so well with their surroundings that they were invisible to me. Once I spotted them, I struggled to get photos of them. The sun kept moving in and out of the clouds and the goldfinches spent most of their time in the dense bushes.

I tried using my pop-up flash to remove some of the shadows and totally blew out the background when I really overexposed some of the images. Still, I like the effect in the first and second images and it does help you to see some of the details of the goldfinch. The final image was without flash and was more properly exposed, though I don’t like the fact that it was shot at a steeper angle than I would have preferred.

I’m going to have to start looking more closely at the trees in mysuburban neighborhood. Who knows what other birds may be present there that I don’t know about?

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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In the distance I could hear the sound of a woodpecker busily at work. It took a little while for me to finally spot the woodpecker, but eventually I caught sight of him and watched him as he pecked away.

I was happy to be able to identify the bird as a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), a fairly common species in my marshland park. I was surprised, however, to note that the woodpecker was excavating a cavity that was already large enough to contain its entire head.

I know that Red-bellied Woodpeckers make their nests in cavities and wonder if this might be an early stage of building a nest. Could the bird merely be building a storage area for food? I have lots of questions and multiple possible explanations for what I saw but don’t really have any answers. I think that I remember where I saw the woodpecker and may try to find the tree again and check to see if I can tell whether the woodpecker has worked more to enlarge the cavity in the tree.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How much of a bird do you need to see in order to identify it? Can you identify a bird merely by its silhouette? If I hadn’t been watching this bird before it dove off of the branch, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to identify it from the silhouette.

Tufted Titmouse

Are things easier if the bird is in the shadows, but some color is visible and the shape is more recognizable?

Tufted Titmouse

Even if your identification skills are weak, this last shot is clear enough that you could eventually determine that it is a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), a frequent visitor in my neighborhood. These birds are small and a little tough to see, but they have really loud voices. (Check out the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to listen to its song).

Tufted Titmouse

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As I walked through my neighborhood yesterday, I was struck by the large number of Mourning Doves. In most cases, I heard the distinctive whistling sound that their wings make when the doves take off and didn’t actually get a good look at the birds.

One Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), however, was cooperative enough to sit still for a moment and I was able to get this shot. I love the peaceful look and subdued beauty of these birds, whose soft call reminded someone of a lament, which accounts for their name

Mourning Dove

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Friday, as I was walking toward a group of ducks, I saw a flash of white, a white that was brighter than that of a mallard duck. In the midst of the mallards, there was a couple of Northern Pintail ducks (Anas acuta) and I managed to get this shot of the male.

Before he swam away, the duck extended his neck and looked all around. I was amazed to see how long his neck was—it appeared to be almost as long as a goose’s neck.

Once again, I was reminded of the value in closely examining a group of birds. Others might have passed by the group of common ducks without bothering to notice this beautiful Northern Pintail amidst the mallards.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday, I was walking through the woods when I noticed pieces of bark falling through the air. I assumed that this activity was caused by hyperactive squirrels and was shocked when I looked up to see a Pileated Woodpecker high in the trees.

Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) are really loud when they are foraging for food and their forceful drumming often sounds like a jackhammer. This woodpecker, however, seemed to be in stealth mode and he was removing sections of bark by putting his bill underneath the bark and twisting his head a little.

There were quite a few branches between me and the woodpecker, so it was interesting challenge trying to find a visual  tunnel that would permit me to photograph him without too many obstructions. As anyone who photographs birds knows well, focusing was also an issue and I ended up with some photos of a blurry woodpecker, but beautifully in-focus branches. I was pretty happy, though, that I managed to get a a couple of relatively clear shots.

The woodpecker was undoubtedly searching for something to eat. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a Pileated Woodpecker’s primary food is carpenter ants, supplemented by other ants, woodboring beetle larvae, termites, and other insects such as flies, spruce budworm, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers.

I have no idea what delicacy this woodpecker was seeking, but in the second photo it looks like he might have found some tasty little snack. Bon appétit!

Pileated WoodpeckerPileated Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Squirrels scurry about so fast or hide in the shadows of the trees so often that it is frequently tough for me to get clear shots of them. This Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) took a break from his work to bask in the sun and enjoy a snack (I think it was an acorn) and I was able to snap a few shots of him.

I particularly like the way the light fell on the squirrel and how it illuminated the fluffy tail. In addition, I can’t help but like the squirrel’s cute pose and facial expression. He seemed to be enjoying his little snack.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It’s been quite a while since I have seen a mammal in the wild bigger than a squirrel, so I was pretty happy when I spotted a group of four deer foraging in a wooded area of my marshland park late in the day. The four White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were rooting about in the undergrowth and surprisingly did not run away immediately when they sensed my presence. Several of them looked in my direction at times, but then resumed their activity.

I was easily within range to get some shots, but the trees and the grassy growth made it tough to get unobstructed photos. This image of what is undoubtedly a young deer is my favorite of the ones that I was able to shoot that day.

For me, this little deer qualifies as “big game.”

White-tailed deer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During these gray days of winter, bright colors are hard to find, so I jumped at the chance to photograph this male Northern Cardinal when I spotted him Monday high in a tree at Huntley Meadows Park, the local marshland where I take many of my nature photos.

For another burst of color, check out today’s posting “Winter Blues…” by fellow photographer and blogger, Walter Sanford, with gorgeous images of Painted Skimmer dragonflies that he photographed last June at the same park.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Many people in my area were off from work in honor of Martin Luther King Day and my marshland park was full of families enjoying the cool, sunny winter day. Not surprisingly, there was not a lot of wildlife to be found, but after a week overseas and a weekend away at a wedding, it was nice to return to familiar surroundings.

I was able to capture some interesting images of a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) perched on a branch. The little bird had puffed up its feathers and was amazingly round. and almost looks like he is dozing, with his eyes  half closed.

Can sparrows close their eyes?

White-throated Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Walking along the waterfront of Norfolk, Virginia as the sun was beginning to rise, I noticed a pair of larger birds approaching that were definitely not  gulls. I am not sure what kind of birds they are, but the shape of the bill suggests to me that they might be Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis).

There was just enough light to partially illuminate the underside of the wings and the sky was divided into areas of pastel blue and pink. The flyover of these two birds was a great way to start the day.

Brown Pelicans in flight

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I have heard references to the color “battleship gray” many times, but until yesterday I had never seen an actual battleship. The USS Wisconsin is now berthed in Norfolk, Virginia as a museum ship and I observed it the last two mornings as I made a predawn walk along the waterfront, unable to sleep thanks to jet lag.

This morning started out pretty gray and the ship almost blended into the grayish sky and water, which, I suppose, is why ships are painted that color.

Today I will drive back to Northern Virginia and my blog will soon return to its more typical wildlife photos—I have no trips on the horizon for at least a few months.

wisconsin_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A few hours after my return from Brussels yesterday, I got in my car and drove for a bit over three hours to Norfolk, Virginia for a wedding. Even though I was up until almost 3:00 in the morning chatting with the groom (my stepson) and his best man, I woke up a few hours later and decided to walk along the waterfront.

The sun rose with some beautiful colors, a kind of a symbol of the new life just beginning for the happy couple. In a few more hours the ceremony will take place and we will all be celebrating their love for one another.

I couldn’t be happier.

sunrise_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Whenever I am walking through beautiful cities in Europe, I spend a lot of time with my eyes pointed upward, marveling at the amazing architecture. I’ve learned the hard way, though, that it is also important to look downward in order to avoid potentially unpleasant situations.

down1_blog

Dogs seem to be welcomed in many places in Europe and it is not rare for me to see them on public transportation and even in restaurants. Unfortunately, the dogs have to periodically answer the call of nature and not all owners seem to fulfill their civic responsibility to clean up after their dogs.

I ran across this sign in one section of pavement here in Brussels near the Bourse (Stock Exchange). I am sometimes confused by signs without words and often hesitate when confronted by symbols on public bathroom doors representing genders. In this case, I think it means that dogs should do their business elsewhere, though I suppose it could also be a warning that there are guard dogs present or that dogs should not even be in that area.

One other reason to look down from time to time is that there are sometimes beautiful things to be seen, like this artistic grate in one of the streets near the Grand-Place, the main square of Brussels. I don’t know the background of this little piece of art, but I am always happy to rediscover it each time that I return to Brussels.

down2_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The skies finally cleared a little and yesterday evening I had a chance to take a walk in the Grand-Place, Brussel’s central square, one of my favorite locations in this city. The cobblestone pavement was still wet, helping to create nice reflections in some of the shots and the crowds were somewhat sparse, so I was able to get relatively unobstructed shots of some of the buildings that surround the square..

As is usually the case when I am traveling for work, I used my old Canon A620 point-and-shoot camera and used a variety of railings, posts, and other objects to steady myself for these nighttime photos.

Grande-Placenight3_blognight4_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am back in the beautiful city Brussels, Belgium for a short work trip and so far my opportunities to take photos have been limited. I am struck by the limited number of daylight hours and it’s been cloudy, windy, and occasionally rainy.

I hope to get some new images, but in the mean time decided to post one from my trip here almost exactly a year ago. It is a night shot of the main tower of the Town Hall, the tallest building in the famous Grand-Place, the central square of Brussels. If you are interested in the history of the Grand-Place, check out this Wikipedia article.

The weather may not improve much—this is what I consider to be typical European winter weather, but I’ll be out and about a bit later today trying to capture some of the sights of Brussels.

Brussels Town Hall

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was a little surprised to see this Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) down on the ground amid the sparrows, pecking away at the dried vegetation and the crazy thought came to mind that it might have been raised by those sparrows. I assumed that Downy Woodpeckers ate only insects, but learned on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that “About a quarter of their diet consists of plant material, particularly berries, acorns, and grains.”

Eventually the woodpecker emerged from the undergrowth and climbed up a slender stalk, permitting me to get an unobstructed view of its beauty.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Down in the weeds

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) seemed a little confused when the ponds froze over at my local marshland park and appeared to be trying to stalk fish that he may or may not have been able to see through the ice.

heron3_ice_blog

heron1_ice_blog

 

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It was finally above the freezing mark yesterday, which made my trek around Huntley Meadows Park a bit easier to tolerate. Among the highlights was this Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flying overhead with a very determined (or maybe hungry) look on its face. Although Red-tailed Hawks are common in many places, most of the hawks that I see at my local marsh are Red-shouldered Hawks, so it was a nice treat to capture a Red-tailed in flight.

The blue sky provided a clean background for these shots, though I must confess that I am still having some difficulties finding and keeping moving subjects in the frame and in focus when at full zoom. I’m hoping that I have lots of opportunities to practice this winter.

Red-tailed HawkRed-tailed HawkRed-tailed HawkRed-tailed Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Some winter days, it’s really hard for me to find birds to photograph, but I can usually count on seeing some sparrows busily at work, pecking away in the underbrush for what look to be the tiniest of seeds.

This past Monday, before the arrival of the Arctic weather, I observed this beautiful little sparrow, which I think is a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana). Sparrows are tough for me to identify, so I apologize in advance if this turns out to be another kind of sparrow.

The bird kept its head down most of the time and remained stayed primarily in the shadows. For just a moment, though, it lifted its head and turned toward the light and I was able to take this modest little portrait of one of my faithful winter companions at the marsh.

Swamp Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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According to the internet weather for my area, it is 8 degrees F outside right now and windy (minus 13 degrees C). Baby, it’s cold outside. We are forecast to get up to about 20 degrees F today (minus 7 C).

This is unusually cold weather for the Washington D.C. area, where winters are relatively mild. Earlier in the week we had a couple of inches of snow right at the morning rush hour and the roads were gridlocked for hours as commuters unfamiliar with the snow struggled to stay on the pavement.

The roads are treated now and mostly passable, but the cold makes even short outdoor trips barely tolerable. Earlier this month I took some shots of ice that had accumulated in the shady area of a stream at my local marshland park and one of those ice shots seem appropriate for today. I really like the way that the shapes and shades of the ice came out in this image, along with some of the bubbles in the water.

I have lots to do at work today—I sure hope my car starts in another hour or so.

ice1_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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No, this is not a commentary on overindulgence during the holidays. Instead it is a response to one viewer’s comments on a recent posting that showed a pair of foraging Northern Shovelers with their heads almost buried in the weeds. The viewer preferred one photo over the other simply because it showed this bird’s unusual bill.

On Monday, a day that was sunny, cold, and windy, I observed another pair of Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata) and took some shots that show their bills in all of their oversized glory.

I can still remember my surprise at the length of the bills when I saw these birds for the first time. Initially I thought it was an optical illusion, but it became clear pretty quickly that the bill was unusually long. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Northern Shoveler’s bill has has about 110 fine projections (called lamellae) along the edges that help in straining food from water.

Northern Shoveler

female Northern Shoveler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Can you identify the bird in the first photo? There is an almost abstract quality to the image that I really like that focuses on the bird’s wide wingspan more than on the identity of the bird. The unusual viewing angle, looking forward from his extended feet, enhances that effect.

As you can see in the second photos (and as you probably easily guessed), this was a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). Yesterday, a blustery but sunny day, I came across this heron at my local marshland park as he tried in vain to catch some lunch. Without much warning, he took off just after I snapped the second photo, perhaps to find a better fishing spot, and I was able to capture the more unusual view that I have shown as the first image.

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Standing one-legged on the frozen pond, this Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) briefly stirred to adjust its position as I passed by. A few seconds later, the goose slipped one leg and its head back under its wings and gradually drifted back to sleep on a cold winter morning.

In case you are curious about the physiological explanation of the one-legged pose and why the goose’s feet don’t freeze to the ice, check out this blog posting from last November by Sue of Back Yard Biology.

Canada Goose

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I will sometimes see other birds open their wings and stretch them out for a moment, but the Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) is the only bird that I have observed that leaves its wings open for an extended period of time.

Initially I was confused when I heard the cormorant had to dry out its wings because they got waterlogged. How does a waterbird survive if its wings are not waterproof?

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, my favorite website for information about birds, provides the following explanation of this phenomenon:

“They have less preen oil than other birds, so their feathers can get soaked rather than shedding water like a duck’s. Though this seems like a problem for a bird that spends its life in water, wet feathers probably make it easier for cormorants to hunt underwater with agility and speed.”

Double-crested Cormorant

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Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light? Peering through a break in the bushes, I could just barely make out the unmistakeable shape of a male Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) as he slowly paddled away from the shore of a small pond at my local marshland park.

Hooded Merganser

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There is something really special about the moment when the darkness of the night finally gives way to the early light of the dawn and the sky is tinged with delicate shades of pink and orange. The silence is broken by the sounds of awakening birds as their day begins.

It’s not an optimal time for wildlife photography—there is simply not enough light to reveal all of the colors and the details of the subjects. Recently, though, I managed to capture a sense of the dawn in this image of a duck ascending into the air, heading for an unknown destination.

Early bird

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Last week, when the weather was a bit warmer and the ponds had not yet frozen over at my local marshland park, I managed to get some shots of a pair of Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata) in action.

I quickly realized that trying to photograph two birds, rather than a single one as I usually do, significantly magnified the difficulty in getting a good shot. The two North Shovelers rarely would stay together and would wander in and out of the frame. Even worse, one of them would move closer or farther away, challenging my ability to keep them both in focus.

Northern Shovelers forage by swimming along with their bills in the water, straining out food, and never seeme to completely submerge their heads. I was happy that I was able to capture some shots in which the eyes are visible, even though the bills are in the water.

I really like the first image, because the positions of the male and the female are synchronized, yet I also really like the second image, because the positions are completely out of synch. I may be confused, or perhaps a lot of different things appeal to me, depending on how I consider them.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As you contemplate the promises and possibilities of the new year that has just begun, are you more like the pensive Great Blue Heron in the first image or the intensely focused heron in the second photo? (For the record, the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) in both photos is actually the same one that I photographed last weekend at a local water retention pond.)

I’m more like the first heron—I am full of optimism and hope, but don’t have specific plans or resolutions.

Best wishes to all of you for a healthy, prosperous, and blessed new year.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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