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Archive for February, 2015

Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of some moment in the cattails. At first I thought it was a Downy Woodpecker, which I have sometimes observed pecking on the cattails in search of insects, but I quickly saw that this was a smaller bird. When it finally climbed higher on a cattail stalk, it became clear that it was a Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis).

Initially I had trouble finding this tiny bird in my viewfinder with the zoom fully extended, but eventually I was successful. I am really happy with the effect that I managed to achieve, with the darker-colored bird really standing out from the lighter-colored backdrop of the cattails. Normally I like to crop to focus attention on the subject, but in this case I like the images better with a considerable amount of open space around the chickadee.

I couldn’t decide which of these two image I liked more, so decided to include both of them. Sometimes I like the horizontal pose of the first shot, but at other times the open bill in the second shot draws me in.

It’s always fun to try to get shots of owls and eagles and hawks, but my moments with this little chickadee reminded me that the little birds have their own special kind of beauty.

Carolina ChickadeeCarolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Angry bird? I don’t know for sure if this American Robin (Turdus migratorius) was angry, but it sure did not look happy when I started walking toward it on the boardwalk this morning at Huntley Meadows Park.

American Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Through the trees I spotted a small group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) consisting of a larger doe and some smaller deer—there seemed to be no buck. The deer were foraging for food, picking a few remaining berries from some thorny bushes and poking about on the ground. One of the deer appeared to be keeping watch and periodically would stare right at me. After a few minutes at that one spot, the deer moved on and so did I.

White-tailed DeerWhite-tailed DeerWhite-tailed DeerWhite-tailed Deer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I felt like a goalie in a penalty shot situation, waiting for my opponent to act. Would he go to the right or to the left, go high or go low? Could I react quickly enough to capture the shot? Time seemed to stand still as I waited and watched.

In this case, my “opponent” was a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) perched in a tree at my local marshland park. Once I spotted the hawk, I slowly moved as close as I could get, walking quietly on the boardwalk. The hawk was facing in the opposite direction, so my initial shots showed the details of the back of its head. Scanning the area, the hawk periodically looked to the sides and I managed to get some profile shots, the second and third shots below.

Finally, the hawk took off, diving quickly to my left. I reacted and managed to get a few shots of the hawk in mid-air.  Although my  trigger finger reacted well, I didn’t move the lens fast enough and failed to keep the hawk centered in the frame. I barely managed to capture the entire body of the hawk in the photo below and the composition of the shot is less than optimal. However, I like the overall feel of the image and the fact that you can see details like the underside of the tail feathers and the talons.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Earlier this week American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were very active at my local marshland park, mostly fluttering about high in the trees, apparently foraging for food.

I have a mental picture of robins poking about in the ground and pulling out juicy worms. Clearly they were not looking for worms in the trees, but seemed instead to be focusing their attention on some little red berries. The robins, which are present in our area throughout the year, manage to survive by switching their diets to one of primarily fruit during the winter.

Sue of the Backyard Biology blog helped to explain this change in the a robin’s diet in a posting last year that she titled “The Robin in Winter…or why Robins don’t migrate.” Be sure to check out her blog for wonderful images and fascinating discussions of the science behind some of nature’s mysteries and conundra.

American Robin American RobinAmerican Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Many colorful birds leave us in the winter or have a more muted plumage, but the Northern Cardinal retains its bright, bold color and remains in our area throughout the entire year. I am always happy to spot a cardinal and the snowy white background really helps to showcase this male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) that I spotted yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park, the local marshland where I take many of my wildlife and nature photos.

On a cold, windy day, the cardinal was busily extracting seeds from what I think are rose hips of the Swamp Roses (Rosa palustris) that grow in the wet areas of the park.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I stayed pretty close to home as we experienced frigid temperatures, a couple of show storms, and difficult driving conditions, but I did walk through the neighborhood one day and observed some of the “local” birds, like this beautiful little White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).

These birds seem to spend so much of their time upside down that I wonder if they get dizzy from blood rushing to their heads. I was happy to be able to get some shots of the nuthatch in a variety of positions, including some upright ones, and here are a few of my favorite images from my moments with the nuthatch, including a final shot of the “traditional” nuthatch pose.

White-breasted NuthatchWhite-breasted NuthatchWhite-breasted Nuthatch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Many of the mallards and Canada Geese were resting on the ice on the mostly frozen little pond near where I live, but the Ring-necked ducks all remained in the water the entire time that I watched them. How are the able to tolerated the frigid waters that must be just above the freezing point?

Whenever I moved toward the shore of the pond, the Ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) would all turn their backs on me and swim away, which complicated my efforts at taking photos of them. However, the edge of the ice limited somewhat their ability to distance themselves from me and I was able to capture some images of them, including this one of a male Ring-necked duck.

As is most often the case, you can’t see the chestnut-colored ring around the bird’s neck—I probably would have named it the Ring-billed duck and occasionally make the mistake of using that improper, but more logical name for this beautiful little duck.

Ring-necked duck

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When you hang around with a gaggle of your closest friends, it’s hard to find moments of privacy or solitude. This Canada Goose seemed pensive as he walked alone on the ice, far away from the other geese that were clustered together near the unfrozen area of the pond.

Canada Goose

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As I was scanning a group of Ring-necked Ducks and Canada Geese earlier this week, I noticed a pair of ducks that looked different, very different from the others. Their colors were unusual, but what really set them apart was their tails that stood almost straight up. I think that I encountered ones like this once before, but I couldn’t remember what species they were.

Fortunately I got some decent shots and was able to find them in my identification guide when I returned home—they turned out to be a pair of Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis). The light was bright and producing a lot of glare off of the water and ice and I didn’t managed to get any good shots of the female, but here are a few images of the male.

Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Do you ever wake up and feel the need for a drink of water? That was apparently the case for this Canada Goose (Branta canadensis), who was sleeping one-footed on the ice. Fortunately a small amount of water had pooled on the surface of the ice and the goose was able to lean down and get a few sips of water.

A few seconds later, the goose stuck its head back under its wing and drifted off to sleep.

Canada Goose

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The suburban retention pond near where I live has almost frozen over, but there are still a few ducks and geese, huddled together in the open areas of unfrozen water. Many of them appeared to be sleeping, with their bills tucked under one of their wings, but this male Ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris) seemed to be keeping his golden eye on me as he struggled to stay warm.Ring-necked duckRing-necked duck

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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After a couple of years of searching unsuccessfully for owls, it’s hard for me to believe that I have had three separate encounters with Barred Owls in a little over a week, all during daylight hours. I realize that we are in nesting/mating season and these owls are more active in the day than at other times of the year, but I have been amazingly fortunate to have spotted these owls, especially this most recent one that was perched in a tree when I caught sight of it.

Yesterday I posted an image of this Barred Owl (Strix varia) flying away, which was an artsy kind of shot, but I decided to post some shots of the owl in the tree today, because this was one of the cleanest looks I have gotten to date of a Barred Owl (although I was a pretty good distance away and had to work to find a clear line of sight to the owl).

As you can see from these images, the owl’s head was in almost constant motion as it surveyed the entire area, possibly searching for prey. I am searching the trees as I hike about the back areas of my marshland park, hoping to spot an owl nesting site. The chances of finding one are really slim, of course, but I have been unusually lucky recently, so I’m not excluding that possibility.

Barred OwlBarred OwlBarred OwlBarred Owl

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I managed to see yet another Barred Owl (Strix varia) yesterday.  Unlike my other recent encounters, I spotted this owl while it was perched high in a tree—the other times I was able to catch sight of the owl only when I flew in front of me.  I got some shots of it while it was stationary and will probably post a couple of them, but surprisingly I was able to get a few shots of it when it started flying. The previous times, the owl flew away so swiftly and silently that I wasn’t able to snap a single photo.

This is my favorite image of the ones I took. The owl’s body is in the shadows, but some of the beautiful details of its feathers are visible in a wonderful semi-circle of extended wings.

Barred Owl

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I look at this image from last week of a couple of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) swimming together, they somehow remind me of a young adolescent couple out for a date on Valentine’s Day. There is an awkwardness in their body language, but the gawky male seems to have a smile on his face, content that he has found someone with whom to share these special moments.

Hooded Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Even in Northern Virginia, where temperature are relatively mild, winter must be difficult for Great Blue Herons, because many of their favorite ponds freeze over from time to time and fishing is not possible. After a recent period of temperatures above freezing, the ice melted and I was happy to see a heron return to a familiar location at my local marshland park.

I encountered this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) early on a Saturday and had an extended period of time with this photogenic bird. The heron seemed to be willing to pose for me and gave me a number of different looks.

At times, as you can see in the final shot, the heron would look straight at me with apparent curiosity. After I had taken my shots, I moved along the boardwalk, leaving the heron to continue in his efforts to catch something to eat for breakfast.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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For months I have observed this large screw-like tool partially buried in the ground at my local marshland park and gradually rusting with the passage of time. Was it deliberately abandoned during a construction project? Was it accidentally left behind?  Will it be used in the spring to bore more holes into the earth?

Is it a symbol of abandoned hopes and plans, of dreams that never came to fruition? I leave the interpretation to others.

screwed

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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After record-breaking warm weather this past Sunday, the ice on the ponds at my local marshland park melted and I suspected that there might be a Bald Eagle there on Monday. On a gloomy, overcast day, I spotted one in the trees and captured some shots as the eagle took off and flew away.

Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) frequently hang out in a remote area of Huntley Meadows Park, and I think that that there may be a nest in that general area. When the ponds started to freeze over, not surprisingly the eagles seem to have disappeared from view.

I initially caught sight of the eagle in flight and watched it land on a distant tree. I had an unobstructed view of the eagle, because I was looking over a small body of water. My telephoto lens is too heavy to hold for long periods of time when it is pointing upwards, but I was fortunate that I was looking through the viewfinder when the eagle took off from the tree.

I have been working on tracking birds in flight and managed to keep the eagle pretty much in focus as it flew over the trees. When the lens is extended to 600mm, it’s quite a challenge to keep a moving subject in the viewfinder. Normally I also like to keep my ISO as low as possible to avoid grainy images, because my Canon 50D is a little dated and doesn’t handle higher ISO levels as well as newer cameras. Taking into account the limited light on the overcast day, I was shooting at ISO 1000, which let me stop the action at 1/1000 of a second.

I actually enjoy shooting on days when the weather is marginal, because it keeps many others away. When the weather is sunny and warmer, the park tends to be crawling with people, which tends to decrease my chances of getting shots like these.

Bald EagleBald EagleBald EagleBald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I can’t believe it, but I observed a Barred Owl (Strix varia) again, only a day after my first sighting and in the same general vicinity in my local marshland park. The circumstance were similar—it was during daylight hours (about 9 o’clock in the morning this time) and I first caught sight of the bird when it was flying.

The most recent encounter was a little more unusual, because the owl flew across my path from ground level and perched briefly on the branches of a fallen tree only about eight to ten feet (less than 3 meters) above the ground. The best shots that I managed to take on this occasion were mainly profile shots that give a good view of the almost human-shaped eyes as well as the small yellow bill. Many of my other shots showed the back of the owl’s head—it never looked directly at me.

I suspect that this is the same owl that I observed the previous day. One of my friends warned me that this is nesting/mating season for these owls and that they can get aggressive at this time of year. According to media sources, a Barred Owl attacked four joggers at a park in Salem, Oregon in separate incidents earlier this month and snatched the cap off the head of one of them. The park has posted warning signs that actually recommend hard hats. Check out this video from TV station KOIN for details about the owl attacks.

After watching that video, I am walking a bit more cautiously now when I am in the area where I spotted the owl, but have not yet taken to wearing a hard hat.

Barred Owl Barred Owl

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been told that rose hips are an excellent source of Vitamin C. They don’t seem to be the favorite food of the birds in my local marsh, however,  and there are lots of the rose hips still around in mid-February. Northern Cardinals, though, will sometimes smash them against the railing of the boardwalk in order to get to the seeds inside, leaving behind a trail of discarded outer skins.

This past weekend, I watched a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) patiently extract the seeds from a small pile of rose hips. There were plenty more available, but he seemed content to snack on only a few of them—maybe their taste is too strong or acidic to consume a large quantity of them.

I believe that these rose hips are from Swamp Roses (Rosa palustris), which covered parts of the marsh during the summer and were amazingly fragrant.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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One of my goals this winter was to get some shots of an owl in the wild. Every time that I have visited my local marsh early in the day or near dusk, I have looked and listened for an owl, but have come up empty-handed, except for one owl that I saw flying away from me.

Yesterday morning I finally spotted one when it flew from one tree to another as I approached. I initially assumed that it was a hawk, given that it was 11:00 in the morning. I thought it was unusual that the bird had not simply flown into the air, as hawks seem to do when I get too close.

Once I managed to spot the bird amid all of the branches, I was shocked to see that it was an owl. I was able to take a few photos of the Barred Owl (Strix varia) in its initial perch before it flew away deeper into the woods and even got a slightly blurry shot of it on a more distant perch.

Whenever I get a shot of a new species, I am so excited about it that I want to share my photos immediately. Now that I have met one of my goals for the winter, I’ll be looking to see if I capture some better images of this owl and maybe even find Great Horned Owls, which are reportedly present in my local marshland park.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Shortly after I spotted some deer on a little ridge immediately in front of me, they started to run toward the treeline. Without thinking about my camera settings, I pressed the shutter button, hoping to capture the action. If I had been paying more attention, I would have realized that a shutter speed of 1/100th of  a second would not freeze the motion, especially when shooting at the far end of my 70-300mm lens.

When I reviewed my images on my computer, it was pretty obvious what had happened without even looking at the EXIF data. Many of the shots were blurry, but I really liked this image. Instinctively I had panned as I had tracked the deer, blurring the background, and I managed to capture the deer with its hind legs in the air. In many ways, this slightly out of focus shot captures a sense of motion even better than if I had been able to freeze the action by using a higher shutter speed.

I try to be conscious about the settings on my camera at any given moment, but I am happy in this case that my inattention caused the wrong settings to be just right.

White-tailed Deer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There is something about sculptures that often affects me more deeply than other types of art. I love the way that a three dimensional sculpture lets you look at a piece from different angles and see it in different ways. I especially enjoy outdoor sculptures and I spent longs hours at the outdoor garden of the Rodin Museum during a trip to Paris a few years.

As I was wandering along an informal trail at my local marshland park recently, I came upon a piece of bone that a beautiful organic shape. As I held it in my hands, it reminded me of an abstract sculpture. It may be from a deer and is perhaps a vertebra, though I must confess that I don’t know animal anatomy at all and could be completely wrong.

The shapes and the textures of this miniature organic sculpture really fascinate me as I view them from different angles.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When you are walking or driving around, looking for subjects to photograph, which ones will actually cause you to stop, grab your camera, and take some shots? Does it take an impressive and relatively rare subject like the bald eagle that I featured in yesterday’s posting? Would you stop to photograph a sparrow?

Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot of blog postings and seen some amazing photos, but I must confess that only a few of them have made such an impression that I remember their content. In a memorable posting in July 2013, Lyle Krahn, an amazing photographer and thought-provoking blogger, put forward a concept called “stopping power. Here’s an extract from that posting:

“I think every beautiful scene has stopping power. That’s my term for the ability of a scene to make a person stop hiking or driving in order to pull out a camera and make images. Did you ever wonder what makes you stop? Do you ever hear the music?”

I hear the music almost all of the time and the threshold for my “stopping power” is really low—almost any sound or color or movement is enough to cause me to stop when I have my camera with me.

Do I really need more shots of sparrows? Last week, I spent some time watching and photographing this sparrow, which I think is probably a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), as it pecked about in the shallow water at my local marsh. The light was coming in from the side and I had to wait and wait for the bird to lift its head to a position where it would not be in the shadows.

In the end, I got a couple of shots that I really like, images that show some of the beautiful details of this little sparrow, a bird that has “stopping power” for me.

Be sure to check out Lyle’s website, Krahnpix, for some incredible wildlife shots that are guaranteed to stop you in your tracks. His quirky humor and provocative prose will both entertain you and prompt you to think a little more critically about your photography and maybe even your life.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I tend to take the majority of my wildlife photographs within a few miles of my home in Northern Virginia, but yesterday I boldly decided to cross the Potomac River and venture into Maryland in search of Bald Eagles. One of my fellow photographers has repeatedly posted beautiful photos of eagles at Fort Washington Park and I wanted to see if I too could find them.

Fort Washington is a historic park, now run by the National Park Service, that was built to defend the river approach to Washington D.C. almost two hundred years ago. The park is a bigger than I expected and I wandered up and down walking paths, wondering where I might find the eagles. I spent a lot of time near the water, but eventually decided to climb to the higher ground, where the artillery positions were located.

As I was about to enter the fort, I glanced over at a tree in the distance and saw the shape of a large bird—it was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). As luck would have it, it started to rain as I started to take some photos, but I managed to get a few relatively clear shots. I had to climb down one hill and up another to get closer to the tree and the eagle flew off before I could get any closer shots.

I don’t know if that tree is a favorite perching spot for the eagles, which I saw soaring at a distance a bit later in the day, but I’m confident that I will return to this location, hopefully when the weather is a bit more hospitable, to search again for a bald eagle.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During the dead of the winter, it’s sometimes difficult for me to find birds to photograph. The birds seem to be using common sense when it’s cold, gray, and windy outside and take shelter to stay warm. At times like this, I pay more attention than usual to the details of the birds that I do manage to photograph, like this White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) that I observed last week.

At first glance there is nothing particularly special about this sparrow. As you look more closely, though, do you notice the silvery gray of its bill or the yellow lores? What are lores? I don’t know many technical terms about bird anatomy, but several years ago I learned that the lore is the region between the eye and bill of a bird. I love the beautiful shade of brown of this bird’s eyes and its little white “beard,” with a few spiky dark hairs sticking out from its chin.

Yes, it’s “only” a sparrow, a bird that you may see so often that you don’t even notice it, but I challenge you to take a closer look and you may lose yourself in the beauty of the sparrow details.

White-throated Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday, the last day of January, I set out for a small pond, hoping to see a female Belted Kingfisher who hangs out there. I didn’t have high hopes that I would see her and thought the pond probably would be frozen. I was happy to discover that the pond was only partially frozen over and thrilled when I hear the unmistakable call of a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).

Before I could get in range, the kingfisher flew into a tree that was a good distance away, adjacent to the wall of an elevated section of railroad tracks. The tan color in the first photo is that wall. After I had observed her for a few moments (and she seemed to be observing me), she flew a little higher in the trees and I took the second shot. The colorful design was painted on a railroad tanker car.

I am still hoping that I will be able to get some closer shots of this kingfisher, but I was quite pleased to be able to capture these images of one of my favorite birds.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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