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Archive for April, 2015

Do you chase after butterflies? I do. There is a simple, uninhibited joy in running around a meadow in pursuit of a butterfly, waiting for it to perch, hoping to capture its beauty with my camera.

It’s still a little early for some of the larger, more colorful butterflies, but last week I was able to photograph this beautiful little Clouded Sulphur butterfly (Colias philodice).

Clouded Sulphur butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Despite its name, the Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura), one of the first dragonflies of the spring, has been observed only infrequently at my local marshland park. Therefore I was pretty excited when sharp-eyed fellow blogger and photographer Walter Sanford spotted a Common Baskettail last week when we were out together searching for dragonflies.

Walter consulted with some experts and  was able to confirm his initial identification of this dragonfly as a female. How do you tell the gender of a dragonfly? Check out Walter’s recent posting What was your first clue? to learn how he did it.

If you are more interested in photography than in dragonfly anatomy, check out Walter’s initial posting on the Common Baskettail dragonfly. We both photographed the dragonfly at the same time, but our angles of view and equipment were different, so the resulting images are similar, but not identical.

Personally i enjoy seeing how the creative choices that a photographer makes can influence their images. Walter and I have done several complementary postings in the past and will probably continue to do so in the future.

Common Baskettail dragonfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the earliest dragonflies to appear in our area is the Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) and it is also one of the last to be seen in the fall. During the summer months, these dragonflies can be seen flying all around the ponds at my local marshland. I spotted this one last Friday in a wooded area and initially had trouble seeing it as it flew made a series of short, hopping flights among the fallen leaves on the floor of the woods. As is usually the case, I tried to get as close as I could for the first shot below, but decided to also include a shot that gives you a better idea of the surroundings in which I found this little dragonfly.

Later in the seasons, the Common Whitetail will in fact be common, but this early in the spring, I am pleased with my uncommon find.

Common Whitetail dragonflyCommon Whitetail dragonfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Tiny pink and white wildflowers carpeting the forest floor at this time of the year—how appropriate it is that they are actually called Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica).

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


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As we move deeper into spring, I am increasingly walking around with my macro lens on my camera and I view anything that moves (and some that don’t) as a potential subject. I recently captured some images of a shield bug that I spotted on a rotten bug. Most often people refer to these insects as “stink bugs,” but I figured I’d attract more readers with the word “shield” than with the word “stink.” There are a lot of different kinds of shield/stink bugs and I have not been able to identify the species of my little bug.

The bug was quite active and I remembered again how difficult it is to stop action when using a macro lens at close range. I am pretty happy with the shots I was able to get. The first one gives a good view of the shield shape and shows how well camouflaged this species is for the environment. The second images shows some of the details of the back and I can’t help but love the simple, smooth background. The final image shows the bug resting for a moment, having successfully made it to the top of an obstacle.

After a winter with few macro subjects to photograph, I am relearning a few techniques and rekindling my excitement for insects and other macro subjects. I’m pretty confident that you’ll be seeing a lot of macro shots in the upcoming weeks and months.

stink bugstink bug

stink bug

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What is the best way to capture the beauty of the fragile wildflowers that carpet the forest floors at this time of the year? Should I try to photograph a single flower? Should I move in even closer and focus on only part of the flower (or crop away part of the flower)? Should the images be realistic or abstract?

These were some of the thoughts that went through my head as I took these shots of what I think is a kind of wild violet. As some of you can readily tell, I was in another one of my “artsy” moods. In case you didn’t notice, the first and last shots are actually variations of the same image that I cropped differently. I just couldn’t decide which one I liked better, so I included them both.

violetvioletvioletviolet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes accidents are good. I certainly didn’t expect this male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) to move when I pressed my camera’s shutter release, but I managed to catch the bird in a much more interesting pose than the one I was originally trying to capture.

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The forest floor is carpeted with tiny wildflowers at this time of the year and even this large black snake seemed to be taking time to appreciate their beauty.

The little flowers are Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) and I think the snake may be a Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor), though I must confess that I grow a bit confused when reading the descriptions about how to distinguish Black Racers from Eastern Ratsnakes.

Unlike an earlier shot this spring of another black snake, which I photographed with my telephoto zoom lens, I took this shot with my 180mm macro lens, getting as low as I could and as close as I dared.

Northern Black Racer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Fellow blogger and photographer, Walter Sanford, has an infectious passion for dragonflies and damselflies and has encouraged and inspired me to search for them in remote areas of my favorite marshland park. In today’s blog posting, he chronicles the new species that he has discovered and photographed in the park during the past two years. Individually and sometimes together, we are seeking to discover even more new species.

I encourage all of you to check out his blog to learn more about odonates and see some amazing images of these little beauties.

walter sanford's photoblog

My interest in odonates, that is, dragonflies and damselflies, began during Summer 2011 at Huntley Meadows Park. Toward the end of Summer 2012 and continuing in 2013, my goal was to explore new venues for hunting odonates. Along the way, I spotted several species of odonates that are either uncommon or unknown to occur at Huntley Meadows, including Blue Corporal dragonfly, Stream Cruiser dragonfly, and Rambur’s Forktail damselfly, to name a few.

During 2014, continuing in 2015, I have been a man on a mission to explore the relatively unexplored areas at Huntley Meadows Park in search of habitat-specific odonates unlikely to be found in the central wetland area of the park. In retrospect, 2014-2015 has been a good run: five new species of odonates were discovered and added to the list of Dragonflies and Damselflies of Huntley Meadows Park.

Common Sanddragon dragonfly

Common Sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus) 20 June 2014

Mike Powell

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I know that vultures don’t really stalk live prey, but when this Black Vulture leaned forward from its perch on a dead tree, it sure looked like it was following something on the ground.

Most of the vultures that I see at my local marsh are Turkey Vultures, which have a distinctive red head, but occasionally I will also spot Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) like this one. I was in a remote area of the park searching for dragonflies when this vulture flew in my general direction and decided to perch for a while high on a nearby tree.

Initially the bird spent some time grooming itself, but then it assumed the pose that you see in this image. I tried to move closer to get a better shot and eventually I was almost underneath the tree. As I looked at my images on the computer, I initially thought that I might have photographed an immature Turkey Vulture, which also has a dark head, but I’m pretty sure this is a Black Vulture, because of its short tail.

When I was doing a little research on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, one of my favorite resources for birds, I learned that Black Vultures often hang out with Turkey Vultures to compensate for their weaker sense of smell. “To find food they soar high in the sky and keep an eye on the lower-soaring Turkey Vultures. When a Turkey Vulture’s nose detects the delicious aroma of decaying flesh and descends on a carcass, the Black Vulture follows close behind.”

In addition to its pose, I was struck by the dead-looking eyes of this vulture, which I can’t help but find a little creepy. I am not really paranoid, but somehow I am happy that it had not fixed those eyes on me.

Black Vulture

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This past weekend I managed to get my first damselfly shot of the season of what appears to be a pretty little female Fragile Forktail (Ischurna posita). Like the Springtime Darner dragonfly that I featured in yesterday’s posting, this photo was taken at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Virginia. Fragile Forktail damselflies are only about one inch (25 mm) in length and it was my eagle-eyed fellow odonata enthusiast, Walter Sanford, who first spotted this tiny damselfly.

Fragile Forktail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Local dragonflies are finally starting to emerge in Northern Virginia and yesterday I was thrilled to capture some images of the appropriately named Springtime Darner (Basiaeschna janata) at Huntley Meadows Park, the marshland where I spend a lot of my time exploring and taking photos.

This is the first time that I have seen this beautiful species, which will be gone by mid-June, according to information on the Dragonflies of Northern Virgina website, a wonderful resource put together by Kevin Munroe, a dragonfly expert and the manager of Huntley Meadows Park. If you want more information specifically about the Springtime Darner, you can go directly to this page, but I think it’s fascinating to poke about in the different areas of the site.

This is also the first documented sighting of a Springtime Darner in the park and I am pretty excited to be partially responsible for a new addition to the park’s species list. Yesterday I was trekking through the muddy back areas of the park with fellow blogger and photographer Walter Sanford, who is much more knowledgeable about dragonflies than I am. He knew precisely what dragonflies we could hope to see and the specific type of habitat where we should expect to see them. After several hours in the hot sun, our persistence was rewarded when Walter spotted this Springtime Darner. Check out Walter’s blog posting called Teamwork, and some take-aways for his observations about yesterday’s discovery.

With more new dragonflies soon to come, it won’t be long before I’ll be walking around primarily with my macro lens on my camera. Fortunately, I was prescient enough yesterday to have switched midday from my 150-600mm telephoto zoom, which would have had trouble capturing the dragonfly because of its minimum focusing distance of 107 inches (2.7 meters), to my 180mm macro lens, which was more suited to the situation we encountered.

I did, however, have to rely on manual focusing to get this shot, which I find to be challenging with a digital camera, especially when shooting handheld. The Springtime Darner likes to perch low on vegetation, so I was on hands and knees, hoping not to spook this specimen, which was the only dragonfly that I managed to photograph yesterday.

I think it’s safe to say that dragonfly season is officially open and I am pretty confident that there will be new blog postings in upcoming months as my adventures with dragonflies continue.

Springtime Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Turkey Vulture takeoff

Generally when I see Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), they are soaring through the air, using their incredible sense of smell to find something dead on which to feed. This past week, though, I watched as this vulture landed on a dead tree in the middle of a marshy field and groomed itself for a little while. I guess even vultures need to rest from time to time.

I took this shot just as the vulture was taking off to resume its search for a “tasty” meal.

Turkey Vulture

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It’s springtime. Love is in the air and mating is on the mind of many marsh creatures, including these Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina). The first image makes it look like love is a tender affair for these turtles, but the reality seems to be that mating is brutal and violent.

Most of the activity takes place underwater so it is hard to know what is going on, but it looks like the male jumps the female and essentially tries to drown her. Periodically she is able to struggle to the surface to grab a breath of air before the weight of the male forces her underwater. After a half hour or so, the female managed to decouple and to swim away, leaving the male, as you can see in the final shot,with a look of satisfaction on his face.

snapping turtlesnapping turtlesnapping turtlesnapping turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When you think of a gorgeous tulip, do you have to see it flowering to recall its beauty, or does a mere hint of its future shape and color suffice?

This image is different from my “normal” style of images, which tend to emphasize a kind of detailed realism. It is an almost abstract look at this flower, emphasizing shapes and colors and lines, with a minimum of details. There is an “artsy” side of me that I consider to be underdeveloped. Every now and then that tendency comes to the surface and I’ll step out of my comfortable box and try something a bit different.

tulip

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was going over my photos of my recent encounter with a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis), I was struck by the beautiful quality and color of the early morning light. Sure, it was cool to be able to get some close-up shots of the beaver swimming around, but the light was equally spectacular.

I’ve tried to convey in these two images a sense of the golden glow that surrounded us during the magical moments I shared with this beaver, though somehow the colors seem to get a bit desaturated when I move the image into WordPress.

Check out my previous posting to see more images of this beautiful beaver.

North American Beaver

North American Beaver

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Cindy Dyer, my mentor, is a source of constant encouragement and inspiration for me and also has a wonderful garden of photogenic flowers to photograph. I took this shot of a Snowflake flower (Leucojum aestivum) on a recent misty morning. The image is an homage to Cindy, because it is similar in style to one of her images that I really admire.

In many ways this photo is a companion to the image I posted a few days ago of raindrops on a snowdrop flower.

Snowflake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One early morning this past weekend I spent a few magical morning moments with this North American Beaver (Castor canadensis)  at Huntley Meadows Park during that short period of time when the light is golden and extraordinarily beautiful.

There is a beaver pond in a fairly remote area of the park that is my favorite spot in the park. In the past, I have observed an otter, a fox, a racoon, deer, and multiple bald eagles and hawks from that spot, but until a week ago, I had never observed the beavers that live there. A week ago, in the early morning hours I was pleased to see a beaver swimming away from the lodge and then back to it. I got some ok shots on that occasion, but decided I’d return to that spot again to see if I would get lucky again.

On Saturday, I returned and stood and waited as I drank in the beauty of the location. There is something really peaceful and special about those early morning moments. Suddenly a beaver’s head broke the surface of the water and a beaver began to swim slowly around in circles. The beaver seemed to be simply enjoying itself.

I crouched down and began to take photos. The light was beautiful, though not abundant, and my subject was moving, so I struggled a little to get the right settings. At one point, the beaver started swimming right at me and grew larger and larger in my viewfinder to the point that I actually stood up and startled the beaver. The beaver dove under the water, bur soon resurfaced and continued its swim.

Time seemed to stand still and I don’t really know how long my encounter with the beaver lasted, but eventually the beaver went under water and returned to its lodge.

I am still sorting through my photos, but wanted to share a couple of my initial favorites. Perhaps you will see some more of them in a future posting. (I am also including a shot of the beaver’s lodge to give you an idea of the surroundings.)

North American Beaver

North American Beaver

beaver lodge

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been seeing dragonflies at my local marshland park for a couple of weeks now and yesterday I finally got my first dragonfly shots of the spring. It’s still a little early for the emergence of the local dragonflies, so I was not at all surprised that the dragonflies that I captured were Common Green Darners (Anax junius), a migratory species.

Green Darners spend most of their time flying, rather than perching, so it is pretty tough to take photos of them. In this case, I captured the pair in tandem, as the female was ovipositing in the vegetation of a shallow vernal pool.

As luck would have it, after a day of walking around with my telephoto zoom lens on my camera, I had switched to a macro lens not long before I encountered these dragonflies. My macro lens is 180mm in focal length, but that really didn’t get me close enough to the dragonflies. I tried unsuccessfully to be stealthy in moving closer, but the Green Darners flew away as I drew nearer.

Common Green DarnerCommon Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It’s showtime in the Washington D.C. area—the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. There is no denying their beauty, but somehow I am drawn even more to the simple beauty of modest flowers like this snowdrop (genus Galanthus) that I observed this past Friday. There was a light drizzle most of the day, which coated the unopened petals with beautiful crystal-like globes.

Simple beauty—I find it to be irresistible.

snowdrop

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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In some of my photos, the ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) look really majestic, but in these two shots, the osprey looks almost like a cartoon caricature to me.

Osprey

osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During the spring our eyes are naturally drawn to signs of new life, but somehow yesterday it was the signs of the past that caught my attention. I was fascinated by the structure of the skeletonized remains of an unknown flower, whose beauty has long ago faded into a lace-like form that reminded me of a butterfly.

Beauty and fragility—an appropriate metaphor for our lives.

skeletonized flower

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am seeing more and more wildlife as we move deeper into spring and even encountered a couple of snakes this past Monday as I was walking along some of the informal trails at my local marshland park. When I say “encountered,” I mean that I almost unwittingly stepped on them and was shocked when they made sudden movements.

The smaller of the two was a cute little Eastern Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) a pretty common species in out area. The second, much larger snake is probably an Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis), formerly known as the Black Ratsnake.

According to the Virginia Herpetological Society, the Eastern Ratsnake is the only snake in Virginia that can grow to a length of more than six feet (1.8 meters).  This snake was not quite that long, but it was pretty big and rather fierce looking. Although I occasionally have photographed snakes with a macro lens, I was more than content to get this shot with my telephoto zoom lens extended to it maximum 600mm focal length.

Eastern Garter SnakeEastern Ratsnake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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My life was much simpler before I started to photograph birds. I naively assumed that all Red-winged Blackbirds were black and had red wings. There is no way in the world that I would have even guessed that the bird in this photograph is a female Red-winged Blackbird, but I know now that’s what it is.

With experience comes wisdom, perhaps, but I generally feel more confused than wise when it comes to identifying birds. There are so many variables to consider, including the geographic location, the time of the year, the age of the bird, and, of course, its gender. Sure, there are lots of resources available over which to pore, but I’m often left with a certain degree of uncertainty about a bird’s identification. Apparently I am not alone, because I have overheard heated discussions among experience birds trying to identify a distant bird that they can barely see in their spotting scopes.

Female Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are amazingly beautiful and I would love to feature them more often in this blog, but I find them to be unusually difficult to photograph. Unlike their male counterparts, who are visible and vocal to the point of being a bit obnoxious, the females tend to spend their time pecking about industriously in the undergrowth, rarely coming out into the open.

I was pleased to be able to get this mostly unobstructed shot of this female blackbird recently as she was singing in the rain. If you look closely, you can see a series of raindrops beading up on her back. Other birds may have been seeking shelter from the rain, but she kept working.

As the foliage reappears on the trees and bushes, it’s going to get tougher and tougher for me to spot birds. I’ll still be trying to photograph them for a while longer until I switch to macro mode and focus more on insects and flowers, which have their own identification challenges.

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Earlier this week I watched a pair of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) at my local marsh circling about in search of a meal and captured a sequence of shots of a successful effort. I have previously seen ospreys flying with fish in their talons, but I had never actually seen an osprey catch a fish.

The first shot, my favorite, shows the osprey flying away with its prize, just after it plucked the fish out of the water. Initially the osprey spotted the fish (photo 2) and arrested its forward motion to prepare to dive (photo 3). I tried to track the osprey as it dove, but it dropped so quickly that all I got in the frame was the tail end of the bird. It looks like ospreys dive head first toward the water and then at the last minute bring their legs forward so that they hit the water feet first.

The fourth photo gives you an idea of how forcefully the osprey hit the water. It made a loud splash and much of its body looks to be submerged. The final shot shows the osprey emerging from the water, using its impressive wings to generate an amazing amount of power.

OspreyOspreyOspreyOspreyOsprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When this Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) is standing up, it looks pretty tall, but as the second image shows, it can get down so low that I don’t think that you could want to challenge it to a limbo contest.

How low can you go?

skinkCommon FIve-lined Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Creatures of all sorts are stirring in the marsh now that the weather has warmed up, including this particularly fierce-looking one with amazing eyes. What is it? It’s an Eastern Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentina), a species that is pretty common in my local marsh.

snapping turtlesnapping turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the time I try to fill the frame of my camera with my wildlife subjects, but sometimes it’s nice when they are part of a larger landscape, like this shot of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) in the rain from last Friday.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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For the past year, I’ve been hosting a friend in my house, along with her dog and her rabbit. Recently she and her dog moved out, but I still have PR, the rabbit, whose initials expand to Prime Rib.

This morning I decided to try to take a photo of PR, my own little Easter bunny and here was the result.

Happy Easter to all.

Easter bunny

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes I’m out with my camera even when it’s raining, which lets me capture shots like this Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) that I spotted this past Friday at Huntley Meadows Park.

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Eventually the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) that I featured yesterday decided to fly away, with its modest fish still tightly clutched in its talons. I thought that the bird was going to consume the fish while perched, but perhaps the osprey prefers to lunch in privacy or needs to share the prize with its mate.

Osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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