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Archive for June, 2015

I’ve spent most of my life living in the suburbs, so domestic livestock is kind of a novelty for me. My eyes are particularly drawn to animals as striking as this horse with a “rock star” hair style that reminds me of the beautiful horses of Iceland that I have seen featured in numerous photo shoots.

This past weekend I traveled to a winery in rural Delaplane, Virginia for an engagement party. After a wonderful celebration, I stopped at an adjacent farm that had a petting zoo. I was immediately attracted to three horses in the field that had long flowing manes blowing in the breeze. The horses walked right towards me and initially I thought they anticipated that I might have food. When they got closer, I realized that I was standing right behind a pile of hay that had been placed in the field and they more or less ignored me and munched on the hay.

I had a 24-105mm lens on my camera and ended up taking most of my shots at close range using the wide end of the lens. This was the first time that I have ever taken photos of an animal with anything other than a telephoto lens and I was happy with the results. I remember seeing some close-up photos a year or two ago that a blogger had taken of a buffalo using a wide-angle lens and thinking it would be interesting to try something like that. Unlike the buffalo shooter, though, I did not have to shoot from inside of a vehicle.

I don’t know anything about horse breeds, but these small, stocky horses with the incredible flowing hair reminded me of images that I have seen of the horses of Iceland. My dear friend and photographic mentor Cindy Dyer made a trip to Iceland last year and came back with some amazing photos, including this posting with a similar horse, although it is quite literally a horse of a different color.

Cindy has talked with me and a few fellow photographers about possibly traveling to Iceland next year. I would love to have the chance to experience firsthand the wondrous natural beauty of Iceland and to see more beautiful horses with “rock star” hair.

star2_blog

star1_blog

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Instinctively I try to get as close to a subject as possible, often ignoring the “big picture.” One recently early morning, however, there was a substantial amount of water between me and the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that I spotted on a fallen tree and there was no way I was getting closer.

I concentrated on focusing, thinking I would probably have to crop a lot, and on composition. Almost despite myself, I ended up with an image that I really like, an image in which the kingfisher is only one element of an early morning landscape.

There is definitely a benefit sometimes in not getting closer to the subject.

Belted Kingfisher

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It rained all day yesterday and today I felt the need for a burst of color, so I worked up a shot that I took in early May of a male Southern Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes australis). Somehow this beautiful little damselfly fell to the back of the queue during a period of time when I was taking so many photos that I barely had time to review and sort them all.

Three things really strike me about this damselfly. It is much biggest than most of the damselflies; it perches with its wings spread wide, unlike most damselflies; and, most importantly for me, it has very striking turquoise eyes that draw me right in.

Special thanks to my friend, Walter Sanford, who located the damselfly and worked with others to establish that this was a Southern Spreadwing and not the visually similar Sweetflag Spreadwing. Walter said that he was so familiar with this particular damselfly that he nicknamed him “Arty,” because of his propensity for perching in front of photogenic backgrounds.

Southern Spreadwing damselfly

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I probably watched too many horror movies as a child, because I couldn’t help but think of Count Dracula when I first saw the posture of this male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) at my local marshland park. The blackbird seemed to have assumed the traditional bat-like Dracula pose and appeared to be getting ready to swoop in and suck my blood. Involuntarily, my neck began to twitch a little.

Fortunately, the blackbird flew off in another direction and, at least for now, I have not been turned into a vampire.

Red-winged Blackbird

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Globe Thistles (Echinops ritro) are among the coolest plants in my neighbors’ garden. They have a wonderful texture and stand tall, topped with fantastic balls of tiny flowers tinged with blue, purple, and pink.

It’s Friday and I figured for fun that I’d take a short break from insects and feature a few photos of fantastic flowers.

Globe Thistle

Globe Thistle

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This spring I have been spending more and more time in remote areas of my marshland park and have had the opportunity to see dragonflies in earlier stages of development than in previous years. I was thrilled recently to spot a newly emerged male Common Sanddragon (Progomphus obscurus) and managed to get some shots of it with my macro lens.

Fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford did a posting yesterday with some wonderful shots of adult male Common Sanddragon dragonflies and you can refer to that posting if you want to see what a mature male looks like.

When you look at this very young dragonfly, in a stage called “teneral,” a few things stand out. The colors of its eyes and its body are very pale and the wings are really clear. As the dragonfly is exposed to the air and to the sunlight, its colors become more pronounced and its wings more solid.

Many of you know that dragonflies spend most of their lives underwater as nymphs going through a series of transformations. Only in the later stage of their lives do they shed their exoskeletons one last time and become the aerial acrobats that we are used to seeing.

I’ve always wanted to see this transformation taking place, but have not yet had the chance to do so. When I was sharing this images with a friend, though, he pointed out something which I had missed—the dragonfly is perched on its cast-off skin. In the final photo, you can see that the dragonfly is now more than twice as long as when he first emerged, with a significantly lengthened abdomen. In the two close-up shots, it looks like the dragonfly’s front legs are astride the head of the exoskeleton and I think you can actually see the two eyes.

I am in awe when I think of the incredible metamorphosis that has just taken place and find this dragonfly, like all newborns, to be amazingly beautiful and precious.

Common Sanddragon

Common Sanddragon

Common Sanddragon

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Here are some wonderful shots of one of my favorite dragonflies, the Common Sanddragon, by my fellow photographer, blogger, and dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford.

walter sanford's photoblog

On the one-year anniversary for Mike Powell’s discovery of a new species of dragonfly at Huntley Meadows Park, I revisited the same location where Mike found the first Common Sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus) at the park.

On an overcast, rainy day I was pleasantly surprised to see several male Common Sanddragons and a single female. A few photos of the males are featured in this post; a photo of the female will be published in a follow-up post.

A Common Sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male. 17 JUN 2015 | Huntley Meadows Park | Common Sanddragon (male)

A Common Sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male. 17 JUN 2015 | Huntley Meadows Park | Common Sanddragon (male)

A Common Sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male. 17 JUN 2015 | Huntley Meadows Park | Common Sanddragon (male)

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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This past weekend I spotted a black swallowtail fluttering about some bright orange flowers, never stopping for more than a split second. Could I get a shot before it flew away?

Well, I managed to get some shots and then came the tough part—figuring out which black-colored swallowtail I had captured. How hard can that be? For a casual observer like me, there were at least three candidates that immediately came to mind—the black version of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail, and the Pipevine Swallowtail. I recalled that one of the key indicators is the pattern of the orange spots, but I couldn’t remember which one had which pattern.

After some quick research, I’ve concluded this is probably a Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor). I was also really taken by the orange plant and think it might be butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a type of milkweed that, as its name suggests, attracts butterflies.

Pipevine swallowtail

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When it is really hot and the sun is directly overhead, Blue Dasher dragonflies (Pachydiplax longipennis) will often perch in a handstand-like pose that is generally referred to as the “obelisk posture.” By doing this, they minimize the direct exposure of the abdomen’s surface to the sun and stay cooler. Some other dragonflies will also engage in this kind of postural thermoregulation, but I see it most commonly in Blue Dashers.

Blue Dashers, one of our most common dragonflies,  were largely responsible for my initial fascination with dragonflies. In fact, almost three years ago my very first posting on this blog featured a Blue Dasher in an obelisk posture.

Since that time, I have grown in experience and knowledge and have cranked out over 1600 posts. My fascination with dragonflies has broadened and grown into a quasi-obsession, but I am always drawn back to the little Blue Dasher dragonfly, whose acrobatic poses never cease to amaze and entertain me.

dasher1_june_obelisk_blog

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I know that there are deer at Huntley Meadows Park, the suburban marshland park where I take many of my photos, but I rarely see any of them. Perhaps they too see the posted signs warning of archery hunting to keep the population in control.

Saturday morning, however, I spotted three White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in an open area in front of a stand of cattails.  The deer grazed for a little while before fading silently back into the forest and I managed to get a few shots of them.

It’s a nice change of pace to get some shots of mammals at a time of the year when so many of my postings are devoted to insects.

White-tailed deer

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday, the last full day of spring, I spotted a Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina), one of my favorite dragonflies, at Huntley Meadows Park, a place where I had previously never seen one. It was an auspicious end to spring, even if it seems a bit strange to speak of spring and Halloween in the same posting.

As you can see, these dragonflies like to perch on the very top of the vegetation in the fields. That’s an advantage in isolating the subject, but the slightest breeze causes them to wave back and forth like a pennant.

I snapped away when I spotted the Halloween Pennants and have not yet gone through all of my images, but I am so excited that I can’t help but share a couple with you now. There may be a few more to come later.

Halloween Pennant

Halloween Pennant

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Early yesterday morning I thought that this female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) was gathering nesting materials, which seemed a little strange this late in the season. When I looked at the images on my computer, however, I was surprised to see that she had instead captured an immature male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis), a species that itself has a reputation as a ruthless predator.

As the old adage suggests, sometimes the predator becomes the prey.

Eastern Pondhawk

Eastern Pondhawk

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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If I had wings as fragile as those of this male Spangled Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula cyanea), I am not sure that I would choose to perch on a branch with so many thorns. I can personally attest to the fact that those thorns are sharp, very sharp.

Although I see quite a few blue dragonflies, Spangled Skimmers are pretty easy to identify—they are the only local dragonflies with both black and white stigmas on their wings. I love it when the differences among species are that obvious.

On the day I took this shot, the field seemed to be full of Spangled Skimmers and Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies. If I had only seen an American flag, i.e. the Star Spangled Banner, I would have exhausted the short list of items that I associate with the word “spangled.”

Spangled Skimmer

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Flying slowly and weakly with its patterned wings, a male Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) looks amazingly like a butterfly as it flutters by. Fortunately this one stopped to perch on some vegetation at the edge of a small stream and I was able to get this shot.

Widow Skimmer

This was the second time that I have seen a male Widow Skimmer this spring. It’s easy to tell that this is a male, because the females do not have the white spots on their wings. When I saw one last month, though, it was a little tougher to make the call. Immature male Widow Skimmers look a lot like females, as is the case with many dragonfly species. The colors of “fresh” dragonflies tends to be pale and wing patterns may not have developed fully yet. The photo below provides a pretty clear view of the “claspers” at the tip of the abdomen, which indicates that this is a male. Eventually he will grow up and begin to look more like the mature Widow Skimmer in the first photo.

Widow Skimmer

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Unicorn Clubtail dragonflies (Arigomphus villosipes) have quickly become my favorite dragonflies this season. Their gorgeous turquoise eyes never fail to draw me in and their unusual clubtail and distinctive terminal appendages help to maintain my interest.

Unicorn Clubtails are a challenge to find and they are usually pretty skittish when you try to approach them. I have been fortunate enough to find a stream in my local marshland park where at least a couple of them can sometimes be found and patient enough to slowly search for them along the banks of the stream.

Here are a few of my favorite shots from this past Monday. I especially like the first one, in which the dragonfly seems to be cocking his head to the side and smiling at me. The second shot was taken from one side of the stream looking directly across at a Unicorn Clubtail that has assumed a defiant stance and looks to be ready to defend his territory. The final shot shows the dragonfly on a little sandy area at the edge of the stream, an area that he was sharing that day with a Common Sanddragon, a species that I will be featuring this blog sometime in the near future.

Unicorn Clubtail

Unicorn Clubtail

Unicorn Clubtail

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Shy or coy? Whatever the reason, this Shasta daisy seemed reluctant to reveal its whole self to the world and kept a row of petals raised like a fan to add protection and/or mystery.

Sharp-eyed viewers may note that this image has a “bonus bug,” i.e. an insect that you find when processing a photo that you didn’t notice when taking the shot. In this case there looks to be a tiny red insect on one of the white petals to the left of the tallest petal in the uppermost row of petals. (You may need to click on the photo to get a higher-resolution view.)

This is another photo that I took in my neighbor’s garden. Thanks, Cindy.

shy1_june_blog

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I don’t have a garden, but fortunately my neighbor and fellow photographer Cindy Dyer has a wonderful one. Earlier today I photographed this green metallic sweat bee (genus Agapostemon) coming out of one of her orange daylilies.

green metallic sweat bee

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Simple compositions are often the basis for my favorite images. My subject was a Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis), one of the most common dragonflies in our area. The vegetation on which it chose to perch was nothing special. Somehow, though, the shapes and colors of these elements work together to create an image that I find really pleasing.

Blue Dasher

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is now in bloom at my local marshland park and the Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies (Speyeria cybele) are loving it.

Great Spangled Fritillary

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A Silver-spotted Skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) kept returning to these purple flowers yesterday at the edge of a small pond at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland. I am not sure what kind of flower this is, but the Silver-spotted Skipper, the only skipper that I can reliably identify, really seemed to like it.

Some of my fellow photographers with whom I traveled to the gardens really enjoy photographing flowers—I seem to have reached a point at which I enjoy shooting flowers primarily as a beautiful backdrop for showcasing insects.

There are a lot of gardens in the Washington D.C. area that provide for wonderful photographic opportunities, many of which, like this one, have no admission fee. Although I really enjoy shooting at the marshland park that I feature here so often, it’s nice to venture out a little for a bit of variety.

Silver-spotted Skipper

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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This is what Huntley Meadows Park looked like this past Friday morning around 6:00, with low hanging mist covering the fields, and the early morning silence broken periodically by the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds.

Normally I am so anxious to take close-up shots that I forget to try to capture the surroundings. This time I remembered and think the shot gives a pretty good idea of the way things felt and looked as the day began.

dawn_blog

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Shortly after dawn one morning last week, I encountered a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) that seemed to be pensively contemplating the new day. He glanced in my direction as I took a few shots, but remained in place as I continued on my way, both of us lost in our thoughts.

Great Blue Heron

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of my favorite summer dragonflies is the tiny Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera). Its distinctive coloration makes it pretty easy to identify, even from a distance.

Eastern Amberwing

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted a beautiful Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) this past weekend at Huntley Meadows Park and suspect that it recently emerged. I always thought of  Mourning Cloaks, which are apparently known as Camberwell Beauties in Great Britain, only as an early spring butterfly, because I knew that they overwinter with us as adults.

After doing a little research, I learned that the hardy winter survivors mate in the early spring and then die. The eggs turn into caterpillars that pupate and the new butterflies emerge in June or July. After briefly feeding, the butterflies will enter into a state of dormancy (called aestivation) for the summer. I must confess that I was not familiar with the word “aestivation” when I first ran across it and had to look it up. As far as I can tell, it’s the summer equivalent of hibernation. Last year I remember learning the word “brumation,” which is a hibernation-like state that helps turtles survive in the mud during the winter. Who knew there were so many hibernation-type states?

In the fall, the Mourning Cloak butterflies will go on a real feeding frenzy to store up energy for the long winter. It’s amazing to realize that these butterflies have a life span of 10 months, which is an eternity in the insect world.

Mourning Cloak

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As a wildlife photographer, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a studio photographer. Imagine being able to control the intensity and direction of the light, to choose my own background, to have a responsive subject, and to be able to move around and carefully compose images in my viewfinder. What if there were no wet grass or thorns or mosquitoes or ticks? Perhaps a studio photographer has a sense of control—a wildlife photographer lives in a world of unknowns, never knowing for sure exactly when and how a shooting opportunity will present itself nor how long it will last.

This is the time of the year when I focus my attention and my camera on tiny subjects and dragonflies and damselflies are among my favorites. Some of them are pretty accommodating subjects and will perch and pose, though many are elusive and hard to capture.

I sometimes struggle with the question of how to create cool and dramatic shots of these beautiful little creatures. How do I capture then in action, especially when I am so often using a macro lens and shooting at close range?

I wish I had an answer to these questions, a magical formula that would guarantee great results, but, of course, I don’t. Sometimes, though, things do come together and magic happens. That’s what I felt this past Monday when I was out looking for dragonflies. I was crouched on the wet sand trying to get some shots of a Common Sanddragon dragonfly, when a female Ebony Jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) landed a few feet in front of me and began to oviposit in the vegetation at the edge of a small stream.

I was at a good distance to use the 180mm macro lens that I had on my camera. The lighting and background were beautiful. My subject was isolated, but there was enough of the environment in the foreground to give a sense of the location (and the green of the moss was wonderful).

Is it possible to create a dramatic macro action portrait with a two inch (50 mm) subject? For me, it’s rare that I am able to pull it off, but I’d like to suggest that it does happen and offer this image as evidence.

I go out with my camera with the hope that situations like this will arise in the uncontrolled environment in which I like to operate. I live for those moments.

Ebony Jewelwing

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There was a heavy mist in the air when I left my house early one morning this past weekend, but I had hopes it would burn off quickly when the sun came up. I was wrong. As I walked deeper and deeper into the woods, the mist turned to drizzle and the drizzle turned into light rain. Over the course of the next few hours we repeated that cycle several times.

I had enough protection for my gear, but I was soon sopping wet from the often knee-high vegetation through which I was walking. More significantly, however, most potential photographic subjects were exhibiting amazing common sense and appeared to have sought cover in drier spots.

All of the sudden, at a moment when the rain had slowed down, I detected some motion and saw a damselfly moving slowly through the air. It came to rest on some vegetation at the edge of a small stream.

I tried to steady myself as well as I could, because shooting such a small subject at the far end of my 150-600mm zoom lens is a challenge. Given that my camera has a crop sensor, I was shooting at a 35mm equivalent of a 960mm focal length.

When I returned home and looked at my shots, I was happy that at least a few of them were in relatively sharp focus. Now I was faced with the equally daunting task of identifying my subject. There is a whole family of damselflies known as bluets and most of them are primarily black and blue in color with minor variations in patterns. (There is one that I have photographed called an Orange Bluet, a name that causes me to chuckle whenever I see those two words used together).

I turned to some experts on a Facebook page called Northeast Odonata and they were able to identify this damselfly as a Stream Bluet (Enallagma exsulans).

The clock is ticking for dragonflies and damselflies, many species of which have very limited seasons, so I’ll be out as often as I can to try to spot some familiar ones and maybe even some new ones. Light rain does not deter me, though heavier rain and/or high winds will keep me at home.

Stream Bluet

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the delicate beauty of dragonflies and they can be spectacular, especially in dramatic lighting and from unusual angles, like these recent shots of a Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifasciata).

Painted Skimmer

Painted Skimmer

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What could possibly be a better way to start a day than seeing a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)? Seeing two of them.

I spotted these eagles at Huntley Meadows Park at about 6:45 yesterday morning. Being an early bird helps me to capture the early birds like these.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Where can I find a Common Sanddragon dragonfly? As its name suggests, this species is most often found  on the sandy banks of a stream and that is precisely where I found one earlier this week at my local marshland park.

Common Sanddragon

Almost exactly a year ago I stumbled onto a Common Sanddragon (Progomphus obscurus) as I wandered through a remote area of the park, so I had a pretty good idea where to look for one this year. That find was especially cool, because it was the first time that the species had been spotted in the park and it has since been added to the species list for Huntley Meadows Park.

However, this was not the first Sanddragon that I spotted this spring. A week earlier, I spotted one in the marsh vegetation, about halfway between the treeline and a little stream. It was definitely unusual to see this dragonfly away from the sand and perching above the ground.

Common Sanddragon

That find was unusual, but it was perhaps not as unusual as the teneral male Common Sanddragon that I saw the same day as the dragonfly in the first image. When dragonflies shed their exoskeletons and are transformed from aquatic nymphs to acrobatic flyers, they are initially pale in color and their wings are very fragile and shiny. The coloration on this one was so much different from that of a mature adult, that I had to consult with a more experienced friend to reassure myself that this in fact was a Common Sanddragon.

Common Sanddragon

I went out yesterday morning to search again for Common Sanddragons and was disappointed to see that all of the sandy banks were under water following several days of rain. Perhaps I will have better luck today.

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Like a ninja assassin, the Green Heron (Butorides virescens) moved slowly and stealthily forward, completely focused on an unseen prey. I watched and waited. After what seemed like an eternity, the heron relaxed. Whatever had attracted its attention was gone.

The heron was left empty-handed. Fortunately, I was more lucky and departed with this cool portrait of him in his natural environment.

Green Heron

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I don’t see rabbits very often at Huntley Meadows Park, so I was thrilled to see this Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) on Monday in one of the meadows in a remote area of the park. I suspect that the rabbits are more active at dawn and dusk, when I am not there, though one of my friends offered a more straightforward explanation—the raptors are efficient hunters.

Eastern Cottontail rabbit

Rabbits have become a part of my daily life since I recently adopted a friend’s rabbit. She moved into an apartment in the city and could not bring PR (Prime Rib) with her, so he now lives with me. I don’t know the full story of his name, but do recall that her former rabbit was called Porkchop.

PR spends most of his time in his cage, but for an hour or so each evening I let him run around the living room. Sometimes he runs and jumps at such high speeds that I wonder if there is caffeine in his food. I took this shot of him relaxing after one of his evening exercise sessions. I think the photo makes for an interesting comparison with the rabbit in the wild (and I also think he’s cute, though I may be biased).

PR

Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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