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Archive for August, 2015

Summer days are drifting away and the biological clocks are almost certainly ticking loudly for some dragonflies. This past weekend at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna Virginia, I spotted these two Halloween Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis eponina) engaged in a little summer loving.

It’s hard not to feel a little bit like a voyeur as I move in closer to photograph the acrobatic intertwining of the tiny dragonfly bodies. Summer loving happens so fast and soon my colorful little friends will be gone for the season,

Halloween Pennant

Halloween Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the highlights for me of a short visit yesterday to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia was spotting this spectacular dragonfly, which I think is a female Banded Pennant (Celithemis fasciata).

Earlier this summer, I spotted a male Banded Pennant, whose body was blue, but the coloration of this one suggests to me that it is a female. The dragonfly was perched on the highest branches of a small tree, which allowed me to isolate it against the beautiful blue sky. You may notice that the branches are different in the two photos—the dragonfly flew away a few times, but returned to the same tree a short time later.

CORRECTION: My initial identification was incorrect. My local dragonfly expert, Walter Sanford, with whom I neglected to consult in advance, provided a correct identification. This is a female Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina), not a Banded Pennant.

 

Banded Pennant

Banded Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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In its simplest form, photography is about light and darkness, about lines and shapes. That was what I was seeking to capture when I took some shots in a Metro station in Rosslyn, Virginia earlier this week.

I took this week off from work and have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about photography, watching lots of videos, and shooting different subjects in different ways. I have even shot and developed some black and white film—I’ll do a separate posting on that soon.

This first shot highlights the distinctive ceilings that are present in many of the stations in the D.C. Metrorail system. I love the geometric patterns and the interplay of light and shadows in this image. I took this 1/3 second exposure by leaning my camera on a railing.

metro ceiling

The Rosslyn station is at a point in the Metro system where the trains pass under the Potomac River. Consequently, the escalators are extremely long. As I rode the escalator up, I was fascinated by the different lights and captured this image when I was approximately at the mid-point between the level of the tracks and the above-ground station.

It was midday on a weekday, which is why you don’t see more people in this shot. Things get really crowded during rush hour and woe to those who do not follow the Metro etiquette of staying to the right on the escalator steps unless passing.

metro escalator

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Walking in Washington D.C. along the National Mall, I couldn’t help but notice that humans were not the only ones taking advantage of the water fountains along the periphery. Several different kinds of birds were bathing and drinking in the water of backed-up fountains.

In the first shot, a bird, which may be a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), seemed to be testing the water in the fountain—a few seconds later, it was happily splashing about.

urban bird

I love the defiant stance of the larger bird in the second shot, looking like he is the leader of an urban gang, prepared to defend his turf against outsiders like me.

urban bird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On a trip to the National Zoo earlier this week, I was walking around in heat of the summer sun, unlike most of the animals, who were relaxing in the shade or finding other ways to cool off.

This female lion was dozing in the shade and would periodically raise her head and look in our direction with sleepy eyes.

lion

This tiger decided to swim a bit in the water of the moat at the front edge of its enclosure. I couldn’t tell how deep the water was—at times it looked like the tiger was merely walking in the water and not actually swimming.

tiger

This cheetah seemed a little agitated and was not relaxing. It was walking back and forth along the fence line that separated its enclosure from the adjacent cheetah enclosure.

cheetah

I’ll probably never go on a safari and see these beautiful creatures in the wild, but my trip to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. afforded me a glimpse of their power and their majesty. I am happy that the National Zoo is active in efforts to ensure the preservation of endangered species, in particular the cheetah. Check out this article for more information about those efforts.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I haven’t seen very many Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) the last few years, so I was thrilled when I spotted this one yesterday at the outdoor butterfly garden at the National Zoo.

I chased after it as it flew from plant to plant, hoping that it would come to rest withing range of my camera. Once the Monarch had landed I circled around until I was on the same plane as the butterfly and got this shot. Fortunately I was close enough that I was able to fill the frame with the beautiful Monarch and a small amount of the flower on which it was feeding—this is an uncropped image.

It was midday and the lighting was a little harsh, but it did help illuminate the wing from an angle and showcase the butterfly’s spectacular colors.

I did take some photos of some of the animals at the National Zoo, which I will present in another posting, but thought I’d start with the Monarch Butterfly, an unexpected bonus of my brief visit to the zoo.

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There were lots of other available thistle plants yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park, but an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) kept jockeying for position on this single flower, each seemingly determined to gain the upper hand.

Who knew that butterflies were so competitive?

Competitive butterflies

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Blue-tailed skink

I especially love seeing skinks when they are juveniles and their tails are blue. I spotted this Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) last week at Huntley Meadows Park.

Common Five-lined Skinks are a variety of small lizards that I see from time to time in my local area. According to the Virginia Herpetological Society, the average length of these skinks is from 5 to 8 and a half inches (12.5 to 21.5 cm).

This skink was on the trunk of a rotten tree when I encountered it. It was quickly clear that I was going to have to switch my camera from landscape orientation, which is how I take most of my shots, to portrait orientation, because of the length of the skink’s body.

I like both of these shots for different reasons. I find the curve in the body in the first shot to be more interesting, but the second shot is much sharper and shows greater detail. Which shot is “better?’ You have to make that call—I keep going back and forth in attempting to decide.

Common Five-lined Skink

Common Five-lined Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Walking down one of the informal trails at Huntley Meadows Park this past Friday, I spotted a dark shape in a distant tree. The moment that I got my camera focused on what turned out to be a bald eagle, it took off.

My camera settings were not optimal, but I somehow managed to capture some images of the eagle in flight as it flew away. The final shot in this posting shows my initial view of the eagle, just seconds before he took to the air.

As I have noted before, it’s a wonderful day for me whenever I see a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and especially so when I am able to photograph this majestic bird.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do herons laugh? Herons remind me of many people in the Washington D.C. area—they are serious, focused, and driven. How do herons relieve their stress?

Yesterday morning I was observing a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) at my local marshland park. Suddenly he opened his mouth wide in a huge smile and appeared to be laughing.

I am not sure what prompted his actions, but I couldn’t help but smile. Laughter, after all, is contagious.

Green Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the dramatic lighting, the graphic quality, and the simple composition of this shot of a male Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) that I took earlier this month at Jackson Miles Abbot Wetlands at Fort Belvoir, a nearby military installation here in Virginia.

There is a real beauty in simplicity.

Widow Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It had been quite a while since I had last seen a Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia), so I was pretty excited to see one during a visit this past weekend to Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, a tidal wetlands park along the Potomac River in Virginia.

The spider must have sensed my presence too, because she began to oscillate the entire web vigorously. I had to wait for her to settle down before attempting to get some shots. I was on an elevated boardwalk and the spider was considerably below the level of my feet. As a result, I had somewhat limited options for framing my shots, though I was able to photograph the spider from a couple of different angles, and was not able to get really close to the spider.

I was happy that I managed to capture the really cool zigzag portion of the spider’s web, a distinctive characteristic of this particular species.

Argiope spider

Argiope spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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To post or not to post? For over a week, I have gone back and forth in my mind, trying to decide if I should post this image. Most of my deliberation has centered around the indisputable fact that significant parts of the main subject, a young White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), are obscured by the leaves and branches. Does the foliage add to the image or detract from it?

Ultimately, I decided that the emotional impact of the fawn’s gentle eyes, staring out at me from behind the curtain of leaves, trumped all other consideration. The leaves actually help to draw attention to those eyes, with their unbelievably long lashes.

What makes a good photo? I think a lot about that question as I go over my images. How heavily do I weigh technical and creative considerations? Most of the time, as was the case here, I’ll decide with my heart.

fawn

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A group of small birds was foraging in the shallow waters of a stream and I approached them quietly, hoping to get close enough to isolate one of them with my camera. They seemed to be in constant motion and I followed them, waiting and hoping. Finally they stopped for a moment and I crouched low and took this shot of what I believe to be a Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla).

I thought about cropping the image a little so that the bird would not be quite as centered, but I decided that I like the ripples in the left corner too much to cut them off. What you see in this posting, therefore, is the framing as the image came out of the camera.

Least Sandpiper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When photographing a subject, how important are the surroundings to you? Most of you know that I like close-up shots and often I zoom in or crop to the point where you don’t have a good sense of the environment.

This past weekend, I went for a walk along the Potomac River (on the Virginia side) and observed a lot of damselflies. I had my Tamron 150-600mm lens on my camera and soon realized that I had a problem—even at the minimum focusing distance (approximately 9 feet/2.7 meters), there was no way that I could fill the frame with a damselfly.

Still, I was drawn to the beauty of the damselflies, which I believe are Blue-tipped Dancers (Argia tibialis), and I took quite a few shots of them.

As I reviewed the images on my computer, I realized how much I liked the organic feel of the natural surroundings. In the first shot, there are lots of vines on the surface of the rock on which the damselfly is perched that add texture and visual interest. In the second shot, I love the twist in the vine and the single leaf hanging down.

All in all, the surroundings on these two shots were so interesting that I didn’t feel any desire to crop the images more severely, and the environment has become just as much the subject as the damselfly. It’s probably worth remembering this the next time when I am tempted to move in really close to a subject—I should at least attempt to get some environmental shots too.

UPDATE:  It looks like my initial identification was off—there are lots of blue damselflies and this one more probably is a Big Bluet (Enallagma durum). Thanks to my local odonata expert, Walter Sanford, for the assist.

Blue-tipped Dancer

Blue-tipped Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I tend to focus on the realism of close-up details in most of my dragonfly shots, but sometimes the dragonfly seems almost abstract, a mix of colors, shapes, and patterns, like this male Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) that I encountered the past Friday.

For those readers who may not be familiar with this boldly-patterned dragonfly species, I am also including a more “traditional” shot of the same Twelve-spotted Skimmer.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most dragonflies appear to like the sunlight, but this Mocha Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora linearis) that I encountered yesterday seemed to prefer the heavy shade, which made it a bit of a challenge to photograph.

I was walking along a small stream, moving in an out of patches of sunlight when I first spotted the dragonfly. I had my long telephoto lens on my camera and took some initial shots, which turned out blurry—there didn’t seem to be enough light for my camera’s autofocus to function well. I quickly set up my tripod and tried to focus manually, but that didn’t work out too well either.

Fortunately, the dragonfly seemed oblivious to my actions. I switched to my 180mm macro and moved in closer and finally was able to see well enough to focus. Because of the limited amount of light, I had the ISO cranked up to 1600 and used the pop-up flash.

As I moved about trying to get a better angle, I slid twice down the slippery bank of the stream into the shallow water and somehow managed to lose one of the little rubber feet of my tripod, but managed to get a couple of decent shots of this shadow-dwelling dragonfly.

Mocha Emerald

Mocha Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last weekend I encountered an adorable family of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) while walking along a sandy area of Holmes Run, a stream not far from where I live that eventually flows into the Potomac River.

I had unobstructed views of the deer and was able to get some shots with my telephoto zoom without scaring them away. Unfortunately, the loud sounds of a passing freight train caused them to turn and run into the brush as I was trying to get shots from additional angles.

Still, I am happy with my results and think the sand adds a different look to my normal shots of deer in vegetation.

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love looking at the world through my macro lens and finding beauty on a tiny scale, like this gorgeous green bee that I spotted this past weekend in the garden of my neighbors.

I am not certain of the exact identification of this bee, but I think it is part of the genus Agapostemon that includes a variety of green sweat bees.

 

green bee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I can understand how an adept female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) can catch one dragonfly, but how in the world did this one manage to catch two at once?

I can’t tell for certain, but the dragonflies in the bird’s mouth look to be female Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) or possibly immature males, which look like the females. The wings seem to be very transparent, so it’s possible too that these may be newly emerged dragonflies—when they first transition from the water nymph stage into dragonflies, they are very vulnerable.

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday as I was watching some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) buzzing around some distant trumpet flowers at Huntley Meadows Park, one of them suddenly flew closer to a small patch of cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis).  The shutter speed was too slow to stop the action completely, but you can see how perfectly the hummingbird’s bill fits into the long tubular flower that is too narrow for most bees to reach.

Hummingbirds fly really fast, so I wasn’t too surprised that there was a lot of motion blur in my shots. I was a bit shocked, however, to see that my shutter speed had fallen to 1/100 of a second for these shots, which is, of course, way too slow for the subject, particularly because I was shooting with my zoom lens at 600mm handheld. When I was focusing on the sitting hummingbird that I included as the final shot here, there was considerably more light and the subject was stationary and I did not make any adjustments when the hummingbird flew to a darker area with the cardinal flowers.

If you look closely at the shot of the perched hummingbird, you may notice that it has tiny feet. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, “The extremely short legs of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird prevent it from walking or hopping. The best it can do is shuffle along a perch. Nevertheless, it scratches its head and neck by raising its foot up and over its wing.”

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It violates one of the basic rules of photography to have your subject in the center of an image, but for both of these shots of a male Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), that’s precisely what I did.

In the first image, the blade of grass that bisects the image helps to emphasize the symmetric patterns on the wings of the Widow Skimmer.

Widow Skimmer

In the second image, I was so fascinated by the geometric lines of the grass and their varying degrees of sharpness that I did not want to crop them at all, so I left the Widow Skimmer more or less in the center.

Widow Skimmer

When it comes to my photography, I tend to look at “rules” as general guidelines that apply in many—but not all—situations. That approach helps me to remain centered and flexible.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday as I was exploring Ben Brennan Park, a suburban park in Alexandria, Virginia with a pond, I spotted a young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) in a tree. I took some initial shots and then was able to creep up to the tree and shoot almost directly up.

I have taken numerous photos of Green Herons, but this is the first time that I’ve ever taken a shot showing the underside of the bill. I love to shoot familiar subjects hoping to see them from new perspectives or engaging in interesting behavior.

Green Heron

Green Heron

Green Heron

heron4_up_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Tracking a moving bird as it weaves its way in and of vegetation is a real challenge for a photographer and it seems almost miraculous when you manage to get any shots in focus. My skills were definitely tested last weekend when I spotted a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)  in a patch of trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) at my local marshland park.

I did manage to get a few clear shots in which there were no branches between me and the hummingbird, but mostly I tried to find little windows among the branches through which I could get a view of a part of the bird. I was standing on a boardwalk when I took these shots, so there was not much room for to maneuver to get better angles of view. Additionally, the trumpet vines were a pretty good distance away, so I had to crank out my telephoto zoom and even then had to crop the images.

I don’t often see hummingbirds, so I was happy to capture some shots of this beautiful bird as it flitted from flower to flower.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I watched through my telephoto lens last Friday, one of the juvenile Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerulea) at Huntley Meadows Park became increasingly curious about the turtle with whom it was sharing a log. The heron moved closer and closer and finally jumped on top of the turtle. I was shocked to see the heron then put its face mere inches from that of the turtle.

This past month, a group of four or more juvenile Little Blue Herons has taken up residence at my local marshland park. When I first saw them, I assumed they were Great Egrets, because of the bright white coloration. However, the bills are a different color than those of the egrets. I am hoping that the Little Blue Herons hang around long enough for us to see them change into the blue color for which they are named.

I managed to take a series of shots of the encounter between the heron and the turtle. I initially thought it was a snapping turtle, but one of the folks who saw a photo I posted on Facebook thinks it might be a slider of some sort, a Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), I would guess after taking a closer look at the second image.

Little Blue Heron

Initially the heron eyed the turtle from a distance.

Little Blue Heron

Then he decided to get a closer look.

Little Blue Heron

Feeling bold, he placed one foot on the turtle…

Little Blue Heron

…and jumped on top of the turtle.

Little Blue Heron

His curiosity still not yet satisfied, the heron leaned in for a face-to-face encounter. (Note that the turtle has retracted one of its front legs.)

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Chasing after beautiful butterflies on a sunny summer day—it doesn’t get much better than that. I don’t know plants very well, but this appears to be some kind of thistle. I photographed this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) last Saturday at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Virginia.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The blooming Swamp Rose Mallows (Hibiscus moscheutos) at Huntley Meadows Park helped provide a beautiful backdrop for this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) that I spotted there last Saturday.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I made a trip to Jackson Miles Abbot Wetlands Refuge at Fort Belvoir, a local military base, and was thrilled to see a Banded Pennant dragonfly (Celethemis fasciata), a cool-looking species that fellow photographer Walter Sanford spotted at that location on 24 July. (Check out his posting of that encounter to see some more shots of a Banded Pennant.)

Like other pennant dragonflies, such as the Halloween Pennant that I photographed earlier this summer, the Banded Pennant likes to perch at the very tip of tall grass and other vegetation. A pennant dragonfly is sometimes easier to spot than those species that perch lower, but the slightest breeze sets the dragonfly in motion and makes it more difficult to photograph.

I spotted only a single Banded Pennant yesterday, but managed to get a number of shots before it flew away, though most of them were from pretty much the same angle. As I looked over the images, I couldn’t decide which was the most effective way to present the dragonfly. Was it better to maximize the size of the dragonfly by cropping it a square or to emphasize the height of the vegetation by using a vertical format?

In the end, I didn’t choose, but instead presented a shot in each of the two formats? Do you have a preference for one over the other?

 

Banded Pennant

Banded Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How do you capture the details of a pure white bird as it flies in an out of the light? That was my challenge this past weekend when I tried to photograph Great Egrets (Ardea alba) at my local marshland park.

Many of my past shots of egrets have been unsuccessful, usually because they are overexposed and the highlights and details are blown out. I’ve tried using exposure compensation with only minimum success.

This time, I remembered to switch to spot metering and had greater success. Sure, the backgrounds are a bit underexposed, but I think that the darkness helps the highlight the beauty of the egret.

Great Egrets seem a little awkward when in the water, but when they take to the air, it’s like watching a ballet.

Great Egret

Great Egret

Great Egret

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The full moon was bright and beautiful early yesterday morning, when I arrived at Huntley Meadows Park as the sun was just beginning to rise.

I struggled a little, trying to figure out the best way to capture the moon. Should I show the moon against the black night sky? Should I show merely its reflection? Should I show it as an element of a larger composition?

Here are some of my attempts to show the full moon in the predawn light at my local marsh.

Green Heron

Green Heron in the moonlight

Full moon in the night sky

Full moon in the night sky

reflections of a full moon

Reflections of a full moon

full moon

Moon over the marsh

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was mostly in the shadows yesterday as I observed him at the edge of a small stream. When he bent down, his face was briefly illuminated and I managed to capture this action portrait with a fascinating interplay of light and darkness.

Green Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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