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Archive for December, 2015


How do you celebrate the end of the year? Do you like to go out with a bang, with a big celebration and literal or figurative fireworks, or are you more pensive and reflective? I know that I am in the latter group.

My life this past year, both personally and as a photographer, has had some high points, but mostly it has been a year in which I have tried to find beauty and meaning in ordinary things. I have visited my favorite park over and over again, photographing some of the same species repeatedly. Patience and persistence have been my hallmarks and I have been rewarded with some wonderful photographic opportunities.

Somehow it seems appropriate that I end this year with a couple of images of this beautiful female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) that I spotted in the cattails on Monday at Huntley Meadows Park. Red-winged Blackbirds are with us most of the year. They seem to come and go, but they are often there. The females are usually buried deep in the underbrush and are not seen as often as the more flashy and loud males. As you can see from these photos, however, the females are at least as beautiful as the males.

The blackbird’s body positions serve as a visual metaphors for my approach as I look forward to 2016—hanging on and occasionally looking back, but primarily looking forward with optimism to the future.

Best wishes to all for a wonderful 2016.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I conducted a poll to see which of my four recent photo contest entries was your favorite image and the fox came out on top with 43 percent, followed by the bluebird (28 %), the eagle 18 %), and the dragonfly (11 %). Thanks to all of you who voted and especially to those who left comments about your choice. I was intrigued, but not surprised, by the fact that the favorite of the readers—the fox— was different from the choice of the contest judge—the dragonfly.

Several readers commented, however, that the particular image of the Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) that I used was not their favorite one. I had previously done three postings from the magical encounter with the fox and one of the other shots seemed to speak to some readers more than the one I submitted for the contest.

So I am seeking your views again by reprising all of the fox photos and asking you to vote for your favorite. Do you prefer the fox standing up or leaning over the water? Do you like it more when the fox is looking directly at you or at an angle? Does it make a difference if the fox’s bushy tail is visible? I realize that it may not be easy to narrow your choice down to a single image, so I have tried to set up the poll to permit multiple choices.

If I have set this up correctly, you can click on any image and scroll through each of them in full size. After viewing them all, select your favorite (or favorites) and register your vote. I’d be really happy if you left a few words about your choice. NOTE: If you open the posting in Reader, you may need to click on the Title to get to the poll and to actual posting in which you can scroll through the photos in larger size as a kind of slide show.

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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“You better watch out…”

Kids are warned to be good “for goodness sake,” because Santa is coming to town. Well, Santa has come and gone, but it is prudent to remain good and cautious at Huntley Meadows Park, where I saw this camouflaged archer in a tree yesterday morning.

Each year I have seen the posted signs indicating that deer hunting will be taking place during the fall and winter. I have seen a few empty tree stands, but until yesterday, I had never seen an archer. Fortunately I was behind him when I spotted him and it is obvious from the photo that he had spotted me too and even gave me a little wave of the hand.  I passed by as quickly and quietly as I could.

Within a few minutes of spotting the hunter, I came upon two unoccupied tree stands. I guess that I am walking around in a favorite area for the deer hunters.

That  means I need to be a bit more diligent in wearing my brightly colored stocking hats and remaining alert. I better watch out.

archer

Unoccupied tree stand

Unoccupied tree stand #1

 

Unoccupied tree stand #2

Unoccupied tree stand #2

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Clouds can be a mixed blessing. Clouds can help diffuse the sunlight and eliminate harsh highlights. However, when the skies are as heavily overcast as they were for most of this past weekend, they can block so much light that details are hidden and contrast is really soft.

When I saw a bird with a large wingspan take flight in the distance, I readied myself. I wasn’t sure if it was a hawk, a vulture, or an eagle (or possibly even a heron), but I will generally try to get shots of any large bird I see in the sky. As I tracked the bird and took some shots, I still couldn’t positively identify the bird, but my hopes rose in anticipation that it might be a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

Bald Eagles are one of the few species that I will try to photograph every single time that I manage to spot one. I did get some shots of what turned out in fact to be a Bald Eagle. They are recognizable, though the poor lighting conditions made it impossible to capture the details of its feathers. Usually I worry about blowing out the highlights of the eagle’s white head—that was not a problem this time.

I’ve had a pretty good year spotting eagles and suspect this might be the last one that I see in 2015, though I am heading out in a little while and am eternally hopeful that I will spot another one. As with many other photographic subjects, I hope in the coming year to get even better images of eagles, one of my favorite (and most challenging) subjects.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It was almost dark yesterday (and getting darker) at Huntley Meadows Park when I saw the head of a beaver break the surface of the water. It’s been quite some time since I last saw a beaver, so I was thrilled, and even managed to get a few shots by cranking up the settings on my camera.

There are several beaver lodges at the park and the resident North American Beavers (Castor canadensis) have been really busy the last few months getting ready for winter. Every time that I visit the park, I see that that more mud has been applied to the lodges and the brush pile adjacent to the lodges, which server as a larder during the winter, keep getting bigger.

Despite all of this activity, the beavers have remained remarkably elusive and I have not spotted them a single time in recent months during my early morning visits to the park. Yesterday I went to the park late in the day and was able to finally see one.

My DSLR is a little long in the tooth and its max ISO setting is 3200. I had never set it that high, because of fears of unacceptable grain in the images, but boldly set it there yesterday. I was shooting in aperture priority at f/7.1 (wide open for my telephoto lens when fully extended is f/6.3) and I was shocked to see that my shutter speeds for my shots were either 1/4 or 1/8 of a second. Fortunately my lens has image stabilization, but it’s actually a little surprising that my images were not completely blurry when shooting at 600mm with a 1/8 second shutter speed.

This shooting situation definitely pushed the limits of my camera, but I am happy that I was able to get some recognizable images of a beaver swimming at dusk. As we move deeper into the winter, I will be looking to capture some more shots of our resident beavers, hopefully in better light.

North American Beaver

North American Beaver

North American Beaver

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It’s hard for me to imagine life on a farm, having spent most of my life in the suburbs. I consider myself lucky to be able to distinguish a cow from a horse, but don’t ask me to tell a llama from an alpaca.

I got a little taste of farm life on Christmas Eve day when I accompanied a family member as she went about accomplishing a seemingly endless list of chores associated with the care of the farm animals.

Here are some of the fascinating faces of the farm that I encountered that day.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It has been cloudy and rainy almost all of today and I feel a need for some bright colors. Here’s a shot from last December of a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) decked out in Christmas red.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, but it looks like it won’t happen here this year, with a high temperature for today forecast to reach 70 degrees (21 degrees C).

So I decided to reprise a more seasonally appropriate shot from a couple of years ago at Huntley Meadows Park. In early January 2014 I spotted this Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) circling around a beaver pond, not far from where I took my most recent fox shots.

Merry Christmas to all of my friends here who support and encourage me on my journey into photography and best wishes to you and your families as we move toward the start of a new year.

Red Fox

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As many of you know, I recently entered some photos in a local photo competition and was fortunate to be awarded second place for one of them. I was a little surprised by the one that was selected, because, quite frankly, it was not my favorite one of the group.

The more that I though about it, the more I realized how difficult it must be to be a judge, especially in an area like photography in which there is both a technical and an artistic component.

Why do we like what we like?

I’ve never used a poll in a posting before, but thought that in this case it might be interesting to learn which one of my four entries is your favorite. I am not really asking you to judge which one is “best,” but am looking more for a sense of which one you like most. You can use whatever criteria you like and I would be thrilled if you gave a few words about your choice.

As you can see, I chose a diverse set of subjects to appeal to a variety of tastes. There are two birds—a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis); one insect—a Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum); and one mammal—a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes).

If I have set this up correctly, you can click on any image and scroll through each of them in full size. After viewing them all, select your favorite and register your vote. As I mentioned earlier, I’d be really happy if you left a few words about your choice. (I think the poll might let you vote multiple times if you have trouble choosing, but am not 100 percent certain, given that I am not familiar with the polling component.) NOTE: If you open the posting in Reader, you may need to click on the Title to get to the actual posting and to the poll.

Thanks. Merry Christmas in advance for those celebrating Christmas and best wishes as we move toward the start of a new year.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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For a few magical moments, the early morning sky was awash with delicate shades of pink and blue. I hurriedly tried to capture that ephemeral beauty. Then suddenly the color was gone.

Yet somehow the magic remained. There is something really special about taking photos just after dawn—the colors are rich and saturated and the water is often incredibly still.

I captured this tranquil moment with a male Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) early on Monday at Huntley Meadows Park. at about 7:30, not long after the color had faded away.

I love the stillness of the early morning.

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Northern Shoveler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The sky was overcast yesterday morning, the day of the Winter Solstice, but my spirits soared when I caught sight of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) high in the air over Huntley Meadows Park.

I was thrilled to be able to capture a sequence of shots that shows the eagle initially coming right at me and then gradually circling to a position that gave me a side view.

bald eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Do you enter photo contests? I like to say that I shoot for myself, but I suspect that is not the whole truth. I know that I also derive pleasure from sharing my thoughts and my images with others. There is something really gratifying and uplifting about feedback that suggests that I have touched someone else in some small way, that I have caused them to stop for a moment to consider the beauty that surrounds us.

Several months ago I saw a notice that the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park organization was sponsoring a photo competition. Regular readers of this blog know that Huntley Meadows Park, a Fairfax County-run marshland area, has become my favorite place to photograph a wide variety of wildlife subjects and I post my photos regularly to a Facebook page for the park. The only stipulation for this contest was that the photos had to have been taken at the park.

Sure, I have taken a lot of photos in the park, but were they good enough? I had never before entered a photo competition, and I guess I sometimes feel a little insecure about my photography. The competition required me to submit matted prints and I hadn’t for the most part seen my work in printed form.

I decided that if there were ever a competition ideally suited for me, this was the one. My mentor, friend, and fellow photographer Cindy Dyer helped me to prepare my prints. I submitted four prints, the maximum number that I was permitted to enter. (I’ll probably do a post soon with the four entries, so that you can decide which one you like best.)

A reception was held last week to open the photo exhibition and announce the winners. I was in Vienna at the time, so I learned from a friend that I took second place in the competition with a macro shot of a Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) that I titled “Baby’s Got Blue Eyes.”

One of the coolest parts of the competition is that the judge shared his/her comments about the winning entries, including the following assessment of my image (check out the Facebook page of the Friends of Huntley Meadows Park for more details on the competition):

The contrast of colors is stunning, with the iridescent blues, greens, and reds of the dragonfly beautifully contrasted with the earth-tone browns and grays of the leaves behind. The use of narrow focus of this macro photo is done perfectly, bringing the eye and wing of the dragonfly into sharp focus that stands out from the pleasantly soft focus background. It gives the photo a great three dimensional effect. The composition is also compelling.”

Wow! I was worried when I heard that we probably had only a single judge for the contest, but if that was indeed the case, the judge really “got” what I was trying to achieve with the image. In some ways, I was surprised at the result. Insects have a kind of niche audience—some people just don’t like insects—and macro subjects sometimes have trouble competing head-to-head with stop-action wildlife shots.

My biggest takeaway from this competition, though, has nothing to do with the competition itself. I’ve learned that there is something really special about seeing my photos printed. The images look good on the computer screen, but it is much more exciting to be able to show someone a print, knowing that I have created that image.

As I think about this coming year, I see myself having a whole lot more of my images printed and maybe even having to courage to enter additional contests.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

Baby’s Got Blue Eyes

At the exhibition. (Photo by Cindy Dyer)

At the exhibition. (Photo by Cindy Dyer)

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was trekking about at Huntley Meadows Park on Saturday, I was thrilled to spot this Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), a species that don’t see very often at the park. Normally when I do see one, it is buried in the branches or is far away, but this bird posed for a moment on a branch and I was able to get an unobstructed shot of it. The Cedar Waxwing was in the shade, but its silhouette is unmistakable and I could identify it immediately.

Cedar Waxwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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After a week and a half overseas in an urban environment, it was nice Friday to get back to the wildlife of Huntley Meadows Park, where I saw this Northern Shoveler couple preparing to make a landing.

I accidentally spooked the Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata) when I was approaching the area in which they were foraging for food. I first caught sight of them when they took to the air. Although they flew only a short distance away, I was able to react quickly enough to track them and get a few in-flight shots that show their beautiful coloration.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As I was walking along the Danube Canal in Vienna, a small yellow boat caught my eye. Bright colors, of course, almost always attract our attention, but there is something that I really like about the way that this boat fits into its surroundings.

You can see some of the graffiti that I have featured in recent postings, as well as some undecorated areas of the walls that separate the higher street level from the much lower canal. I am not sure what that yellow structure is used for, but it is an almost perfect color match for the boat. Initially I was disappointed when I saw that there was a cyclist entering into the frame in the upper left, but I changed my mind and now think it adds some additional interest to the shot.

This is not an image that would be easily associated with Vienna, but I like the “artsy” feel of the urban landscape that I was able to capture.

yellow boat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Quirky Vienna

Vienna, Austria is a traditional old world city in many ways, but it has its quirky elements too. Here are a few of them that I spotted during my most recent trip.

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wild6_blog

wild8_blog
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The lights at the Christmas Market at the Rathaus (City Hall) in Vienna, Austria really put me in the mood for Christmas. I’m finishing up my work in Vienna and will be back in Northern Virginia in a couple of days.

Merry Christmas (in German)

Merry Christmas (in German)

Vienna Christmas Market

Vienna Christmas Market

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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At this time of the year there are Christmas markets all over Vienna. One of the largest and busiest is located in the square in front of the Rathhaus (City Hall), an elaborate building in the center of the city.

Most of the times that I have visited this market in the past have been at night. Each time I had to fight my way through jostling crowds of people as I was overwhelmed by the sights and smells of the market.

Last week, I had the chance to walk through the market early in the day before it had opened. I noticed there there were statues overlooking the market booths. The statues, which I suspect are historical figures, are probably permanently in place. I’m sure that it was my imagination, but the statues seemed to be making an assessment of activity that was taking place below their feet.

I love the look of the Rathaus and am also including a few views of this wonderful piece of architecture.

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Where do you find wildlife when you are in an urban area like Vienna, Austria, which I am visiting for work this week? I had some free time this past weekend and I took a long walk along the Donaukanal (Danube Canal). The natural landscape along the canal was not very inspiring, but I couldn’t help but notice the colorful graffiti everywhere. Much of this “art” was poorly done and consisted on tags that had been crudely executed by some individual or group, sometimes defacing a much more beautiful piece.

I came across several wildlife-themed pieces that were really well done that I wanted to share. Some of the wildlife depicted is realistic, while other creatures are more fanciful.

Osprey

Osprey

Osprey close-up

Osprey close-up

Owl

Owl

Graceful bird

Graceful bird

Fox

Fox

Tiger

Tiger

Imaginary bird

Imaginary bird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Woodpeckers are so energetic that it is rare for me to spot one that is not in constant motion. Recently, however, I was fortunate to spot a Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) that seemed to be taking a break from its normal activities.

The woodpecker was relaxing on an exposed tree in the sunlight on a beautiful late autumn day. The red color of its head was even more spectacular than usual. Amazingly the woodpecker did not fly away immediately when I began to take some photos and actually changed its position a few times, almost like it was posing for me.

I hope that I have not oversaturated my readers with woodpecker shots, but I just love the attitude and look of these beautiful birds, especially the spectacular Red-headed Woodpecker.

Red-headed Woodpeckers

Red-headed Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Several years ago when I first started taking photos of birds, I remember how excited I was when I photographed a woodpecker that looked like this one. It had red on its head, so surely, I thought, it was a Red-headed Woodpecker.  Oh, how naive I was back then about the complexities of identifying birds.

Sometimes with age comes a bit of wisdom. I am now pretty confident in identifying this bird as a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), though I must confess that I have never seen a single spot of red on the belly of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Like the Red-headed Woodpecker that I featured yesterday, the Red-bellied Woodpecker gathers and stores acorns for later use. As one of my readers pointed out in a comment on a previous posting, it is a mystery  how the woodpecker remembers where it has stored the acorns and how it keeps other creatures from stealing its ‘treasures.”

Red-bellied Woodpecker

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© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As winter approaches, squirrels are not the only creatures gathering and storing acorns. Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) also cache acorns in crevices of trees for consumption at a later point in time. Recently these beautiful birds seemed really busy and I was happy to capture some photos of one of them in action.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When you don’t have a bird in the hand, sometimes you just have to make do with a bird in the bush.

Despite their bright color, male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are surprisingly hard to photograph. They like to dive into the deepest part of the bushes and forage there most of the time. Sometimes it sounds like they are taunting me.

This cardinal showed his face in the for a moment and I was able to get a mostly unobstructed shot of this beautiful bird, whose bright red color always reminds me of Christmas.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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“You don’t look at all like your profile photo,” said one flamboyant duck to the other during the awkward first moments of a meet-up arranged through the internet dating site quack.com. Duck dating has moved into the 21st century.

For the record, the duck on the left is a male Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis) and the one on the right a male Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).

I welcome other suggestions for a caption for this photo as well as general wise quacks.

duck dating

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As I was wandering about yesterday in a remote area of my favorite park, the sharp eyes of a younger fellow photographer permitted him to spot a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a distant tree. The eagle’s even keener vision meant that it spotted us too and shortly thereafter departed.

In a shot of the eagle flying away, I noticed that the eagle seems to be carrying something. However, when I zoomed in on the next shot I took, in which I managed to cut off the eagle’s wings, it looks like the eagle’s left foot is dark and withered and is very different from the yellow right foot.

Am I seeing things? Is this an injury or merely an optical illusion?

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As we move toward winter, the natural landscape seems increasingly drab. Flashes of bright colors are particularly welcome now, like this American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) that I spotted this past weekend foraging in one of the fields at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Virginia.

American Goldfinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Its body was in the shadows, so I couldn’t see its belly, but I am pretty confident that this beautiful bird that I saw on Friday at Huntley Meadows Park is a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), a species of woodpecker that I rarely see.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Why was the juvenile hawk perched on the ground? When I first caught sight of the flapping wings in the shadows beneath the trees, I assumed that the hawk had just captured a prey. However, there was no prey to be seen and the hawk just said there for what seemed to be a few minutes, looking from side to side.

juvenile hawk

juvenile hawk

juvenile hawk

I tried to be as stealthy as I could as I moved forward a little, but the hawk apparently sensed my presence and took to the air. I was surprised that it simply flew to a nearby tree and perched there. The light was a little better and I could see the hawk more clearly than when it was on the ground. There were, however, a lot of little branches, so it was not possible to get a completely unobstructed shot.

juvenile hawk

After a little while, the hawk flew to a more distant tree and I lost sight of it. I moved slowly in the direction that it had flown, scanning the trees. I finally spotted the hawk when I was almost directly below it. I got this shot of the hawk staring down at me before it flew off one final time. I guess the hawk decided that the portrait session was over.

juvenile hawk

I think that this might be a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), but I am not at all certain about my identification. Adult hawks challenge my identification skills and juveniles frustrate me even more.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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How do you capture a sense of motion in an image? One of my favorite methods, panning, involves tracking a moving subject with the camera set at a slow shutter speed. The results can be a bit unpredictable, but are usually fun, like these images of a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) coming in for a landing this past weekend.

In this case, the shutter speed ended up being 1/60 of a second. I was shooting in aperture priority, but knew that the shutter speed would be slow, because of the limited light early in the morning. With my telephoto zoom extended to about 550mm, I concentrated on trying to do a smooth pan handheld. My biggest challenge turned out to be keeping the goose centered in the frame.

None of these images are perfect, which is typical of most of my panning efforts, but there are elements of each of them that I really like. Photos like these remind me that it’s ok sometimes to have photos that are not perfectly in focus.

If you haven’t tried this technique, I highly recommend it, especially if you like “artsy” images.

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I can’t help but smile every time that I see the outrageously elongated black bill of the male Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)—the duck looks like a cartoon character that could have been designed by Disney.

This is the time of year when migrating ducks are passing through our area and it is always exciting to check out the ponds at my favorite park to see what ducks have dropped in. I spotted the Northern Shoveler and its mate this past weekend and spent a pretty good amount of time trying to get a shot in which the duck’s long bill was not submerged in the water.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the bill of the Northern Shoveler is about 2.5 inches (6.5 cm) long and has about 110 fine projections (called lamellae) along the edges for straining food from water.

Northern Shoveler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The sun was just coming up, illuminating the clouds with soft light and color, when a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) flew slowly across the sky, ready to start his day at another location.

It was a magical beginning to a beautiful day.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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