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Archive for September, 2016

I love to photograph insects with cool or unusual names, like this caterpillar known as the Smeared Dagger moth caterpillar (Acronicta oblinita). Who makes up these crazy names? (Photographed on Monday at Huntley Meadows Park.)

One of my other favorite names is the Twice-stabbed Stink Bug (Cosmopepla lintneriana). Yes, that’s a real insect. You can’t just make this stuff up, or maybe you can.

smeared dagger moth caterpillar

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The leaves are speckled with blemishes and the Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) is faded and tattered, but there is real beauty in the imperfection of autumn. Photographed this past weekend at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetlands Refuge in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Red-spotted Purple

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Monday I spent a good amount of time watching this hawk in a distant tree at Huntley Meadows Park (and, alas, missed the shot when it flew away). There is something simultaneously beautiful and fierce about hawks and eagles that never fails to attract me. Clouds covered the sky for the entire day and there just wasn’t a whole lot of light to work with. That’s why this image has an almost monochromatic look, which makes the yellow color of the talons and the eye stand out even more prominently.
I think this is a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo  lineatus), but would welcome a correction to my identification.
Update: A Facebook friend, who is a much more experience birder than I am, has suggested that this may be a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), while others say it is probably a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii ). Again I am proving to be identification-challenged.
Red-shouldered Hawk

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I’m always happy to see a black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia). I love its colorful patterns and its intricate web (and apologies to readers who are totally creeped out by spiders). I spotted this beauty this past weekend in a patch of goldenrod at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetlands Refuge.

Argiope aurantia

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Fog hung over the wetlands at Huntley Meadows Park early Friday morning, making the walk on the boardwalk a little eerie. When a spooked Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) took off right in front of me I was scared almost witless, but had the presence of mind to get this shot.

Great Blue Heron

Here’s a shot that I took shortly after the first one that gives you a sense of what the boardwalk looks like as it makes it way through the wetlands of my favorite marshland park.

fog2_blog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Water levels are pretty low in some areas of the wetlands at my favorite marshland park, providing a perfect habitat for some visiting shore birds. On Friday at Huntley Meadows Park I spotted a number of tiny shore birds including this one that I am pretty sure is a Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus).

Semipalmated Plover

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On Friday I had a close encounter with one of my favorite dragonflies, a spectacular Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum). This species is a sign for me each year of the arrival of autumn and I eagerly await its appearance. I find the blue eyes to be mesmerizing and simply love the way that they contrast with the bold red color of its body.

I could go on and on about the beauty of this dragonfly until I too was blue in the face, but I will simply let you enjoy a glimpse of its beauty.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

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When fellow photographer and local dragonfly expert Walter Sanford posted a photo of a Russet-tailed Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus plagiatus) that he had spotted on Thursday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetlands Refuge, I was filled with an overwhelming urge to see if I could find the dragonfly. At this time of the year, as the dragonfly season winds down, I really don’t think much about finding new species, so this was an exciting challenge.

I knew the general location, but I forgot to ask Walter for more specific information about his find. Was it near the water or in the woods or along the stream or among the wildflowers? It was a kind of crazy quixotic quest, but I am pretty persistent, so I scoured the area, making loop after loop around a small pond.

My hope and my energy were beginning to fade when I suddenly caught sight of a dragonfly’s wings shining in the sunlight. The dragonfly was perched on some vegetation at the edge of the treeline. Moving as stealthily as I could, I approached the dragonfly and realized that I had found the Russet-tipped Clubtail. I often complain about the inappropriateness of the names of insects, but in this case it fit perfectly.

I managed to take a number of shots of the perching dragonfly before it flew off, heading deeper into the woods. After it had flown a short distance, it seemed to stop abruptly in mid-air. What was going on? I switched to manual focus and took a few shots and then began to worry that the dragonfly had gotten caught in a bit of spider web. (All morning long I kept running into spider webs at face level as I walked through the woods.) As I moved my hand closer to the dragonfly in an attempt to free it, the dragonfly flew off and disappeared. I didn’t see any evidence of a spider web, so it was probably only my overly active imagination.

This was one of my most memorable encounters with a dragonfly. I may stop by again this weekend to see if it is still hanging around, but the chances are not good that I will see it again. Still, lightning can strike twice and that kind of optimism helps to fuel my enthusiasm for photography.

Russet-tipped Clubtail

Russet-tipped Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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The rays of sunshine illuminated her face and our eyes met and Katy and I shared a moment when time seemed to stand still. Alas, the spell was soon broken and she abandoned me. Yes, Katy did.

I took this shot last weekend at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetlands Refuge at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. I believe that “Katy” is a Handsome Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum pulchellum), although much of the katydid’s body remained in the shadows so I am not one hundred percent sure of the species identification, though the length of the antennae makes me confident that it is a katydid and not a grasshopper.

It was a fun challenge to get this shot, which I decided to post uncropped. I was sprawled on the ground, trying to get at eye level with the katydid and move in as closely as I could without disturbing the stalks of grass. For a shot like this, my 180mm macro lens was perfect, though I really have to focus on technique to make sure that my shooting position is steady, given that the lens does not have any built-in image stabilization (VR for Nikon folks).

Handsome Meadow Katydid

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Despite the “common” in their name, I don’t see Common Wood Nymphs (Cercyonis pegala) very often. I was therefore pretty excited to spot one this past weekend at Huntley Meadows Park.
I’m pretty sure, though, that my excitement does not qualify as nymphomania.
Common Wood Nymph

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I can identify most of the large butterflies here in Northern Virginia, but the tiny ones continue to confound me. This past weekend I was able to get some shots of some tiny beauties with my macro lens, but I am not really confident in my identification of any of them.

The first image, I think, may be an Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Blue Everes comyntas) or it could be some kind of hairstreak butterfly. The second one looks to be a sulphur, but I can’t decide if it is clouded, cloudless, or some other kind of sulphur butterfly. As for the final shot, I don’t even have a guess.

Despite my confusion about identification, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the delicate beauty of this tiny creatures.

Eastern Tailed-blue

sulphur butterfly

tiny butterfly

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Late Saturday afternoon I was exploring Cook Lake, a tiny urban fishing lake adjacent to a water park in Alexandria, Virginia. I accidently spooked a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) that flew to a fallen tree on the shore. The lighting was beautiful and the heron struck a pose that I can only describe as heroic.

I never get tired of photographing Great Blue Herons.

Great Blue Heron

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I have always been fascinated with frogs. As a child, I remember my amazement at seeing photos of colorful tropical frogs in National Geographic, especially the green tree frogs with big red eyes.  Growing older, I loved Kermit the Frog, especially his quirky sense of humor and his propensity for bursting out in song. Even now, one of my all-time favorite movie scenes is from the beginning of The Muppet Movie, where the view begins high above the trees and gradually zooms in on Kermit, who is sitting on a log playing the banjo and singing The Rainbow Connection. I try to hold on to the innocent, wide-eyed optimism of that song.

As a photographer, I have list of aspirational shots, made up of images, subjects, and situations that I would love to photograph. For a long time, I longed to capture a photo of a frog perched on a lily pad. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, I managed to capture such an image a couple of years ago. Despite that “success” I still keep my eyes open for frogs whenever I am in an area with lily pads.

This past weekend I hit the jackpot when I spotted three frogs on a single lily pad. I was exploring a small lake at Ben Brennan Park, a small suburban park in Alexandria, Virginia with a variety of recreational facilities. There is a small elevated bridge over one section of the lake and it was from this vantage point that I was able to capture this image. Initially the three frogs were all facing outwards, looking like they were defending their pad from outside intruders. Just before I took this shot, however, the frog in the back turned toward the middle and looked like he was trying to sneak up on his buddy.

Perhaps he simply wanted to play a game of leapfrog.

leapfrog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Yesterday I was on a biking/walking trail that follows Cameron Run, a tributary stream of the Potomac River, when I heard the unmistakable  rattling call of a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). As I moved through the vegetation to investigate, I spotted a kingfisher perched on a rock jutting out of the water. I had my Canon SX50 zoomed out to its maximum length, but it wasn’t enough—I needed to get closer.

As I made my way slowly down a steep slope, my footing gave way and I unceremoniously slid for a short distance on my back side. No surprisingly I spooked the kingfisher. What was surprising was that the kingfisher did not fly up into the trees, but instead he flew to a more distant smaller rock that was barely bigger than he was. (You can tell that it is a male because, unlike the female, he does not have chestnut stripe across his chest.)

The kingfisher soon took to the air and was joined by another one. They proceeded to fly back and forth over a portion of the stream, calling out loudly the entire time. They didn’t actually buzz me, but they did fly in my general direction a couple of times before veering off. What was going on?

I got a somewhat blurry shot of the second kingfisher, a female, that confirmed my suspicion that this was a couple. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, “During breeding season the Belted Kingfisher pair defends a territory against other kingfishers. A territory along a stream includes just the streambed and the vegetation along it, and averages 0.6 mile long. The nest burrow is usually in a dirt bank near water. The tunnel slopes upward from the entrance, perhaps to keep water from entering the nest. Tunnel length ranges from 1 to 8 feet.”

This behavior suggests to me that there could be baby kingfishers in the area. I certainly didn’t see any babies and suspect that a nest would probably be on the opposite side of the stream from where I took these photos, an area that is more remote and inacessible.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

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Have you ever gone eye-to-eye with a butterfly? Yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park this Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria Cybele) was so focused on feeding that it let me get pretty close, close enough to see its cool speckled eyes and its extended proboscis.

Great Spangled Fritillary

Great Spangled Fritillary

Great Spangled Fritillary

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It’s grasshopper season and things are really hopping at Huntley Meadows Park. Every step that I took through the tall, dry grass earlier this week produced a small cloud of flying grasshoppers. Most of them settled back down in the tangled undergrowth, but occasionally one would perch on a stem for a moment, giving me an unobstructed view.
As I was going over my photos, I was struck by the diversity of sizes, shapes, and colors of the grasshoppers that I found in a single small meadow. Most of the time I try hard to identify the species of my subjects, but this time I simply want to celebrate their beauty and the amazing details of their bodies.
The word “grasshopper” is special to me also because it is the term of endearment that my photography mentor, Cindy Dyer, uses for me. You have to be pretty old to remember the old television series “Kung Fu” that was set in the Wild West that starred David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine. As a child, Caine studied to be a monk at a Shaolin monastery, where Master Po referred to him as “Grasshopper,” in reference to this scene in the pilot episode, according to Wikipedia, a scene whose message I have always liked and try to remember.”
Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
 Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
 Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
 Caine: No.
 Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
 Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
 Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?”
grasshopper
grasshopper
grasshopper

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Not all people like to have insects perch on them, but I thought it was pretty cool when an inquisitive Variable Dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis) landed on my hand Monday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetlands Refuge. The real challenge was getting a photo of the damselfly shooting one-handed with my DSLR and 180mm macro lens.

Sharp-eyed readers may have recognized that this is the same species of damselfly as the one featured in my blog’s banner. I just love the beautiful purple markings of this damselfly, which is also known as a Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea), if you use the name of the sub-species.

It was interesting trying to get shots as I tried to hold my left hand still and slowly extended my arm out as far as it would go. The damselfly was relatively cooperative, but moved about a little as it explored my hand. Steadying my shooting hand was an even bigger challenge. Normally I like to try to get as close to parallel with a damselfly’s body as possible, so that most of it will be in focus, but that was not possible in this situation, given the anatomical limitations of the human body.

Looking at these images, I have reached a sad conclusion—I am going to have to give up on my dream of becoming a professional hand model.

Variable Dancer

Variable Dancer

Variable Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Most of the Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum ambiguum) yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park were perched alone in the bright sunlight, but some of them managed to find mates and were “getting busy.” No matter how many times I have seen this behavior, I continue to be amazed by the unusual and acrobatic method that dragonflies use when mating.

I usually start to see the brightly-colored Blue-faced Meadowhawks in early September, at a time when the overall number of dragonflies is declining and they are one of the signs for me of the end of the summer. This species seems to be generally tolerant of my presence, although some individuals are quite skittish, and I have managed to get some close-up shots of them in the past.

Don’t be surprised to see more photos of the Blue-faced Meadowhawks in upcoming weeks—they are one of my favorite species of dragonflies.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

 

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It doesn’t really matter where I am—if I see a butterfly, I am almost certainly going to chase after it with the hope of capturing an image. That was certainly the case last week in Brussels when I spotted this tiny butterfly and managed to take this shot of it.

As some of you may recall, I am now using a superzoom Canon SX50 when I am travelling. I haven’t used it very often, so I am still learning its capabilities and limitations. I am pretty happy with the way the camera was able to capture some of the small details of this butterfly, including its extended proboscis, and the way that it rendered the out of focus flowers in the background. I am not ready to give up my DSLR, but I will certain consider taking the SX50 with me on those occasions when I just don’t feel like hauling my DSLR and multiple lenses.

butterfly in Brussels

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The sun was shining so brightly in Brussels one day last week that even the ducks looked to be wearing sunglasses. Although I can clearly see the eye in the white patch of feathers, my mind keeps getting tricked into thinking the eye must be hidden behind the dark lenses of the “sunglasses.”

I spotted these ducks in the same little pond adjacent to the botanical garden of Brussels where I saw the dragonflies that I wrote about in an earlier posting. These ducks sort of look like mallards, but the colors are really different, especially those of the black and white duck. Perhaps these are hybrids or domesticated ducks.

I’d welcome comments and thoughts about the identification of these ducks that were a welcome sight for me as I explored Brussels. I realize that I really miss nature and wildlife when I am in an urban setting.

duck in Brussels

Duck in Brussels

ducks in Brussels

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When I am traveling, all of the new species that I encounter seem rare and exotic, even if they are common in the local area. That may well be the case with these Eurasian Common Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus) that I encountered in Brussels this week. I love the way the bright colors of the adult’s bill are enhanced by the contrast with its rather drab plumage.

Eurasian Common Moorhen

Eurasian Common Moorhen

When I saw some younger birds pecking about, it didn’t immediately strike me that they might also be moorhens. When I studies my photos, however, I could see the start of the bright coloration on the bills and a similar bill shape, so I think this final photo is of an immature common moorhen.

Eurasian Common Moorhen

I took these photos with my superzoom Canon SX50 at a small pond adjacent to the botanical garden of Brussels, not far from Place Rogier in the center of the city.

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Today was a beautiful sunny day in Brussels, Belgium and I had some free time to explore the city. I have been in Brussels for short business trips a number of times in recent years and have already visited many of the attractions in the center of the city.  Today I decided to look for some of the kinds of wildlife that I love to photograph, so I made my way to a park that leads to the Botanical Garden of Brussels.

I was encouraged a little when I saw some ducks and turtles in the small pond there and my level of excitement really soared when I spotted some dragonflies flying about. The only problem was that the dragonflies refused to land. When I have my normal DSLR and my favorite lenses, I’ll try to capture in-flight shots, but when I am traveling for work, I tend to leave all that gear at home and use a point-and-shoot camera. My current travel camera is a Canon SX50. It has an amazing zoom lens, but really is not responsive enough to photograph moving dragonflies.

A bit later, I made my way to the opposite side of the tiny pond and discovered the staging area for the dragonflies. Every now and then a dragonfly would perch very briefly on the vegetation. It took quite a few tries, but eventually I got a few shots. I don’t know anything about European dragonfly species, so I can’t really identify the ones that I photographed today. They look pretty similar to ones that I have seen at home and certainly they belong to the same families, but I’d sure welcome assistance in identifying the species.

Today was a day full of unexpected treats. I don’t expect to see bright days full of sunshine during trips to Europe and I didn’t really expect to find dragonflies in Brussel’s urban center.

UPDATE: I have done a bit more research on the internet and it looks to me like the dragonflies in the first two photos below may be Migrant Hawkers (Aeshna mixta).

dragonfly in Brussels

dragonfly in Brussels

butterfly in Brussels

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I am not sure why, but this Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) decided to perch upside-down in the vegetation when I accidently spooked it recently at Jackson Miles Abbot Wetlands Refuge.
Please don’t ask me why “purple” is part of the butterfly’s name—I don’t see any purple either and for that matter,
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reservedthe red doesn’t really look like spots either. Who makes up these names anyways?
Red-spotted Purple
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was scampering across an open area at Green Spring Gardens last week. Suddenly it stopped, got up in its hind legs and turned to me with a half-smile. I think it was deliberately posing for me, so I took this shot.

The squirrel was so tall and upright in this pose that it looked like it was simply going out for a casual two-legged morning stroll through the garden, like so many of the people that were passing by us.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I’ll often try to get shots of butterflies with their wings wide open, but when they turn sideward, you can sometimes get an equally spectacular view of them slowly sipping nectar. I can’t identify the flower, but the butterfly definitely is an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) that I chased about this past weekend at Green Spring Gardens.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

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Butterflies are always beautiful no matter what their condition, but there is something really special about seeing a perfect specimen with its wings wide open, like this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) that I spotted this past weekend at Green Spring Gardens.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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The sun was shining through the wings of this Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) from behind, making the butterfly glow like a stained glass window on Friday at Green Spring Gardens.
Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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A flash of light among the flowers caught my eye yesterday as I wandered about at Green Spring Gardens and I managed to capture this shot of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). I don’t see any red on its throat, so I’m guessing that it is a female or an immature male.
When I looked at the EXIF data I realized how lucky I was to get this shot, for the shutter speed used was only 1/250 of a second. That shouldn’t be fast enough to capture a hummingbird in flight and it also is not really fast enough to be shooting with at 552mm handheld with my zoom lens, even with its built-in image stabilization.
As you probably suspect, I wasn’t intentionally shooting with such a slow shutter speed. I had been shooting flowers in aperture priority mode in bright sunlight and had lowered my ISO to 250 right before I spotted the hummingbird from a distance. The hummingbird was darting in and out of the light among the flowers (I think the flower in the photo is a type of salvia flower). I knew that I would have only a limited chance to get a shot, so I aimed and shot with the existing settings.
I’m glad that I have used my Tamron 150-600mm so much this past year, because I was somehow able to rely on muscle memory and instincts to help me get this shot, though I must acknowledge that luck played a huge role too.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Great Blue Herons (Ardea Herodias) are so motionless when they are fishing that they look almost like statues. The Great Blue Heron that I spotted this morning at the edge of a pond at Green Spring Gardens actually was a statue that looked pretty realistic from a distance.

I’ve noticed that dragonflies are not fooled at all and I sometimes see them perching on the heron.

Great Blue Heron

 

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Butterflies fly so expertly that I often can’t tell that they have severe wing damage until I look closely. That was certainly the case this past weekend when I was observing a dark swallowtail at Huntley Meadows Park.

I didn’t get an absolutely clear look at it, but I think it might be a Spice Bush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus), judging from its colors and patterns. In the first photo, you can see only minor damage, but when the butterfly changed position, the extent of the damage became much more apparent.

I consider flight to be somewhat of a mystery in any case, but it is even more of a mystery how a butterfly can fly so well when one of its wings is almost completely detached from its body,

Spicebush Swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtail

 

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