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Archive for April, 2017

The weather yesterday was hot and sunny—perfect for dragonflies, although a little uncomfortable for me. I decided to search in the vicinity of a vernal pool, one of my favorite spots for dragonflies at Huntley Meadows Park. As I was walking along a small water-filled ditch, a large dragonfly flew up from the water and perched in a tree just a short distance away. I suspected it might be a Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros) and it turns out that I was right.

About this time each year, a number of female Swamp Darners descend on this small ditch to lay their eggs. Unlike many other dragonflies, which lay their eggs in the water, Swamp Darners lay their eggs in moist, often rotten logs. Essentially they tunnel into the wood before they lay the eggs.

I spotted the most likely target log and sat on the bank of the ditch to see if the dragonflies would come. It didn’t take long for them to arrive. Sometimes it was just one dragonfly, while at other times there were two or even three of them laying eggs in the same log. I was shooting with a 180mm macro lens, so I could not zoom out to include all of them (and I did not want to move for fear of scaring them away). In one of the photos, you can see two of the Swamp Darners in action and part of the abdomen of a third one in the upper left corner.

I don’t know if it is some biological imperative for species preservation that compels them to deposit these eggs, but the females were putting them everywhere. I was a little shocked when one of them landed on my mud-covered shoes and began to deposit eggs there.

The dragonflies were so focused on depositing their eggs that I was able to lean forward and get a close-up view of the face of one of them. I love dragonfly faces and especially their amazing giant eyes.

Swamp Darner

Swamp Darner

Swamp Darner

Swamp Darner

Swamp Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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As I was exploring Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge yesterday afternoon, Zebra Swallowtail butterflies (Protographium marcellus) kept fluttering by me. Occasionally one would perch for a moment  within range and I was able to get a few shots.

I really love the coloration and the shape of this beautiful butterfly that I rarely see. Although this butterfly is often associated with pawpaw trees, the ones that I saw perched mostly on the ground and seem to be obtaining either water or minerals.

Zebra Swallowtail

Zebra Swallowtail

Zebra Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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As this Turkey Vulture circled overhead, I couldn’t help but notice the large gap in its wing feathers. Some birds seem to fight with each other, which cold account for the missing feathers, but I don’t recall ever seeing a Turkey Vulture squabbling with another bird. What would they fight about? Territory? Food?

Despite the gap, the vulture seemed to have no trouble flying and its wingspan was still pretty impressive.

Turkey Vulture

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Is it just me, or does this iris make anyone else think of a rather elegant lady with a broad-brimmed hat? There is just something whimsical about the position of this rather ordinary flower that brings a smile to my face.

I don’t have my own garden, but fellow photographer and neighbor Cindy Dyer has all kinds of flowers in her garden. Her irises have just started to bloom and I walked by her townhouse recently and spotted this somewhat faded iris and took this shot.

iris

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Out of the more than 3500 different species of skipper butterflies worldwide, according to Wikipedia, there is really only one that I can reliably identify—the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). I spotted this beautiful little butterfly this past weekend at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. The skipper was so intent on feeding that it let me get pretty close to it. As a result, this image is one of the rare cases when I didn’t feel a need or desire to crop at all. I am not very good at plant identification, but I really like the tiny flowers of the plant in this image.

Silver-spotted Skipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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During the summer it seems like dragonflies are everywhere, perching prominently in plain sight, but this early in the season there are a whole lot fewer of them and the ones that are around are hard to find. Fellow dragonfly enthusiast and blogger Walter Sanford recently did a posting about some Ashy Clubtail dragonflies (Phanogomphus lividus) that he had spotted at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetlands Refuge.

I had never seen this species before, so I set off this past Friday to see if I could find one of my own. Walter had alerted me to look for the Ashy Clubtails perched in the grass and in the low vegetation that surrounds the small pond at the wildlife refuge. I circled the pond several times in vain before I suddenly caught sight of some dragonfly wings shining in the sunlight. I was able to track the dragonfly during its short flight and saw where it landed in the grass.

Almost certain that I had found an Ashy, I approached the dragonfly slowly and cautiously, fearful of scaring it away before I could get a shot. I was face-to-face with dragonfly, which is not the greatest position for capturing its details, and was able to confirm that it was an Ashy Clubtail. Its pale coloration and very clear wings indicate that it is newly emerged, what is often called a “teneral,” and it looks to be a female. Having gotten a few shots, I tried to get a better angle and spooked the dragonfly.

Ashy Clubtail

Buoyed by my success, I was motivated to search even harder and eventually spotted two more teneral female Ashy Clubtails. One was in some chest-high thorny bushes and I had to push up against them to get as parallel as possible with its body for a detailed shot. I was able to photograph the third Ashy from almost directly overhead and the final photo gives you the best overall view of this beautiful dragonfly.

These Ashy Clubtails ares not as brightly colored as some of the dragonflies that will appear later in the summer, but they were definitely a welcome sight for me.

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It’s springtime and love is in the air. So many creatures seem to be searching for mates and some of them have obviously found one, like this pair of Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) that I spotted in flagrante delicto at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge in Northern Virginia this past Friday.

I am no expert in butterfly anatomy and have no idea how this works, but there is a real beauty in the position, which appropriately looks  to me like a double heart. What can I say, I am a romantic at heart.

Pearl Crescent

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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As I was searching for dragonflies yesterday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, I noticed an unusually large bumblebee and started to give chase. When it landed and I moved in close, it became clear that it was not a bumblebee after all—it was a clearwing moth.

I have seen clearwing moths in the past of the the variety commonly known as Hummingbird Clearwing Moths (Hermaris thysbe), but they have generally been hovering like a hummingbird rather than perching like this one and their wings were outlined in red, not black. It took only a few minutes of internet research to discover that this is a Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis).

 

Snowberry Clearwing moth

Snowberry Clearwing moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Last weekend at Huntley Meadows Park, a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) seemed determined to scare off potential competitors by screaming loudly and vigorously flapping its wings as it sat atop a pole to which a nesting box was attached. The swallow spent a lot of time looking upwards, scanning the skies for rivals. I couldn’t tell if the swallow’s mate was inside of the nesting box or if it was simply staking a claim to the box for future use.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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This delicate little butterfly was facing away from me, but I love the way that you can see the beautiful markings on the inside of its wings. I believe it is an Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas), a kind of hairstreak butterfly with an average wingspan of only about one inch (25mm).

I chased after a number of these butterflies earlier this week when I was exploring Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. They don’t fly very fast, but their flight path is unpredictable and close to the ground and they usually don’t perch for long in one spot.

I suspect that if someone had been observing me from a distance, they would have been hard-pressed to figure out what I was trying to photograph and might have concluded that I was merely another crazy wildlife photographer. We are a peculiar breed, aren’t we?

Eastern-tailed Blue

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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Now that the dragonfly season has started in my area, I am devoting more and more of my available photography time to searching for these beautiful little creatures. Some dragonflies can be found almost anywhere, but many of them require a very specific kind of habitat and may be present for only limited periods of time.

Yesterday afternoon I visited Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, which features a small pond surrounded by a pathway. Last year I found several different dragonfly species there, so I knew that I might have a chance of seeing some dragonflies. I looked in the brush and in the vegetation and came up empty-handed until I looked at the water and spotted several dragonflies flying low above the water.

I recognized the dragonflies as Common Baskettail dragonflies (Epitheca cynosura) and knew that I faced a challenge—this species seems to fly continuously and rarely have I seen one perch. I realized that if I wanted to get some shots of the dragonflies I would have to capture the images while they were flying.

I had my Tamron 180mm macro lens on my camera and started to track the flying dragonflies. I have tried a number of focusing techniques in the past and have had the most success when I focus the lens manually (although I hesitate to use the word “success,” given the high rate of failure in getting an in-focus shot). This was my favorite shot of a Common Baskettail flying above the water. There is a bit of motion blur in the wings and I had to crop the image quite a bit, but I managed to keep most of the dragonfly in focus.

Common Baskettail

I walked multiple circuits around the pond, still searching for more dragonflies. I tend to like to keep moving, rather than sticking in one spot. As I reached one end of the pond, I suddenly realized that a dragonfly was hovering in mid-air right in front of me. The dragonfly was moving slowly above a grassy patch adjacent to the pond, but did not seem interested in heading for the water.

I could hardly believe my good fortune and tried to compose myself and focus on the dragonfly. I managed to get some detailed shots that show, for example, how the Common Baskettail folds up its legs when flying. I took the first shot below while on my knees, so that I was almost level with the dragonfly. For the second shot, I was shooting down on the dragonfly and it looks almost like it was taken by a drone, hovering above the hovering dragonfly.

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Hooded Merganser ducks (Lophodytes cucullatus) are usually pretty skittish, but the females are a little less so at this time of the year as they hang around and wait for their eggs to hatch.  I spotted this little lady earlier this month on a morning when the light was particularly beautiful. She was unusually cooperative and looked in my direction as if to say, “I’m ready for my close-up.”

Hooded Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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With so much water currently in the central wetlands area of Huntley Meadows Park, I don’t see many shorebirds at this time of the year. The shorebirds seem to prefer to wade in shallow water. This past weekend, however, I spotted this one as it surveyed the marshland from atop a log. I think it is a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), although I admit that I have troubles identifying the different shorebirds, many of which look almost identical to me.

As you can see, the yellowlegs was a long way away. Usually I try to get close-up shots with either a telephoto or a macro lens and am a little disappointed if I can not fill a substantial part of the frame with my primary subject. In this case, however, I was never tempted to crop the image more severely, because  the surrounding landscape is an important element of making this image appealing to me.

Greater Yellowlegs

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Best wishes for a blessed and happy Easter to all who are celebrating this day. Earlier this morning I went to an outdoor sunrise service at my church at 6:30 a.m. and I am not getting ready for our normal morning service in a couple of hours. Easter is a bit later this year than in some years in the past and it was already light and pleasantly warm when we began our service—in past years we were often bundled up and needed flashlights to read the programs.

I chose two images to celebrate Easter. The first is a macro shot of a flower from a recent trip to Green Spring Gardens and it speaks to me of the growth and renewal of this season. The second is a shot of my PR (Prime Rib), my very own Easter bunny, who greets me each morning.

Happy Easter to all of you.

Easter

Prime Rib

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I am not exactly sure what was going on, but this muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) seemed to be really struggling in the open water one afternoon last week as the strong wind gusts made the water really choppy at Huntley Meadows Park. Normally muskrats use their tails as a source of underwater propulsion, but it seemed really unusual to see a muskrat’s tail completely out of the water.

A Wikipedia article noted that muskrat tails are covered with scales rather than hair, and, to aid them in swimming, are slightly flattened vertically, which is a shape that is unique to them. I somehow had always thought of muskrat tails as being long and skinny, but, as the image shows, their tails are quite substantial.

I can’t tell for sure, but it looks like the muskrat may be carrying something in its mouth and/or front paws. Is that why it was seeking to balance itself with its tail? For now it remains a mystery, but I think I will go back over the other photos that I took of this muskrat to see if I can find an answer.

muskrat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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On the same day that I saw the Common Whitetail dragonfly that I featured yesterday in my blog posting, I was thrilled to have the chance to photograph an uncommon dragonfly, a male Stream Cruiser (Didymops transversa). I had never before seen a Stream Cruiser, but local dragonfly expert and fellow photographer Walter Sanford had observed them in the past at Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge and offered to guide me.

It’s somewhat of an understatement to say that Stream Cruisers are hard to spot. The are not very big (about 2.2 inches (56-60mm) in length), they are skittish, and they often perch on the stems of low vegetation. During the hours that we searched for them, I observed a couple of probable Stream Cruisers in the air, but lost them in the blur of the vegetation and never saw a single one land. Walter saw the first one of the day, a female, and posted an awesome photograph of the beautiful dragonfly in a blog posting yesterday. Unfortunately for me, I was unable to make it to the dragonfly’s location before she flew away. Walter spotted a few more Stream Cruisers during the day, but each time I couldn’t get there quickly enough to see one.

I was beginning to think that I was going to end up empty-handed for the day when Walter called out that he had spotted a male perched in the underbrush. This Stream Cruiser was cooperative enough to stay perched as I rushed to try to get a shot. I had my Tamron 180mm macro lens on my camera at that moment. The dragonfly and the stem on which it was perched were so small in the viewfinder that my camera’s autofocus would not lock on my subject, so I had to resort to focusing manually. Dragonflies have so many fine details that it is really hard to tell when they are in focus. This image was the best I could get after cropping the initial shot quite a bit.

Stream Cruiser

I decided to push my luck and see if I could get a better shot with my Tamron 150-600mm lens that I use primarily to photograph birds. Amazingly the dragonfly stayed put while I changed lenses. Once again I had to focus manually, which is an even bigger problem with this lens, because the focus ring is located really close to the lens mount. It’s hard to hold the camera steady and focus manually at the same time.

Here’s an image that I shot at 600mm. I managed to get the eye pretty sharp and to capture some of the details of the dragonfly’s incredibly long legs, but the depth of field was so shallow that the abdomen is out of focus. Normally I will try to move around the subject to be as parallel as I can be, but in this case I stayed fixed at one spot and remained as immobile as I could.

Stream Cruiser

It is really nice to start off this dragonfly season with a new species. If you want to learn more about the Stream Cruiser dragonfly, check out this page from the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website (and stay tuned for Walter’s shots of this dragonfly that should appear tomorrow morning in his blog).

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Thanks to recent warmer weather, dragonflies are finally starting to emerge in Northern Virginia. I captured this image of a female Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia) on Monday at Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge. Unlike many species with the word “common” in their names, Common Whitetail dragonflies are actually pretty common. They are among the first species to emerge in the spring and among the last to depart in the fall. Unlike many of the early spring species, they are habitat generalists—you can find them pretty much anywhere  and do not have the scour the underbrush or walk through streams in remote locations.

Although I spotted a Common Green Darner dragonfly earlier this month, I was not able to get a photo of it and suspect that it had migrated from another location. This is my first photo of the season of a “native” dragonfly, with plenty more sure to follow in the coming months.

Common Whitetail dragonfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When some birds zoomed by me this past weekend, I could tell they were swallows by the way that they flew.  Their coloration, however, didn’t seem to match the Barn and Tree Swallows that I have previously seen at Huntley Meadows Park.

One of them finally perched and I got this shot of what appears to be a Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), a bird that I had never seen before. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “The species derives its name from the outer wing feathers, which have small hooks or points on their leading edges.”

The bright sun made for a pleasant day, but made it tough to properly expose for the brilliant white feathers on the swallow’s chest. I was happy that I managed to capture a few details of the feathers despite the rather harsh midday sunlight.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Why do I like to get up really early in the morning, striving to arrive at my destination just as the sun is rising? There is something special about the sights and sounds and even the smell of the early morning. At a time when many people are still snuggled in their warm beds, many wild creatures are already active.

It’s a real challenge, though, to pinpoint that activity and it is even harder to photograph it. Even when I am not able to get a shot, however, I am often filled with a sense of awe and reverence as I share the start of the day with all of these amazing creatures.

When things come together, it is truly magical, and I had one of those experiences this past weekend. I was seated on a fallen tree at the edge of a remote beaver pond at Huntley Meadows Park, my favorite spot in the park. I had been sitting there for a while, almost entranced by the reflections in the water, when I suddenly spotted the unmistakable wake of a swimming beaver.

This North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) appeared to be swimming laps in the middle of the pond. The beaver would head a certain direction for a little while and then would turn and swim back in the other direction, moving back and forth, in and out of the shadows and the reflections. Time seemed to slow down. I leaned forward slightly and tried to get as low as I could, but did not make any abrupt movements for fear of spooking the beaver.

It is really difficult to put into words what I was feeling as I observed the swimming beaver and I hope this image helps to convey a sense of the encounter. Eventually the beaver swam off and I continued on my way, filled with a sense of calm and inner peace.

Why do I like to get up early? The knowledge and the hope that special moments like this may await me are sufficient motivation for me.

beaver

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As the seasons change, new birds appear and disappear at my favorite marshland park—Huntley Meadows Park—in Northern Virginia. We are fortunate to be along the migratory route for birds flying north and south and are far enough south to be a destination of some overwintering birds.

Unlike the Great Blue Herons, which remain with us all year, Green Herons (Butorides virescens) leave in the autumn and I eagerly await their arrival in the spring? Why? I am utterly fascinated by these squat little birds, despite the fact they have none of the elegance of the Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. They always strike me as industrious and diligent and go about their work, generally avoiding the spotlight. Green Herons also seem to have an abundance of personality and almost seem capable of expressing emotions. Finally, Green Herons have a subdued, but refined beauty, a beauty that I was able to capture in this image from yesterday morning.

Welcome back, Green Herons. I missed you. Perhaps it is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Green Heron

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Many of the birds seemed to have sought shelter from the strong winds yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park, but this female Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) went about her daily grooming routine without paying any attention to the weather conditions. She did, however, seem a little shy and struck a coy pose when I pointed my camera in her direction.

Ring-necked Duck

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Greens for breakfast? It’s not what I would choose, but it’s what was on the menu for an Eastern Gray Squirrel early this morning at Huntley Meadows Park. The squirrel paused for only a second, so I didn’t have much time to frame the shot. I like the result and this was a rare occasion when I did not need to crop the image at all.

As for my breakfast choices, I think I will stick with my usual oatmeal.

Gray Squirrel

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Coots look clumsy when bobbing about in the water, but amazingly they look even more awkward out of the water, like this one that I spotted Monday at Huntley Meadows Park. Their green feet, which are not webbed like those of a duck, seem disproportionately large and almost cartoonish, like the oversized Hulk hands that I have seen little kids wear at times in the past.

When I first started photographing birds, I assumed that American Coots (Fulica americana) were part of the duck family. After all, coots swam in the water, were about the same size as some ducks, and sometimes seemed to hang out with ducks.

When I did a little research, however, I learned that coots are not at all related to ducks. As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology points out, “they’re closer relatives of the gangly Sandhill Crane and the nearly invisible rails than of Mallards or teal.”

American Coot

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What predators at Huntley Meadows Park are powerful enough to kill an adult beaver? Could this North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) have died of natural causes? Why was its body more than half a mile from the water?

The bright orange incisors and the large flat tail make identification of the body easy, but the cause of death is a mystery. A trail runner pointed out the carcass to me shortly after I spotted a Black Vulture this past weekend, which explains why the vulture was hanging around. (Check out my earlier posting Black Vulture in a tree to see photos of this somewhat creepy bird.)

It was interesting to see the reactions of different park visitors to these questions when I posted them to a community Facebook page. Some immediately assumed that coyotes, which have been spotted in the park, were responsibleand focused on the size and ferocity of these predators. Others spoke of disease or about the complex social structures of the beavers and how teenage beavers are kicked out of the lodge at a certain point in time and forced to fend for themselves.

Some readers simply used emojis, including one with tears. Somehow the loss of this industrious herbivore with human-like paws touches many of us deeply, reminding us of the fragility and preciousness of our own lives.

R.I.P., beautiful creature of God.

death of a beaver

death of a beaver

death of a beaver

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Basking in the rays of yesterday’s early morning sunlight, this female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) seemed to be caught up in a moment of reverie as she contemplated the start of a new day at Huntley Meadows Park.

Hooded Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I don’t have my own garden, but my neighbor and fellow photographer Cindy Dyer always has beautiful flowers in her garden, like this Lady Jane tulip (Tulipa clusiana) that I photographed yesterday afternoon with the sunlight streaming in from behind the flower.

Lady Jane tulip

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I rounded the corner of one of the remote trails yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park, I stopped abruptly—a large black bird was perched low in a tree almost directly in front of me. At first I thought it might be a wild turkey, but it turned out to be a Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus).

Most of the vultures that I see are Turkey Vultures, which have red heads, and generally I see them soaring high in the sky. When this vulture became aware of my presence, it flew to a nearby tree and looked down at me. I tried not to feel paranoid, but it looked almost like it was going to dive bomb me. The vulture perched in one more tree before finally flying away.Black Vulture

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

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Usually it’s the female Wood Duck (Aix spionsa) who is most interested in a nesting box, but during a recent trip to Huntley Meadows Park, I spotted a male Wood Duck who also seemed pretty interested. Maybe he had been watching a lot of home improvement television shows and was thinking of the renovations he could do.

Wood Ducks

Of course, the female Wood Duck also had to check out the nesting box. After all, she is the one who has to lay the eggs inside of it. Judging from what I have seen in previous years, she will have sole responsibility for taking care of the little ducklings—the male seems to disappear after they are born.

Wood Ducks

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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