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Archive for September, 2017

This Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) chose a beautiful perch and posed briefly for a couple of autumn portraits on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Black Saddlebags usually spend a lot of time soaring high in the air, so it is a special joy for me when one lands and I am able to get some decent shots. I have never before managed to get a good look at their eyes and absolutely love the two-toned color combination.

black saddlebags

black saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am becoming convinced that dragonflies are rulebreakers. Yesterday I noted that dragonflies do not always follow the rules and can sometimes be found in habitats where they are not supposed to be. Apparently they also do not know how to follow a calendar and can sometimes be found earlier or later than the rules and records indicate they will be present.

This past Monday I was back at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, searching again for the rare Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies that I had seen there previously. When I saw a dragonfly with bright green eyes perch in a distant tree, I naturally assumed that it was a Fine-lined Emerald. It is getting to be late in the dragonfly season, so many other species are no longer present. The dragonfly never got any closer, so I had to be content with my long-distance shots.

When I pulled up the images on my computer, something didn’t look quite right. The shape of the body seemed a little different from the Fine-lined Emeralds that I had seen previously and the tips of the abdomen (the “terminal appendages”) also looked different. I consulted with some dragonfly experts and they identified the dragonfly to me as a Mocha Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora linearis). I have seen this species before, but in a totally different environment and much earlier in the year, so I had mentally removed it from consideration.

Now I don’t feel too bad about missing the identification, because the two species are part of the same genus Somatochlora, also known as Striped Emeralds. The website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia indicates that the flight records for the Mocha Emerald are from 16 June to 16 September—I guess that window can now be extended a little.

I am including two photos of the Mocha Emerald that may look almost identical, but were shot with two very different cameras. The settings for the cameras were almost the same with an aperture of f/7.1 and a shutter speed of around 1/400 of a second and both were handheld. The first shot was with my Canon 50D DSLR and Tamron 150-600mm lens. Taking into account the crop factor of the camera, the field of view was equivalent to 960mm. The second shot was with my Canon SX50 with a field of view that was equivalent to 1200mm.

The DSLR was a lot heavier and a lot more expensive, but produced a more out-of-focus background. The Canon SX50 was cheaper, lighter, and brought me in closer to the subject. It’s clear to me that equipment did not make a huge difference in this case and that there are advantages and disadvantages to each system. I am increasingly drawn to the idea of carrying both with me for the moment and continuing to experiment with them.

The other big lesson that I continue to learn is to expect the unexpected. As I am discovering, subjects may pop up in places and at times when you least expect them.

Mocha Emerald

Mocha Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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For the last couple of weeks I have been chasing male Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies (Somatochlora filosa) around Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Northern Virginia in a series of patrolling and perching encounters. One day this past weekend a couple flew by me in wheel position, i.e. they were locked together in a mating position and were still able to fly. I was able to get a few shots of them when they landed nearby. Eventually they changed positions and hung together in tandem. Unfortunately I lost sight of them for a second and I didn’t see them actually fly away

Readers of this blog have seen multiple shots of mating dragonflies, but this was a really special encounter for me. Why? This species of dragonflies is pretty rare, both locally and nationally. As Kevin Munroe described it on his wonderful Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, “One of Northern Virginia’s most rare dragonflies, possibly our rarest, this species is seldom seen and little known throughout its range, from New Jersey to Florida, and west to Kentucky and Texas. Most field guides describe its breeding habitat as “unknown”.” It is reassuring to see this species breeding in our area, so there is a chance I will see them again next year and in the future.

In the section of his website dealing with the Fine-lined Emerald, Kevin included a photo from 2012 of a pair of these dragonflies mating with a caption that indicated it was “the only record of this species breeding in N VA.” I don’t know if others have captured images of mating Fine-lined Emeralds more recently, but it is cool to realize that I am part of a really small group of folks who have documented this behavior.

Early this week I went back to the same area, hoping to find another mating pair, but was unsuccessful. I’d like to be able to learn how and where the females lay their eggs. I was told by one dragonfly expert on a Facebook forum that egg-laying behavior for this species has been observed and documented only once. I tend to think of myself as more of an artist than a scientist. I am, however, motivated by an almost overwhelming sense of curiosity that pushes me outdoors more and more frequently with my camera, striving and hoping to capture more interesting subjects and situations that I can share with others. Who knows, maybe I will be able to find out where female Fine-lined Emeralds hang out and deposit their eggs.

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies in wheel position

 

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies in tandem position

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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For several years I have been on a quest, seeking to find a dragonhunter. No, I have not been playing a medieval role-playing game—I have been searching in vain for one of the monsters of the dragonfly world, the Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus)As its name suggests, this fierce predator feeds on other insects, including darner and other clubtail dragonflies, sometimes ambushing them from above, according to Wikipedia.

As I was walking yesterday along one of the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I was certainly not expecting to see a dragonhunter. Most of the time they perch in trees overhanging streams and wait for a prey to fly by. So when I saw a dragonfly perch vertically on the stem of a plant, I assumed that it was a Fine-lined Emerald or possibly a Russet-tipped Clubtail, species that I had previously encountered near this location.

When I zoomed in, I noticed that the coloration was different, but thought perhaps that it was a merely female of one of these two species. When I reviewed a couple of shots on the back of the camera and saw the bright yellow stripes on the thorax, I knew that I had captured images of a different species. I wasn’t sure what it was, but local dragonfly expert and fellow blogger Walter Sanford identified it for me as a male Dragonhunter.

This experience reminded me of one of the lessons that Walter has taught me over the years—it pays to be alert at all times, because dragonflies don’t always follow the “rules” when it comes to habitats and can sometimes be found in locations where you would never expect to find them.

dragonhunter

dragonhunter

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is often said that springtime is a time for love, but so apparently is autumn, especially if you are a Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum). This species appears most often during the latter part of the summer and in early autumn, so springtime is not really an option for them.

I spotted this couple in flagrante delicto during a recent trip to Huntley Meadows Park. It is hard to get a real sense of scale from this photo, so you will have to trust me that these brightly-colored dragonflies are really small, about an inch and a half in length (38 mm).

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

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The red leaves surrounding this Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) that I spotted in a distant tree recently at Jackson Miles Abbot Wetland Refuge serve as a reminder that the autumn has begun. Leaves are starting to fall from many of the trees and some of them are starting to change colors, though the colors never seen so bright and vibrant as the trees in my native New England.

Initially I was not going to post this photo, because I was not able to get a detailed shot of the bird, but the more I look at the image, the more I like the environmental surroundings of the beautiful little bird.

Common Yellowthroat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Black Saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea lacerata) spend most of their time flying, so it was a rare treat to spot this beautiful female perching recently at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In the second image you can see the distinctive blotches on the dragonfly’s wings that make it look like it is wearing saddlebags, but the first image is my overwhelming favorite—the unique pose, the delicate coloration of the eyes, and the “artsy” overall feel of the first shot produce an emotional reaction in me than the more clinical second shot.

Do you prefer one image more than the other?

 

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As soon as I saw the flash of yellow, I knew that these little birds were almost certainly warblers and not sparrows. When it comes to most warbler species, that’s the full extent of my identification skills. Most years when the warblers come through our area in the spring and in the fall, I can hear the warblers in the trees, but I rarely see them.

I initially thought that the bird in the first shot was a Yellow-rumped Warbler, but it turns out that my knowledge of bird anatomy is lacking. The area that is yellow on this bird is the undertail area and not the rump, which is more on the top. So what are these birds? A helpful birder in a Facebook forum identified them to me as Palm Warblers. (Setophaga palmarum).

With a little luck, I’ll get some more shots of warblers in the coming weeks and will undoubtedly have to rely on others to assist me in identifying them, though I need no help in appreciating their beauty.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I never know what I will see when I go out with my camera. This morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I spotted a small flock of Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). They disappeared into the brush as soon as they became aware of my presence, but I did manage to capture a few images. I pretty sure that the turkey in both of these shots is a female.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Peering through the vegetation at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge this past Monday, I spotted several large birds at the edge of the water. I thought they might be eagles or ospreys, but they turned out to be Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) that appeared to be foraging as the tide was going out.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I was thrilled to spend some time hanging out with this Common Green Darner dragonfly (Anax junius). The range of colors on its body is so remarkable that I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I zoomed in on it. An expert in a dragonfly forum on Facebook noted to me that the dragonfly is a teneral one, which means that it has only newly emerged. That would account for its relatively pale, almost pastel coloration and the perfect condition of its wings. If you click on the image, you can see even better some of the remarkable details of this dragonfly, like the colorful pattern on its “nose.”

The beautiful dragonfly was hanging vertically only a few inches above the ground, in a pretty safe location. I kept my distance as I took some photos and departed quietly, conscious of the fact that a dragonfly is fragile and vulnerable at this early stage of development. It remained in place as I slowly slipped away.

Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was loading camera gear into my car on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I noticed that I had a tiny hitchhiker—a crab spider that looked ready to embrace me with open arms. After photographing the cute little spider, I released it into a grassy area, where it seemed more likely to catch something to eat than on the roof of the car.

I do not have much experience with crab spiders, but think this one might be a Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia). As always, I would welcome a correction or confirmation if you are knowledgeable about spiders.

crab spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Different dragonfly species rest in varying positions. Some of them hang vertically, but most of them perch at somewhat of an acute angle. Last week when I spotted this male Swift Setwing dragonfly (Dythemis velox), I was struck by the degree to which its rigid position reminded me of the diagrams of a right angle in my geometry textbook when I was a schoolboy—the dragonfly and the plant stem seemed to form an almost perfect 90 degree angle. One unusual thing about Swift Setwing dragonfly is the way that it holds its wings forward when perched and not straight out as most dragonflies do. Perhaps it helps to counterbalance the effects of gravity and helps it hold its abdomen so high for so long.

Swift Setwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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For quite some time I chased after a male Fine-lined Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora filosa) one morning last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but it seemingly had endless energy and would not stop to perch. Unwilling to give up, I decided to try to shoot him in mid-air as he patrolled a section of a trail.

As you might suspect, it is pretty challenging to shoot dragonflies in mid-air. If you have a high-end camera with a really good focusing system and a fast, responsive lens, you might be able to use auto focus, assuming you  are able to track the dragonfly in your camera’s viewfinder. I was using my somewhat older Canon 50D DSLR, a camera that was made starting in 2008, and mya Tamron 150-600mm zoom lens, which is sometimes slow in acquiring focus, so I was focusing manually. In this situation, I was helped a little by the fact that the dragonfly would hover a bit from time to time, although usually he would do so while facing away from me.

Patience and persistence paid off and I was pretty excited when I was able to capture this shot.

Fine-lined Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It seems a little late in the season for Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) to be mating, but I nevertheless spotted this couple in action this past Saturday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge, Virginia. In case you are curious, the male is the red one near the top of the image that is clasping the female by its head. I like the way that the soft background and simple composition draw our eyes to the shapes, colors, and patterns of the dragonflies, rendering the subject in a beautifully abstract way.

calico pennant dragonflies

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although some folks find spiders to be creepy, I look at them as wonderfully creative architects and artists and I was thrilled to capture this image of one in its web that I spotted early yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I have found that early morning is the best time to get shots of spider webs and they tend to show up best in shots that are backlit, which is to say that light is shining from the front. In this case I tried to frame the shot carefully for maximum effect and did not have to crop the image at all.

web art

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The loud cries of an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) echoed though the early morning air yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I was never able to figure out what was bothering the clearly unhappy osprey, but did manage to capture this image of the screaming bird just before it flew away.

screaming osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled this morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to see that there are still quite a few Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our area, including this beauty that I was able to photograph as it was feeding on a thistle plant.

monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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At first I thought it was love, but looking closer I realized that Tina Turner was right—what’s love got to do with it. Both the predator and the prey in what appears to be an act of cannibalism look to be Big Bluet damselflies (Enallagma durum), which I spotted this past Sunday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The pale coloration of the victim suggests to me that it is newly-emerged, a phase referred to as “teneral.” At this stage of development, dragonflies and damselflies are relatively immobile as their bodies and wings are transforming and are particularly vulnerable.

damselfly cannibalism

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As the seasons change, some dragonflies begin to disappear, but happily some new ones appear, like this spectacular female Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum) that I spotted this past Monday at Huntley Meadows Park.

One of the really cool things about this species is that there are two different color variants of the females. Most of the females (and young males) are brown in color and are sometimes referred to as heteromorphs, while a smaller number of females, like the one in the photo, have a bright red color matching that of mature males and are sometimes referred to as andromorphs. This is roughly parallel to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, which has two different varieties of female, a yellow morph that matches the males and a black morph.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What is a Fine-lined Emerald? It may sound like some kind of exotic jewel, but it is actually a relatively rare dragonfly that is found in coastal plains areas. I don’t recall having heard of this species until several weeks ago, when fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford alerted me to keep an eye out for them when visiting nearby Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I met Walter this past Sunday at the wildlife refuge and we began out search for the elusive Fine-lined Emerald (Somatochlora filosa). This species tends to hang vertically from bare branches at about eye level, so we walked slowly past the never-ending vegetation, hoping that we would spot one. I honestly was not optimistic that we would be successful and was shocked to almost stumble upon one only about four feet from me. I had two big problems. First of all, I was using my Tamron 150-600mm lens that has a minimum focusing distance of almost 9 feet (2.7 meters), so I had to back up. Secondly, in my excitement, I was unable to clearly explain to Walter exactly where the dragonfly was perched. In the end, the dragonfly flew away before either of us was able to get a shot.

Eventually we were able to track that dragonfly and several other Fine-lined Emeralds and to capture some images of these beautiful creatures. Walter and I agreed that we would both do blog postings with some of our shots today to give readers an idea of how two photographers standing almost side by side can come up with very different photos of the same subject. We have done this type of companion pieces and it had always been interesting to compare results. Some of the differences can be attributed to the very different gear that we are using and some are caused by our different backgrounds and approaches.

Once I publish this posting, I will finally take a look at Walter’s posting and update this posting with a link to it.

UPDATE:  Here is the linkas promised, to Walter’s post, in which he shares some scientific observations and some wonderful photos.

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined EmeraldFine-lined Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This spectacular Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) spread its wings wide and seemed to be posing for fellow wildlife enthusiast Walter Sanford and for me as we explored Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge this past weekend. We have a number of different dark-colored swallowtail butterflies in our region, including the black morph of the female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Pipevine Swallowtail, and the Spicebush Swallowtail, but this is the only place that I have encountered the Black Swallowtail.

Whenever I photograph a swallowtail that is black, I will usually refer to a very helpful blog posting by Louisiana Naturalist that compares some of the identification features of the four different dark swallowtails.

Black Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I spotted this praying mantis today at Huntley Meadows Park, I couldn’t help but think that it had chosen an appropriate pose to remember those who died and countless others whose live were forever changed by the tragic events of 9/11.

praying mantis

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When a Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) traps a prey in its web, it often moves so quickly to wrap it up completely that it is difficult to identify the prey. That was not the case with the damselfly that I spotted yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it was being encased in a silken shroud.

The damselfly looks to be a bluet damselfly and if pressed, I’d guess that it might be a Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile) or possibly a Big Bluet (Enallagma durum). The spider seems to be experiencing the same kind of problem that I encounter when I am trying to wrap an awkwardly-shaped present at Christmas time—it is hard to be neat and tidy, the process uses up lots of wrapping material, and the package always end up irregularly shaped and easy to identify.

spider and damselfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

 

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When I first saw this dragonfly land yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I had no idea what it was. Zooming in, I was shocked to see that it was a Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), a migratory species that almost never perches.

The Wandering Glider is considered to be the most widespread dragonfly in the world, found on every continent except Antarctica. According to odonatacentral.com, “It is a strong flier that is regularly encountered by ocean freighters and a well-known migratory species. Because of its ability to drift with the wind, feeding on aerial plankton, until it finally encounters a rain pool in which it breeds, it has been called “…the world’s most evolved dragonfly.” ”

After I got the initial shots of the dragonfly on two different perches, I decided to follow the dragonfly and wait for it to perch again. It wandered about through the air over my head for an extended period of time and never again came down to land. The last photo gives you an idea of my view during that period of waiting—note the long wings that help it to fly such long distances.

Wandering Glider

Wandering Glider

Wandering Glider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I was really happy to spot a couple of male Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) during a visit today to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge, Virginia. The weather was pretty cool when I set out early this morning, about 56 degrees (13 degrees C), so I was not certain that I would be able to find many dragonflies. Fortunately for me it warmed up a bit and a few dragonflies appeared.

The bright red color of this dragonfly helps a little in finding them, but Calico Pennants are pretty small and it is easy to lose them in the vegetation. I shot the first two shots with my Canon 50D DSLR and Tamron 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens and the third one with my Canon SX50 super zoom camera. The poses are not identical, but I think that you can see how much shallower the depth of field is when using the DSLR than the point-and-and-shoot—I think it is related to the difference in the size of the sensors in the cameras.

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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When I spotted this odd-looking bird yesterday at the Botanical Garden in Brussels, I couldn’t make my mind up if it was a duck or a goose. It seemed too big to be a duck, but its markings seemed too colorful for a goose.

After a lot of searching on the internet, I have concluded this is probably an Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca). As its name suggests, this species is native to Africa south of the Sahara and the Nile Valley and is an introduced species in Europe, according to Wikipedia. There are in excess of 250 breeding pairs in Belgium, primarily around Brussels and the Flanders area, according to a posting on birdforum.net.

This bird did not hang around for very long, so I did not have a chance to see if, as The Bangles famously sang, it walked like an Egyptian (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv6tuzHUuuk).

Egyptian Goose

Egyptian Goose

Egyptian Goose

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Initially I did a double take when I saw the sign for a restaurant in Brussels called O’Tacos and I figured it was some kind of Irish-Mexican fusion cuisine. I almost burst out laughing, however, when I read the words, “Original French Tacos.” French tacos? Who knew?

I did some further investigation when I returned to my hotel and found out that O’Tacos is a chain that is now worldwide. OK, but what exactly is a French taco? A review on foodrepublic.com described it in these words—”Less like a taco and more like a pressed San Diego-style burrito, the French taco is stuffed with fries, a white creamy cheese sauce, a protein (choices include grilled chicken breast, nuggets, tenders, ground beef or sausage), an additional sauce (mustard, Tabasco, ketchup, mayonnaise, barbecue) and other ingredients (cheese, mushrooms, grilled veggies, an egg, bacon, ham and more) all wrapped up in a flour tortilla.”

original French tacos

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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The most colorful dragonfly that I have spotted in Brussels during this trip has been a spectacular male Migrant Hawker dragonfly (Aeshna mixta) that was flying patrols over a small pond at the botanical garden.  It spent a lot of time in the air, but occasionally would perch for a short while. Every now it then it would hover over the water, which let me capture the second shot of the dragonfly in flight. My Canon SX50 is a little slow in acquiring focus, so I didn’t think that I would be able to capture any action shots of the dragonfly. However, I kept trying and eventually was able to get a reasonably sharp shot. When I checked out the shooting data for the image, I realized that the shutter speed had dropped to 1/100 second because of the dark water, so it’s almost a miracle that I stopped the action at all—I was shooting in aperture priority mode and was letting the camera choose the shutter speed.

Migrant Hawker

Migrant Hawker

 © Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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When I spotted a red dragonfly in flight while exploring the botanical garden in Brussels, I immediately gave chase. Unfortunately the dragonfly chose to perch on a weathered wooden fence a good distance away. Unable to get any closer to the dragonfly, I did my best to incorporate the fence into the composition.

I kept looking later in the day for the elusive red dragonfly, which looks a little like the Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly that I see in my home area, but I never saw it again.

dragonfly in Brussels

dragonfly in Brussels

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Over the last few years it has become traditional for me to be in Brussels over Labor Day weekend in early September for meetings. After I arrived today, I had some free time and captured these images of damselflies in the Botanical Gardens. Some of them are quite similar to those that I see at home, while others appear to be a bit different. As is often the case when I am traveling for work, I left my big camera at home and took these shots with my Canon SX50 HS superzoom camera.

damselfly in Brussels

damselfly in Brussels

mating damselflies in Brussels

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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