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Archive for February, 2018

Thanks to some helpful folks in the Facebook forum “What’s this bird,” I learned that this little duck-like bird that I spotted on Monday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge is a Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus). I have seen several other kinds of grebes before, but this was a first-time sighting of this particular species.

When I looked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology page for this species, I was a little shocked to see how different this bird looks when in breeding plumage. “Breeding adults have black heads with rich golden tufts, black back, and cinnamon neck, breast, and sides.” Wow! That would be quite a sight to see, but, alas, it looks like Horned Grebes do not breed in my area and are only visitors here for the winter.

Horned Grebe

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday morning I was thrilled to see this American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)  at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I had never before seen this little falcon, but its coloration and markings are awfully distinctive, so I had a pretty good idea what it was.

I was really struck by the small size of this bird, as compared with the Bald Eagles and vultures that I had seen earlier in the day. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the American Kestrel is about the size and shape of a mourning dove and is the smallest falcon in North America.

As you can tell from the background, it was heavily overcast when I took this shot, so the colors do not pop as much as they would in bright sunlight. One of my viewers on Facebook also noted that this is a female and, as is the case with most bird species, the colors of a female American Kestrel are more muted than those of her male counterpart.

I remember well the location of the tree in which the kestrel was perched, so I will add that location to my already long list of places to check when I visit this wildlife refuge, which has proven to have a pretty amazing variety of species to observe.

American Kestrel

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What kind of bird would be a perfect match for a gloomy, fog-filled day? I might suggest that this Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) that I spotted this past weekend at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge would fit the bill admirably.

There was something shadowy, mysterious, and a little creepy about this large dark bird as it perched low in a tree and looked right at me through the fog. I felt a little shiver as I looked up at the vulture, but maybe it was just reaction to the cool temperature.

Black Vulture

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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We don’t often have daytime fog where I live—most of the time it burns off shortly after sunrise. Yesterday, however, it hung around all morning and visibility was very limited at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Except for a lot of gulls and a few geese, the birds seemed to have decided to stay sheltered until the fog dissipated.

It was a nice challenge for me to try to capture a sense of the moment in the indistinct shapes that were visible as I looked out into the water of the bay. Here are a couple of images that have a kind of abstract, impressionist feel that I really like.

foggy impressions

foggy impressions

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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While I was at Huntley Meadows Park on Wednesday, I spotted this Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) couple perched on a semi-submerged log, relaxing and preening their feathers. These small ducks have such an unusual and distinctive look that it is hard for me to ignore them whenever I am fortunate to spot them—often they spot me first and my first indication of their presence is when they are flying away from me.

Hooded Merganser

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The light was dim in the early morning hours this past Wednesday at Huntley Meadows Park, but I could detect some movement in the vegetation adjacent to the boardwalk that runs through the marshland. I watched and waited and eventually a male Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) swam slowly into view and I managed to capture some images of it. I love the reflections of both the duck and the vegetation in this shot.

After the fact, I discovered that I probably should have changed the setting of my camera to raise the shutter speed. Many of my shots were blurry, but somehow this one came out reasonably sharp, despite the fact that it was taken with a shutter speed of only 1/15 of a second with my lens zoomed out all of the way to 600mm. I am pretty sure that it helped that I was using a monopod.

This incident reminded me of the special challenges and rewards that come with shooting at dawn or dusk. There is often a lot of activity, but there is a constant struggle to capture that activity in the limited light that is available. When things come together, though, it is almost magical and is definitely worth the effort.

Northern Shoveler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The early morning sunlight was spectacular yesterday as it streamed through the trees at Huntley Meadows Park. I tried to capture this phenomenon as a kind of mini-landscape by using my telephoto lens and framing it just as you see in this image. It is a little unusual for me not to crop an image at all, but by composing it this way, I was able to include those elements that I found the most interesting, the light and shadows of the trees, and left out the things that I found less interesting such as the sky. I did include a little strip of grass in the foreground so that the image is not completely abstract.

early morning trees

When I first arrived at the park, the sun had barely risen and there was a lot of ground fog, which made the woods look really mysterious and a little spooky. One of my viewers on Facebook said the image looked like it could be the setting for the witches in Macbeth. The second image was a lot tougher to capture, because of the lack of light and my desire to capture a sense of the fog that was clinging to the ground. There is a slight blur to the image, which would normally be a shortcoming in a photo, but I think it works ok with an image like this one.

early morning trees

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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There were clumps of snowdrops scattered throughout Green Spring Gardens on Monday. I just love this simple little flower that is with us through much of the winter.

It won’t be long before the snowdrops are replaced by the more complex, more colorful flowers of the spring. At times I am impatient for the arrival of spring, but at other times I am simply content to enjoy the beauty of the modest snowdrop.

snowdrop

snowdrop

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Yesterday I took a break from bird photography and visited Green Spring Gardens, a county-run historic garden, with a macro lens on my camera rather than my long telephoto zoom lens. It is still a bit early for most flowers, so I was happy to spot these little purple flowers that had pushed their way to the surface. I think they may be crocuses, though I really don’t know flowers very well.

I got really low to get an interesting background and almost got stepped on by a runner—maybe it’s best not to wear a camouflage jacket when lying on the ground.

purple buds

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This eagle’s nest is nestled back in the trees at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, somewhat obstructed though still visible from the trail. When I first sighted the nest this past Saturday morning, it looked like it was empty.  I kept my eyes glued to the nest as I slowly walked past it and suddenly I spotted a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sitting on the nest, partially hidden in the shadow of the trees. This is the second nest at the refuge that I have spotted so far this winter that appears to be in use, though I suspect that there may be more. When leaves return to the trees, I fear that the nest will be completely hidden from view, which will give the eagles a little more privacy from paparazzi like me.

bald eagle

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Composition does not get much more simple than this—a single subject with its reflection against an uncluttered, almost monochromatic background.

The skies were heavily overcast this past Friday and rain fell intermittently on me as I walked along the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the birds seem to have taken shelter from the inclement weather. One hardy heron, however, had waded out into the shallow waters of the bay and I was thrilled to be able to capture this image of it. I see Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) pretty often, but will always stop to observe them. Sometimes I am patient enough to see one catch a fish, but most of the time the heron’s patience exceeds mine.

Recently I have been watching a lot of videos on pencil sketching and watercolors and it struck me that the shadowy reflection of the bird in this photo could have been rendered using one of those techniques.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The light was so beautiful early this morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge that it looked like this male Bufflehead duck (Bucephala albeola) was swimming in the clouds rather than in the water, giving this image an almost surreal feel that I really enjoy.

bufflehead

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Yesterday I spotted this cool-looking Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) in the vegetation at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I especially love the thrasher’s light-colored eyes and distinctive markings.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

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I am rarely able to see the red belly of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) that I occasionally spot, but the light was coming from the right direction on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to illuminate the reddish-brown color of this woodpecker’s belly.

When I first started taking photos of birds, I remember seeing the bright red color of a woodpecker like this one and thinking it must be called a “red-headed woodpecker.” I am somewhat more knowledgeable about birds now and have a greater appreciation for the difficulties associated with identifying them. In particular, I have learned that you often cannot rely on the name of a bird to identify its key features.

Red belly or not, I knew what this bird was as soon as I saw it, but it was nevertheless wonderful that it chose to pose so nicely for me. One of my Facebook viewers said that it reminded her of a similar pose in the movie The Lion King. It turns out that The Lion King is one of my favorite movies, and I was thrilled when I just now watched a You Tube video of The Circle of Life, one of the songs in the movie that features the rock outcropping that looks like the branch in my photo. I was particularly drawn to the beauty of the birds in the opening moments of the video. It is worth checking out if you have never seen it before or even if you have.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

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Bufflehead ducks (Bucephala albeola) recently were playing around off of Occoquan Bay National Wild Life Refuge, chasing each other around and even giving each other piggyback rides—or so it seemed.

buffleheads

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The weather was not very cooperative this past Monday, but my persistence was rewarded when I was able to observe a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) pulling a fish out of the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Northern Virginia. On multiple occasions I have seen an eagle with a fish in its talons, but this was the first time that I actually got the see the eagle catch the fish.

The only downside was that I was quite a distance away and the light was limited when I captured the shots. Like most wildlife photographers, though, I feel inspired by the images that I do capture to go out again and again, often to the same places, with the hope and expectation that I will have more opportunities to make better images. Unlike Olympic athletes, I won’t have to wait four more years to have another chance to test myself.

bald eagle

bald eagle

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This majestic Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was partially hidden behind some branches yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but I managed to find a visual tunnel and capture this image of it. Most of the time I prefer an uncluttered background, but in this case I really like the organic shapes and patterns of the out-of-focus branches.

Bald Eagle

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The skeletal forms of trees remain hidden during much of the year, but winter reveals them in all of their naked glory. Without the distractingly bright colors of leaves, it is easy during the cold season to become entranced by the delightful contours and textures of the trees and the unusual growths that protrude from their bark.

As I get older, it seems that I too am developing protrusions and discolorations, but I tend to keep them hidden under layers of clothing, especially during the winter.

natural growth

natural growth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes I am content to capture a sense of the moment rather than a detailed image of my subject. That was certainly the case this past Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, when I experienced an overwhelming feeling of tranquility upon spotting this solitary Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) peacefully perched in middle of a large field.

We were alone, but somehow together, as we each enjoyed the moment on our own terms.

Eastern Bluebird

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Although many ducks take to the air straight out of the water, some of them, like this tiny Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) need to get a running start. It is simultaneously fascinating and amusing to watch them bounding across the surface of the water to generate enough lift for take-off.

I saw quite a few Buffleheads today at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but most of them were far away—diving ducks seem to prefer the deep water. This male Bufflehead was on his own a bit closer to the shore than the others. I had barely enough time to focus on him before he took off, but fortunately he was moving parallel to me, so I was able to retain focus on the bird and capture some of the water spikes that he was generating.

Bufflehead

bufflehead

Bufflehead

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I generally do not pay much attention to gulls when I am out with my camera, but this Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) was so loud and so close last weekend at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge that it was impossible to ignore. I love the juxtaposition between the tensed, emotion-filled pose of the gull in the foreground and the blasé  attitude of the gull in the background, who has clearly heard this screaming multiple times and was not in the least impressed by it.

Ring-billed Gull

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Under normal circumstances, Rub-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) are described as “stocky” or “chubby” or “compact.” In cold weather, when they fluff up their feathers to retain heat, they amazingly grow even rounder in shape. These round balls of fluff bounce from branch to branch as they frenetically forage for food, reminding me of the pinball games that I used to play in my youth.

 

I was thrilled last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when this male Ruby-crowned Kinglet paused for a split-second on a branch and I was able to capture this image. I love the tilt of his head, the contrast between the curves of his body and the angular lines of his bill and wings, and the wonderful little details like the glimpse of his ruby crown and the peek  at his tiny little feet.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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From a distance, the large bird perched on a broken-off tree looked majestic and I assumed that it was a hawk or an eagle. Zooming in with my telephoto lens, I realized that it was “only” a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura).  It got me thinking about the fact that vultures have a bad reputation—many people are creeped out by the way that vultures circle overhead and eat dead things. For them, the words “majestic” and “vulture” just don’t go together. If you suspend all preconceived notions and examine the bird in this photo (or watch a vulture effortlessly soaring overhead), perhaps you too will find a bit of majesty there.

Turkey Vulture

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This Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) was working hard this past Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to get to the seeds inside the spiky pods of a sweetgum tree. I was amazed that the stem of the seedpods was able to support the weight of the little bird, particularly because it had to peck away vigorously to get to the seeds. Eventually the chickadee’s persistence would pay off and it would sit on a branch and really seemed to enjoy the seeds.

It makes me wonder what the seeds taste like.

Carolina Chickadee

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I am always struck by the amazing energy and tenacity of Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), like this male that I spotted on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as he pecked away at a seed pod. I was worried that his weight would pull down the seed pod, but I guess that he is pretty light and the pod seemed to be firmly attached to the tree,

Downy Woodpecker

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When it is frigid and windy, perhaps your imagination turns to a tropical beach somewhere. Maybe that is what this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was thinking yesterday when it perched at water’s edge at low tide at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, when the wind chill made it feel like it was way below the freezing level.

As you may be able to tell, I was shooting almost directly into the sun, which forced me to significantly overexpose the shot to keep the eagle from looking like a silhouette. I really like the way that the way that the water turned an almost pastel turquoise, enhancing the sense of this being a tropical location, at least in my mind.

Bald Eagle at the beach

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first looked at this bird through my telephoto lens this morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I was struck by its incredible eyes. After marveling for a moment at those spectacular eyes,  I suddenly realized that I had never seen a bird like this before and was not sure of its identification.

It turns out that this is a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), one of the fastest creatures on the earth. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a Peregrine Falcon can reach speeds of 69 miles per hour (112 kn/h) in flight and when diving from high in the air a Peregrine Falcon  may reach speeds of 200 mph (320 km/h) as it drops toward its prey.

Peregrine Falcon

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When I photographed a family of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) early in January at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I initially put off doing a post on them, thinking I would be likely to see more of them later and hopefully at a closer range. As time passed and I took more photos, I sort of forgot about the swans, even though it was my first time seeing this species.

As it turns out, I did not see any other Tundra Swans in January, so I thought I would feature them today. I initially spotted the swans across a wide expanse of ice near a small island. From the differences in coloration, I judged that there were two adults and three juveniles. I was a long way away and don’t think that I spooked them, but suddenly they took to the air. I especially like my in-flight shots, with the cool-looking clouds, but I am also including a shot of the swans in the process of taking off.

I took a whole series of shots and as I reviewed them, I realized how tough it is to capture an image in which all of the birds are facing the right way and have their wings in a good position. Actually, that’s a problem with any group photo, so I can’t blame the birds too much.

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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