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Archive for March, 2018

Perched high in a distant tree, this first Great Egret (Ardea alba) of the spring made an appearance for me on Thursday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I love this egret’s long feathery breeding plumage.

My only regret is that I was unable to get a closer look at this beautiful bird. The egret seemed content to remain in its standing perch for a long time—perhaps it was tired from an extended migration flight. I don’t yet know if this was merely a resting spot for the egret or if it will remain in our area.

Great Egret

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Its heavy weight and non-waterproof feathers cause the Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) to float really low on the water. The cormorant that I spotted yesterday in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, however, was even lower than usual, with most of its body almost completely submerged.

Double-crested Cormorant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This week I visited the bird banding station at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This is a very small operation, run almost entirely by volunteers, that bands mostly smaller songbirds.

While I was there, they captured a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum). Both birds were weighed, measured, and examined. The tiny Carolina Wren already had a band from a previous year and the much larger Thrasher got a band. The bands come in all sizes—it was amazing to see the range of sizes.

When it was time to release the wren, one of the volunteers handed her over to me. It was such an amazing feeling to hold the little bird in my hand and then to slowly release my grip and feel the tiny points of her little feet press down on my palm as she took to the air.

Click this link For more info on the banding station including hours of operation.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

Brown Thrasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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An enthusiastic birder who I encountered on a trail earlier this week excitedly informed me that she had just seen a pipit. Before I had a chance to respond, she described for me the general area where she had seen the bird. I am pretty familiar by now with Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, so I knew that I would have no trouble finding the spot. I thanked her and we continued on our separate ways.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea what a pipit looked like or the kind of habitat that it preferred—all I had was a name and a general location. When I arrived at the location, the intersection of two trails, I started looking around for birds. I spotted some familiar species and then started to watch one particular bird that caught my eye. At first I thought it was a sparrow, but it seemed to act differently from other sparrows, including wagging its tail from time to time.

The unknown bird eventually flew into a small tree and I was able to capture some unobstructed images of it. Had I somehow managed to find a pipit? I posted a photo on a Facebook bird identification and folks there confirmed that my bird was in fact an American Pipit (Anthus rubescens).

It’s nice to be lucky sometimes when it comes to photographing wildlife.

American Pipit

American Pipit

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

 

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Monday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I captured this shot of an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) as it assumed a yoga-style pose and saluted the early morning sun.

In many ways, this is one of my favorite styles of wildlife photography. I find an ordinary subject, in this case the robin, and try to capture it in a way that highlights its beauty.

Of course, “ordinary” is a relative term and I have become more and more conscious of the fact that subjects that are common in one area may well be considered rare and exotic in another location. That heightened consciousness also caused me to identify this as an “American Robin,” because I have learned that Europeans have an equally beautiful, but different, bird that is also called a “robin.”

Beauty comes in many forms and one of my goals as a photographer is to capture a sense of that beauty and to share it with others. Ideally, it will cause some of those viewers to pause and wonder how it is that they did not notice that beauty themselves.Perhaps the next time they are out in nature, they will linger a little longer and look a bit closer and find that beauty revealed to them as well.

American Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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I was a bit shocked and absolutely thrilled this past week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to spot my first butterfly of the year, which appears to be the appropriately named Spring Azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon). We have had some slightly warmer and sunny days recently, but the temperatures continue to be below freezing most nights.

When I encountered the tiny butterfly, I had my trusty Tamron 150-600mm lens on my camera, which is not exactly the optimal lens for this kind of subject. Life is often about making do with what you have, so I extended the lens to its full length, steadied myself as well as I could, and focused manually on the butterfly as it perched on some vegetation, a few inches above the ground.

It won’t be long before I see some bigger and more colorful butterflies, but this one is really special to me as the first butterfly of the spring.

Spring Azure

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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All wild creatures seem especially beautiful in the early morning light, like this cute little muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) that I spotted last week in one of the small ponds at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Muskrat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It was pretty cool yesterday morning to see a small flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) foraging at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. One of them was using gravity to help it ingest a berry that it had managed to found. If you look closely, you can see what appears to be the bird’s tongue.

It seemed to take a bit of effort, adjusting ever so slightly the head and mouth, but eventually the beautiful little bird was able to get the whole berry into its mouth. In many ways, it was similar to watching a Great Blue Heron swallow a fish, albeit on a greatly reduced scale.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I photographed this cute little Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The angle and exaggerated proportions make this kinglet look almost like a Disney cartoon to me.

If you have never seen one, Ruby-crowned Kinglets are tiny, even smaller than chickadees. They seem restless and are in perpetual motion, hopping from branch to branch and flicking their wings almost constantly, so I am happy whenever I am able to photograph one.

I can’t help but smile when I look at the photo and it almost looks to me like the tiny bird is smiling.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Are you attracted more by something that is powerful and exciting or by something that is familiar and comfortable? When it comes to photography, it seems like I constantly face this dilemma. Should I be chasing after the large predators of the air, travelling, as some birders do, hundreds of miles in the hopes of photographing a rare species like a snowy owl? Should I be content to spend my time scanning the branches and bushes for familiar birds that some dismissively call “backyard birds?”

Fortunately, this is not an either-or proposition—it is what academics would call a “false dichotomy.” I don’t have to choose only one type of subject on which to focus my attention and my camera. The reality is that I want to photograph them all and find equal enjoyment in photographing a modest White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) and a majestic Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I photographed both of these birds this past week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and for me they represent the two extremes that I mentioned earlier.

One image is a carefully composed portrait of a small bird at rest and the other is an action shot of a powerful predator in the air taken on the fly, relying on reactions. Is one “better” than the other? Maybe it is better to ask if you find one more appealing, one that speaks to you more.

It is a bit of a cliché to state that beauty is in the eye of the beholder—beauty is often subjective, but sometimes people talk of universal beauty. How can that be? Personally, when I think about beauty, I realize that it is inherently contradictory, that it is an elusive mystery that we can never fully understand, but that is worth pursuing.

Beauty can be found in many places and in many ways. As you prepare for the weekend, I hope that you too will find time to discover the beauty that surrounds you, in the familiar or the exotic or somewhere in between those two extremes.

White-throated Sparrow

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Like many other places, Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge has some raised platforms on which ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) build nests each year. Sometimes violent winter weather destroys much of a previous year’s nest, but quite often the nest survives pretty much intact and all that is required is some spring cleaning and minor renovation.

The latter seemed to be the case with one of the osprey nests that I spotted this past Monday. An osprey was in the nest and appeared to be moving around some of the branches. In the first shot you can see some of the man-made elements of the platform on which the nest is constructed and get a sense of the relative size of the nest. I couldn’t get a really good look at precisely was it doing, though, because the nest was high in the air on a tall post, as you can see in the second photo below.

As I was watching the osprey, a bald eagle flew by and seemed to startle the osprey. The final shot captured the osprey just after it took off from the nest and really emphasized the massive wingspan of the osprey.

osprey

osprey

osprey

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Eagles in flight are always a challenge for me to photograph, so I was really happy when I managed to capture this image of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) that flew by me on Monday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as rays of sunlight illuminated different parts of its body.

Quite often when I spot eagles in flight, they are really high up in the sky and it is difficult to capture details of the majestic birds. As you can probably tell from the angle of view in this shot, this eagle was flying at a relatively low angle when I took this shot. Additionally, the eagle was pretty close—I cropped some from the top of the original image, but not much at all from side to side. In fact, one of the biggest problems I had was keeping the eagle within the frame. On several other images I took, I cut off portions of the wings or of the body.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) were really active yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, including this one that was gathering materials to either build or repair a nest.

Initially I was standing next to a field that had been cleared some time ago, when an osprey swooped in and snatched up some branches lying on the ground. I was surprised and remember wondering if the osprey would return to the readily available supply of building materials. The osprey returned two or three more times and I was able to capture some cool shots of the osprey transporting some pretty large branches. I was pretty fortunate that the osprey had to fly almost directly over me when it was making its return trips to the unknown nesting location.

There are several nesting platforms in the refuge for ospreys and later in the day I spotted an osprey in one of them. The nest seemed to be pretty much intact from last season, though the osprey seemed to be busily making adjustments and probably was doing some spring cleaning. That may be the subject for a future blog post.

Osprey

Osprey

Osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last Friday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I spotted a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a distant tree further down the trail. I decided to try to sneak closer to the eagle, hoping it would not see me through the tangle of branches separating us.

When I got close enough for a mostly unobstructed shot, I focused on the eagle and realized it was glaring down right at me with what looked to be disapproval. A few seconds later the eagle took off and disappeared from sight.

Sneaking up on an eagle? I am not sure that it can be done—the eagle’s superior sight and reaction time seem to win out every single time.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

 © Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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 When I spotted a dark shape in the distance yesterday morning at the edge of a trail alongside the water at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I had no idea what it was—then it started to move. These images suggest to me that it was a North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis), the first time I have seen one at this location and the first time that I have seen one in the wild on land rather than in the water.
North American River Otter
North American River Otter
As my mind was busy processing what my eyes were seeing, the otter scurried into the brush and then into the water, where it was joined by a second otter. When I watched the otters swimming away, I was facing almost directly into the sun, so all I was able to capture was this “artsy” silhouette of one of them. I really like the way that the backlighting shows off the otter’s whiskers as it turned its head around and watched as the other otter caught up.
North American River Otter
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This past Monday I was thrilled to catch a glimpse of several large wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) foraging in a field just off of the road early in the morning as I was driving into Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I stopped the car, grabbed my camera, and leaned out of the window, but was unable to frame a shot. I quietly got out of the car and was able to capture several images of one of them before they sensed my presence and scurried into the treeline and out of my sight.

wild turkey

wild turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On a recent early morning trip to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I spotted a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched on a broken-off branch below what appears to be an active eagle nest. Perhaps this was the male keeping watch or possibly the female taking a break. The nest is so high up and deep that it is difficult to determine if another eagle was sitting on the nest.

Despite my best efforts at stealth, the eagle detected my presence as I tried to move further down the trail to get a better angle, but I was able to get these shots as the eagle was preparing to take off. In the middle shot, I did a less severe crop than on the other two in order to give you an idea of how closely the eagle was perched to the nest—the sticks in the upper portion of the image are the bottom of the nest.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes when I take a photo of a bird, I have no idea what kind it is—I tend to shoot first and ask questions later. That was the case last Friday when I spotted this beauty at Belmont Bay, an area of open water at the confluence of the Occoquan and Potomac Rivers in Northern Virginia.  Fortunately some more experienced birders on the What’s This Bird Facebook forum helped me identify it as probably a Greater Scaup (Aythya marila), a type of diving duck.

I had tried to identify the bird on my own using a field guide that I have at home and some on-line resources, but I confess that I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out if this was a Greater or Lesser Scaup. Most of the information on distinguishing between the two species is comparative, i.e. the head is narrower or more oval. It’s hard to make a comparison when you see only a single member of a species.

As you can see from the photo below, conditions were a  little strange and there were distinct color bands in the water. I am not sure exactly what caused them, but perhaps it was the angle of the sunlight or the way the wind was moving the water. Whatever the case, it made for a pretty distinctive color change in the top third of this image that almost looks artificial.

Greater Scaup

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most diving ducks quite naturally prefer to hang out in places where the water is deep, which makes it a challenge to get any shots of them and almost impossible to get close-up shots. Last Friday I was happy to spot some Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator), a species of diving duck that I rarely encounter, in the wind-swept waters of Belmont Bay at the confluence of the Occoquan and Potomac Rivers in Northern Virginia.

Both the male and female of this species have spiky hair that takes on wild shapes thanks to the effects of the wind and the water. The male in the middle of the first shot was busy preening, so I am including a separate shot of him when he deemed he was ready for an individual portrait.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I know that rabbits don’t go south for the winter, but they seemed to disappear in late autumn and I did not see a single one during the winter months. Suddenly this past week, they started reappearing on the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Yesterday I spotted this cute little Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) as it gathered up stalks of grass. Initially the rabbit grazed a bit before it started to accumulate a mouthful of the long, dry stalks of grass—perhaps there are little ones that need to be fed.

Eastern Cottontail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Ospreys leave our area in the fall and spend their winters in warmer locations in Central and South America. Around this time of the year, I keep my eye open for their return and this past Saturday I spotted my first one of the year. The osprey (Pandion haliaetus) was perched in a tree with branches that partially blocked my view. As I tried to maneuver to get a clear shot, the osprey took off, giving me a view of its massive wingspan. As you can see from the two images, it was an overcast day and color is mostly absent. If you look closely, though, you can just get a glimpse of the yellow of the osprey’s eye.

osprey

Osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most colors in nature are so dull and dreary during the winter that it is actually startling to see the bright spring plumage of some birds, like this brilliant blue Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) that I encountered this past Friday. Some of the trees are now putting out buds and blossoms in my area of Northern Virginia and the blurry blotches of color that you see in the background are from one such tree.

Spring is almost here.

Eastern Bluerbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I heard some rustling deep in the heavy brush this morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and then caught sight of some bright colors—it was a male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) along with several females. Focusing manually, I managed to get this shot.

Although I would have liked to get an unobstructed view of this magnificent bird, I actually like the way that the blurry vegetation creates a soft vignette that draws the viewer to the head of the turkey.

Wild Turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I never get tired of taking photos of ordinary birds, like this male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) that I spotted yesterday Initially the cardinal turned his head slight and peeked at me over his shoulder.  Eventually he ended up giving me a better view, though it did seem like he was either shy or coy.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Early this morning I spotted a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) in a distant part of a pond that I was exploring. I was worried about blowing out the highlights of the heron’s face and bill, so I deliberately underexposed the image. As a result the background became a bit darker than it was in real life and gave it a dramatic quality that I really like. The reflections of the heron and some of the background elements add a lot to the “artsy” feel of the photo.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When this immature Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fixed its eyes on me on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and flew straight toward me, I couldn’t help but feel a little concerned. As it turned out, the young eagle was simply soaring and veered away—and my heartbeat eventually returned to a normal rate.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the youngest viewers of my blog is a boy named Benjamin. His grandmother likes to share my photos with him and he especially likes bluebirds. Upon viewing some images of them and seeing their colors, he innocently asked why they aren’t called Orange Bluebirds. Why not indeed? This post is especially for him.

I too love Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and am happy anytime I am able to catch a glimpse of their bright colors. Here are a couple of images of bluebirds that I spotted this past Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge (and there is plenty of orange to be seen).

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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If you talk to your dentist, you’ll certainly be told that cavities are bad, but your perspective might change if you were a bird. I am not sure if this Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) was checking out potential nesting sites yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge or merely looking for insects, but it sure did give this tree cavity a careful examination.

There was definitely no need to fill this cavity.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

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At first I thought this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) that I spotted today at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge had a really dirty head, but I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s simply the feather pattern of an almost-mature eagle whose head will eventually be all white.

Bald Eagle

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Some birds are stealthy and fly silently through the skies. Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) would not fit into that category. They like to announce their presence for all to hear, like this pair that I spotted on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as they were coming in for a landing.

Unlike at the airport, there was no need for a loudspeaker to announce this landing.

Canada Geese

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I don’t tend to think of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) as acrobatic birds—most of the time I see them poking about on the ground, the traditional early bird searching for the worm. I photographed this acrobatic robin in February at Huntley Meadows Park, a marshland park not far from where I live. The robin was precariously perched on a very thin branch and moved slowly and carefully to maintain its balance and gently grab the little red berries you can see in the photo.

American Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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