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Archive for May, 2018

I don’t know for sure if there were babies in this nest on Monday, but this adult Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) kept bending forward into the nest, including the moment in the first image when it had what looked to be an insect in its mouth. Was it feeding some young ones? I have seen numerous photos this spring of baby birds with wide open mouths and I have been longing to capture some images like that.

Several weeks ago I watched as two gnatcatchers worked on this nest at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge here in Northern Virginia. I marveled at their patience and at their amazing craftsmanship. They would bring small bits of material into the nest (spider webs and lichen from what I have read) and place them carefully. Then they would rotate their bodies while sitting in the nest to compact the material.

It was a bit of a challenge to capture these shots. I was shooting upwards and there was a leafy canopy that filtered out a lot of the light. I also tried really hard not to disturb the birds, so I kept my distance, avoided using flash, and limited the time that I was shooting.

Are there babies in the nest? If they are not there now, they should be coming soon. I will be sure to check out the nest when I return to this little wetland refuge some time in the near future and maybe then I will be able to capture shots of the little ones being fed.

 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Blue Dasher dragonflies (Pachydiplax longipennis) are one of the most common and widespread dragonfly species in my area. You can get so used to their presence that you stop paying attention to them, which I think is a mistake, for in doing so you will miss their amazing beauty. The colors and patterns of this little dragonfly are stunning.

Here are a couple of shots of Blue Dashers that I captured this past weekend at Jackson Miles Abbot Wetland Refuge. This early in the season, when the dragonflies are newly emerged, the colors seem really saturated and fresh—later in the season the colors tend to become duller and more faded. I was shooting at the edge of a small pond and the water in the background turned into a neutral gray that gives the images an artistic feel, almost like they were shot in a studio environment. The uncluttered background helps to draw your attention to the dragonflies themselves and especially to those wonderful two-toned eyes. (The male’s eyes will eventually turn into a more uniform turquoise blue shade.)

In case you are curious, the Blue Dasher in the first shot looks to be a female and the one in the second image appears to be an immature male.

Blue Dasher

Blue Dasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although many damselflies are tiny in size and difficult to spot from a distance, spreadwing damselflies are a notable exception. Spreadwing damselflies tend to be quite a bit larger than other damselflies and they rest with their wings partly open in the “spreadwing” posture that gives the family its common name. (Most other damselflies rest with their wings held closed, usually above their abdomen, which makes them harder to see and to photograph.)

When I flushed this damselfly yesterday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, I was immediately struck by the length of its body—it seemed to be really long and skinny.  The spreadwing family is not all that big, but I still had trouble identifying the species of the damselfly. As is usually the case in this kind ofsituation, I turned to my local expert, fellow dragonfly enthusiast and blogger Walter Sanford, who identified it as a female Slender Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes rectangularis).  I sometimes complain about the inappropriateness of the names of species, but in this case “slender spreadwing” is a perfect match for the subject that I observed.

In case you are curious about the photo, I shot it with my Tamron 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens on my Canon 50D DSLR. Over the winter I have become accustomed to using a monopod for stability and for this shot, I lowered the monopod and shot while kneeling. One of the limitations of the lens is that the minimum focusing distance is almost 9 feet (274 cm). At that distance, the camera’s autofocus system had trouble locking on the slender body of the damselfly—it kept focusing on the vegetation—so I resorted to manual focusing.

Most people are more familiar with dragonflies than with damselflies, but I encourage you to slow down and search for beautiful damselflies, the smaller members (in most cases) of the order of Odonata to which dragonflies also belong.

 

Slender Spreadwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was prompted this morning to read again the challenges to all Americans found in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, challenges that seem so appropriate and relevant as we pause in the United States on this Memorial Day to remember the sacrifices of so many brave men and women.
 “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Bald Eagle
(I captured this image of a hyper-vigilant injured Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in November 2014 shortly before it was rescued. You can learn more about the rescue and see additional images in a posting from that period entitled “Rescue of an injured Bald Eagle.”)
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This must be egg-laying season for Eastern Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina serpentina) for I have seen them on multiple occasions this past week far away from the water that is their normal habitat. I spotted this venerable one in a grassy field at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I am happy that I was able to capture some of the turtle’s wonderful skin texture  and serious expression in this head-and-shoulders portrait. I do realize, of course, that turtles do not really have shoulders—I used a bit of artistic license in characterizing the portrait with those words (and in calling myself an “artist”).

Many people say that snapping turtles look prehistoric to them, but I tend to think of Yoda every time that I see one. In my mind, I imagine a snapping turtle speaking with Yoda’s wisdom and unusual grammar structure with expressions like, “Named must your fear be before banish it you can.” (Lots of wonderful Yoda quotes like this one can be found at yodaquotes.net.)

Snapping Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Many dragonflies like to perch on or near the ground, but some prefer to relax at the top of the trees, like this Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) that I spotted last Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. From this angle you can easily see the dark patches on the rear wings that someone decided looked like “saddlebags.”

Those patches somehow remind me of the famous inkblots of the Rorschach test. I suspect that. if asked, people have widely varying ideas about what they look like, though I know that I personally would not want to have any psychological interpretations attributed to my perceptions or to my imagination.

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) couldn’t seem to decide if it wanted to yawn or scream this past Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Either reaction could have been a response to my presence.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The two Bald Eagle eaglets whose development I have been following are getting really big—it looks like they are about ready to attempt to fly. In the upper left corner of the first image, you can see that one of the parents was perched just above the nest. It seems like there is no longer room for either of the parents in the nest, but at least one of them always seems to be nearby, watching over the eaglets

There is a barrier at the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge near the eagle nest that keeps people from getting close and protects the Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) from human interference., From that barrier, however, I am able to see into the nest with my 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens, though the leaves on the trees are now making it quite a bit tougher to get an unobstructed shot than a  month ago. For comparison purposes, I am including a shot of the eaglets that I took three weeks earlier than the more recent image that I captured this past Monday.

Bald Eagle eaglets

Bald Eagle eaglets

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I am capturing wildlife images, I am usually driven by multiple motivations that sometimes come in conflict with each other. On the one hand, I am trying to capture reality, to record the presence of a given subject in a way that makes it recognizable and identifiable. On the other hand, I am trying to create art, by choosing compositional elements and camera settings that make an image that is visually pleasing to me.

At this time of the year, dragonflies become one of my favorite subjects and I eagerly await the emergence of new species as we move deeper into spring and eventually into summer. This past Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I noted that Spangled Skimmer  dragonflies (Libellula cyanea) are now with us. This species is pretty easy to identify because it is the only local species that has black and white stigmas—stigmas are the narrow rectangular patches of color that can be found on the front edges of the wings.

In the first image, a male Spangled Skimmer was pretty cooperative and let me capture one of my favorite type of dragonfly images—a head-on shot. In this kind of shot, the dragonfly’s body is almost always out of focus, but I am ok with that, because it forces the viewer to focus on the dragonfly’s amazing eyes.

The dragonfly in the second shot, which is an immature male Spangled Skimmer, had flown into a tree after I inadvertently spooked it. I loved the way that it was clinging to a branch. Shooting at an upward angle, I tried to simplify the background to draw attention to the branches as well as to the dragonfly. (As is often the case with dragonflies, immature male Spangled Skimmers initially have the coloration of adult females—eventually the dragonfly in the second photo will look like the one in the first image.)

Spangled Skimmer

Spangled Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Cormorants are usually really skittish. Even when they are fishing far away from the shore, they will usually take off as soon as they sense my presence. When I spotted the unmistakable silhouette of a cormorant perched on the remnants of a duck blind in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge this past Monday, I fully expected that it would fly away before I got within range to take a decent shot.

As I was approaching, I could see that it was a juvenile Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)—juveniles are paler around the neck and breast than adults and have more exposed orange skin around the bill. Perhaps this young cormorant had not yet developed a fear of humans, but whatever the reasons was, the beautiful blue-eyed bird remained in place as I took some shots from different angles and was still there when I silently moved away.

 

Double-crested Cormorant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I was growing up, my parents had a carved wood cuckoo clock from Germany. The bird that popped out of the clock, however, looked nothing like the Yellow-billed Cuckoos (Coccyzus americanus) that I spotted this past weekend at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. More significantly, the cuckoos that I saw did not make the familiar cuckoo sound that was part of my childhood.

When I did a little research, I learned that the cuckoo family is quite large and spread out all over the world and that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo belongs to a different subfamily from the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) from Europe. That cuckoo is the one that makes the cuckoo sound used in all of those clocks.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When I first saw this bird yesterday in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I thought it might be some kind of grebe. The more I watched it though, the more skeptical I became of my initial identification. It seemed bigger than the grebes that I had previously seen and its bill seemed considerably longer. Additionally, it acted differently. Rather than diving, it poked its head under the water and then would swim for a bit with its head submerged.

So I did what I usually do in this kinds of situation and posted some photos in the What’s This Bird? forum on Facebook. Within a few minutes I received a chorus of responses, all indicating that this was a Common Loon (Gavia immer). I have absolutely no experience with loons, but tend to associate them with northern lakes. Mentally, I think of them as dark colored with distinctive patterns, which is true when they are in breeding plumage. It turns out that they are much more subdued in coloration when they are in non-breeding or immature plumage.

In other parts of North America, loons are a more common and popular sight than in Northern Virginia where I live. According to Wikipedia, the Common Loon is the provincial bird of Ontario, and it appears on Canadian currency, including the one-dollar “loonie” coin and the previous series of $20 bills. In 1961, it was designated the state bird of Minnesota, and appears on the Minnesota State Quarter.

Common Loon

Common Loon

Common Loon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I have spotted Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) repeatedly this spring, but, despite my best efforts, have not been able to get a close-up shot of one. They seem to like to perch in the middle of a particular field at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and seem to taunt me from a distance with their sweet songs.

I love the distinctive black Lone Ranger-style mask of the male Common Yellowthroat that contrasts wonderfully with sunny hues of its eponymous throat. Even though I recently couldn’t get close to this yellowthroat, I managed to capture this image that has a painterly feel to it.

I’ll still be trying for a close-up of this species, but for now I am quite content with this environmental portrait of this beautiful bird.

Common Yellowthroat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I spotted this Eastern Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentina) from a distance yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I thought it might be a fox, because of its reddish-brown color. It was only when I got closer that I realized that it was a snapping turtle covered with mud—I suspect that she had recently been digging a nest to bury eggs. I got low trying to do an eye-level shot and am pleased with the expression that I was able to capture.

snapping turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There are often a few moments in the early morning when the world seems completely at peace. The waters are calm and reflections are almost perfectly mirror-like. Sometimes there is enough light to take photographs, but even when there is not, I enjoy getting up early simply to savor those moments.

This past Monday morning, when I arrived at a small pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I noticed the beautiful reflections and my attention was drawn to a stick protruding out of the water. As I zoomed in on the stick, I noticed a damselfly perched on it. Damselflies belong to the same order of Odonata as dragonflies, but usually are smaller in size, often 1 to 1.5 inches in length (25–38 mm).

I decided to take some shots of the stick and the perching damselfly and as I was doing so, the damselfly flew away. I managed to capture the image below as the dragonfly was returning to its perch.

An expert on a Facebook forum identified the damselfly for me as an Orange Bluet (Enallagma signatum). Most members of the bluet family of damselflies are colored with various combinations of blue (as the name suggests) and black, but some family members are also orange or red. I shake my head and smile every time that I use the curious word combination “orange bluet.”

This image is somewhat atypical for me in the sense that it is not a close-up portrait. Most of the time I try to use my telephoto zoom or macro lens to capture as many details of my subject as I can. In cases like this, though, I am content to capture an image that evokes the mood of the moment. There is a kind of minimalist simplicity in this photo that really appeals to me.

Orange Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first spotted a small flock of dark-colored birds this past Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I thought that they were blackbirds of maybe grackles. When the light illuminated them better, however, I could see that they were two-toned—their heads were brown and their bodies were black. I wasn’t sure what they were, but their distinctive color pattern made it easy to find them in my bird identification guide as Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater).

I found the name “cowbird” to be a bit strange and wondered if perhaps they mooed like cows. After all, catbirds are reported to make sounds like those of a cat. As far as I can determine, though, they were called “cowbirds” simply because this species was often seen near cattle.

As I was poking about on the internet trying to learn more about this species, I was shocked to learn that cowbirds do not make their own nests. Where then do they lay their eggs? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website explained this phenomenon as follows:

“The Brown-headed Cowbird is North America’s most common “brood parasite.” A female cowbird makes no nest of her own, but instead lays her eggs in the nests of other bird species, who then raise the young cowbirds. Brown-headed Cowbird lay eggs in the nests of more than 220 species of birds.”

I have not yet seen it, but apparently it is not unusual to see parents of one species busily trying to feed a baby cowbird that hatched in its nest.

The first two shots below show adult male cowbirds and the third image looks to be a juvenile cowbird or possibly a female

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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After a series of dreary days this week, I feel the need for some brighter, more cheerful colors. Here are a couple of shots of a Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) that I spotted on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. A lot of warblers have yellow on their bodies and have long, complicated names, but this one is known simply as a “Yellow Warbler”—a straightforward name for a beautiful little bird.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I had no idea what kind of turtle this was when I first encountered it sitting in the middle of a trail at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge this past Monday. Most of the time that I see turtles they are in the water or are sunning themselves at the water’s edge. This turtle was small and dark and lacked distinctive markings that would have aided me in identifying it.

I noticed that the turtle had a really large head and what looked to be sharp claws, so I initially thought it might be a baby snapping turtle. Uncertain of the identification, I posted a photo to a Facebook group for Nature Lovers of Virginia. The consensus of the group is that this is Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum), a new species for me.

I did a little checking on this species in Wikipedia and learned that mating occurs in the early spring followed by egg laying in May to early June. As was this case with a snapping turtle that I recently saw on dry land, I wonder if this turtle was looking for a place to lay its eggs.

Eastern Mud Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is almost impossible to take a good portrait of a group of youngsters, irrespective of species—they are invariably energetic and inquisitive, almost incapable of simultaneously looking at the camera.

Yesterday I encountered a family of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) as I walked down a path at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. They too were strolling down the path, stopping to peck at the vegetation along the way. When they became aware of my presence, they slowly made their way to the water’s edge and slipped into the water.

The cute little goslings had already learned their lessons well and stayed in a tight little group right behind one of their parents. Once they had paddled a little way from shore, the babies, however, seemed to lose their focus and started to wander a bit. The adult in the rear of the little group, though, helped to bring them back into line as they silently swam away.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I couldn’t help but notice Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge how closely the green on the body of this Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) matched the color of the vegetation on which it chose to perch. It won’t be long before pondhawks are all around us, but it was still nice to spot my first one of the season.

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was excited early on Friday morning to see my first Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) of the season while exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  These small, brightly-colored dragonflies have become one of my favorites over the past year.

It is pretty early in their season and all of the ones that I spotted appeared to be immature—the patterns on the wings will soon get darker and more pronounced and bodies of the males, which start out yellow like those of the females, will turn red.

I have long wanted to capture shots of a dragonfly covered in morning dew or raindrops and the quest for these images helps motivate me to venture out early in the morning. If you click on the final photo and examine it at higher resolution, you will see tiny drops of water on the vegetation and a drop or two on the dragonfly’s wings. It’s not quite as I have imagined, but it is a good start.

Calico Pennant dragonfly

Calico Pennant dragonfly

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Can turtles smile? It is always cool to see turtles in the wild, especially Woodland Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina), like this beauty that I spotted yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. She seemed to be trying to smile when I snapped her portrait. (I think the turtle is a female because of her brown eyes—males usually have red eyes.)

There is something really special for me about seeing the color, patterns, and even the shape of this turtle’s shell, which is quite distinctive and unlike that of any other turtle that I see. These turtles, which are also known as Eastern Box Turtles, can live for a long time, as much as 100 years when in captivity, according to Wikipedia. In the wild, though, their life span is considerably shorter. Why? According to the same article in Wikipedia, “Box turtles are slow crawlers, extremely long lived, slow to mature, and have relatively few offspring per year. These characteristics, along with a propensity to get hit by cars and agricultural machinery, make all box turtle species particularly susceptible to anthropogenic, or human-induced, mortality.”

Woodland Box Turtle

Woodland Box Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Are you ever fully satisfied when you meet a goal? I think that many of us drawn to wildlife photograph are restless in our pursuit of newer and better images. We can celebrate our successes, but we tend to be self-critical. We are convinced that we can always improve our skills and our photos, that we need to keep pushing and pushing in a never ending quest for more interesting subjects or better conditions or sharper images .

In many ways, that was the case for me this past Monday, when fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford and I scoured an area of Occoquan Regional Park for spiketail dragonflies. In a blog posting earlier this week I chronicled our long and ultimately successful search for the elusive Twin-spotted Spiketail. I was feeling a bit tired by the time we saw that dragonfly, but Walter had told me that an additional dragonfly species had been spotted in that same area, the Brown Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster bilineata).

So we kept going and went looking again in an area that we had searched earlier in the day. Some say that the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting different results. If that’s true, I guess that I qualify as being more than a little crazy. It turned out that we were lucky, really lucky and had multiple chances that afternoon to photograph several male Brown Spiketails. Unlike the Twin-spotted Spiketails from earlier in the day that flew away and never returned, the Brown Spiketails would fly only a short distance away when spooked and it was relatively easy to track them visually to their new perches. Eventually we reached a point of satiation where we would not even take a shot of a dragonfly if it was even partially obscured by vegetation or was facing in the wrong direction. We hoped we would see a female of the species, but it turns out that all of the spiketails we saw that day were males.

The Brown Spiketail dragonflies seem to have a lighter-colored bodies than the Twin-spotted Spiketails (brown vs black) and has paler spots, but to my inexperienced eye they otherwise look pretty similar. I was happy to capture some relatively sharp images that you can see in even greater resolution by clicking on them. For even more detailed photos, check out Walter’s excellent images of our adventures in his blog posting today. He has mastered some techniques that allow him to capture an amazing amount of detail in his dragonfly shots.

Brown Spiketail

Brown Spiketail

Brown Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Early Monday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I spotted my first Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of the spring. It seemed really skittish and flew up into the trees. I was happy to be able to capture this image from an unusual angle—it is not often that I photograph a butterfly while aiming my camera in an upwards direction.

Some years I see only a few Monarchs and I read quite often about their threatened habitats. I am therefore excigted each time that I am blessed to see one of these beautiful butterflies.

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When you go out to take photos, do you have specific goals in mind? I consider myself to be an opportunistic shooter—I like to walk around in the wild and photograph whatever happens to catch my eye.

This past Monday, though, I joined fellow dragonfly enthusiast and photographer Walter Sanford on a very targeted mission. We were going to search for some relatively uncommon dragonfly species called spiketails in a location where they had been recently seen. These species can be found only during a limited period of the spring and only at small forest streams or spring-fed seepages.

We were particularly interested in the Twin-spotted Spiketail (Cordulegaster maculata), a dragonfly that is less than 3 inches in length (76 mm) and usually hangs vertically or at an angle in vegetation close to the ground. As you can probably tell from my description, these dragonflies are tough to find. Walter and I have hunted together for dragonflies in the past and have found that it helps to work in pairs, so that if one flushes a dragonfly, the other person can sometimes track it to its new location.

We searched and searched for what seemed like hours and came up empty-handed. Just when it seemed like we might be getting ready to concede defeat, I spotted what I think was a Twin-spotted Spiketail. I called out to Walter and put my camera to my eye. Alas, the dragonfly flew away before I could get a shot. Previously he and I had a conversation about whether it was better to have seen none or to have seen one and not gotten a shot. I was now faced with the second case.

We figured that our odds were about one in a million of spotting another Twin-spotted Spiketail, but having seen one, we had a glimmer of hope and kept searching. Without intending to do so, we drifted apart, out of sight of each other. Suddenly I heard Walter’s voice calling to me, saying that he had spotted one. The basic problem was that I did not know where he was. I wrongly assumed that he was near a small stream, so I rushed downhill through the muck and the thorns, but didn’t see him. He called out again even more insistently and I realized that he was uphill from me. Apparently I am not good at determining directions on the basis of sounds.

I scrambled up the bank to him and he motioned to me to move around him on the left. About that time, the dragonfly that he was photographing took off and headed down the trail. Walter was about ready to give chase when I told him to stop—I had spotted what turned out to be a male Twin-spotted Spiketail at ankle-height just a few feet from where he was standing. Our patience and persistence ended up being rewarded and I was thrilled to be able to get some shots of this beautiful dragonfly, a species that I had never before encountered.

Long-time readers may recall that Walter and I are very different in our approaches to many things. Our photography gear is different; my background and education is in liberal arts and his is in science; and our personalities are quite dissimilar. Not surprisingly, our writing styles vary too. Several times in the past we have done companion blog postings after our adventures. Check out Walter’s blog post today for his perspective on our hunt for this elusive dragonfly and for his wonderful images.

As it turned out, our day of dragonfly hunting was not yet over, but that will the subject of a future blog posting.

Twin-spotted Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I never know what I will see when I visit Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I encountered this large Eastern Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentina) right in the middle of one of the paths at the refuge last Friday. I generally see snapping turtles in the water or sunning themselves at the water’s edge. I only recall a single instance when I have seen a snapping turtle this far out of the water and on that occasion it was digging a hole and getting ready to lay eggs. I wonder if that was why this one was on dry land.

The turtle looked like it was relaxing, but I gave it a wide berth after I snapped its photo, wanting to make sure that I was the only one snapping.

Snapping Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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When I saw a flash of bright blue this past Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I thought for sure that it was a male Eastern Bluebird, but when I looked more closely, I was thrilled to see that it was an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea). Ever since one of my youngest viewers, a four year old named Benjamin, commented that bluebirds have as much orange as blue, I have been very conscious of species that have colors associated with their names.

In the bird world, most of the species names are associated with mature males, which tend to be a lot more colorful than females. The female Indigo Bunting, for example, is not blue at all, but is brownish in color. When I was just getting started in photographing birds, I remember being confused when I was told that a sparrow-looking bird at which I was pointing my camera was a Red-winged Blackbird—it was neither black, nor did it have red wings.

Some of the photographers in my area have recently posted images of a Blue Grosbeak, another bird that has bright blue feathers. They tend to be uncommon, but I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for flashes of blue, a color that seems to be relatively rare in the world of wildlife.

Indigo Bunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On the last day of April I spotted a Blue Corporal dragonfly (Ladona deplanata) that was newly emerged and was not yet blue. This past Friday I went back to the same location at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and found a young male Blue Corporal that had already gained his blue coloration.

Additionally, he was now perching on some vegetation rather than on the ground, which allowed me to get a more artistic shot—I really like the arc of the vegetation and how it helped make for an interesting composition.

Blue Corporal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Common Baskettail dragonflies (Epitheca cynosura) were flying yesterday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and I managed to capture a few shots of them while they were patrolling over the pond.

There are some really cool things about dragonflies that you can observe from the photos. In the first one, you can see how dragonflies can eat on the move. Their amazing aerial skills help them to snag smaller insects out of the air. This is particularly important for species like this one that seem capable of flying for hours on end without pausing to perch. In both images you can see how the dragonfly tucks up its legs to make it more aerodynamic while flying.

So how do I get photos like this? Above all else, patience is the key. There were several dragonflies flying over the water yesterday and I observed each of them, trying to discern a pattern in their flights. The others were flying more erratically, but this one seemed to hover a bit from time to time. The subject was too small for my camera to grab focus quickly, so I resorted to focusing the lens manually.

It took a lot of shots, but eventually I was able to capture a few images that let you see some of the beautiful details of the dragonfly, particularly its very striking eyes. In case you are curious about the differing backgrounds, I shot the first image while pointing down at the dragonfly, while for the second one I was more level with the dragonfly, which caused the background to essentially disappear.

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I thought that this was some kind of warbler when I saw it yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but some folks on the Facebook “What’s This Bird” forum  identified it for me as an immature male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius). I think that I was fooled by the yellow color, since most warbler have at least a touch of yellow. Now when I look more closely at the photos, I realize that the bill is shaped differently from those of warblers.

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It seems like I am increasingly spending my time trying to track small birds as they energetically flit about in a tangle of newly-emerged leaves. In their aggressive foraging for food, they rarely seem to pause and pose for me on isolated branches, so I am figuring out ways to integrate the foliage into my photos.

Here are a couple of images of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea) from this past weekend at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge that show not only the birds, but also a part of their environment. As I was doing a little research on this gnatcatcher on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, I was a bit surprised to learn that gnats do not form a significant part of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s diet—they eat all kinds of insects and spiders.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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