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Archive for August, 2018

When recently at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I spotted these two damselflies, which an expert identified as probable Big Bluets (Enallagma durum), I initially thought they were mating. Then I realized that the positions were all wrong and the nibbling on the neck was probably indicative of a literal hunger. Yikes.

As Tina Turner once sang, “What’s love got to do with it?”

damselflies

daamselflies

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Two different colored dragonflies, a Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami) and a Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans), were peacefully sharing a prime perch on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Why is it so hard for us to peacefully coexist with one another?

peaceful co-existence

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Have you ever gotten into a staring contest with a dragonfly? Dragonfly eyes can have an almost hypnotic effect on you when you look directly into them..

I went eye-to-eye with this Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. She was the one to break eye contact first as she cocked her head, smiled at me, and decided the contest was over.

Eastern Pondhawk

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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When you check out spider webs really carefully, you can often discover really cool-looking tiny spiders, like this Arrowhead Orb Weaver spider (Verrucosa arenata) that I spotted yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. If you look really closely in between its uppermost legs, you can see some of its multiple eyes looking straight at you. Information on BugGuide.net indicates that this spider is unusual because it rests in the web with its head up, not head down like most other Orb Weavers.

It’s hard to get a sense of scale when you look at this image, but I’d estimate that this little spider was less than an inch in length (25 mm). It was hanging in the air in its web at the edge of a trail when I first spotted it. I was able to move in pretty close with my macro lens—unlike many other spiders, it did not scurry away to the edge of the web. Sharpness is always an issue when shooting at at close range, but my monopod helped to steady me enough to get a relatively sharp image.

You may not like spiders, but you have to admit that this is a cool-looking spider.

Arrowhead Orb Weaver

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It is great to see that at least a few colorful Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) are still around. I photographed this handsome male last Friday as he perched at water’s edge at the small pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Summer is slowly slipping away. Some species of dragonflies are already gone for the year and others will soon follow suit. A few species have yet to appear, so all of the news is not bad. Still, as kids return to school and the daylight hours become noticeably shorter, it’s hard not to have the feeling that the lazy days of summer are coming to a close.

Autumn is my favorite season for a number of different reasons, but I am not quite ready to give up on summer. So I’ll keep sweating and searching, seeking to capture the summer beauty that still surrounds us. Like this dragonfly, I’m still holding on.

calico pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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This little buck seemed more curious than fearful when he spotted me on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. He continued to forage in a marshy area for a while before he finally disappeared from sight.

I know that we have a herd of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) on the wildlife refuge, though I see deer only on rare occasions. This little deer seemed to be alone and I was really struck by the shape of his antlers. It looks to me like they might be his first set of antlers, though I confess to knowing almost nothing about the stages of development of a deer.  The shape of the antlers reminds me of photos that I have seen of several species of antelope in Africa.

white-tailed deer

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Dragonflies have amazing compound eyes that wrap around their heads. With up to 30,000 facets (ommatidia, to be technical), dragonflies have incredible vision and can even see colors beyond human visual capabilities, like UV light. For an easy to read discussion about dragonfly eyes, i.e. not overly scientific, check out this posting by “grrl Scientist” that was posted on scienceblogs.com.

I captured this close-up image of a Great Blue Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans) yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. At least once a season, I manage to get a shot like this when a cooperative dragonfly lets me get close. I captured the image below with my trusty Tamron 180mm macro lens on my Canon 50D DSLR. This lens, which has a longer focal length than most macro lenses, gives me some stand-off distance so I can get a macro shot like this without actually being on top of the subject. The only downside to the lens is that it has no built-in image stabilization, so I have to pay extra attention to remaining steady when shooting with it—I generally use a monopod to help reduce camera shake and I think it helped for this image.

The image is framed just as I saw it in my viewfinder. Most of the time I end up cropping my images as part of my normal post-processing, but in this case it looked pretty good without any cropping whatsoever.

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Sometimes when I have my camera in my hands, my attention is drawn to the amazing shapes, colors, and pattern of the natural world—I don’t need a specific animate subject to shoot. Here are a few of my more abstract shots from Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Even though I may not have had a main subject, in the traditional sense,I wouldn’t say that I was photographing nothing—au contraire, I was photographing everything.

ferns

grass

lily pads

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I just love the colors of this Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) that I photographed on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I mean, really, how can you not like an insect that sports the red, white, and blue?

You don’t have to be American to like those three colors—it seems like there are an awful lot of countries that use them in various shades and patterns in their national flags.

Red Admiral

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I was thrilled to capture some shot of a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) this past weekend at Green Spring Gardens as it fed on a lantana flower. I am so used to more muted colors when I am shooting in the “wild” that the brightness of these flowers seem almost unnatural.

If you look closely at the butterfly’s legs in the first image, you will see that one of them is blurred. Obviously the butterfly was moving about and my camera’s shutter speed was too slow to stop the motion. In many cases I would be disappointed with that lack of sharpness, but I find that it acceptable here, because it doesn’t really distract the viewer’s eyes.

There are a number of dark-colored swallowtails in our area, but the Spicebush Swallowtail is the only one with a blue swoosh on its wings in the middle of a row of orange spots.

Spicebush Swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The vegetation at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge was so high recently that these two foraging wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) disappeared from view each time they leaned forward. It was like a game trying to figure out where they would pop up next. I played the game for for quite some time before I was able to capture them both in a single frame with their eyes visible—in most of the other shots the turkeys were looking away from me.

wild turkeys

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Imagine an insect so powerful that it is reportedly able to take down a hummingbird. Then give it the macabre monniker of Red-footed Cannibalfly (Promachus rufipes). If I were an insect, I would be really worried. Actually I don’t think that I would want to allow one to bite me, because a cannibalfly stabs its prey with its proboscis and injects saliva that help to liquify the prey’s insides. Then the cannibalfly sucks out the liquid through its proboscis.

I don’t know why exactly, but the last week or so I have seen a lot of Red-footed Cannibalflies during my trips to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Here are a few of my recent shots. The first one reminded one of my Facebook viewers of The Lorax, a Dr. Seuss character with a big mustache. Maybe this insect needs to overhaul its public image so that it is viewed as being less threatening. One possible first step might be to change its name to the Bee Panther, a nickname that is sometimes used for this species.

On a side note, each of the last four years, including this year, a 2013 posting entitled simply Red-footed Cannibalfly has been my most viewed posting. If I calculated correctly, the posting has been viewed almost 2400 times, including 293 times in 2018.

Why is that posting so popular? Apparently a lot of people do Google searches for “red-footed cannibalfly” and stumble onto my blog posting. I’m proud of a number of my postings and the images that I have captured, but I must confess that I don’t consider that 2013 posting as one of my best.

It’s a little scary to think that I may be inextricably linked in some people’s minds with Red-footed Cannibalflies. Yikes!

Red-footed Cannibalfly

Red-footed Cannibalfly

Red-footed Cannibalfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There were only a few water lilies in bloom at the small pond at a local garden that I visited this past weekend. Surprisingly, they were all pink in color and not the white ones that I am more used to seeing—perhaps it is late in the season for the white ones. Not surprisingly, there were quite a few dragonflies buzzing about and I decided that I wanted to get a shot of one of them perched on one of the water lilies.

So I waited and hoped and waited some more. My patience was eventually rewarded when a tiny male Eastern Amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) landed on a partially open water lily bud and perched momentarily.

I really like the image that I managed to capture because of the way it conveys a sense of the mood of the moment, a calm, almost zen-like feeling of tranquility. The colors are subdued and the composition is minimalist—there is a real beauty in simplicity.

Dragonfly and water lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last night I was playing again with watercolors and found inspiration in some videos about Chinese sumi-e brush painting, particularly one by Daleflix on YouTube that showed him painting a dragonfly and a frog. I really like the way that sumi-e painting, which is often done in ink on rice paper, emphasizes the importance of each brush stroke.

My painting skills still need a lot of work, but I especially like how the dragonfly turned out. There is a kind of minimalism in the dragonfly that appeals to me. It was really all-or-nothing when I painted it. Each of the wings, for example, was a single brush stroke, with a little bit of outlining done later. Similarly, the segmented body was done in a single pass.

I kind of got a little lost after I had painted the frog and the dragonfly and tried to add some contextual elements. The water ended up way too dark and some of the branches got too thick. In case you are curious, the painting is 4 x 6 inches in size (10 x 15 cm), so the brush strokes were pretty small.

Still, I like the overall feel of this little painting, which represents a new step for me as I explore watercolors. I think that I may explore this style of painting some more.

dragonfly and frog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There were lots of flowers in bloom yesterday at Green Spring Gardens, a historic county-run garden not far from where I live. One of my favorites was the Zowie Zinnia and a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) seemed to like it a lot too.

I was at the garden with my dear friend and photography mentor, Cindy Dyer, and her husband. We were all taking a break at one point and I told CIndy that I was going to return to a patch of Zowie Zinnias to see if I could get a shot of a butterfly landing on one. We both recalled a photo that she took in 2010 (check out her blog posting) when an Easter Tiger Swallowtail butterfly appeared out of nowhere and landed on one of the two Zowie Zinnias that she was focusing on with her camera on a tripod.

Imagine her surprise when a couple of minutes later I returned with this photo. She grabbed her camera and went to the patch of zinnia, but, alas, the butterflies were not as cooperative for her as they had been for me.

Monarch butterfly and Zowie Zinnia

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Many of us are old enough to remember when wall phones had long coiled cords that usually ended up stretched out and elongated. That’s exactly what I was thinking of when I spotted these coiled tendrils of some kind of flower yesterday when I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I wasn’t sure how to capture them in an image and tried a couple of different approaches. The image below was my favorite. It is kind of a natural abstract image, but I included the flower in the corner of it to give the image a sense of context.

Those who read my postings regularly know that this is not the usual kind of photo that I post—sometimes it is fun to venture outside of my normal box.

coil

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I suppose that I should call this a royal posting for it features both a viceroy and a queen. Of course, here in the USA we don’t have a monarchy, but that doesn’t keep us from having Viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) and Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). I spotted this royal pair on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge where the Viceroy repeated probed the clusters of Queen Anne’s Lace.

You probably have noticed that the coloration of the Viceroy butterfly matches that of the Monarch butterfly. One of the easiest ways to tell them apart is the black line across the hind wings which is present with Viceroys but not with Monarchs.

Viceroy butterfly

Viceroy butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Unlike those that construct elaborate webs, some spiders instead perch at the shore with extended legs and sense prey through vibrations on the surface of the water. When the prey is detected, the spider runs across the top of the water, prompting some to call it the “Jesus spider.”

I spotted this cool-looking Six-spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes triton) in the shallow water of a pond this past Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Six-spotted Fishing Spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I can’t identify this flower and I am not certain what kind of skipper butterfly this is, but the two of them sure did combine well in this image that I captured this past weekend at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. (I’m leaning towards this being a Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius), but there are so many different kinds of skippers that it’s hard to be sure.)

In many ways this is the kind of image that I aspire to capture. The subject is active, engaged in probing the flower with its extended proboscis, rather than in a static pose. Of equal importance, the image has an artistic feel, a kind of beauty in its composition and colors. There are so many uncontrollable elements in nature that there is no way to guarantee results like this, but it is sure is nice when it happens.

UPDATE: Helpful folks on Facebook and readers of this blog have helped to identify the butterfly as a Zabulon Skipper (Poanes zabulon) and the flower as an Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana). Thanks, Drew and Molly.

skipper and flower

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I love the stunning red-orange coloration of a male Needham’s Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula needhami), especially when the sunlight dances across its gold-tinged wings, as it did on Monday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Generally I prefer an uncluttered background for my subjects, but in this case I think the soft patterns of the grasses in the background enhance the image more than would have been the case with a uniform single color.

Needham's Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Normally I aim for extreme realism when taking photos. Sometimes, however, I like to try an “artsy” approach, like in this image of a flower (a zinnia, I believe) from this past weekend at Meadlowlark Botanical Gardens.

In this case, I deliberately tried to distort perceptions and make it look like the grass and the sky had switched places. In reality, the blue is not from the sky, but is a gravel path.

I like to try to vary the angle at which I am shooting and the results can often be fun and different. I never know when I will find myself sprawled on the ground or standing in the mud, so I tend to wear clothes that are rugged and often ragged.

zinnia

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was wonderful to travel to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in nearby Vienna, Virginia with some friends this past weekend. Although I really enjoy going back repeatedly to familiar spots, sometimes it’s nice to move outside of the “box” and see something different, or at least in a different environment.

One of my favorite subjects of our little photo trip was this delightful Green Heron (Butorides virescens) that I spotted at one of the small ponds at the park. Green Herons are a lot lower to the ground than Great Blue Herons and are often difficult to find. I was lucky to see this one from a distance as I was circling the pond and managed to carefully creep close enough to have a low shooting angle and an unobstructed view.

green heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am always excited to see Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). Over the years there have been numerous reports of this species becoming endangered, primarily because of the loss of habitat. Some years, I have spotted only a few Monarch during an entire summer. This year I have been fortunate enough to see them at several of the locations that I frequent.

I spotted this spectacular Monarch butterfly yesterday while visiting Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in nearby Vienna, Virginia with some fellow photographers. Each of us has a different style of shooting and preferred subjects and we usually shoot separately. It is always a lot of fun when we reassemble after shooting and share our photos and experiences with each other over dinner at a restaurant.

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This past Monday I spotted this Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it basked in the warmth of the early morning sunlight. Earlier this year I would see turkeys regularly as I walked the trails at the wildlife refuge, but the last couple of months such sightings have been rare.

wild turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What is your favorite dragonfly? Most people would have trouble answering a question like that. If they do happen to notice dragonflies, they generally have not looked closely enough at them to identify species—at best they might be able to say something like, “I like the big green ones that I see flying overhead” or “I like the little blue ones that perch on the reeds.”

Most of you know that I somewhat obsessed with dragonflies (and those who know me well might question my use of the qualifier “somewhat” in the first half of the sentence). I love the beauty and aerial agility of these flying insects and I spend endless hours searching for them for months on end.

How do I choose a favorite dragonfly? It’s kind of like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. There are different things that I like about different dragonfly species.

If I were asked the question directly, I would probably say that the Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum) is my favorite dragonfly. I absolutely love the striking combination of the turquoise blue eyes and the striking red body. Blue-faced Meadowhawks are also special to me for a personal reason—I was awarded second place in a local photo contest several years ago for a macro shot of a Blue-faced Meadowhawk. (Here is a link to the 2015 posting Second place in a local photo competition that shows that prize-winning entry and tells some of the back story of the image.)

Yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I photographed my first Blue-faced Meadowhawk of the season, a handsome male with bright coloration. Even if you are not a big fan of dragonflies, I hope that you can agree this little dragonfly is strikingly beautiful—welcome to my world.

 

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I’m a real beginner in watercolors and probably should stick to exercises and simple subjects, but that is not what I want to paint. I’ll look at some of my wildlife photos and think, “I’d like to try to paint that,” knowing full well that I don’t really have the skills to do so. I figure, though, that I’ll learn as I go along, seeing what works and doesn’t work. So yesterday evening I decided to have a go at painting an immature Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) that I photographed recently.

I figured the best chance I had at making something recognizable was to simplify things, especially smaller, less important elements, like the leaves in the branches surrounding the hawk. I decided that I was not going to worry about making them realistic. I also realized that it would be tough for me to capture the fine details of the feathers, so I went for a more stylized approach. I decided to simplify my color palette too and used only three colors—lemon yellow, ultramarine blue, and burnt sienna.

So what happened? You can see and judge the results yourself. Some parts of the painting came out pretty well and other parts could use a lot of improvement.

I learned a lot in the process of doing this painting, most notably that I really enjoy mixing colors. It was rare that I used one of the three colors straight out of the pan, with one exception being the yellow eye. I paid a lot of attention to trying to vary my colors, especially in areas like the feathers.

I realize now that painting details is really tough—I’m hoping that practice will help me improve my control of the brushes. The biggest thing, perhaps, that I need to work on is controlling the amount of water that is on the brush and on the paper. I was blindsided a couple of times when the result I was expecting did not happen, most often when I had too much water in my brush. (I also need a whole lot of practice with sketching.)

I didn’t really try to copy my photo, but thought you might enjoy seeing the photograph that served as a general reference for me as I painted.

Thanks to the many readers who have encouraged me to keep painting. It is a little humbling to see how crude my initial efforts are, but it really is a lot of fun creating something from scratch—there is definitely something therapeutic about playing with paints.

watercolor hawk

Cooper's Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Recently I spotted this small orange and brown butterfly while I was roaming the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I initially thought it was a Pearl Crescent butterfly, a familiar species, and posted a photo on Facebook. One of my friends there, however, pointed out that my little butterfly was actually a Silvery Checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne nycteis), a new species for me.

The composition in my image is pretty simple, but I really like the way that it turned out, with the soft contours of the butterfly juxtaposed with the linear veins of the leaf and the sharp contrast between the dominant green and orange tones. The shadows are a real bonus, adding additional interest to the photo.

Silvery Checkerspot

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This image is a little gruesome, but here is a close-up look at an Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) as it consumed a damselfly that it had captured this past Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Northern Virginia. The second image shows a different Eastern Pondhawk with a different damselfly—the pondhawks seemed to have a particularly voracious appetite that day.

Eastern Pondhawk

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I spotted this beautiful butterfly this past weekend at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I am pretty sure that it is a Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis), judging from the pattern of its wing spots.

While I may not be absolutely certain that it is a Question Mark butterfly, its beauty is unquestionable.

Question Mark butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as I watched this Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) gnaw on the head of a colorful Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) that it had captured. I know that dragonflies eat other insects, but in my mind I tend to think of them consuming mosquitoes and other such smaller insects. Some of them, however, apparently prefer larger prey, including other dragonflies.

Eastern Pondhawk versus Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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At this time of the year it’s tough for me to photograph birds—often when I spot them, they are mostly hidden in the foliage. This hawk, however, cooperated by perching out in the open this past Saturday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I was uncertain about the identification, so I checked with the experts in several Facebook birding groups and they indicated that this is an immature Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii).

Cooper’s Hawks belong to the group of hawks called accipiters, also known as bird hawks. Accipiters have short rounded wings and a long tail and are better adapted to hunting in the woodlands that most other hawks.

Cooper's Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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