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Archive for September, 2018

Semi-submerged in the duckweed in the shallow water, this snake patiently awaited an unseen prey yesterday at the pond at Ben Brenman Park, a small suburban park not far from where I live in Alexandria, Virginia. I did not get a really good look at the snake, which dove into the water shortly after I took this shot, but I think it might be a Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon).

In many ways I was more interested in the sinuous curves of the snake’s body than in the identification of the snake’s species. There is an abstract beauty in the colors and the shapes in this image that appeals to me, though I know that some of my viewers are so creeped out by the main subject that they will find it hard to see any beauty whatsoever in the image.

Northern Water Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Orange and brown seem to be the perfect color combination for the autumn and this Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) was suitably celebrating the season this past Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Question Mark butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Orange is one of the colors that I tend to associate with autumn. Some leaves are already turning orange and pumpkin decorations and displays have started to appear on my neighbors’ doorsteps.

As I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge yesterday morning, my eyes detected some motion in the nearby grass. I leaned forward and was delighted to see this tiny damselfly decked out in the colors of Halloween—orange and black. I had no idea what species it was, but fortunately I have a really good guide for damselflies and was able to identify it as an immature female Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis).

Although there are already lots of symbols for autumn, I think this tiny damselfly could be added to the list.

Eastern Forktail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled yesterday to see that there are still Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies (Somatochlora filosa) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I was afraid that all of the recent rain had washed them away.

This particular dragonfly species is pretty uncommon, but the wildlife refuge that has become my go-to place for photography is one of the few local spots where they can be found. I think its peak period in our area is September-October, judging from my experience last year, so I was anxious to see them some more before they disappeared for the year.

It is easy to see a Fine-lined Emerald dragonfly when it is patrolling, because it often flies at knee to shoulder height. It is a whole different problem, though, to get a shot of one, because they spend most of their time in the air rather than perching. I spent quite a bit of time yesterday chasing after these dragonflies, hoping in vain to be able to catch the moment when one decided to take a break.

Finally I decided to change my approach and see if I could capture a shot of one as it flew by me. I know that it can be done, because last year I captured an in-flight image using my 150-600mm zoom lens. The lens that I had on my camera, however, was my 180mm macro lens, which meant that I had to get pretty close to the dragonfly rather than zooming in. That particular lens is slow to focus, so I decided to focus manually, which can be tricky with a moving subject. One of the downsides of the lens is it has no built-in image stabilization, so I decided to keep the camera affixed to my monopod for the sake of stability.

It took some time, but eventually I was able to capture a few shots of flying Fine-lined Emeralds that were relatively in focus, aided by the fact that these dragonflies hover a little from time to time.

I particularly like the first image because it shows both the emerald eyes and the fine lines near the tip of the abdomen that are responsible for the name of the species. It was also cool that the angle of view was unusual, given that I was looking down at the dragonfly as I took the shot. I also like the touch of brownish-orange from the out-of-focus leaves that gives the image an autumn feel.

The second shot gives a more “normal” view of a Fine-lined Emerald dragonfly as it flew by.  I was happy to be able to separate it somewhat from the leafy backdrop by carefully focusing on the dragonfly. This is one of those situations when the auto-focusing system of the camera would have been challenged—the subject was pretty small in the viewfinder and the auto-focus probably would have tried to lock on the background.

fine-lined emerald

fine-lined emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I suspect that all of the Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) will soon be leaving our area for warmer places, so I am really trying to enjoy each and every encounter with one. I spotted this beauty feeding on some kind of thistle plant thispast weekend at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The muted tones of this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) seemed to be a perfect match for the gray water and skies this past weekend at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The heron almost seemed to be playing hopscotch as it made its way along a series of posts and then extended its wings for balance when it reached the final post.

If you closely at the water you can see a lot of floating debris, caused by runoff and tidal surges from recent heavy rains—we have had well over double the normal amount of rainfall during the month of September.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Now that fall has officially arrived, I look forward to seeing more Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum), like this stunning female that I spotted last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Adult males of this dragonfly species are bright red in color, but females can be either tan or red. The “spike” near the end of the abdomen makes it easy. though, to identify this one as a female.

In Northern Virginia, where I live, the Autumn Meadowhawk tends to be the latest surviving dragonflies—I have spotted them in mid-December and others have seen them in early January.

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Sometimes I don’t have to venture far to capture images. I took this shot recently of a flower growing out of one of the hosta plants in my front yard as the rain was falling.

Simple colors and shapes and the sparkle of raindrops—photography doesn’t always have to be complicated. The challenge is to slow down, to really see the world around us, and to recognize its inherent beauty.

hosta in the rain

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I don’t expect to see dragonflies flying in the rain, so I was a little shocked to see this one in the air this past weekend at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I captured this shot when it landed and hung vertically in the vegetation in an apparent attempt to drip dry.

I not certain of the identification of this dragonfly, but think it might be a Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami), judging from the markings. Normally Needham’s Skimmers perch horizontally rather than vertically, but the unusual perching behavior might have merely been a consequence of the rainy conditions.

If you click on the image, you can see it in slightly higher resolution, including the tiny drops of water at the lower end of the abdomen (the “tail”).

Needham's Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Raindrops can enhance the beauty of many subjects, like this spider web that I photographed on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. As I looked at the drops, they somehow brought to mind an elaborate necklace of loosely strung pearls.

wet spider web

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I hear cicadas all of the time—it is hard to ignore that background buzzing noise. It is rare, however, for me to get an unobstructed view of one.

I spotted this cicada perched on a branch overhanging a pond on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I couldn’t tell for sure if it was still alive. It was not moving, but it simply may not have detected my presence. While it was great to capture an image of this cool insect, I particularly like how the water in the background turned out—those wispy cloud-like whites were a nice bonus.

cicada

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Despite the light rain that was falling, I decided to go on a photo walk yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the smaller birds seemed to have taken shelter in the trees, but I was thrilled to catch a glimpse of a couple of raptors that were perched prominently in the open. It was an interesting contrast to spot an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), one of the smallest raptors in our area, and a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), one of the largest.

The sky was really overcast, so there was not enough light to reveal all of the wonderful detail of these powerful birds. Still, it was nice to be able to capture some images of birds.

Before too long the number of insects will start to diminish and my blog will become increasingly populated by birds. I figure that for another month or so, though, insects will continue to be featured most often, which is good news for some viewers and bad news for others.

American Kestrel

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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Milkweed plants provide a wonderful habitat for all kinds of creatures, including this Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) that I spotted earlier this week at Green Spring Gardens. These  bugs go through a fascinating series of physical transformations as they move though different nymph phases. A little over six years ago, I studied these bugs  pretty closely and documented their stages of development in a posting that I called Life phases of the large milkweed beetle. Be sure to check it out for more information and fascinating photos of these colorful little bugs.

I really like the combination of colors in this simple shot, colors that remind me a little of Christmas. However, I doubt that anyone would choose to feature this image on their annual Christmas card. 🙂

Large Milkweed Bug

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Today I decided to feature two butterflies that I have seen over the past week. I saw them at different times and at different places, so normally I would not put them together in a posting.

I was struck, however, by the contrast between the two of them. One of them, a Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus), is brightly colored and hard to miss. The other, a Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) is so pale and nondescript that many people don’t notice it at all or dismiss it as being “only” a moth.

Beauty speaks to people in individual deeply personal ways. I find these two butterflies to be equally beautiful.

What do you think? Instinctively do you find one of these two to be more beautiful than the other?

Of course, there is no “right” answer. It seems to me that beauty is almost always subjective rather than universal. Our assessments of beauty tend to be influenced by a whole host of internal factors including our mood, personality, and background as much as by the external characteristics of the subject being considered.

Viceroy butterfly

Cabbage White butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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Normally I don’t do consecutive blog posts of the same subject, but I got such an overwhelmingly positive response yesterday to my images of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) that I decided to post a few more. All of these hummingbirds, the only species found in the eastern part of the US, will probably depart soon to winter in a warmer climate, so I figure I better take advantage of this opportunity while I have it.

The best chance to snap a photo of a hummingbird is when it hovers to gather nectar (or when it is perched), but I managed to capture the first image as the hummingbird was zooming on by. I love its body position.

From an artistic perspective, the second image is my favorite. The background is simplified and less cluttered than in other images and the bright color of the flowers really grabs the viewer’s eyes. The slightly blurred wings are in a wonderful position and help to emphasize the sense that the hummingbird is in motion.

The final shot was taken with a different camera. As I noted yesterday, I was shooting with my 180mm macro lens, but I also had my Canon SX50 superzoom camera with me. It has a long reach, but doesn’t handle fast action very well, so it mostly stayed in the camera bag. When one of the hummingbirds perched in a distant tree, however, I was able to pull it out and use it for this static portrait.

 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It was cloudy and there was intermittent rain, but some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) were active at Green Spring Gardens yesterday. My macro lens might not have been the optimal choice for photographing them, but it is what I had on my camera and I was pleasantly surprised by the results.

As I have noted many times before, I really like my macro lens, a Tamron 180mm lens. Because of the crop sensor of my Canon 50D DSLR, the lens has an equivalent field of view of 288mm, which lets me use if as a telephoto lens in a pinch. The only down side of the lens is that it does not have any image stabilization so I have to pay attention to my shutter speed and/or use a monopod as I was doing yesterday.

I noted that the hummingbirds seemed to like a particular kind of flower, so I planted myself in front of a patch of them and waited. The hummingbirds returned several times and I was able to decent shots. As I was waiting, it began to rain a bit, so I opened my umbrella and kept shooting—the hummingbirds did not seem to mind the light rain. It must have been quite a sight to see me with my umbrella in one hand and my camera on the monopod in the other.

For those of you who are interested in camera settings, I was shooting at ISO 1600 in aperture-preferred mode with an aperture setting of f/5. The relatively poor lighting meant that my shutter speed generally was 1/500 or slower, which was not fast enough to freeze the motion of the wings, but did allow me to capture the body fairly well when the hummingbird hovered.

I have a few more hummingbird shots that I may use in another posting, but wanted to share these initially.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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When you shoot with a zoom lens, you can change the look of an image without moving from where you are standing. That can be an advantage, but it can also be a disadvantage, because it can discourage you from exploring different angles or different perspectives.

I really enjoy shooting with a lens of a fixed focal length, especially my macro lens, because it forces me to think more about composition. If I decide that I want the subject to be larger in the frame, I have to move physically closer to the subject. If the terrain doesn’t let me get any closer, then I have to consciously consider how else I could frame the shot.

This past weekend I saw a lot of black and yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) when I was exploring Jackson Miles Wetland Refuge, a small park not too far from where I live. Some of the spiders were in bushes and others were overhanging the water of a small pond. It was a fun challenge to figure out how to photograph the spiders in different and interesting ways.

In the first shot, I decided to shoot the spider from the side rather than from the front as I normally do. I was delighted to see the way the the shape of the vegetation in the background almost matched the shape of the spider’s legs.

I also photographed the spider in the second image from the side, but the leafy backdrop and the inclusion of more of the spider’s web gives the image a completely different feel as compared to the first one.

When I saw the spider in the third image overhanging the water, I loved the shape of its body and its extended legs. If I had had a zoom lens, I am pretty sure I would have zoomed in on the spider. When processing the image, I was also tempted to crop in closely. I remember when I was shooting, though, that I deliberately included the vegetation on the left hand side, because I liked the way that it looked. So the image that you see is pretty much the one that I chose when I shot it, having zoomed in as closely as my feet would allow (without getting really wet). Despite my normal desire to fill my frame with my subject, I think it was good that I was not able to do so in this case.

argiope spider

argiope spider

argiope spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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I tend to look at my own images in a kind of vacuum, but one of the bloggers that I love to follow, Liz of Exploring Colour, likes to look for themes across different blogs and puts images from them into a single posting. I was honored today when she matched up one of my images with one by Pete Hillman. Pete and I often use a similar approach to shooting subjects even though we are separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Check out Liz’s posting to see the juxtaposition of two beautiful images. The color palettes in the two images are a bit different, with mine having a cooler tone than Pete’s, but the pinkish red in each shot tends to unify the two images, which work amazingly well together.

Exploring Colour

I dance with these guys, but not literally of course…I “follow” their blogs, I love their photography and from time-to-time I profile their work on my blog. So in this rather fanciful piece of writing I dance with them, its a joy!

This morning I found they’d both posted exceptionally fine photos and I felt moved to profile both in a special post. Pete blogs from Staffordshire in the UK and Mike blogs from Virginia in the US. Both blogs are fantastic!


September dancer by Mike Powell

Damselfly. Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis). Click on photo to enlarge

variable1_14sep_blog

By Mike Powell. See Mike’s original post for more information.

Mike blogs at:  Mike Powell | My journey through photography


Chequered Hoverfly Melanostoma scalare by Pete Hillman

Female of the species, rear garden, Staffordshire. Click on photo to enlarge

chequered-hoverfly-melanostoma-scalare

By Pete Hillman. See Pete’s original post for more photos of this…

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On Friday I was delighted to capture this image of one of my favorite damselflies, the beautifully colored Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis), while exploring Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. The red and yellow colors of the vegetation are vaguely autumn-like, a reminder that the clock is ticking for the end of the dragonfly/damselfly season this year. If only I could slow down the passage of time.

Variable Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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I was thrilled yesterday to see that at least one Swift Setwing dragonfly (Dythemis velox) is still present at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Based on past records, the Swift Setwings should be with us at least until the end of September, but this has been a crazy year weatherwise, so I never know whether the different dragonflies will appear and disappear on schedule.

If you look really closely at the wings of this dragonfly, you’ll discover some really cool shapes and patterns—-not all of the individual “cells” in the wings are of the same shape and size. Together they form an intricate mosaic that reminds me of a stained glass window. (I encourage you to click on the image to see it in higher resolution.)

Swift Setwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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On Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I watched with fascination as this spider (maybe a Marbled Orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus) spider) worked on her web. She seemed to have started with the spokes coming out of the middle and was adding the ribs when I photographed her.

If you look closely in the first image, you can actually see the web material coming out of one of her spinnerets, the organs in which a spider produces the different kinds of silk that make up a web. I tried to figure our her process as I observed her. It looks like she would produce a length of silk, maneuver it into place on one of the spokes with one or more of her legs, affix it in place, and then start the process over again. For the final image, I moved back a little to give you a somewhat better view of more of the web and a sense of its shape.

I have photographed spiderwebs many times before, but this was the first time that I watched one being built. My admiration for the skills and artistry of spiders continues to grow—they are simply amazing.

spider making web

spider making web

spider making web

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

 

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I spotted this curious little White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  The deer appears to have moved out of the cute little Bambi phase and seemed more like a gawky adolescent to me (though I confess I know very little about deer development).

I like the fact that you can still see some of its white spots, which look to be a little faded.

white-tailed deer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It was cool and wet on Monday and clouds covered the entire sky, but I felt an irresistible need to return to the wild after a week in the urban confines of Brussels, Belgium. Many of the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my recent favorite shooting location, were blocked by standing water and there was not a great abundance of wildlife to be seen.

Most dragonflies prefer warm, sunny weather, so I was not surprised when I did not see many of them. I was happy, though, to see that damselflies were active and I spent quite a bit of time trying to capture images of them. They seemed more skittish than normal and the poor lighting made it tough to keep my shutter speed high enough to keep my images from being blurry.

This is one of my favorite damselfly shots of the day. I was able to isolate the subject, which I believe is a male Big Bluet (Enallagma durum) damselfly, while still including enough of the vegetation to give you a sense of the environment in which I found him.

Big Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Nestled gently in the leaves of a tall tree, these two Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) were mating, doing their part to perpetuate a species often considered at risk. I captured this image in late August at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and re-discovered it yesterday when I was going through my photos from the week before my recent trip to Brussels.

I love the way that the upper butterfly is discreetly hidden by the leaves, but is revealed in its shadow. I find the colors in this image to be especially beautiful. with a wonderful contrast between the warmth of the orange and the coolness of the blue. Most of all, though, I love the way that the background turned out, with its soft circles of out-of-focus highlights.

This is the kind of image that I strive to capture, one that gently draws in viewers and speaks to them softly, reminding them of the undiscovered beauty that surrounds them all of the time.

mating monarchs

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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The directional lighting from the back and side gave a cool and dramatically uncommon vibe to this image of a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) that I photographed on 31 August at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The ground is saturated and rain continues to fall, so I am not sure that I will be out and about today with my camera. It is actually a good thing, I think, to go back and look over my photos—I sometimes get so caught up in taking new photos that I don’t stop and look over my slightly older ones. I am often pleasantly surprised to discover some jewels, like this image.

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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The incessant rain and cooler weather since my return from Brussels make it feel like it’s already autumn. Like this Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, however, I am not quite ready to cease sipping the sweet nectar of summer.

I captured this image on 31 August, the day before my departure for my recent overseas trip. The combination of rainy weather can jet lag have so far kept me from venturing out with my camera, but I hope to do so this coming week.

monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I am back now in the USA, but thought I’d post one last image from my recent trip to Brussels. I spotted this young Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) swimming around in the small pond at the botanical garden. There were several other moorhens, but they all stayed in the reeds and I was not able to get a good shot of them. I really like the spiky feathers of young moorhens. When they become adults, their feathers appear to be much smoother in appearance.

Common Moorhen

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Later today I will board an airplane and fly across the Atlantic Ocean with the assistance of a significant amount of sophisticated machinery. I can’t help but marvel at the way that dragonflies and damselflies, by contrast, maneuver through the air so skillfully and effortlessly. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to fly like that?

This past weekend I spent a good amount of time in one of my favorite photographic pursuits—trying to capture images of a dragonfly in flight. When I am traveling I usually don’t have my best camera gear with me and opt instead to use a Canon SX50, a superzoom point-and-shoot camera. It gives me a lot of reach, but is sometimes slow to focus and has a low frame rate. What that means is that I have to be even more careful than usual, because I can’t capture a lot of shots in an extended burst.

Mostly I was trying to photograph Migrant Hawker dragonflies (Aeshna mixta) at the botanical garden in Brussels. The good news is that Migrant Hawkers are relatively large in size and will sometimes hover a bit over the water. That increases slightly my chances of getting a shot, though many of my attempts resulted in cut-off or out-of-focus shots of the dragonflies.

This was probably my best shot of the session. I like the way that I captured a pretty clear view of the body, including the legs that are tucked in during the flight and managed to get the eyes in relatively sharp focus. One of my Facebook friends commented that it would make a handsome piece of jewelry made with gold, turquoise and onyx—I totally agree with her.

Migrant Hawker

 

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I can’t help but wonder what was going through the minds of these two insects as they perched on the same stalk of vegetation this past weekend at the botanical garden in Brussels, Belgium. Their postures suggest to me a heightened sense of alertness and a kind of wariness. The much smaller damselfly at the top seems to be cautiously looking down over its shoulder at the Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta), who appears to be focusing his attention upward. Was it a sign of curiosity or one of hunger? There was never any sign of direct aggression, but I note that the damselfly was the first one to take off and the dragonfly did not pursue it.

For those of you who are not as hooked on dragonflies as I am, this image shows pretty clearly some of the differences in the body shape and eye positions of a damselfly versus a dragonfly. It is important, though, to keep in mind the amazing diversity within the community of dragonflies and damselflies in terms of color, size, and behavior—these are some of the reasons why I am drawn to them as subjects for my photography.

friend or foe

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Its colors are not quite as ostentatious as those of the Migrant Hawker dragonfly that I featured yesterday, but the bright red bodies of what I believe are Common Darter dragonflies (Sympetrum striolatum) made them equally hard to miss at the botanical garden in Brussels, Belgium. The colors of these beautiful little dragonflies remind me of those of the Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), a species that I see quite often in my home area of Northern Virginia and the shared Latin genus name of Sympetrum indicates their relationship.

I was able to photograph male Common Darters perched in several different spots and I particularly like the way that the fiery red of their bodies contrasts with the cooler green of the backgrounds.

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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Last year when visiting Brussels, Belgium in early September, I was excited to discover dragonflies at the botanical garden in the center of the city. I headed back to the same location on Sunday right after checking into my hotel to see if I could find some dragonflies there this year.

As soon as I arrived at the small pond at the botanical garden, I was thrilled to see a number of large, colorful dragonflies flying about. Although they spent most of their time flying patrols over the water, occasionally one of the dragonflies would perch on the vegetation at water’s edge, which allowed me to capture some images of them.

I absolutely love the beautiful colors and patterns of these dragonflies, which I believe are Migrant Hawker dragonflies (Aeshna mixta). I am definitely not an expert on European dragonflies, however, and there are a number of other hawker species that are somewhat similar in appearance. In North America, there are dragonflies of this same Aeshna genus, which are usually referred to as mosaic darners, but I don’t think that this particular species can be found on the other side of the Atlantic.

Migrant Hawker

Migrant Hawker

Migrant Hawker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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