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Archive for April, 2019

Natural camouflage in the coloration of birds and insects enhances their survivability, but it really makes them hard to find and photograph. Last week I made trips on two consecutive days to Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland to search for dragonflies. I have already posted photos of a Common Green Darner and a Swamp Darner that I saw during those trips—both of those dragonflies are large and colorful and relatively easy to spot.

One of the main purposes of the trip, though, was to look for a Harlequin Darner (Gomphaeschna furcillata), a species that is rare in our area and hard to spot in the field. Why? The Harlequin Darner is small for a darner, about 2.2 inches (56 mm) in length, and is in a sub-group know as pygmy darners. Its subdued coloration of gray and brown provide excellent camouflage, particularly because it often perches on tree trunks. The Harlequin Darner requires a specific type of habitat and has a flight season of only a few weeks in early spring.

On my first trip, I traveled with fellow dragonfly enthusiast and blogger Walter Sanford. We searched in vain for several hours, sometimes side-by-side and sometimes separated. As luck would have it, Walter located a Harlequin Darner at a moment when I was pretty far away. Alas, the dragonfly flew away shortly after I arrived at his location. Fortunately, Walter captured some excellent shots which you can see (along with some additional information) on his blog posting from last week. As it turned out, that was the only Harlequin Darner that either of us saw all day.

The following day I decided to return alone, hoping that I too might spot a Harlequin Darner. I saw a good number of dragonflies, including the Common Baskettail that I captured in flight, but as the day progressed, I began to wonder if I would ever find a Harlequin Darner. I kept searching and finally I saw a dragonfly perch vertically on the trunk of a tree. The lighting was harsh and the shadows distorted the proportions of the dragonfly, so I wasn’t sure what kind it was. At this point, though, I was focused on getting a shot and would worry later about identifying the dragonfly. The dragonfly remained in place for about 30 seconds and then flew away.

Well, it turns out this is a female Harlequin Darner. Every time that I see a new species for the first time, I am thrilled to get any kind of recognizable images. In the future I will try to get better shots, but for now I am content that once again my persistence paid off.

It’s great to celebrate small victories.

Harlequin Darner

Harlequin Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Many of you are aware that I have been keeping track of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. When the eagle couple occupied the nest earlier this spring, the authorities set up barriers to keep the eagles from being disturbed, because the tree with the nest is close to the intersection of several trails.

I have checked the nest several times in the past month and there has always been an eagle sitting in the middle of the nest. As I looked through my telephoto zoom lens this past Friday from one of the barriers, I could see that an adult eagle was sitting at one side of the nest, leading me to believe there might be babies. I waited and eventually was rewarded with a view of one eaglet.

Last year there were two eaglets born at this nest. Perhaps there is a second eaglet this year too, but at a minimum I am thrilled to know that there is at least one new eaglet birth to celebrate.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last Friday I spotted this Common Loon (Gavia immer) in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Willdife Refuge.  I don’t think that I have ever actually seen a loon before, but this bird pretty much matches the image of a Common Loon in breeding plumage in my bird identification guide. The range maps indicate that Northern Virginia, where I live, is in a migratory area for this species. I am guessing that this loon stopped for a while on his journey northward.

Common Loon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the warblers that I am fortunate enough to see are partially hidden by branches. Although hope is usually not an effective technique for taking photos, essentially that is what I do when I spot a hidden warbler—I start shooting and hope that the little bird will reveal itself enough for me to capture a clear shot of at least its head.

That was the case on Friday when I shot numerous photos in an attempt to capture an image of this Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) at Occoquan Bay Naational Wildlife Refuge. Unlike many warblers that are found bushes and in trees in more open area, Prothonotary Warblers are creatures of the swamp. I initially spotted one of these beautiful birds in a marshy area and was thrilled when one of them eventually made its way into some vegetation overlooking the water.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Prothonotary Warbler got its name from the bright yellow robes worn by papal clerks, known as prothonotaries, in the Roman Catholic church. This background information is fascinating, though I must confess that it is hard to find an opportunity to inject the word “prothonotary” into an everyday conversation unless I am talking about this bright yellow bird.

Prothonotary Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I was excited to spot a colorful little bird that was new to me. A search through my bird identification guide and some help from my Faceboook friends helped me to determine that it is a Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor).

I am hoping to be able to spot some more warblers this spring while their plumage is particularly colorful. I observed a few warblers last fall and noted that their coloration was a lot more subdued than it is now.

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is a little unusual for me to post photos of the same species twice within a few days, but I could not help myself when I captured this image of a female Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros) that provides such a wonderful view of her remarkable eyes.

Dragonfly eyes are always amazing, with their multiple lens that give the dragonfly almost 360 degree vision and the ability to see parts of the color spectrum that are invisible to the human eye. What is particularly striking about this Swamp Darner’s eyes are its varied colors and patterns. Wow!

The second image shows the same female Swamp Darner as she rested in a tree prior to beginning the task of depositing her eggs, which is what you see her doing in the first shot. I captured these images this past Tuesday during a visit to Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland.

 

Swamp Darner

Swamp Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Do you like a fun photo challenge? Try taking a photo of a dragonfly as it zooms on by you.

Here’s an image I captured on Tuesday of a Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura) in flight at Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland. In case you are curious, Common Baskettails are about 1.6 inches in length (41 mm).

So how would you go about getting a shot like this? I would say that the key requirements are patience and persistence. The first thing that I usually do is observe the dragonfly’s flight path and try to determine if there are particular places where it tends to hover or turn around. This particular dragonfly was flying low and not too far from the shore of a small pond.

Focusing is the biggest problem. Some photographers like to pre-focus on an area and wait for the dragonfly to fly into that area. Others will rely on the auto-focus capabilities of their cameras. I have had almost no success with those techniques. What I usually do is put my camera’s focus into manual mode and literally change focus on the fly as I attempt to track the dragonfly in the air.

I like to use my Tamron 180 mm macro lens, because it gives me a decent amount of reach and frees me from worrying about zooming in and out. I have found that simultaneously zooming and focusing manually while tracking the dragonfly is like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time—it is theoretically possible but tough to accomplish in real life.

If you click on the image and view it in a larger size, you will see that I was fortunate to get my focus just about right for the middle of the dragonfly’s body. The shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second was fast enough to freeze most of the movement of the wings.

Needless to say, I took a lot of shots and my success rate was very low. Perhaps this is not your idea of a “fun” challenge. In that case, I would encourage you to find some area of your life and challenge yourself to do something that is difficult. Even if you are not successful, I think even the effort will help you to grow, especially in self-knowledge and self-awareness.

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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