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Archive for October, 2019

Perhaps it is because today is Halloween or because the overcast sky on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge caused everything to be shadowy and monochromatic. Whatever the reason, the shape of this Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) reminds me of a bat, especially in the first image.

I captured these two images as the cormorant was preparing to take off from the water. Unlike some birds that rise straight up, a cormorant has to bounce across the water to gain enough momentum for liftoff, which is why you can see the splashes of water behind the cormorant in both shots.

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I heard the loud call of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) yesterday I had to turn back in the direction I had come on a trail at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Had I walked underneath the tree in which the eagle was perched? Had it just flown in?

I did not ponder these questions for long, because it was abundantly clear that the eagle was really close and I wanted to try to get a shot. I backtracked slowly and caught sight of the eagle just after I had passed it—it was almost hidden by the foliage. I didn’t want to risk spooking the eagle, so I stayed in place and captured the first image below. Apparently I am not as stealthy as I think, for the image suggests that the eagle was monitoring my every step.

I grew a little bolder and moved to a position from which I had a clearer view of the eagle. Several times the eagle seemed to glance down at me and flex its talons a bit in a not-too-subtle reminder that it was merely tolerating my presence. After a short while, the eagle tired of our little game and took off without warning.

As you can probably tell from the images, yesterday was an overcast day. Although I really like the brilliant blue sky that served as a backdrop to some shots of a bald eagle earlier this month, I think that the clouds diffused the light and allowed me to capture more details in the white head feathers than when the sun was shining brightly.

 

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some experienced birders can identify a bird by its call, but, except with a few common birds, I am not one of the them. I need to be able to see a bird to identify it, and that is a challenge at this time of the year, when most of the leaves are still on the trees.

Last week as I was exploring a trail at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I heard a bird singing almost directly in front of me. As my eyes searched among the leaves, the bird kept on singing and eventually I located it. I could see that it was a sparrow and often that is an identification problem for me, because sparrows fall into the group of little brown birds that all basically look the same. However, in this case, I could see a dark spot on the breast of the bird, which usually means that it is a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia).

I was happy to be able to capture a few shots of the little Song Sparrow before it flew away. If you are curious about the sound of the Song Sparrow’s song, check out this page on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, where there are several audio and video clips of this birds songs and calls.

 

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Many people associate the color red with autumn because of the brilliant foliage that the season brings forth in places like New England. For me, though, red is an autumn color because of the bright red dragonflies that remain active in October and November (and sometimes even later in the year).

Yes, I continue to chase dragonflies as we move deeper and deeper into autumn. I spotted this handsome male Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly(Sympetrum vicinum) last Wednesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge in nearby Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Many of the Autumn Meadowhawks that I saw earlier this fall were females, which have a much more subdued coloration. There is nothing subdued about this male, which made it pretty easy to spot him, especially when he perched on a small stump at knee-level. You do have to pay attention to find them, however, because Autumn Meadowhawks are only about 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length.

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the time when I see or hear Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), they are hidden in the undergrowth. I was thrilled therefore last Monday to be able to capture an image of this one in the open at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I generally think of Carolina Wrens as cheerful, energetic little birds and I like the way that this simple shot captures a bit of that personality.

 

Carolina Wren

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A sharp-eyed fellow photographer spotted this Northern Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus) at eye level in a tree at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge this past Wednesday as we both were searching for dragonflies. The sun was shining brightly and I suspect the snake was basking in its warm on a relatively cool day. I managed to capture a few shots of this colorful snake before it silently slithered away.

Northern Rough Green Snake

Northern Rough Green Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have observed woodpeckers in action numerous times, but have rarely seen one capture an insect. On Monday, however, I managed to capture this image of a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge with a tasty morsel of some sort.

According the the welcomewildlife.com website, Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of three woodpecker species in the United States known for storing their food and protecting their stash. I suspect that the insect in the photo was consumed on the spot, but I have often seen Red-bellied Woodpeckers with acorns in their mouths that they then jammed into a crack in a tree for future consumption. According to the aforementioned website these trees, known as granaries, may hold up to fifty thousand acorns. (In case you are curious about the other woodpeckers that exhibit similar behavior, they are the Red-headed Woodpecker, a species that is present where I live, and the Acorn Woodpecker, which I believe is found in the western part of the United States.)

Red-bellied Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was wandering about Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge earlier this week, I was struck by the large number of Common Buckeye butterflies (Junonia coenia) that I observed. Not only were there a lot of them, many of them appeared to be in almost pristine condition, unlike the tattered survivors of other butterfly species that are hanging on this late in the season.

I decided to do a little research and learned from bugguide.net that Common Buckeyes have two to three broods throughout the year from May to October. I had suspected that was the case and that helps to explain the “fresh” condition of the butterflies that I observed. What was a little more surprising to learn was that, “Adults from the south’s first brood migrate north in late spring and summer to temporarily colonize most of the United States and parts of southern Canada.”

I don’t know if the Common Buckeye butterflies in my area will migrate south to avoid the freezing temperatures that will soon be upon us or if they will remain with us. In either case, I love to see these little butterflies and marvel at the way that their colors fit in with nature’s autumn color palette.

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have had unusually good luck finding Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) this month at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, including this one that I spotted on Monday. Most often when I see an eagle, it flies away before I can get close, which is not really surprising given its superior eyesight and reaction time.

This time, though, I was able to approach the eagle until I was almost directly below the tree in which it was perched. In the wintertime, that might have allowed me to get some awesome close-up shots, but in this case my view of the eagle was almost completely blocked by the abundant foliage. I moved around a little until I was finally able to see the eagle’s eye and captured the first image below. The second image was my initial view of the eagle before I started to creep closer. I like that shot a lot, but it seems to me that it doesn’t quite have the same visual impact as the first shot.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When they keep their wings closed, some butterflies match their surroundings so well that they are almost invisible. Question Mark butterflies (Polygonia interrogationis) look like dead leaves and at this time of the year there are plenty of fallen leaves littering the landscape.

It was impossible for me to me the distinctive autumn colors of this Question Mark when I spotted it earlier this month at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  I had to back up a bit in order to focus on the butterfly with my telephoto zoom lens and I actually had trouble seeing it when it decided to close its wings. Fortunately it spread its wings a little bit and I was able to capture the second image below.

A month or so ago it seemed like there were more dragonflies than butterflies, but now the ratio seems to have shifted. Butterflies, especially Common Buckeyes, are still flying in good numbers, while the quantity of dragonflies continues to drop.

Question Mark

Question Mark

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It’s always fun to encounter cute little rabbits like this one that I spotted recently as I was walking along one of the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I do not see a lot of mammals during my walks, with the notable exception of squirrels, so I am always happy to see a rabbit or a deer or a beaver. As most of you know, I tend to see a lot more insects and birds and that is one of the reasons why they appear so often in my postings.

On the sides of some of the trails at the refuge there are heavy thickets and my observations suggest that they are the preferred habitat for the rabbits, which are almost certainly Eastern Cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus).  The rabbits at the wildlife refuge generally seem to be very cautious, which is probably a good survival tactic, considering the number of hawks and eagles in the area.

This particular rabbit froze in place for a moment when it first detected me, allowing me to get this shot. After a brief pause, it scampered away into the safety of the heavy vegetation.

rabbit

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I love the effects of the light in this image of a Great Egret (Ardea alba) that I captured on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. (For the sake of clarity, I should note that I captured the image and not the egret.) When I first spotted the egret, its wings were down and it was more or less just a silhouette. As I was focusing on it, though, the egret hopped into the air and flapped its wings and I snapped the shot. I was looking almost directly into the sun and I was fascinated by the way the light illuminated the outstretched wings and was happy that I was able to capture, at least in part, that effect.

Great Egret

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Wandering Gliders (Pantala flavescens) are the most widespread dragonfly species in the world and are found on all continents except Antarctica. I was thrilled on Tuesday when one stopped wandering for a moment at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I was able to capture this image. According to Wikipedia, individual Wandering Gliders can fly more than 3730 miles (6000 km)—one of the farthest known migrations of all insect species.

Wandering Glider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of my dragonflies have disappeared for the season. I will still occasionally spot a few survivors of the summer species, but their numbers are dwindling in the cooler autumn weather. One notable exception is the aptly named Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum). On Tuesday I spotted a good number of Autumn Meadowhawks while exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and captured these images with my long telephoto zoom lens—it is a bit of a challenge to focus on such a small subject with a lens zoomed out to 600mm.

In the area in which I live, Autumn Meadowhawks remain with us throughout October and November. I have personally spotted some in December and have heard of other sightings in early January.

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Two Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) appeared to be intently staring at me as I drew closer to them on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Were they sizing me up, hoping I might drop dead on the spot? As Halloween approaches, it is easy to feel a little creeped out in situations like this. Although I believe that they were simply curious about my presence, I did make sure that I moved around enough to ensure that the vultures knew that I was still alive.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Any day that I spot a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a good day. Yesterday qualified as a great day when I was able to capture an image of a Bald Eagle taking off from the slender branches of a tree at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I was a bit shocked when I initially spotted the eagle perched in a cluster of leaves overhanging one of the trails at the wildlife refuge—presumably there was a branch in there somewhere, but it did not seem substantial enough to hold the weight of an eagle.

I zoomed in all the way with my 150-600mm lens and was able to get a pretty detailed shot of the eagle, as you can see in the final shot. The eagle turned its head in various directions and I knew that I did not have much time before it decided to take off. When the eagle turned its body toward the water and began to crouch, I tried to ready myself and anticipate the direction of its initial movement. In most of the shots in the burst that I took, the eagle’s wings blocked its face or extended well beyond the edges of the frame, but I was pretty happy with the one that I posted as the initial photo in this posting.

Why did the eagle choose such a precarious perch? I have no idea why, but I am happy that it gave me the chance to get these shots.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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We are in a period of transition. All around I see the signs of autumn, but summer has not completely loosed its grasp. Last week I spotted this female Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Eastern Pondhawks are among our most common dragonflies—they are still with us, but their numbers are clearly dwindling.

In this image I really like the juxtaposition of the dragonfly’s bright summer coloration with the more muted autumn colors of the fallen leaves, a visual representation of this time of transition.

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) perched in a tree last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, calmly surveying the area, as shown in the second shot. As I drew closer, I could sense the heron beginning to gather itself.  I managed to capture the first image as the Great Blue Heron leaped into the air, preparing to take flight.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was so well hidden in a tree on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge that I almost missed it. Fortunately I caught a glimpse of the sun reflecting off of its bright white head and was able to move close enough to capture this image.

As you may have noticed in recent postings, I have marked the changing of the seasons by changing my “walk around” lens from a Tamron 180mm macro lens to a Tamron 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens. This means that it is easier for me to get photos of birds like this eagle, but tougher, though not impossible, to capture images of the remaining butterflies and dragonflies.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It won’t be long until all of the Great Egrets (Ardea alba) leave my area and head for warmer locations. That makes each encounter now with a Great Egret even more special. Yesterday while I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I spotted this egret perched high in a tree. Initially my view was blocked by a lot of branches, but eventually I was able to maneuver into a position from which I could get an unobstructed shot.

I really like the way that the branches act as a natural frame for the egret. Additionally I like the whimsical element of the feather sticking up on the bird’s head—it reminds me of the cowlick that I had as a young boy, back when I had hair. Sometimes my Mom would lick her fingers and unsuccessfully attempt get my hair under control.

Great Egret

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I spotted this raptor flying over a distant field earlier this week at Occoquan Bay Wildlife Refuge, I suspected that it was a Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius). Although I do not see this species very often, Northern Harriers fly in a very distinctive way—they glide low over grasslands and marshlands, in part because they rely on their sense of hearing  when hunting.

I was a little disappointed that this harrier, which several folks in a Facebook birding group identified as a female, made only a single pass over the field and never flew very close. However, I am pretty happy that I was able to capture this image that gives you a good sense of the flight profile of the harrier and the environment in which she was flying.

Northern Harrier

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) have returned in force to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There are still lots of leaves on the trees, though, so it is a real challenge to get unobstructed shots of them. I catch sight of them moving in and out of the foliage, but only rarely do they pop out into the open. So I patiently watch and wait.

Here are pretty clear views of Yellow-rumped Warblers that I eventually managed to capture on Wednesday. Most warblers are in our area only briefly as they make their way north in the spring and south in the autumn. Yellow-rumped Warblers, however, remain with us for much of the winter, so I may have more chances to see them better as the trees gradually give up their leaves.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Female Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum ambiguum) come in several different color variations. Some, like the one in the first image below have a reddish colored body, like the male of the species—they are known as andromorphs. Others are brownish in color, like the one in the second image below, and are know as heteromorphs. Irrespective of the body color, though, all of the females have striking blue eyes.

Usually it is harder to spot females than the more brightly colored males, but for some reason, these two females were the only Blue-faced Meadowhawks that I saw as I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge one day last week.

Where were all the males? Maybe they were watching a sporting event or were congregating at a local bar (or both).  🙂

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I was looking into the sun when I took this shot of a Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella) last week at Huntley Meadows Park. The body and the perch were silhouetted, but the light showed through the dragonfly’s wings and highlighted the beautiful patterns.

I really like the graphic, almost abstract quality of this image. It has a different feel than most of my other images that tend to provide more detailed views of the subject.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What is the fastest animal on earth? My mind immediately thinks of the cheetah, which can run in short bursts at speeds up to 75 miles per hour (121 km/h). Indeed the cheetah is the fastest land animal. However, the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), the fastest member of the animal kingdom, can reach speeds up to 242 miles per hour (389 km/h) when in a dive.

I was thrilled last week to spot this Peregrine Falcon perched at the top of a distant tree while exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The bird was hard to see on an overcast day, but the muscular way that it was perched caused me to conclude that it was a bird of prey. I took this shot with my macro lens in order to document my sighting. As I was pulling out my camera with a longer zoom lens, the falcon flew off into the air. It flew away too fast for me to get a shot

When I read about the top speed of the Peregrine Falcon, I wondered how in the world that speed was determined. I came across this fascinating National Geographic film clip that documents one effort to measure the speed of a Peregrine Falcon. It is a short video that is well worth watching and includes a trained falcon and sky-diving scientists.

I love watching birds of all shapes and sizes, but there is something really special about seeing a powerful raptor like this Peregrine Falcon.

 

Peregrine Falcon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Whenever I see an Ailanthus Webworm moth (Atteva aurea), I assume that it is some kind of beetle. It is hard to believe that the colorful patterns are actually part of the wings and not a hard exterior shell. I spotted this beautiful little moth on some goldenrod last week while exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The pattern on this insect’s body reminds me of an animal print. Wouldn’t it be cool to have fabric printed with this bold pattern? I can imagine throw pillows and even fashion accessories. From a marketing perspective, though, I think we would have to come up with a new name for the insect—a name like “webworm” probably would not attract many customers.

Ailanthus Webworm moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Do you ever stop to look at grasshoppers? A lot of them are really cool, like this giant one that I spotted on Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I love how it looks like the grasshopper is wearing a helmet on its head and a suit of armor on its torso.

I am not very good in identifying grasshopper species, but after looking through various internet sites, I wonder if this might be an Eastern Lubber grasshopper (Romalea guttata). This species is found only in the southeastern part of the United States. Virginia, where I live, is not within its listed range, so it is possible that this is a related species. Whatever the case, I definitely love the bold coloration of this giant grasshopper.

yellow grasshopper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As many of you know, I love to photograph dragonflies and will often try to get close-up shots of them. Initially I captured a head-on shot of a female Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) that I spotted on Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

As I was observing this dragonfly at close range, she began to groom herself. I am not sure if she was cleaning her eyes or merely scratching an itch, but it was a bit eerie when she rotated her head more than 90 degrees to do so, as you can see in the second image. It brought back memories from my youth of Linda Blair’s spinning head in the original version of The Exorcist, though fortunately the dragonfly’s head did not rotate 360 degrees.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most woodpeckers have simple patterns of red, black, and white feathers and it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart. The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) outdoes them all with a dazzling combination of colors and patterns—they are pretty easy to identify.

The sky was overcast yesterday morning when I went exploring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I had to play around with my camera exposures and as a result the background turned almost pure white when I photographed this male Northern Flicker that had light coming from behind him. I like the effect in this case because it helps viewers to focus on the details of the beautiful bird, including the wonderful yellow feathers that you can see in the final photo. In case you are curious, I can tell that the flicker is a male because of the black “mustache” that females do not have.

There are two distinct subspecies of flickers. The ones that we have in the North and East have a little red crescent on the back of its neck, yellow underwings, and, in the case of males, a black mustache. The western flickers have no red crescent, have red underwings, and, in the case of males, a red mustache.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Butterflies in October? October has been a crazy month weather-wise in Northern Virginia where I live. Yesterday we had a record high temperature of 98 degrees (37 degrees C) and it feels a lot more like summer than autumn. Therefore it did not seem at all strange that I saw lots of butterflies on Tuesday when I visited Huntley Meadows Park.

I spent quite a while chasing after this beautiful little butterfly, which I think is an Orange Sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme). Most of the time the butterfly would perch sidewards and then fly away when I tried to circle around to get a better angle for a shot. I was thrilled when I finallly managed to capture this image with the butterfly’s wings partially open. I also like the way that the light helped to illuminate some of the details in the wings.

I look forward to the cooler autumn weather that will eventually come, but for now I am continuing to enjoy some of the delights of this endless summer.

Orange Sulphur

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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My dragonfly season is not over yet! Yesterday, the 1st of October, I managed to get my first good shots of the year of Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum ambiguum). This species emerges a bit earlier in the season, but generally does not make an appearance until September. (Fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford posits that they spend that interim time in the tree tops.)

I really love the combination of colors of the Blue-faced Meadowhawk—I find the colors to be striking without being garish. You might think that these colors would make it easy to spot these dragonflies, but they are small in size with a length of 1.4 inches (36 mm) and are found only in very specific habitats.

I have been searching unsuccessfully for these little beauties the last few weeks at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my most frequent “habitat,” and ended up returning to Huntley Meadows Park, where I had seen them in the past. Huntley Meadows Park is a wonderful county-run marshland refuge and used to be my favorite location for nature photography. In recent years, though, the park has become a victim of its own success and there are often mobs of photographers on its boardwalk through the wetlands.

Perhaps I am a little selfish, but I do not like to share my wildlife experience with a large group of other people. For me, my treks with my camera are most often a solitary pursuit, a meandering one-on-one experience with nature.

What about you? Do you prefer to experience nature alone or with others?

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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