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Archive for February, 2020

A strong wind was blowing last Thursday as I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the birds that I usually observe were absent from view, probably using common sense to take shelter from the blustery wind. As I was returning almost empty-handed to my car, I spotted several Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) perched low on the roof of a covered picnic area.

Generally I try to avoid including manmade structures in my wildlife photos, but sometimes you just have to take what you can get. I really like the way that I was able to capture some of the feather details of this male Eastern Bluebird. If you look closely, you can see the bird’s windblown feathers, a look that is cultivated by some stylish humans, who often rely on “product” to achieve the effect rather than on the actual wind.

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I do not know much about fashion, but I am pretty sure that I could not pull off wearing an outfit that combined stripes and dots. Somehow, though, the combination works well for this male Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) that I spotted yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  This Northern Flicker goes even further by adding a bright red crescent across the back of his head.

Unlike most other woodpeckers that are content to wear black and white and maybe a little bit of red, this Northern Flicker comes across as a bold, colorful, and stylish. I wonder why we don’t have similarly-colored penguins.

 

Northern Flicker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I feel lucky when I am able to capture an unobstructed shot of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). I feel doubly fortunate when I manage to get a shot of the tiny red “crown” that is responsible for the bird’s name. Last week I spotted this Ruby-crowned Kinglet at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “the male’s brilliant ruby crown patch usually stays hidden—your best chance to see it is to find an excited male singing in spring or summer.” I have seen some photos of Ruby-crowned Kinglets with their red feathers standing on end like a Mohawk hairstyle, but I have not yet seen that phenomenon in person. Spring is almost here, though, and I will keep my eyes open to see if I can spot an excited male singing kinglet. (I recommend that you repeat the words “singing kinglet” several times and you will almost certainly end up with a smile on your face.)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Where I live in Northern Virginia, American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay with us throughout most of the year, but I am always happy to see them because they evoke memories of my childhood, when robins were viewed as a harbinger of spring. This robin was part of a small flock that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Robins also bring a smile to my face, because they invariably bring to mind the song “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)” that includes these catchy lyrics (as found on lyrics.com):

“When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob Bobbin’ Along
When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin’ along, along
There’ll be no more sobbin’ when he starts throbbin’ his old sweet song
Wake up, wake up you sleepy head
Get up, get out of your bed
Cheer up, cheer up the sun is red
Live, love, laugh and be happy
What if I were blue,
Now I’m walking through
Fields of flowers
Rain may glisten but still I listen for hours and hours
I’m just a kid again doing what I did again, singing a song
When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin’ along.”
If you are unfamiliar with this song, check out this link to Youtube to hear a wonderful version by Bing Crosby.

Readers from the United States may have noted that I initially called this bird an American Robin, rather than simply a Robin. Thanks to my occasional trips to Europe, I have been introduced to the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), an equally beautiful but completely different bird. Here’s a link to a posting about a European Robin that I spotted in Paris last November.

 

American Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Getting an unobstructed shot of small birds is frequently impossible, so I often have to twist, turn, and bend in order to get a clear shot of at least the bird’s head. That certainly was the case with this focused male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

If you look closely at the web of branches that surround and frame this woodpecker, you may notice that they are at varying degrees of sharpness, with some of them closer to the bird and some closer to me. My task was to find a visual tunnel through the branches that would somehow make them as undistracting as possible, even when they run right across the body of the main subject. Of course, the challenge is even greater with a subject like a Down Woodpecker that is hyperactive and in almost constant motion.

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The wind was blowing strongly last Friday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, giving this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) a bad case of “bed head.” I think that the wind may also have distracted the eagle a little, which allowed me to move closer to the eagle that I might otherwise have been able to do.

bald eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During a frosty early morning February foray into Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I spotted this handsome male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) with fluffed-up feathers. Undeterred by the wind and the cold, he was feverishly moving up and around this tree trunk, pecking along the way in search of a tasty tidbit for breakfast.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) had its eye on the prize, with the prize being a cluster of wizened poison ivy berries, yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. These tiny songbirds rely on seeds and fruits to make it through the winter.  I won’t be long, though, before they revert to a diet of primarily insects—I like to think of them as seasonal vegetarians.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was sunny this morning, as forecast, but it was also windy and cold when I set out at 7 o’clock, about 25 degrees (minus 4 degrees C), according to the thermometer in my car. Most of the birds at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge seemed to have decided to sleep late, but eventually I started to see some of them, including this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) that was wading out into the shallow waters of a low tide.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On some winter days it is tough to find birds to photograph—all of the birds that I do manage to see are either far away or hidden. On one of those kind of days last week, I was thrilled to spot this cute little Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) that was only half-hidden in a distant tree. My efforts were aided by the fact that Carolina Wrens are loud singers, especially considering their diminutive size, which allowed me to hear this bird well before I actually saw it.

Carolina Wren

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the highlights of my visit on Monday to Green Spring Gardens was photographing a blossoming Japanese Apricot tree (Prunus mume). It was a little strange to see a tree with blossoms during the winter, but apparently it is normal for this species to blossom in mid-winter and late winter. The flowers are commonly known as plum blossoms and are a frequent theme in traditional painting in China and in other East Asian countries—the blossoms were also a favorite with the honey bees.

According to Wikipedia, the plum blossom is “one of the most beloved flowers in China and has been frequently depicted in Chinese art and poetry for centuries. The plum blossom is seen as a symbol of winter and a harbinger of spring. The blossoms are so beloved because they are viewed as blooming most vibrantly amidst the winter snow, exuding an ethereal elegance, while their fragrance is noticed to still subtly pervade the air at even the coldest times of the year. Therefore, the plum blossom came to symbolize perseverance and hope, as well as beauty, purity, and the transitoriness of life.”

I do not use my macro lens very much during the winter months and usually leave it at home. However, the mild weather that we have been having made me suspect that some flowers would be in bloom, so I put the macro lens on my camera—the busy bees turned out to be a big bonus.

I especially admired the efforts of the bee in the first photo. This bee did not want to wait for the bud to open, but instead burrowed its way to the pollen-filled center of the blossom-to-be.

Japanese Apricot tree

Japanese Apricot tree

Japanese Apricot tree

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This winter has been usually mild and spring color is already starting to appear in our area. During a visit yesterday to Green Spring Gardens, a local county-run historical garden, I spotted crocuses in bloom at several locations. Finding crocuses was not too much of a surprise, since they are usually among the first flowers to appear each spring.  However, it was an unexpected bonus to be able to photograph a honey bee collecting pollen inside of one of the crocuses.

In many ways yesterday’s photography was a return to my roots. When I started getting more serious about photography seven years ago, I did a lot of shooting with my friend and mentor, Cindy Dyer. One of her many areas of specialization is macro photography of flowers and some of her flower images have even appeared on US postage stamps. From her I learned a lot about the technical aspects of photography, like composition and depth of field, but more importantly she encouraged and inspired me back then and continues to do so to this day. Thanks, Cindy.

I started off photographing flowers with a few insects, but gradually realized that I was more interested in shooting insects with a few flowers. I can appreciate the beauty of the crocuses in the second and third images below, but the first shot is more representative of my desired shooting style.

crocus

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I went searching through my archives yesterday for a photo from March 2016 that I wanted to have printed. I won’t dwell on my storage practices, but suffice it to say that I am not very well organized. The image in question, one of my all-time favorite shots, shows a Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) whose breath was visible in the cold morning air. I have posted the image a few times and have had some really positive response, but somehow I had never gotten around to having it printed.

I had forgotten that I had captured multiple shots that day and as I was going through them yesterday I came across the first shot below that I have never posted. I love the way that the image shows how the blackbird puts his whole body into producing his “visible song”—I remember my choir leaders instructing us on the importance of breathing from the diaphragm for better sound projection.

The second and third shots give you a better view of the bird’s breath as it was being expelled. I was playing around with image formats and decided to do a square crop that I think works pretty well with these images. One of the photo companies has a sale today on canvas prints and I may one or more of these shots printed to see how they look. A friend has also suggested that I consider having a metal print made of one of them.

The temperature, humidity, and lighting all have be perfect to be able to see this phenomenon shown here. I have not been lucky enough to see it again since that day almost four years ago, though others have taken similar shots at the same location in recent years.

If you are curious to read my blog posting about the initial encounter, check out my 8 March 2016 blog posting entitled “Visible Song.”

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last Wednesday I spotted this little sparrow at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I thought it was a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), but decided to check with some birding experts on Facebook who were able to confirm my initial suspicions. It did take me a little while longer to get a response than usual, however, because my proposed identification was correct. I tend to get quicker responses when I am wrong—folks will often jump in really quickly to correct me.

Although Song Sparrows are one of the most common sparrow species where I live, I love trying to get shots of them whenever I can.  In this case, I was happy with the simple composition and minimalist color palette that I was able to capture in this image—all of the different shades of brown give the image a harmonious feel that I find pleasing.

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the time I try to take detailed shots of the birds that I photograph, but somethings that simply is not possible. This past week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the ducks all stayed in the deep water, far from the shore on which I was standing. As I gazed to my right and to my left searching for closer ducks, I became increasingly fascinated by the bare branches of the trees overhanging the water.

Even though I was shooting with a long telephoto lens, I decided to try to capture the landscape that was drawing me in. If you look closely at the two images below, you will see that I have included some distant ducks, but clearly they were not the focus of the photos. A wider lens might have capture the environment better, but would have risked drawing the viewers’ eyes away from the tree shapes. I don’t take landscape-style photos very often, but sometimes that is what the situation seems to call for and/or permits.

distant ducks

distant ducks

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How do Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) show affection? I am not sure exactly what these two eagles were doing when I spotted them on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Were they singing to each other? Maybe they doing some version of eagle French kissing? Whatever the case, the eagles definitely seemed to be enjoying spending the time close together, beak-to-beak, showing love in their own ways.

Happy Valentine’s Day as you show love in your own way. Although this holiday traditionally is focused on couples, I think that singles like me should also celebrate love today—I love flowers and am planning to get some later today. It is more than ok to love yourself, so go ahead and treat yourself today—you are worth it.

Bald Eagle

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Do male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) know that they are bright red in color? When I spooked one of them yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, he flew to a nearby field and perched in the midst of a mass of vegetation.

Did he think that he was hidden from me? Obviously he was not—his red coloration makes it almost impossible for him to blend in. I couldn’t help but think of a quotation that is attributed to Dr. Seuss, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” That’s probably a good question for all of us—as you can probably guess, I am somewhat of a non-conformist.

 

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was exploring Occoquan Regional Park last week with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, he pointed out a foamy-looking mass attached to the branches of a bush and asked me if I knew what it was. My first thought was that it was some sort of cocoon, but I had never seen one that looked like this. Walter informed me that it was an ootheca and when I continued to look at him with a blank stare, he explained that an ootheca is an egg case for a praying mantis, in this case most likely a Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis sinensis).

I did a little research on-line and learned more about oothecae in an article on the Thoughtco.com website.

“Soon after mating, a female praying mantis deposits a mass of eggs on a twig or other suitable structure. She may lay just a few dozen eggs or as many as 400 at one time. Using special accessory glands on her abdomen, the mother mantis then covers her eggs with a frothy substance, which hardens quickly to a consistency similar to polystyrene. This egg case is called an ootheca.”

Several articles warned readers against collecting one of these egg masses. Apparently indoor heat may cause the tiny mantises inside to think it is spring and you may suddenly find yourself with 400 new additions to your household.

ootheca

ootheca

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Deer hunting is conducted from early September to late February in many of the county-run parks where I take photographs. Our area is over-populated with White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and hunting is one element of a comprehensive deer management program. I am personally not a hunter, but I understand the need to try to keep the population in check to limit the likelihood of collisions with cars or of deer dying from starvation during the winter months.

No areas of these parks are closed during this hunting season, which might sound dangerous, but there are strict requirements that the hunters must follow. Most notably they have to be trained and certified archers and must shoot from tree stands. Most people never see the tree stands because they are in remote areas of the parks, but those are precisely the areas that I like to visit.

During recent trips to Occoquan Regional Park, I spotted the tree stand shown in the first photo below. No archers were sitting in the stand, though in the past I have spotted occupied tree stands a couple of times. The second image shows one of several trail cameras that I have seen at this park this year. The cameras that I have spotted in the past were more primitive—they recorded to a memory card that had to be retrieved and reviewed. The markings on the camera shown indicated that it could transmit on a cell phone signal. The manufacturer’s website notes that images can be sent in real-time or transmitted in a batch at periodic intervals during the day.

How does all of this affect me? I am not deterred from visiting these locations, but I am extra alert and cautious when I know there are tree stands nearby. I also make sure that I smile whenever I spot a trail camera—I never know when someone is watching me.

tree stand

trail camera

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was thrilled Saturday when the sunlight illuminated the beautiful colors of this male Bufflehead duck (Bucephala albeola) as he was drying his wing feathers at the pond at Ben Brenman Park in Alexandria, Virginia. In the past I had gotten glimpses of the brilliant purple and green colors on the head of a bufflehead, but this is the first time that I have been able to capture them so well.

In most of my previous shots of a male bufflehead, those colors all blend together into a nondescript dark color. I was definitely helped by the way that the way the bufflehead had lifted himself partially out of the water in order to flap his wings, giving me a clearer view of its head..

bufflehead

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The past few weeks I have been searching for patches of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). What exactly is skunk cabbage? The Gardening Know How website describes the plant in these words, “Skunk cabbage is a perennial wildflower that grows in swampy, wet areas of forest lands. This unusual plant sprouts very early in the spring, and has an odd chemistry that creates its own heat, often melting the snow around itself as it first sprouts in the spring.” In case you are curious, the plant gets its name from the fact that its leaves gives off a smell of skunk or rotting meat when they are crushed or bruised—I can’t personally vouch for that fact, but am willing to accept it at face-value.

So why am I looking for this curious plant that has already begun to sprout in my area? Several types of dragonflies, including the Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster obliqua) that I featured last week, and the Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi) can be found in the kind of forest seeps where skunk cabbage grows. The purpose of my recent trips to several parks has been to conduct advance reconnaissance of locations to explore when dragonfly season finally arrives.

For more information about skunk cabbage and how dragonflies are associated with this plant, check out this recent posting by Walter Sanford, my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast, with whom I have conducted some of these scouting expeditions.

 

skunk cabbage

skunk cabbage

skunk cabbage

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are with us throughout the winter and I will usually attempt to photograph them during my winter forays into the wild. I tend to think of White-throated Sparrows as the “dandies” of the sparrow world—they have the same general coloration as other sparrows, but have a distinctive appearance with their white chin beards and bright yellow eyestripes. It is a real bonus when the lighting is good and the perch is photogenic, as was the case last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

White-throated Sparrow

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Kinglets are tiny birds, about 4 inches (10 cm) in length, and always seem to be in constant motion in heavily vegetated areas. As a result, they tend to be really hard to photograph. Last week at Occoquan Bay National Refuge I was thrilled to be able to capture images of both kinglet species in our area—the Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula).

It is not hard to guess that the bird in the first shot is a Golden-crowned Kinglet. I was never able to get close to the kinglet, but it did give me a clear view of its beauty when it perched momentarily on a small branch. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the second image has a more typical pose, surrounded by vines and branches. I shot over a dozen images of this little bird and this is the only one in which its head is up and visible.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is not yet dragonfly season, so I have no new photos of these amazing aerial acrobats. However, when I was searching for some other photos yesterday, I came across these images that I had worked up last May and had never posted. I sometimes get so focused on getting new photos that I forget about the older ones, which is why I usually try to do postings as soon as I can after a sighting.

Arrowhead Spiketails (Cordulegaster obliqua) are pretty uncommon in my area, but I was familiar with their appearance because I had seen one only a few days earlier when exploring a different location with fellow blogger and dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford (for more information on the earlier sighting, see my May 27, 2019 posting Female Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly)

I spotted this dragonfly in the air as I was walking along a trail at Occoquan Regional Park and watched it land on some nearby vegetation. As I approached, it was easy for me to see the distinctive arrowhead pattern of the abdomen for which this species is named. Like other spiketails, Arrowhead Spiketails perch by hanging vertically or at an angle. This particular dragonfly, which happens to be a male, was quite cooperative and let me get close enough to get the portrait-style shot that you see as the second image below.

It will be at least two months before some of the early dragonfly species start to appear in our area. Unlike many summer species that are habitat generalists and are numerous for months on end, spring dragonfly species tend to be found in small numbers in very specific habitats for a limited period of time. Hopefully this posting—a flashback to last May—is a preview of coming attractions.

Arrowhead Spiketail

Arrowhead Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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With the weather so warm recently in my area, it is hard to remember that the puddles were iced over last Thursday when I captured this early morning shot of one of them at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Winter in my area has been exceptionally mild—we have had almost no snow and only occasional periods of below-freezing temperatures. I have always been fascinated by the abstract patterns that form as water freezes, but this was the first time this season that I was able to capture a shot like this.

I am even more in awe of the amazing photos that I occasionally come across of individual snowflakes—capturing a shot like that is on my list of aspirational goals in photography.

ice

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I didn’t realize that this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was eating its breakfast when I inadvertently spooked it last Thursday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There was no way the eagle was going to leave the fish behind, however, so it decided to take its fish “to go” when it took to the air.

When I first looked at this image, I was not sure if I liked it—it is pretty obvious that I was shooting through some branches and parts of the eagle are blurred out by them. When I examined the shot more closely, though, the positioning of the fish in the eagle’s mouth and the awesome details of the talons and tail made me decide that it was worth posting.

bald eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

 

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All female Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) have traces of red feathers, but this one that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge seemed to have bolder markings than most. Before I took her portrait, I could help noticing that she had seed remnants on her bill. I also can be a bit of a messy eater at times, so I am reluctant to allow anyone to photograph me while I am eating.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Even though I arrived at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge last Thursday morning as the electric gate was opening at 7 o’clock, I was a little too late to photograph the the sun rising over the water. However, I did manage to capture some shots of the early morning color through the trees.

It is always tough for me to take landscape-type shots, especially when there is not an obvious subject. In this case, I was content to capture the colors and the patterns in images that feel almost abstract to me.

winter sunrise

winter sunrise

winter sunrise

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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At this time of the year pops of bright color are especially welcome, so I was thrilled on Thursday to see some Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in a sumac patch at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Sometimes when I see bluebirds their colors seem muted, but the blue color of these birds was dazzling, especially for the males in the first two shots. I think the bluebird in the final shot is a female, judging from its coloration.

As always, you can see more detail if you click on the images, which I especially recommend for the first image, because you will see that the bluebird has a tiny sumac berry in its bill.

 

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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