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Archive for August, 2020

Do you photograph the same subjects over and over again? I know that I do, hoping that each new opportunity might provide something different—perhaps a new pose, an unusual angle of view, or different lighting conditions.

That is why I was chasing after this male Eastern Amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) last week at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Usually I find the males of this common species buzzing around at water’s edge or perched on vegetation overhanging or growing out of the water. This individual, however, was flying over a grassy patch adjacent to the pond, periodically pausing to perch only a few inches above the ground.

I took this shot from almost directly above the little dragonfly—Eastern Amberwings are less than an inch (25 mm) in length—and that angle helped me to capture the entire body in relatively sharp focus. Sharpness, though is only one of the factors that I use in evaluating my photos and often it is not the most important one. In this case, I really like the angled pose of the dragonfly and I the dominant colors in the image. I absolutely love the way that the beautiful warm brown colors of the dragonfly contrast with the cool greens in the background.

Sometimes we grow so comfortable with our familiar surroundings that we take them for granted. I strive to look at the world with optimism and fresh eyes each day, confident that I will discover beauty almost anywhere that I find myself.

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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In a recent posting featuring my first Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of the year, I lamented the scarcity of Monarchs this summer. A few days later, I was delighted to spot several more Monarchs during a visit to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. The Monarchs moved about quite a bit and I ended up sweaty and out of breath after chasing them all over, but I was more than happy with the results.

The Monarchs concentrated most of their efforts on several patches of swamp milkweed at the edge of a small pond. I moved quickly as I tried to compose shots with both a good background and a photogenic wing position, which often was easier said than done.

In the first shot you get a view of some of the vegetation growing in the pond and the lighting from that angle really made the colors pop. The second shot gives you a wide view of the largest patch of swamp milkweed that the Monarch was sharing with some much smaller Pearl Crescent butterflies. I captured the final image in an adjacent field. The dominant green of the vegetation and the vertical lines of the stalks of the vegetation give this image a much different feel that the other two images. I think the three images work well together as a little collection.

I continue to remain hopeful that I will continue to see more Monarchs (and other butterflies too) as we move deeper into summer.

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I have observed animals, birds, and animals, I have noticed that sometimes the male is larger than the female and sometimes the opposite is the case. Quite often the size difference is so slight that you have to rely on other characteristics to try to determine the gender of a subject.

When it comes to spiders, though, the size difference is shockingly large—the male is often one quarter the size of the female or even smaller. On Monday I spotted my first black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) of the season. I have long been fascinated with these large spiders and the distinctive zigzag pattern that they weave into their webs.

When I looked at my images on my computer, I was surprised to see that there was a second, smaller spider just to the left and behind the main subject. Could this possibly be a male garden spider? According to Wikipedia, males range in size from .2-.35 inches (5-9 mm) and females range in size from .75 to 1.1 inches (18 to 28 mm), so the size differential seems about right. Additional the smaller spider looks like photos I was able to find of male garden spiders.

Spider mating can hazardous for male spiders. In some species, if the male is rejected by the female, she eats him. I thought that might be the case for these garden spiders, but came across a fascinating article at newscientist.com with the sensationalist title “Spider sex causes spontaneous death” that suggests something stranger than cannibalism.

According to a study conducted at Concordia University and the University of California, “Researchers found that for male orb-weaving spiders of the species Argiope aurantia completing copulation leads to certain death. The deceased suitor’s corpse is then trapped in the female genitalia. This may be a strategy to prevent other males from subsequently mating with the female, say the scientists.” The scientists determined that the female did nothing to kill the males who died spontaneously and concluded, “The females do sometimes remove and devour their dead mates. But the researchers do not think the death program evolved to give her a post-sex snack, as the males are too tiny to provide much nutrition.”

Nature can be wild, weird, and wonderful and endlessly fascinating. I guess that is what prompted the scientists to carefully study 100 pairs of spiders mating. 🙂


Argiope aurantia

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is not yet the end of summer, but already it seems like the numbers of dragonflies of some species are diminishing. Many of the survivors show signs of wear and tear, with damage to their wings and scratches on their bodies. However, there are some dragonfly species that do not appear on the scene until late in the summer or even in the autumn, so those of us who enthusiastically chase after dragonflies still have plenty to keep us occupied—in my area certain dragonflies are around until December and even occasionally into early January.

Yesterday I was excited to spot one of those late-summer dragonflies at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, a female Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus plagiatus). When I first spotted her, she was clinging to some vegetation, as you can see in the second photo. I was so entranced by her beautiful green eyes, though, that I decided to lead this posting with a close-up shot shot of those spectacular eyes that remind me a little of malachite.

In the final two photos, you can clearly see the distinguishing features of the “tail” that are responsible for the common name of the species. As is often the case with clubtail dragonflies, the “club” is much more prominent with the male Russet-tipped Clubtail than with the female. If you would like to see some cool shots of a male for comparison, check out my blog posting from September 2016 entitled “Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly.”

Russet-tipped Clubtail

Russet-tipped Clubtail

 

Russet-tipped Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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Having recently photographic some hummingbirds in flight, I couldn’t help but think of them when I first spotted several Snowberry Clearwing Moths (Hemaris diffinis) last week at Occoquan Regional Park. The fight characteristics are quite similar as they hover in mid-air and extract nectar from flowers. Unlike hummingbirds that have a skinny bill and a tongue, clearwing moths use a long proboscis to reach into the flowers.

In our area we have two similar species of clearwing moths, the Snowberry Clearwing and the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hermaris thysbe). They are similar in appearance and behavior, but generally the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth is redder in appearance, so I believe these are all Snowberrys.

The clearwing moths seem to be very attracted to several small patches of swamp milkweed. Other insects had a similar attraction and if you look in the center of the milkweed in the second photo, you will note an orange insect that I can’t see well enough to identify.

 

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When it comes to damselflies, you often have to look closely for identifying marks, because so many of them are colored with variations of blue and black. I really could not identify the species of this little damselfly when I took this photo on Wednesday while exploring a creek in Prince William County. I decided that if he was willing to pose for me on a leaf, I was more than willing to take his picture.

When I pulled up the image on my computer, I immediately noticed some distinctive blue markings near the tip of the abdomen. Those markings helped me to  identify it as a male Dusky Dancer (Argia translata), a species that I had never before photographed.

We are still in a kind of summer doldrums period, where the summer dragonflies have been buzzing around for quite some time, and it is too early for the autumn species to appear. It is therefore pretty exciting for me to photograph a new species—I might have seen a Dusky Dancer in the past, but I am pretty sure that I was not able to capture an image, so in my mind it did not “count.”

Be sure to click on the image if you want to get a closer view of the distinctive markings and beautiful eyes of this cool-looking Dusky Dancer damselfly.

Dusky Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What do you think of when you hear the word “common?” Although this term can refer simply to the frequency with which something is seen or experienced, it often has a derogatory connotation of inferiority. For that reason, I am often uncomfortable with the use of the word “common” in the name of many species.

I could easily argue, for example, that this Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) that I spotted on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge is uncommonly beautiful. The orange markings and wonderfully-colored eyespots make this a stunning butterfly. Yes, I see this species quite often, but its distinctive beauty never fails to take my breath away.

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Do you like hidden surprises? It is often hard to spot Question Mark butterflies (Polygonia interrogationis), because the drab texture and color of their external wings makes them look like dead leaves, helping them to blend in well with their surroundings.

When I spotted this butterfly last Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, it was perched with its wings closed. Gradually the butterfly began to open them wide and I was treated to the spectacular display of its inner wings that seemed to glow in the sunlight. The beauty that was hidden was now revealed in its full glory.

It makes me wonder how much hidden beauty I miss every day, deceived by external appearances and rushed by the hectic pace of daily life. Who knows what beauty awaits if I am alert and patient? Maybe those are the question marks to which I should be paying more attention.

 

Question Mark butterfly

Question Mark butterfly

Question Mark butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Do you chase wildlife or do you wait for it to come to you? I tend to be in the former group and will sometimes walk for hours and hours in search of suitable subjects.

On Wednesday, however, the action came to me. I was returning from a walk along a stream hunting for dragonflies and was shocked as I approached my car to see a pair of Red-footed Cannibalflies (Promachus rufipes) mating on my car. I watched in fascination as they moved from one part of the car’s exterior to another, locked in the peculiar tail-to-tail position that robber flies use for mating. (Even before this incident, I knew that I needed to wash my car, as you can readily see in the second photo.)

I must confess that I have long had a fascination with this insect species—there is something really cool and slightly horrifying about the macabre moniker ‘Red-footed Cannibalfly.’ They are fierce predators who reported have been able to take down a hummingbird. They inject their victims with a toxin that paralyzes them and liquifies their insides so that the cannibalfly can more easily ingest their innards. If you are not totally creeped out by now, you might agree that cannibalflies are cool insects.

I have written over 3500 blog postings over the past eight years and my most-viewed regular posting is one that I published in August 2013 with the simple title of “Red-footed Cannibalfly,” with 2595 views. Yes, a lot of people seem to be interested in this insect and somehow find their way to that blog posting each year. It is a good posting, I think, but neither the prose nor the photos are great, but sometimes that doesn’t matter for popularity in this digital world. (You can judge for yourself by clicking on the title of the posting that I linked to the original posting.)

Some of you may have noted that I used the term “regular posting” in describing my posting on the red-footed cannibalfly. In November 2014 I was fortunate to be at a local nature park during the rescue of an injured bald eagle by the animal control officers of the local police department and documented it in a blog posting entitled “Rescue of an injured Bald Eagle.”

Several news outlets picked up the story including the Washington Post , some local radio and television stations, including WTOP, and the Fairfax County Police Department News. A number of them included a link to my blog posting, which had over 3000 views in a couple of days, but has had relatively few views since that time. I had authorized the Police Department to use my posting and photos and as a result of that exposure I was contacted by a number of media organizations asking permission to use my photos, which I agreed to, requesting that they give attribution and, if possible, a link to my blog.

A small number of media organizations, including the Washington Post, used my photos without asking for permission, though the Washington Post did at least give attribution. When I contacted the reporter, he said that he had “assumed” it was ok, because he had obtained the photos through the Police Department site. I have not had to deal with the media since, but know now to be a bit careful in doing so.

Red-footed Cannibalfly

Red-footed Cannibalfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There were so many butterflies concentrated in a small patch of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) that they looked like a bouquet of orange flowers when I first spotted them on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I believe that they are all Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos), though there is also a chance that they might be the similar-looking Silvery Checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne nycteis).

pearl crescent

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some of our smallest butterflies are among our prettiest, like this tiny Banded Hairstreak butterfly (Satyrium calanus) that I spotted on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I always check out a patch of wildflowers in one corner of this small refuge and once again it paid dividends.

I was able to photograph this butterfly as it nectared on one of the many black-eyed susans that are now in bloom. Actually I am not entirely certain if these flowers are black-eyed susans, but they are the same shape and color and may be part of the larger rudbeckia flower family.

UPDATE: A friend of mine on Facebook who is more experienced than I am with butterflies tells me that this is probably a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus), not a Banded Hairstreak. The difference is so subtle that I am not sure I can see it and certainly cannot explain it. At least the beauty is undeniable.

Banded Hairstreak

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was really happy yesterday morning when I spotted a female Tiger Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster erronea) while exploring a small stream in Prince William County, Virginia and absolutely thrilled when she started ovipositing, giving me a chance to capture these images. For several years I have been trying to photograph this elusive species. In the past I have gotten a glimpse of a Tiger Spiketail on several occasions, but never managed to get a shot of one.

Why have I had such problems? Kevin Munroe, who developed the wonderfully informative website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, described the species in these words:

“This secretive and seldom seen forest dweller has an almost elven quality. It lives deep in mature woodlands and spends most of its life around tiny, almost invisible spring-fed seepage streams. When startled, it disappears into the leafy canopy, which is also where pairs fly to mate, often hidden for hours. Their larvae live in such small, food-scarce streams that they take several years to mature. Tigers live in smaller streams than any other Northern Virginia spiketail. Their numbers are relatively low, and it’s unusual to see more than one or two together. There’s a certain thrill to finding a Tiger Spiketail at its stream—you know you’ve stumbled upon a clean, quiet and special corner of whatever park you’re exploring.”

Tiger Spiketails fly patrols low above the water of these tiny forest streams. If you find the right kind of stream, you stand and wait, hoping that a Tiger Spiketail will fly by. If one appears, you might have a second or two to get off a shot of the flying dragonfly before it disappears from sight. You repeat the cycle and if all goes well, the dragonfly may come back again within fifteen to thirty minutes or you may never see it again.

I was really lucky yesterday. Earlier in the morning I had had several sightings of a Tiger Spiketail, but had gotten only a single very blurry shot. When a Tiger Spiketail flew into view, I immediately started tracking the dragonfly visually and I was shocked when she began to dip the tip of her abdomen in the water to deposit an egg, a process known as ovipositing. What this meant was that she would hang around in a spot for several seconds and then move upstream a bit and repeat the process.

Although I had the Tiger Spiketail in sight, getting a decent shot was a challenge. In addition to her lateral movements, she was also moving up and down as she deposited her eggs. Much of the stream was in the shade or the light was heavily filtered, so it was hard to get enough light to capture a moving subject. I managed to get a few reasonably sharp action shots of the Tiger Spiketail. If you double-click on the first image, you can actually see the dragonfly’s “spiketail” and other details including its beautiful markings and striking green eyes. The second shot gives you a better view of the environment in which I found this dragonfly, which is considered rare in the area in which I live.

Whenever I manage to capture of a new species, I am so excited that I do not worry much about the quality of the images. Before long, though, the excitement dies down and I will hit the trails again, determined and hopeful that I will be able to get some better shots. That crazy, quixotic vision is what drives most of us nature and wildlife photographers to go out repeatedly, always in search of the next best photo.

Tiger Spiketail

Tiger Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What do you do to cope on a hot sunny day? Most of us stay indoors in an air-conditioned space, possibly with a cold beverage. Dragonflies do not have those options, so many of them assume a pose, often known as the obelisk posture, in an attempt to regulate their temperature by reducing exposure to the direct sunlight.

You may seen dragonflies in a handstand-like pose, looking like gymnasts in training—that is the obelisk posture. The dragonfly lifts its abdomen until its tip points to the sun, thereby minimizing the amount of surface area exposed to solar radiation. At noontime, the vertical position of the dragonfly’s body suggest an obelisk, which in my area immediately brings to mind the Washington Monument. According to Wikipedia, scientists have tested this phenomenon in a laboratory by heating Blue Dasher dragonflies with a lamp, which caused them to raise their abdomens and has been shown to be effective in stopping or slowly the rise in their body temperature.

While visiting Green Spring Gardens last week on a hot humid day, I observed obelisking behavior in a male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) and a male Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera). I have always been intrigued by this pose and would love to try it out to see if it works for thermoregulation in humans too. Alas, I lack both the upper-body strength and the lower body flexibility to make a go of it, so I’ll continue to be merely a spectator of these beautiful little acrobats.

Blue Dasher

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Most folks who live in the Eastern part of the United States can probably identify an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) when they see one. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are large and have a distinctive pattern of bright yellow and black on their wings. However, not all Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are yellow—females come in two distinctly different variants, black and yellow.

The yellow morph looks a lot like a male, but with a conspicuous band of blue spots along the hindwings that the males do not have. The dark morph female has similar markings, but most of its body color is black, like the one below that I spotted last week at Green Spring Gardens. The perfect condition of its wings this late in the season suggests to me that this is a newly emerged butterfly.

So what do the females come in two colors? I read an interesting on-line article about this subject entitled “Why are you that color? The strange case of the dark phase tiger swallowtail.” The author speculates that the dark morph is an evolutionary attempt to mimic a similar-looking Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly that predators know is toxic, a practice known as Batesian mimicry. So, in theory the dark morph would have a better chance of survival. For unknown reasons, however, the males do not seem to be as attracted to the dark morph females, “These guys are apparently traditionalists and prefer the good ol’ yellow and black that their species is known for.” So the genes that might benefit species survival are not always passed on.

If you are interested in seeing photos of both female variants, check out a 2012 posting entitled “Swallowtail ladies are not all the same.”


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last week when I was exploring Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, I spotted this very strange looking caterpillar in one of the trees. It was quite small and was in motion, so getting a photo was somewhat of a challenge. As I was doing research, I was a little shocked to discover that this is actual the larval stage of a Dogwood Sawfly (Macremphytus tarsatus), a wasp-like insect. The larvae go through a number of different phases of development and this looks to middle-instar stage.

No matter how many times I return to a location, there always seems to be something new and different to see, as long as I take the time to look slowly and carefully.

 

Dogwood Sawfly larva

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This butterfly had its choice of flowers as I chased after it last week at Green Spring Gardens, but it chose instead to grab some nectar from a lowly clover plant. Still, I can’t complain—it was my first sighting of a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) this season.

Monarch Butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am catching up on some photos and thought I’d post this image that I captured in mid-July of a cool-looking fishing spider that Walter Sanford spotted while we were hunting for dragonflies at a creek in Fairfax County. I am not sure of the specific species of the spider, but I am pretty confident that it is of the genus Dolomedes. Most of the times in the past when I have spotted similar spiders, they have actually been in the water, but this one seemed to be hunting from a crevice in the rocks at the edge of the water.

I love the texture of the rocks and especially the lichen that add a lot of visual interest to this image. If you would like to see Walter’s take on our encounter with this spider, check out his post ‘Fishing spider Friday.’ Walter noted that he sees “a mean monkey face on the front half of the spider and a baboon face on the back half.” Be sure to click on the image to see the spider more closely, if you dare and let me know what you think.

 

fishing spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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July was a crazy month no matter how you look at it. Who knows what the new month will hold for us all? When I checked the garden of my friend and neighbor Cindy Dyer a few days ago, I was thrilled to see that some of her gladiolas are now in bloom, symbolic of the new life and growth that is still possible in our own lives, even in these troubled times.

gladiolas

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I had forgotten how small Fragile Forktail damselflies (Ischnura posita) are until I spotted one perched in some vegetation last week while I was exploring at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Even by damselfly standards, Fragile Forktails are tiny at only .8 to 1.1 inches (21-29 mm) in length. The good news is that they are relatively easy to identify, because they have pale interrupted shoulder stripes that look like exclamation points.

I love how the green of the damselfly’s thorax and in its eyes match the soft green palette of the rest of the image. For me, there is something really soothing about this simple portrait of a tiny damselfly.

Fragile Forktail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have now successfully completed the World Watercolor Month challenge of doing some kind of watercolor painting each day of July. I have had a tremendous amount of fun and improved my skills and confidence. Thank you all for your support and encouragement for my painting efforts throughout this month.

If you want to see the first four installments of my painting efforts this month, check out my previous postings ‘More fun with watercolor‘, ‘World Watercolor Month 2020—part 2 ,’ ‘World Watercolor Month 2020—part 3,’ and Word Watercolor Month—part 4. This final installment highlights my painting efforts over the past nine days in reverse chronological order.

Day 31 and the prompt was “do-over,” so I had another go at painting a scene that I painted last November while in Paris of a lady with a red umbrella crossing a pedestrian bridge over the Seine that I had photographed. Here is a link to the postingPlaying with watercolor in Paris‘ that shows the November version of the painting, and a link to the post ‘A few more umbrellas in Paris‘ that shows the photo on which the paintings were based.

Day 30 and the prompt was “pose.” I decided to be my own model and painted a version of the photo that has been my profile image for a while. Thanks to my friend, Cindy Dyer, for taking such a good photo of me.

Day 29 and the prompt was “yesterday.” Immediately thinking of the Beatle song by that name, I was flooded with memories of growing up in the 1960’s, so I did a colorful little painting reminiscent of a tie-dyed t-shirt as a kind of homage to that period in my life.

Day 28 and the prompt was “complementary.” Purple and yellow are complementary colors, so I decided to paint a field of imaginary wildflowers in those colors. I made no attempt at realism or nuance in the painting—I just wanted to play with the paint.

Day 27 and the prompt was “shine,” so I painted a little landscape with the moon shining down on a grove of shadowy trees.

Day 26 and the prompt was “favorite song.”  I remembered that one of my parents’ favorite hymns was “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” so I painted a little sparrow. The final line of the wonderful hymn is, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”

Day 25 and the prompt was “sharp.”  I decided to paint a version of a photo I had previously taken of a dragonfly that had chosen a precarious perch on a thorny vine.

Day 24 and the prompt was “abundance,” so I did a tiny painting (3×3 in/76 x 76 mm) of a field full of bright red poppies following a YouTube tutorial by Ellen Crimi-Trent (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUDC7Aojxm4&t=83s). It’s fun to paint something so small, where details are only suggested.

Day 23 and the prompt was “alone,” so I painted a solitary bird perched amidst some blossoms. It kind of looks like a cross between a chickadee and an American Robin. I later learned that the bird looks to be a Varied Tit, a bird found in the Far East. I had loosely followed a YouTube tutorial that did not identify the bird  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtlLzgfnQxw&t=1222s).

I plan to continue with my watercolor painting, having seen that frequent practice really helps, but it will probably be a while before I post any paintings here on the blog. Thanks again for your support and indulgence as I have veered off my normal creative path.

We should be back to my regularly scheduled nature photography, though you have probably noticed that the photography continued without any discernible pause in July.

Paris Umbrella

self portrait

tie dye

wildflowers

shine

sparrow

dragonfly

poppy field

Variable Tit

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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