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Archive for January, 2021

Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) do not run very fast, but the panning technique that I used for the photo below blurred the background and makes it look like the turkey was moving really quickly. I really like the effect that I achieved, but I must confess that it was what Bob Ross might have called a “happy accident.”

My visit yesterday to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge was coming to a close when I spotted a turkey in the distance getting ready to cross the road. My camera was attached to a monopod and I immediately planted it into the ground and tried to track the turkey with my zoom lens extended to its full 600mm length.

I had no idea what the setting were on my camera—I was completely focused on trying to capture the moment. As it turned out, the shutter speed was way too slow to stop the action, only 1/50 of a second, so my subject is somewhat blurred. When you plan to pan, you deliberately set a slow shutter speed, normally between 1/30 and 1/125 of a second and I happened to be within that range. I was also moving the camera pretty smoothly as I tracked the big bird.

Luck and instinctive reactions helped me capture a fun, funky image that puts a huge smile on my face every time that I look at it. I hope that it does the same for you.

 

wild turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I really love to capture images of common birds in cool poses or settings, like this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) that I spotted on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge on the bank of a small stream whose water had receded with the low tide.

The sparrow was moving about searching for tasty tidbits on the wet ground strewn with tiny pebbles and shells.  I was happy when it paused for a moment at a spot where I could capture its reflection in the shallow water. Be sure to click on the image if you want to get a closer look at this handsome little bird and all of the snail and mussel shells that surround it.

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when a passing birder pointed out this Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) to me. I thought that they were already gone until the spring, but a more experienced birder later told me that it is normal that some overwinter with us.

Like most other warblers, Common Yellowthroats generally head south for the winter. I wonder why this one stayed behind. Was he a procrastinator who got left behind or maybe a natural contrarian? Is the range of this species gradually creeping northward, perhaps because of global warming? (The range map shows that Common Yellowthroats are present year-round in the coastal areas of North Carolina, which is just to the south of Virginia, where I live.)

Whatever the case, it was really nice to spot the brilliant yellow throat of this masked warbler. I too was wearing a mask, but I don’t think it made look as cool and rakish as this Common Yellothroat.

Common Yellowthroat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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This Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was staring down at me and appeared to be irritated when I spotted it on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Was it truly sad, disappointed, or angry at my presence, or was I merely mirror-imaging the range of emotions that I have experienced this past week as I observed the chaos and confusion in my own country?

If you would like to get a closer look at the eagle’s expression, double-click on the image. What do you read in that expression?

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am not sure why this wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) decided to flash its feathers at me yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but it sure made for a fun photo. A fellow photographer spotted a small flock of turkeys foraging in a faraway field and we tried to track them as they made their way up a small slope at the edge of the field.

Most of the time the turkeys kept their heads down as they moved forward, scratching about in the dirt, as you can see in the final photo. I had to wait patiently, hopeful that one of them would raise its head briefly before they got too far away. I was thrilled when the turkey in the second shot stood still for a moment and almost ecstatic when it fanned and flashed its feathers as you saw in the featured first photo.

wild turkey

wild turkey

wild turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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How do you capture a mood? That was what I was trying to do when I photographed these winter cattails swaying gently in the breeze on Saturday at Huntley Meadows Park.

More than anything else, I was looking to nature to soothe my soul after what had been a traumatic week. As I focused on the cattails I could feel my heartbeat slow down and I was able to breathe more deeply.

We all need moments of respite and relaxation like this.

winter cattails

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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What does a wildlife photographer photograph when there is no wildlife to be seen? That was my dilemma, yesterday when we finally had some sunshine after a series of dreary days. I wanted to be out in nature with my camera, but I also wanted to avoid people as much as possible. Weekends are particularly problematic as crowds of people flock to popular areas, so I deliberately chose a remote trail at Huntley Meadows Park that took me past a partially-frozen pond.

There were no ducks or other birds at the pond. Instead I encountered a series of wonderfully abstract patterns in the thin ice atop the pond. A long telephoto zoom lens might not have been my first choice for these kinds of shots, but it worked remarkably well in capturing some of these patterns.

Initially my favorite image was the star-like pattern in the first photo below. Increasingly, though, I am drawn to the final photo that brings to mind a satellite or drone photo of a frozen mountain range at the edge of a sea.

ice

ice

ice

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How do you choose the images that you will include in a posting? Generally I will post photographs within a day or two of taking them. Sometimes, though, I get backlogged, either because I have gone out frequently or because my “catch” for a particular day was particularly good. If I were better organized and more objective in reviewing my photos, I might be better at making sure that I always post my best images. However, I suffer from a phenomenon known as “recency bias.”

What is recency bias? Recency bias is a type of cognitive bias in which you give greater weight during evaluation to things that are recent than to those in the past, even in the recent past. How does that work in practice for me? Yesterday I posted a photo of a bald eagle couple that I had spotted this past Monday, the most recent photo that I had taken of a bald eagle. I was excited to share it, because every single eagle sighting is special to me.

When I was trying to figure out what to post today, I realized that I had run out of cool images from my most recent photographic forays. I decided to go back a little in time and looked through my photos from late December. I stumbled across my eagle photos from 28 December, less than two weeks ago. I had taken a whole lot of shots of the eagle in an attempt to get an unobstructed view and had never gotten around to reviewing them all. I meant to do so, but got caught up in newer photos and gradually forgot about this eagle.

I really like this shot of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) that I spotted in a sweetgum tree at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. By almost any standard, it is a much better eagle photo than the one that I posted yesterday and I am glad that I “re-discovered” it. This little experience serves as a good reminder to me that it is important to look back sometimes and not be quite so tunnel-vision focused on getting the next image.

I am chuckling a little as I conclude this posting because I realize that, in essence, I am complaining about having so many images to post that I forget about some of them. Compared to the major challenges that we face in the world today, this definitely qualifies as a “first world problem.”

 

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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We have now reached the dark, gray days of winter. The endless series of cold cloudy days threatens to weaken my creative energy, and subjects to photograph seem harder and harder to find.  What can I do? What should I do?

For me, the key is simply to press on, even when I am not “feeling it” and even when the weather is less than optimal. I have to keep reminding myself of the benefits to my body and my emotional well-being that come from walking around in solitude with my camera. So I put on extra layers and push myself out the door.

As for the photos, I try to be grateful for whatever opportunities come my way. On Monday, for example, these perched Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were among a small number of birds that I managed to photographed. They were pretty far away, but I was happy to capture some of the details of the eagles’ feathers and the bark on the trees.

I could’t help but notice that the only bright colors in the image were the eagles’ beaks and talons, so I played around and converted the image to black and white. With the color removed, I can focus better on the shapes and textures of the elements in the image, but perhaps it draws too much attention away from the eagles that are, after all, the primary subjects of the photo.

Bald Eagles

bald eagles

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Male Bufflehead ducks (Bucephala albeola) are really easy to identify even from a distance because of the distinctive bonnet-like white patch on their heads. The rest of their heads normally appears to be a solid darkish color, but if the light is coming from the right direction, a very striking purple-green iridescence is revealed.

Yesterday I spotted a couple of male buffleheads at a small suburban pond near where I live. Most of the time the buffleheads stayed in the deep water, as most diving ducks like to do, but occasionally one of them would pop up momentarily a bit closer to the shore. I was thrilled that I managed to capture the beautiful head coloration in a couple of my images, which surprised and delighted me because the day was mostly cloudy and sunlight was mostly lacking.

Bufflehead

Bufflehead

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Not all plants wait for the spring to start growing. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetid) starts growing in the winter and can generate its own heat and even melt snow around it when the ground is frozen. According to Wikipedia, skunk cabbage “is notable for its ability to generate temperatures of up to 27–63 °F (15–35 °C) above air temperature by cyanide resistant cellular respiration in order to melt its way through frozen ground, placing it among a small group of thermogenic plants.” I spotted these skunk cabbage plants this past Saturday at Occoquan Regional Park.

So why am I interested in this plant? Several types of dragonflies, including the Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly and the Gray Petaltail dragonfly can be found in the kind of forest seeps where skunk cabbage grows. I am conducting advance reconnaissance of locations to explore when dragonfly season finally arrives. Last year I spotted my first dragonflies in early April, so I have “only” three months to wait for the opening of the 2021 dragonfly season.

skunk cabbage

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this handsome Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and surprisingly he was willing to pose for me—normally bluebirds fly off as soon as I move close to them with my camera.

We started off with a formal pose against a solid backdrop and then moved on to a more casual pose. We were both really happy with the final images—he plans to use them on his social media, especially Twitter.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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In the distance I heard the unmistakeable call of a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) during a recent at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. My eyes tried to follow my ears and I was finally able to locate the elusive bird, almost hidden against a backdrop of tangled trees. Was it worth taking a shot?

All photographers are taught to avoid cluttered backgrounds, because they make it difficult for viewers to focus on the primary subject—that is the conventional wisdom and it often makes sense, except when it doesn’t. The more I take photos, the more I realize that the “rules” are merely loose guidelines that need to be challenged regularly. When in doubt, I believe it is best to take the shot even when the lighting is bad, the shutter speed is too slow, or the background is too busy.

In this case, the small branches form an almost irregular pattern that more or less fades away for me, leaving me with the skeleton structure of the darker branches and the bird itself. The colors of the bird contrast so much with those of the branches that it stands out even though it is only a small part of the photo.

Does the image “work?” It is definitely not the “normal” kind of shot that I take, but I really like the way that it turned out. Sometimes it can be good to ignore the limitations of the rules and just go for it.

belted kingfisher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I grew up thinking of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) as springtime birds, but in the area in which I live robins are with us throughout the year. I photographed this robin this past Saturday at Occoquan Regional Park when it turned towards me with a quizzical look. The little bird seemed more curious about my presence than disapproving, though the inflexible bills of birds makes facial expressions a bit hard to judge.

American Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was unseasonably warm yesterday, so I was out in the wild looking for late season dragonfly survivors. I came up empty-handed for dragonflies, but did spot this cool-looking wolf spider (g. Gladicosa) at Occoquan Regional Park.

Several years ago fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford spotted an Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly in early January, so I knew that it was at least a theoretical possibility that I might see one. According to Walter’s blog posting about his sighting in 2016, the temperature was 51 degrees (10 degrees C) when he spotted the dragonfly and it was even warmer yesterday—58 degrees (14 degrees C). I scoured all kinds of locations where the sunlight was shining, anticipating that a dragonfly likely would be basking in the sun.

I spotted this spider in a sunlit area strewn with fallen leaves. I suspected that it was some kind of wolf spider, but relied on experts in several Facebook groups for confirmation. One of the experts was even able to identify the genus of the spider, but not the specific species. According to Wikipedia, wolf spiders “are robust and agile hunters with excellent eyesight. They live mostly in solitude and hunt alone, and do not spin webs. Some are opportunistic hunters pouncing upon prey as they find it or even chasing it over short distances. Some wait for passing prey in or near the mouth of a burrow.”

I doubt that I will see any dragonflies this month or even any more spiders, but I will keep looking for a little while longer, especially on days when the temperatures rise this high above the freezing level.

wolf spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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At this time of the year I am always looking for birds in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, like this scaup, a small diving duck, that I spotted on Monday. There is a Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) and a Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) and they are quite similar in appearance.

For the sake of identification, I am going to assume that this is a “Greater” one—I do not want to damage its self-esteem by calling it “Lesser.”

scaup

scaup

scaup

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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And so the new year begins. In many ways I feel like this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) that I spotted on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, alert and wide-eyed, but hunkered down alone on the sidelines, cautiously waiting until it is safe to engage more fully.

The Great Blue Heron in the second image was the final bird I photographed in 2020—I captured this image yesterday afternoon. This heron appeared to be fishing, standing motionless for a long time, watching and waiting and hoping. Perhaps there is a lesson for us here as well as we begin 2021. Patience has been in somewhat short supply this past year and we could all use more of it this year.

Happy New Year to all of you and to your loved ones.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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