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Archive for January, 2022

The Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) left their big nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge unattended last Wednesday and several Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) decided to check it out. I don’t know if the eagles were eating fish in the nest in the past or if the vultures were merely curious.

Later in the day I passed the same nest and both of the eagles were perched near the nest, including the one shown in the second image below. That shot gives you a good sense of how big that nest really is. The eagles have been using it for many years and each year they seem to add on to it. It is so deep now, that it is almost impossible to tell if an eagle is sitting on eggs, but I will be checking periodically for other signs.

Turkey Vultures

eeeagle nest

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) was busily extracting seeds from the spiky sweetgum seed balls when I spotted it high in a tree on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The chickadee would dangle upside down from the branch to snag a seed with its bill and bring the seed back onto the branch to eat it.

In this image, the chickadee appeared to be eying its next target—the seed ball in the lower left of the shot.

Carolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted Bald Eagle couples (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) near each of the two bald eagle nests at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge this past week, but I have not yet seen them in the nest itself quite yet. I believe that it is now mating season and it probably will not be long before the eagles start nesting.

This past Wednesday I spotted one of the eagle couples perched on an osprey nesting platform that is not far from one of the eagle nests. This seems to be one of the favorite spots for the eagles to hang out together and I have seen them at this spot multiple times in the past. I was a good distance away from the eagles, but was monitoring them through my telephoto zoom lens.

I sensed that they were getting prepared to take off, so I got ready prepared in case they happened to fly in my direction. I was delighted when they zoomed past me and was even more thrilled when I managed to capture this image with both of the eagles in flight.

It is pretty hard to photograph a bird in flight under the best of circumstance and really difficult when there is more than one bird. I would consider this one to be a successful shot.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Bald Eagles

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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They made a bit of an odd couple, but this scaup and this Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) seemed happy together as they paddled around in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Monday. I have the distinct impression that birds are increasingly willing to tolerate the presence of other species during the winter months and it is not uncommon for me to spot mixed flocks of birds in the water and on the land.
The Pied-billed Grebe has a very distinctive look and is easy to identify. When it comes to the scaup, however, identification is a bit more problematic, because there are Greater Scaups (Aythya marila) and Lesser Scaups (Aythya affinis). Lesser Scaups are somewhat smaller than Greater Scaups and their heads are shaped differently (the Lesser has a thinner, more peaked head than the Greater Scaup, which has a more round head), but I have never been able to tell the two species apart.
I really like the visual comparison in the photo between the size and shape of the bodies and bills of these two swimming birds as well as their very different coloration. Birds that look different from each other can live together in peace. Why is it that we humans can’t do the same?
odd couple
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Does a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) have a neck? Many birds look round in the winter, when they fluff up their feathers to retain heat, but that effect is exaggerated with Ruby-crowned Kinglets, because they have really large heads and no visible necks.

All in all the proportions seem all out of whack, giving the bird a cartoonish look. (Speaking of “whack,” I saw a wonderful cartoon recently. It showed an elevator with a sign that said “Out of Whack” with a subheading that added “More whack on order.” Sorry, I should have warned you that I have a warped sense of humor.)

I spotted this tiny little Ruby-crowned Kinglet on Monday as I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There is still a lot of snow in the untrodden, shaded areas of the refuge and there was a thin coating of ice on some of the ponds. Many birds were active, foraging feverishly in the trees and in the brush. This kinglet was full of nervous energy, constantly in motion, flicking its wings as it darted in and out of the vegetation.

Although the species name includes a ruby crown, that crown is almost always hidden. In the second photo, you can just barely see a little red stripe on the top of the bird’s head. Apparently when an adult male is excited, he flashes his brilliant red crown, but I don’t recall ever having seen anything that dramatic.

Given the modest size of the bird’s “crown” it is no wonder that he is known as a “kinglet”—if he had a more impressive crown, perhaps he would have been called a “king.”

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Desperate times call for desperate measures. I am sure that this Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) would have preferred to find the juicy insects on which it gorges during warmer weather, but they are off the menu for the season. Instead, like many other birds, this warbler has to settle for whatever berries it can find during the winter.

In this case, even the poison ivy berries seemed to be picked over, with only a few wizen berries remaining. The warbler had to work had to snag those berries, using all of its acrobatic prowess. Momentarily satisfied it moved on, hoping perhaps that the pickings would not be so slim at its next stop.

I am always shocked to see any warblers in the winter. Most warblers pass through our area during the spring and the autumn, but Yellow-rumped Warblers hang around for most of the winter. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website:

“Yellow-rumped Warblers are perhaps the most versatile foragers of all warblers. They’re the warbler you’re most likely to see fluttering out from a tree to catch a flying insect, and they’re also quick to switch over to eating berries in fall. Other places Yellow-rumped Warblers have been spotted foraging include picking at insects on washed-up seaweed at the beach, skimming insects from the surface of rivers and the ocean, picking them out of spiderwebs, and grabbing them off piles of manure.”

In addition to its versatility in foraging, the Yellow-rumped Warbler has an amazingly robust digestive system. “The Yellow-rumped Warbler is the only warbler able to digest the waxes found in bayberries and wax myrtles. Its ability to use these fruits allows it to winter farther north than other warblers, sometimes as far north as Newfoundland.”

We may complain about poison ivy when we encounter it during the summer, but its berries serve as an important food source for birds like this Yellow-rumped Warbler that help them to survive the winter. Are you willing to put up with some minor inconvenience for the sake of these beautiful little creatures with whom we share this planet?

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warblers

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Did you know that woodpeckers have tongues? They use their long sticky tongues to probe the holes they peck for grubs or other small insects. Last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I observed a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) pecking away feverishly and was delighted when reviewing my photos to see that I had gotten some shots of its tongue at work. You can see the tongue clearly in the first photo below, though you may need to zoom in to do so.

As I was doing a little research, I came across a fascinating article by Rebecca Heisman on the American Bird Conservancy website entitled “The Amazing Secrets of Woodpecker Tongues.” The article explained the anatomy and function of a woodpecker’s tongue in a way that was both understandable and fun. For example, when talking about the length of a woodpecker’s tongue, it stated:

“The total length of a woodpecker tongue can be up to a third of the bird’s total body length, although the exact proportions vary from species to species. This includes both the part that sticks out past the end of the beak, and the part that stays anchored in the head. If our tongues were the same proportion, they would be around two feet long!”

So where does the tongue go when it is not in use? The tongue is retracted behind the skull and helps to protect the woodpecker’s brain when it is hammering away at a tree. Wow!

There are so many cool things to learn about nature—I often feel like I am only beginning to scratch the surface of a whole range of secrets that are waiting to be revealed to me as I explore more and more.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) have long necks? If you looked at the first image, you undoubtedly would respond that they most certainly do. If you looked at the second image, though, you might hesitate in responding to my question.

Where does the neck go? In the first photo, the heron seems to have a neck-to-body ration relatively equivalent to that of a giraffe, but a giraffe, as far as I know, is not able to retract its neck the way that the heron can.

I sometimes imagine that a heron can contract its neck like the Slinky that I remember from my childhood. You could stretch out its coils a long way and it would return to its original shape. On a side note, my favorite “trick” was getting the Slinky to walk down a set of stairs.

I do not know heron physiology very well, but I think the heron’s neck is flexible enough that it can pull the neck into a tight S-curve against its body. From certain angles, it looks like the heron’s neck has gotten considerably shorter when it does this.

So what about you? Are you willing to stick out your neck when something grabs your attention or do you tend to hunker down and move slowly and cautiously forward? It is a good question to ask yourself as we begin a new year, full of new opportunities and possibilities. How bold or fearful do you feel?

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I used to think that all sparrows looked alike and would dismiss them all as nondescript little brown birds. Over time I have started to be able the differences among several sparrow species.

When I spotted this sparrow on Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I could tell it was not one of the ones that I am used to seeing. Its rounded head, pinkish bill, and white eye ring gave it an unusual look that I had never seen before. As is usually the case, I did not think a lot about identifying this little bird while I was out in the field.

Upon returning home, however, I went through my bird identification book and decided that it looked like it might be a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla). I posted the image in a birding forum on Facebook and several experts there confirmed my initial identification. 

Most of the sparrows that I saw that day were White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows. I was intrigued to read on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that Field Sparrows are be found in mixed flocks with these other sparrow species during the winter—it pays dividends to look carefully at all individuals when you see a group of birds as there may be some surprises, as was the case for this Field Sparrow, which was a new bird for me.

“In winter, Field Sparrows may form mixed feeding flocks with other species, including White-throated and Song Sparrows. Smaller and less aggressive than other sparrows, Field Sparrows are usually at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy in these mixed flocks. Their subordinate role means that they may have to take extra risks to gain access to food, such as returning to a feeding site first after a predator has flushed the flock.”

Field Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I finally managed to venture out of my snowy neighborhood for a visit to my favorite photography destination these past few years, Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There were lots of birds—mostly sparrows—pecking about on the trails that had been exposed by the sunshine and warming of the days since the big snowfall.

I was absolutely delighted when I saw a flash of brilliant blue among the drab sparrows on the ground and tracked the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) to some nearby vegetation. There is something really specially about seeing bright colors during the wintertime, when the world often seems colorless and monochromatic. With lots of snow still on the ground, the intensity of the colors of cardinals and bluebirds seems to be magnified even more.

I was able to capture an image of the bluebird as it perched for a moment before returning to foraging. Later in the day, while I was exploring the edge of an open field, I spotted another bluebird in the distance. He was perched high on a slender stalk and seemed to be calling out to his friends or maybe to his partner.

I zoomed in as much as I could, but the little bird still filled only a small part of the frame. However, I really like the way that the final image turned out. The minimalist composition really helps to draw the viewer’s eye to the bluebird and its expressive cry. The vast expanse of white space in the shot helps to emphasize the sense of isolation that this bird may have been feeling.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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There is something really soft and gentle about Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura), and we seem to have quite a few of them in my neighborhood, as I discovered while walking about on Tuesday after our snowstorm the previous day. Some of the ones that I saw were by themselves, like the dove in the first and second photo, while others were in pairs, like the two in the final photo.

Mourning Doves always seem long and angular to me. In these shots, the birds seem to have puffed up their feathers a bit in an effort to stay warm. I am always amazed that birds and other wildlife manage to survive when conditions get this harsh and inhospitable. On this day, at least, there was some sunshine, which allowed the birds to warm up a bit.

mourning dove

mourning dove

mourning dove

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It was delightful on Tuesday to photograph cardinals with a brilliant blue sky as a backdrop, but many of the birds that I try to photograph do not perch high up in the trees. Birds like this White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) spent most of the time near the ground, poking about in the undergrowth. If I am lucky enough to get a clear view of one of these birds, the background is likely to be cluttered and distracting.

Snow has a way of decluttering the image, obscuring some of the pesky background branches. This was the case in the first image when I was able to capture the intensity of the sparrow in mid-cry. His little white “beard” is a perfect for the match for the snow and I was happy to be able to capture his little yellow eye stripe.

The second image has a much more gentle feel to it. The blurred snowy background allows us to focus on the puffed-up sparrow perched on the tiny branch protruding from the snow. The sparrow seemed to be taking a break, resting and recovering as it contemplated its next moves. As is usually the case, the sparrow did not sit still for very long and resumed its foraging a short time later.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Yesterday afternoon I trudged through the snow in the wooded areas of my townhouse community and was thrilled to spot a few birds. The sun was shining brightly and the skies were blue, but the temperatures never really rose above the freezing level.

It felt invigorating to be outdoors, though I must admit that I felt a little self-conscious skulking about behind my neighbors’ houses with a camera with a long lens. However, nobody called the police to report a peeping Tom, so I guess that I was ok.

When it comes to iconic shots of birds in the snow, nothing beats the impact of a bright red Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). The only problem was that I could not find one. Fortunately I was able to spot an equally stunning female cardinal that appeared to be basking in the warmth of the sunlight. I had to maneuver about quite a bit to get a clear shot of her, but am pretty happy with the composition that I was able to get, especially in the first photo that captured some of her personality.

Eventually I did find a male cardinal, but he was not very cooperative. I could see his color clearly—it is impossible to hide when you are that brightly colored—but branches kept me from getting a clean shot. The final image shows the only unobstructed view I could get of the cardinal when I was almost directly below him as he steadfastly ignored me and refused to look down at me. Still, I really like the shot, which has an abstract feel to it that I find really appealing.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It has been several years since we had a substantial snowfall in our area. Last winter we had a total accumulation of 5.4 inches (14 cm) of snow and the year before that we had a total of only 0.6 inches (15 mm). This storm started as rain at night and then turned into a steady snowfall of wet snow throughout the morning and early afternoon. One of my neighbors measured the total amount of snow we received at 10 inches (25 cm).

Not surprisingly, schools were closed for the day as were the federal and local governments—the road crews in this area are simply not equipped to removed this large a quantity of snow. Eventually people emerged from their cozy homes to dig themselves out. I live in densely-packed a townhouse community and one of our biggest challenges when it snows is finding a place to pile the snow.

About half of the cars in the neighborhood are now cleared and the roads have been plowed—the first photo shows my little KIA Soul with its blanket of snow that I have removed. However, temperatures overnight dipped to 19 degrees (minus 7 degrees C) and the roads are an icy mess this morning. Schools have another snow day and recovery will continue.

Unlike in some areas, we were fortunate not to lose power. However, the weight of the heavy snow caused numerous tree branches to fall—several large branches from pine trees fell into my back yard, but did not cause any damage. Additional, a large pine tree toppled over behind my townhouse as shown in the final photo. Luckily it fell away from the houses and managed not to hit any fences or cars, though it is now blocking a sidewalk.

I think I am going to stay put most of today and not venture out on the icy roads with my car. The temperatures are forecast to rise to the freezing point around noon and I may try to venture out with my camera and see if any of the neighborhood wildlife creatures are active. I’m be careful, though, because I am very conscious of the fact that the winter snow can be dangerous as well as being beautiful.

snow

snow

snow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I featured my five most-viewed posts in 2021, all of which were published in previous years. Today I decided to show you photos from my five most-viewed posts in 2021 that were actually written in 2021. In many ways, these photos are a better representation of my me and my blog than yesterday’s set of images.

What do I mean? As I noted yesterday, most of the views for my older posts probably came from someone doing a Google search for a particular subject or combination of words. My posts popped up in their results because of the words in the posts themselves and the keywords that I have associated with the posts. I like the way that my posts take on a life of their own after they are published, but there is a kind of randomness to the process.

Most of my views for the postings below almost certainly came from folks who currently follow my blog and viewed the posts within the first few days after they were written. These viewers, many of whom I now consider my friends, are much more likely to read the entire text of the posts and to provide detailed comments. I really value that sense of engagement and the feeling of community that this process builds, which has been of even greater importance than ever during the ongoing pandemic.

In terms of the quality of the photos and the variety of the subjects, I like today’s images a lot. Many people know of my fondness for dragonflies and I am tickled to see that two images of dragonflies made the cut. Those two images (and the other three as well) show of some of the skills and creativity that I strive to apply to my photography—they are not merely documentary shots.

I encourage you to click on the titles of the individual postings to visit or re-visit the original posts. If you, you will discover that most of these postings contain a lot a lot “me”—my personal philosophy, priorities, and personality. You can see that approach in my use of titles like “Hope and happiness” and “To everything there is a season.”

I should warn you, though, that these postings might be a little longer than some of my other posts. WordPress tells me that my average post for 2021 had 204 words, and these five may be longer than that. When I sit down to write a posting, I tend to use a stream-of-consciousness style. I compose as I am thinking, letting my mind run in whatever direction it happens to go. As a result, I may ramble a bit or go off on tangents, but the results are often a direct reflection of the genuine me.

It is snowing our right now, our first snow of the season and we are forecast to get up to 10 inches (25 cm) of snow. In many ways, this is a White Christmas for us. I attend an Episcopal church and we begin our celebration on Christmas Eve, followed by the Twelve Days of Christmas, leading up to the Epiphany, when the Magi appeared. If I remember the lyrics right, today my true love should bring “ten lords a-leaping.” Hopefully my day (and yours too) will be more peaceful than that and we will all have a silent night.

Hope and happiness: 213 views, originally published—22 January 2021

Northern Cardinal

Nine year anniversary: 189 views, originally published—7 July 2021

Gray Petaltail

Early morning fox: 142 views, originally published—6 February 2021

Red Fox

A kaleidoscope of butterflies: 138 views, originally published—6 April 2021

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

To everything there is a season: 134 views, originally published—11 October 2021

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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How to you measure success in your life and in your activities? When I was still working, I was repeatedly told that “impact” was more important than raw numbers. When it came time for a performance evaluation, however, raw numbers inevitably came into play because they are quantifiable, while “impact” was much harder to measure. So many of our managers tended to focus on things that were easily measured rather than on what was important.

WordPress provides lots of data for those of us writing blogs on this platform. In 2021, for example, the data show that I published 425 blog posts with a total of 86,891 words and 54,680 views. Is that good? How do you answer that question? What is the best metric to use? To whom do you compare yourself?

For me, 2021 was a successful year. Despite the ongoing pandemic, I got to see lots of cool things in nature and had plenty of wonderful photographic opportunities. I had some great interactions with readers and sparked some fascinating discussions. In case you are curious about the numbers, in 2020 I published 436 posts and had 53,156 views, so my total views in 2021 were a little higher despite a slighter smaller number of posts.

I take WordPress stats with a grain of salt, however, because I am never sure how they are calculated. What counts as a “view,” for example? Some readers view the posts in the Reader portion of the WordPress feed, while others click through to the blog itself. Do they both count, or only those in the latter group?

I am always intrigued at the end of the year to see which posts were viewed the most often. As is usually the case, none of my most viewed posts in 2021 were written during that year. Here are my top five most viewed posts this past year with indications of the number of views in 2021, the total lifetime views for the post, and the date of its original publication. I have extracted a photo from each of the posts to give you an idea of the content and added links to the title of each post that you can click to read the original posting in its full “glory” and original context.

As I view these images, I am struck by several things. First of all, it is obvious to me that these are far from being my best photos. They are cool records of some interesting encounters, but they are not the kind of images that I would enter into a contest. Additionally I note that most of the shots were taken quite a while ago.

What do these images have in common? It seems to me that the titles of all of these posts are fairly generic and are the kinds of search terms that someone might enter into Google. Your results may vary, but when I enter “groundhog in a tree” in Google, for example, my blog post is the first entry in the search results and my photo below is the first image shown. Do you get the same results?

Nobody knows for sure how the Google algorithms work, but it seems to me that I might have inadvertently “cracked” the code this year, and the result was 1,055 views of my groundhog post from two years ago out of a total of 54,680 views this past year for the entire blog.

Don’t worry, though, I can almost guarantee that I am not going to switch to totally generic titles for my posts. As is the case with the text of the postings, I sometimes like to have titles that are quirky, humorous, or have lame puns in them.

I will probably do at least one more retrospective posting soon with a look at some of the most viewed or best postings of 2021 that were actually written in 2021. Stay tuned for that post and in the meantime those of you who still use checks can start practicing writing “2022”—I am sure that I will have trouble writing dates for at least the next few weeks.

Groundhog in a tree ; 1055 views (total lifetime views: 1157); originally published—11 April 2019

groundhog

Blue-eyed garter snake ; 791 views (total lifetime views: 2211); originally published— 9 May 2016

garter snake

Fuzzy white caterpillar ; 511 views (total lifetime views: 2758); originally published— 3 August 2013

fuzzy white caterpillar

Tiny orange butterfly ; 374 views (total lifetime views: 822); originally published— 17 September 2013

tiny orange butterfly

Male and female garden spiders ; 367 views (total lifetime views: 462); originally published— 12 August 2020

Argiope aurantia

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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It is a cool, rainy morning here as I sit here, trying to think about what I want to say as I begin the new year. I planned on watching the ball fall at Times Square at midnight, but dozed off on the sofa and missed the moment—I guess that is a sign that I am getting old.

I am feeling pensive right now as I think about the year that has just concluded and wonder what the new year will hold for me. I decided to share some photos that I took last week at the little pond that I featured yesterday. I was utterly fascinated by the reflections of some of the trees at the edge of the pond and the textures that appeared in the ripples on the surface of the water.

Normally I have much more of an identifiable main subject when I am taking a photo, but in those moments I was mesmerized, feeling a little bit like I was looking at a Monet painting. Sometimes I get into an “artsy” trance of sorts and I have no idea how long I stood there with my camera pointing down at the water on the opposite shore.

A few people passed by, but fortunately did not pose the sometimes annoying question that I am frequently asked about what I was photographing. I often have to bite my tongue and not reply with the words resounding in my head—”I was trying to photograph a bird that you spooked with your noisy arrival.” In this case, there was no live subject to scare away, but it would have destroyed my meditative concentration.

I have to admit that I am a little selfish when it comes to sharing my wildlife experience in person with others—I prefer to enjoy the beauty of nature in solitude. I often avoid locations that have abundant wildlife, if I know there will be crowds of photographers. As I like to tell my friends, I was avoiding people long before it became popular during this pandemic.

I will probably do some kind of more organized retrospective look at the postings of this past year in the next few days. For today, though, I wanted to share some musings and reflections.

Best wishes to all of you for a happy and healthy New Year.


ripples

ripples

ripples

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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