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Archive for the ‘Autumn’ Category

I was delighted to spot this beautiful Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) in a patch of goldenrod on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This angle of view over one of the opened wings provides us with a really good look at the butterfly’s distinctive patterns and colors and we can also see its extended proboscis as it sucks nectar from the bright yellow goldenrod.

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this really cool-looking turtle on Friday while exploring at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge during a light rainstorm. The turtle does not look like any turtle that I have seen before—its speckled face really grabbed my eye. The turtle was nestled into the thick grass and I did not want to disturb it, so I moved on after grabbing a few quick shots.

When I returned home, I rushed to the Virginia Herpetological Society website to see if I could identify “my” turtle. The Commonwealth of Virginia, in which I live, has 25 species and subspecies of turtle, of which five are sea turtles, so I figured that it would not be very difficult to find a match. I could easily eliminate many species from consideration and finally decided that the turtle looks a bit like some of the photos for a Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin).

However, the map and information about the geographic distribution of the turtle within the state does not appear to include my county or any of the surrounding counties. According to the aforementioned website, the Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin is the only truly estuarine reptile in Virginia and it inhabits coastal, brackish marshes and their tributaries, bays, inlets, and tidal portions of coastal rivers—I was at a small pond adjacent to a larger marshland area. I am still seeking confirmation of my identification from more knowledgeable expert.

Where I live, Terrapins—the species seems to be variously referred to as “diamondback” and “diamond-backed”—is most often associated with the nearby state of Maryland, where the terrapin is the official state reptile and mascot for the University of Maryland College Park.

 

Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Her colors were faded and her wings were tattered, but the simple beauty and elegance of this mature female Needham’s Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula needhami) were still very much in evidence when I encountered her on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, the coppery-gold veins near the leading edges of her wings seemed to glow from the inside with a radiant light.

So often our society tells us that we should equate beauty with a youthful appearance, but I would argue that beauty can be found at all ages. Beauty for me is not so much about matching up to some standard of perfection—it can be found in the midst of all of our wrinkles, scars, and blemishes. Our uniqueness as individuals in and of itself makes us beautiful if you look closely and deeply enough.

Needham's Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although we had only about an inch of snow last week, it has hung around on cars and in shady areas. Despite the continuing cold and overcast weather, I decided yesterday that I needed to get outdoors with my camera. I had several places in mind, but my plans were thwarted when I ran into a traffic jam on the interstate. I took the first exit and decided to visit instead a small suburban pond not far from where I live.

Several species of ducks overwinter at this pond and I spotted Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks in the center of the pond, out of range of my telephoto zoom lens. As I continued circling the pond on a walking trail, I was thrilled to spot several Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) standing in the shallow water not far from the shore. Some bushes separated me from the cormorants, so I had to bend and twist a bit to get a clear shot, but I managed to capture this image of one of them before they turned their backs to me and swam away.

The bright orange color of the cormorants’ bills always captures my attention, but it is the beauty of their brilliantly blue eyes that keeps me transfixed. Wow! Be sure to double-click on the photo to get a closer look at that amazing blue color.

As it turned out, I did not need to travel far to find beauty—figuratively speaking it was in my back yard. It would be cool to have an actual pond in my back yard, but it would have to be a tiny one and my townhouse homeowners’ association would certainly complain about it.

Double-crested Cormorant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Smaller birds seem to enjoy foraging for Sweet Gum seeds while the seed pods are still hanging on the trees, like this Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Many of you may recall a somewhat similar posting last month featuring goldfinches. If you have not yet seen it, check it out at Goldfinch and Sweetgum.

Although I enjoy photographing raptors, like the Bald Eagle that I showcased yesterday, I derive an equal amount of pleasure observing and attempting to photograph tiny birds like this chickadee. Beauty is everywhere.

Carolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first spotted this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) last Saturday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, it was mostly hidden from view, perched rather low on a broken-off tree and surrounded by a thick tangle of vegetation. When I finally maneuvered around to a position where I had a relatively clear line of sight to the eagle through the bushes, I realized that I had another problem—the light was shining brightly from the side, causing the white head of the eagle to be overexposed on one side with a resultant loss of details.

I moved a little from side to side to improve the lighting situation and waited for the eagle to move its head too. As I reviewed my shots afterwards, I was delighted to see that the side lighting had helped to reveal the beautiful layers of feathers on the eagle’s body. The eagle seemed to be giving me a disapproving look in the second shot, but amazingly it remained in place. As I was moving away I looked back at the eagle and silently thanked the majestic bird for our shared moments together.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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She never approached the shore for the close-up that I was craving, but I was happy to capture this image of a pretty little female Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Later in the winter I am likely to spot small flocks of Buffleheads in the deep waters, but on this day this one was all by itself.

Bufflehead

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am often fooled by Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). Whenever I see a flash of rusty brown feathers on a dark bird, I assume that it is an American Robin. If a towhee stays still long enough, it is easy to tell that it is not a robin—the color pattern and the bill shape are completely different from those of a robin. The problem is that towhees are often in constant motion, foraging about in the undergrowth, so it is hard to get a good look at one.

I was fortunate last week when an Eastern Towhee popped out of the brush at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and perched for a moment on the branch of a small tree, allowing me to capture a shot of this very colorful sparrow.

Eastern Towhee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During nesting season ospreys build a nest atop this tall platform at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but at other times of the year Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) like to use it as a resting spot. On a recent day when the weather was cold and windy, I spotted this eagle couple resting together. I suspect that the larger eagle on the lower level is the female and the one keeping watch is the male, although the sharp upward angle at which I was shooting makes it a little difficult to judge their relative sizes.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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If I wander the trails of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge for a long enough period of time, I am quite likely to encounter some Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). I have seen them in almost all parts of the refuge and suspect that there are several flocks that reside there.

Last Monday I encountered a small flock that appeared to include a half-dozen or so turkeys. They were scratching about at the edge of one of the trails and did not seem to notice me as I slowly made my way forward. All of the sudden, one of the turkeys flapped its wings a little as if to sound an alarm, as you can see in the second image below. All of the turkeys started to move and slowly disappeared into the underbrush. I was thrilled to capture the first image as they were striding away.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the colors and patterns of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus), like this one that I spotted on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In the United States there are two variants of this colorful bird, an Eastern one and a Western one. The Eastern males, like the one in the image below, have a red nape, black “whiskers,” and yellow shafts on their flight and tail feathers. Western males, which I have not yet seen, do not have a nape crescent and have red “whiskers” and red-shafted tail feathers.

Northern Flicker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As the days become colder and the landscape turns monochromatic, I am always happy to spot the bright red plumage of a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), like this one that I photographed on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I featured a Downy Woodpecker, the smallest woodpecker in our area. Today I want to present a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), which is by far the largest woodpecker in this region, with a length of 16 to 19 inches (41 to 48 cm) and a weight of 9 to 12 ounces (155 to 340 grams). I doubt that I will ever spot one of these woodpeckers hanging from a seedpod, like yesterday’s Downy.

Quite often I hear the drumming sound of a Pileated Woodpecker long before I see, a sound that sometimes seems as loud as a jackhammer. When I heard that sound on Monday I scanned the trees and finally caught a glimpse of this female Pileated Woodpecker pecking away at a distant tree. I was happy to capture this profile shot that provides a pretty good look at her face and her bright red crest.

 

Pileated Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was delighted to spot this male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it acrobatically pecked away at some seedpods hanging high in the trees. Fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford commented on a Facebook posting that that the seed pods look like trumpet vine (Campsis radicans). Check out his 2011 blog posting entitled Trumpet vine fruit and seeds for more details on this plant.

Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest woodpeckers in our area, about 6 inches long (15 cm), and the lightest, about one ounce (28 g). Still, it was a bit surprising the way that the woodpecker was hanging on the seedpod as it hammered away at it.

During warmer weather Downy Woodpeckers eat mostly insects, but it looked to me like this one was trying to extract seeds from the pods. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “About a quarter of their diet consists of plant material, particularly berries, acorns, and grains.” Whatever the case, this woodpecker appeared to be determined and focused on his task.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was cold and windy yesterday when I set out for Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, about 44 degrees (7 degrees C), but I thought that there might be a chance that I could find a dragonfly, because the sun was shining brightly. This late in the season, there is only one dragonfly species still present in my area, the Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), and its days are almost certainly numbered. I was heartened by the fact that a fellow photographer had spotted an Autumn Meadowhawk this past weekend and the knowledge that fellow dragonfly enthusiast spotted one on 3 January 2016—a new late-date for a dragonfly in Virginia. (Check out his posting for more details.)

I spent most of my time looking for birds, but I would slow down and look closely at the ground whenever I came to a sun-lit patch of ground. Autumn Meadowhawks often perch flat on the ground and love to bask in the sun. I was nearing the end of my normal loop when I finally spotted an Autumn Meadowhawk, the only one that I would see all day.

I had my 150-600mm zoom lens on my camera and it has a minimum focusing distance of almost nine feet (2.7 meters), so I had to back us a bit to get the dragonfly in focus. Autumn Meadowhawks, are pretty small, about 1.3 inches in length (33 mm), so it was a challenge finding the dragonfly in my camera’s viewfinder—fortunately the bright red color of its body helped me to locate the dragonfly. I managed to snap off two shots before the dragonfly flew away.

I am amazed and delighted by the hardiness of these little dragonflies and will search for them again whenever I am out with my camera this month. I decided to include a photo of an Autumn Meadowhawk that I photographed on 16 November, because it really shows off really well the autumn habitat of this species. For the last three weeks, I have put off posting that image, hoping that it would not be my last dragonfly sighting of 2020.

The season for dragonflies is not yet over!

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love watching Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) catch fish. Often they will stand still for long periods of time and then strike suddenly and violently. Catching a fish, though, is only half of the battle for the heron. The heron must then maneuver the fish into position so that it can be swallowed head-first.

During a trip last month to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I observed the whole process and was able to capture a series of images, including these three. It looks like the heron speared the fish initially, leaving it either stunned or possibly dead. I admire the boldness and skill of the heron as it flipped the fish into the air, as you can see in the middle photo, as part of the positioning process. Eventually the fish was correctly positioned, as shown in the final photo, and a split second later, the heron tilted back its head and the fish disappeared down its throat.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Often I am mesmerized by light and shadows and reflections. It doesn’t take much to capture and hold my attention, like these pieces of wood that I spotted in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

reflection

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sparrows seem so ordinary to most people and I enjoy the challenge of trying to capture images of them in ways that make this drab little birds stand out. On a recent trip to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I observed some Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) foraging in the middle of a large, heavily vegetated field. Occasionally one of them would perch on the top of the vegetation and I managed to get some shots.

I like the way that these two images, which are quite different, work together as a pair. In the first one, a viewer’s eyes are immediately drawn to the colorful autumn leaves and only afterwards do they move up to the perched sparrow—there is a sense of energy because of the bright colors. In the second image, the solitary sparrow is the sole subject and the plain background and simple perch create an almost austere feeling—there is a feeling of serenity and simplicity.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrows

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although they are barely larger than the hummingbirds that migrate south when the weather turns cold, Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) spend their winters in my home area of Northern Virginia. In addition to being tiny, Golden-crowned Kinglets often forage high in the trees, which makes them really tough to photograph.

I was really happy to capture this image of a Golden-crowned Kinglet on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it was feeding on a cluster of poison ivy berries. Looking through the branches you can see the bird’s lemon-yellow “crown” and the the beautiful pattern on its wings.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees and the weather is now overcast most of the time, it seems. If you use the meteorological calendar, winter has already arrived—if you use the astronomical calendar, you have a few more weeks to wait until the December solstice.

During this somewhat bleak period of the year, I particularly cherish those moments when I stumble upon some bright colors in nature, like those of this male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) that I spotted on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The brilliant blue and orange colors of this little bird never fail to bring a smile to my face.

My encounter with this little bird was unfortunately brief. The second shot shows my initial view of the bluebird and the background is a bit too cluttered for my taste. The first photo shows how a small change in my shooting position helped me to get a somewhat clearer view of my subject.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was watching a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) in the shallow waters of low tide on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the heron seemed startled when it sensed my presence and took to the air without warning. I had the presence of mind to react almost as quickly and captured a short series of shots that I have presented here in reverse chronological order.

When I first spotted the heron it was looking off into the distance with its neck fully outstretched—I was amazed at how far its neck extended, as you can see in the final photo. I watched the heron as it walked along slowly scanning the water as it searched for fish. It was quite windy and the water seemed really choppy, which probably made things more difficult for the heron.

I captured the middle shot just after the heron had taken off and you can see water drops coming off of the heron’s feet if you zoom in on the image. I was most shocked that I managed to capture the image of the heron with outstretched wings—the heron got really wide really quickly and I was almost zoomed in too closely. I actually cut it even closer than it appears and I added a bit of additional water to the left and upper image edges of the shot to create the image that you see.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Although my eyes are sometimes drawn to patterns when scanning vegetation for birds, generally I require some movement to detect their presence. I spotted this beautiful little White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) while it was hopping in and out of some heavy vegetation at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I tracked the bird for a while, hoping to get an obstructed shot, and was thrilled to capture this image. Much of the bird’s body was in the shadows, but rays of sunshine spotlighted its head and highlighted its beautiful facial markings, including the distinctive yellow stripe between the base of its bill and its eye, an area known as the “lore.” Be sure to click on the image to get an enlarged view of these wonderful features.

White-throated Sparrow

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The sun had already risen, but was still low in the sky when I spotted this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched high in a tree at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge during a recent visit. I really liked the way that the soft light illuminated one side of the eagle and the eagle probably appreciated the warmth of the sun as it began the day.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is now rare for me to spot an insect when I am walking about in nature with my camera. There is still a chance that I might spot a dragonfly—a few Autumn Meadowhawks are normally around in late November—or maybe a butterfly. I held off posting this image of a butterfly that I spotted a couple of weeks ago at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the hope that I would continue to see more.

Now I accept the distinct possibility that this beautiful little Pearl Crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos) may be the last butterfly of the season for me. Fortunately there will be new photographic opportunities for me in the coming months as I turn my attention and my long telephoto zoom lens almost exclusively to birds.

Pearl Crescent butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was walking around a small suburban pond recently, some movement in the underbrush caught my eye. Several small House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) were splashing about in the shallow water of a tiny rivulet that ran into the pond. I managed to capture this whimsical little portrait of one of the bathing sparrows, whose glance suggested to me that my presence was not exactly welcomed.

House Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Although the daytime temperatures keep dropping, turtles still come out to bask on sunny days. I spotted this beautiful turtle, which I believe is a Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), last Friday at the same suburban pond where I saw the Ring-necked Ducks and Canada Geese that I featured in previous postings. The subject and composition of this image are fairly ordinary, but the beautiful interplay of the light and shadows help to make the image stand out.

Red-eared Slider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How often have you heard the platitude that you should cultivate an attitude of gratitude? Many of us will nod our head in agreement when we hear those words and then continue on in our self-centered lives, firm in our conviction that we are independent and self-sufficient, and that all that we have is the result of our own efforts. Wikipedia describes a platitude in these words, “A platitude is a trite, meaningless, or prosaic statement, often used as a thought-terminating cliché, aimed at quelling social, emotional, or cognitive unease. The statement may be true, but its meaning has been lost due to its excessive use.”

In the United States, one day a year is set aside to give thanks, Thanksgiving Day. Traditionally Americans will gather around a table and before they eat, each person will be asked to name one thing for which they are thankful. Some people find it difficult to be put in that position.

Why is it so tough to be thankful? Our society bombards us with messages that we should never be satisfied with what we have and should always want more—we can easily be trapped into focusing on what we do not have rather than on what we do have.

Last night at a Zoom church service I heard again the words of Scripture that reminds us to give thanks “in everything.” In everything? Yes, we should be thankful in absolutely everything. The experience of the last nine months has caused me to reexamine a lot of things that I had previously taken for granted. All of the sudden I was increasingly thankful for essential workers, for fellow citizens who wore masks and stayed at home, for the food that was present on the almost empty shelves at the grocery stores, for my relative good health, and for the roof over my head.

As many of you know, I have been blessed to be able to continue to find refuge in nature and to share my photos and experiences in this blog. I recently noticed that I have done a posting every single day so far this year. I really want to all of you for your overwhelming support and encouragement, which has been one of the few constant factors in my life as the world around me has swirled out of control.

Whether you are in the United States or not, I hope that today you will pause for a least a few moments and reflect on those people and things for which you are truly thankful. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving Day 2020.

In case you are curious, I photographed this handsome Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) earlier this month at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Some people hunt wild turkeys, but the turkey that I will consume later today will be one that I purchased at the supermarket.

wild turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Thanks to Tchaikovsky, swans seem to have cornered the market for bird ballet, so some local Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) decided to organize themselves for synchronized yoga competitions instead. At a recent practice that I observed at a small suburban pond, they were having some issues in coordinating their left single-legged pose—one of them had trouble remembering which leg was the left one. What a silly goose. 🙂

Canada Goose

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was windy yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but that did not deter some American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) from foraging for seeds in the spiky seedpods still hanging from the leafless Sweetgum Trees (Liquidambar styraciflua). The goldfinches were amazing daring and acrobatic in their efforts high in the trees to extract the seeds.

It is a testament to the strength of the stems of the seedpods and the light weight of the goldfinches that the birds were able to place all of their weight on hanging seedpods and poke into their perches with their pointed beaks, as you can see in the first image. The final image shows that the finches knew that there were seeds throughout the seedpods and were willing to turn upside down to reach some additional seeds.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As the weather gets colder, ducks and geese begin to arrive at a small suburban pond not far from where I live. Most of these birds will overwinter with us, though some others may just be passing through our area. It is still a bit early for most species, but I was delighted on Friday to spot a small group of Ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris). Even from a distance it is easy to identify this species with its prominent yellow eyes, distinctive bill, and pointed head.

The ducks drifted about in the deeper water, never coming very close to the shore, so I was not able to capture any close-up images this time. I’m sure, however, that I will be back to this pond multiple times this winter to check on the ducks, so you may see these colorful characters again in the coming months.

Ring-necked ducks

Ring-necked ducks

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Not long ago I posted some shots of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) foraging for berries. In many of those shots, however, the beautiful birds were partially obscured by vegetation. On Monday this past week I managed to get a clearer view of a Cedar Waxwing at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and captured this portrait image.

I really like the fact that this image shows the distinctive shape of this bird and its wonderful coloration. From top of its crested head to its yellow-tipped tail, the Cedar Waxwing is one of the most photogenic birds that I am privileged to photograph.

Cedar Waxwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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