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Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

A patch of sumac berries at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge has providing nourishment for a lot of different birds as we begin the winter winter season. On Tuesday of this week, I photographed a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) as it partook of the bounty of berries.

The day was cold, but sunny and the blue sky provided a beautiful backdrop for this little portrait of the mockingbird. The bird’s up-turned tail provided a nice visual counterbalance to the angled branch of the sumac plant and the visible berry in the bird’s open mouth was an extra bonus.

This morning as I was doing a little research on the sumac, I finally discovered the name of this type of sumac. I am pretty sure that this is a species know as Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra). According to the plant database at wildfire.org, Smooth Sumac is the only shrub or tree species native to all 48 contiguous states. I have never been tempted to taste the little berries, but they are reported to be very sour and can be used to make a drink similar to lemonade.

Northern Mockingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I wish that I could say that I planned this cool image of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) in flight, but the truth is that I did not even know that I had taken a shot like this until I was reviewing my shots this morning from yesterday’s visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Most of the time when I am photographing birds, even those that are perched, I shoot in short bursts to try to capture different head and wing positions. In this case, the bluebird must have taken off as I was depressing the shutter button. In most situations like this, the resulting image is out of focus or shows only the back side of the departing bird.

Yesterday, however, I was very lucky and the bluebird flew to the side and remained more or less in focus. In wildlife photography, luck almost always plays some role in getting good images—yesterday it played a major role.

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I am not sure what this male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) saw on the tiny branch on which he was perched, but he was examining the tip of the branch closely when I captured the first image last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Gradually the little bird shimmied his way along the branch and pecked off the little branchlet near the end of the branch. I am not sure he found any insects there, but it seemed to make the perch in the final photo a bit more comfortable.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I was growing up, American Robins (Turdus migratorius)were viewed as a harbinger of spring. In Northern Virginia, where I now live, I see them throughout most of the year. Last week I spotted this one almost hidden in the vegetation at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Despite the cluttered environment, the robin’s orange breast seemed to almost glow in the bright sunshine, making it easy to spot.

During most of my life I have been accustomed to calling this bird simply a “robin.” Since I started my blog, though, I have become sensitized to the fact that there are other robins in different parts of the year that share little in common with the American Robin other than their shared name. The European Robin, for example, is part of the flycatcher family, while the American Robin is part of the thrush family.

In November 2019 I was blessed to spot a European Robin as I was walking along one of the trails in the Bois de Boulogne in the outskirts of Paris. If you have never seen a European Robin, you may want to check out my blog posting entitled “European Robin in Paris,” that features a photo from that encounter.

American Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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As I was observing two Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) last Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a loud boat passed by and scared the two swans. I managed to capture some action shots of one of the swans as it was taking off.

Some waterbirds can lift off directly from the water, while others need to run across the surface of the water to generate some momentum before they can take off. The tundra swan seems to be in the latter group. As you can see from the splashes in the water in some of the photos, the swan was bouncing along as it flapped its impressively large wings. In the final photo, the swan was in the air and was able to retract its feet into a more aerodynamic position.

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I usually try to zoom in on my subjects as much as I can, but it is also great to show their environment (sometimes by choice and sometimes out of necessity). I captured these long distance in-flight shots of a Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) and a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) during recent visits to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The eagle was a bit closer to me than the swan, which is why the background was so much more blurry in the second shot than in the first one.

Tundra Swan

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Bluebirds always make me happy and I will rarely pass up an opportunity to photograph one—I simply love that complementary color combination of blue and orange. I was doubly delighted on Tuesday to capture this image of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched on branches that formed a natural frame that highlighted his beauty.

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As the weather grows colder, many sources of food begin to disappear and wild creatures have to work harder to find sustenance. On Tuesday I spotted a small flock of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) that were busily extracting seeds from the spiky balls hanging from an American Sweetgum tree.

Earlier this month I did a posting that featured a Carolina Chickadee that was also extracting seeds. In that case, the chickadee was actually hanging from the suspended seed balls. The goldfinches seemed to be taking a somewhat safer approach and were clinging to the branches and twisted their bodies to maneuver into the proper position.

As you can see from the first two photos, we finally had a sunny day after a seemingly endless streak of gray days. The bright blue sky really made the yellow feathers of the goldfinches pop—bright colors like these really help to lift my spirits. The final photo seems to have more a wintery feel to it, although it was taken at about the same time as the other two images. It is amazing how a different angle and different lighting can produce images with different vibes.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled yesterday to spot two Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) a-swimming in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The light brown coloration and the pink that is still visible on their bills suggest to me that these are juveniles—adult Tundra Swans have white feathers and black bills.

I have seen Tundra Swans only a few times in the past. I think that we are relatively close to the southern boundary of the area in which Tundra Swans overwinter. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Tundra Swans breed on lakes, ponds and pools situated along river deltas in Alaska and Canada…wintering flocks gather on estuaries, lakes, bays, ponds and rivers, often situated close to agricultural fields where the birds feed.”

I do not know if there was a flock of swans nearby, but these two were the only ones that I saw. I was hoping to get better photos of the swans, but unfortunately they were scared away by a loud motor boat that ventured too close. It was a real challenge to get a shot of the two swans together as they swam in and out of the patches of bright sunlight at varying distances from each other. The second and third shots that show the two individuals were a bit easier to capture.

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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So many of my recent photos have been almost devoid of color. We have already entered into that extended season of the year when the landscape turns monochromatic and bright colors have all but disappeared.

Last Thursday, I was thrilled to spot this Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) that was perched motionless atop a broken-off tree. Somehow in the shadows I was able to spot the bird’s shape and correctly identify it as a bird. I am almost constantly scanning the trees for birds when I am out with my camera and will often take a shot of anything that looks remotely like a bird. I will take a look at my shot and sometimes find that it is a photo of a wasp nest, an unusually-shaped branch, or just a cluster of leaves.

Although this image is almost chromatic, there is a slight warmth in the feathers of the hawk that help to separate it visually from the tree. If you look closely at the image, you will also discover some light green color and texture in the lichen that was growing on the bark of the tree.

The beauty of nature in winter is often subtle, but it is definitely there, waiting to be discovered in the shapes and textures that reveal themselves when you slow down and pay attention.

Red-shouldered Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was surprised and delighted to spot this pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched on a floating log in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge last Thursday. As I draw closer to nesting season, I have been seeing more eagles in couples. Normally, of course, I see them in the trees, but I have gotten used to scanning the water as well—I never know where I might see a perched eagle.

Bald Eagles

 Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As I was observing a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) last Thursday (8 December) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, it suddenly swooped down to the water and snagged what I assumed was a fish. When I looked at my photos, however, the prey looked like it might be a duck or some kind of grebe. Yikes!

I have read that eagles will sometimes grab a waterfowl for meal, but I thought that was only as a last resort, for example, when the waters at a location are mostly iced over during the winter. At this time of the year, the waters are completely ice-free, so I am not sure what prompted the eagle to hunt for another bird rather than a fish. Perhaps the eagle was feeling lazy or was really hungry and did not want to go to the trouble of tracking and catching a fish.

Some birders on Facebook have suggested that the prey might be a small grebe, possibly a Horned Grebe, or perhaps a small duck, like a female Hooded Merganser.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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We seemed to have already moved into the winter cycle of cold, gray days, when the images that I do manage to capture have a real starkness about them. The absence of color in the environment, though, makes any color in my subjects really stand out.

When I visited Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday, most of the birds seemed hidden—I could hear them, but for the most part I had trouble spotting them. As I was walking along one of the trails, however, I heard some rustling in the underbrush and watched as a female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) flew to a a perch amidst the vegetation.

My view of the female cardinal was partially obscured, but I managed to maneuver into a position from which I had a clear view of her head. I really like the way that I was able to capture some of the delicate details of this cardinal, like the tinges of red on the feathers of her crest, the fluffy feathers on her chest, and her extra long claws.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the time when I see (or hear) a woodpecker hammering away at a tree, I can’t actually see the results of its work. Yesterday, however, I managed to capture this shot of a male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge that shows the hole being probed by the little woodpecker. There is a bit of wood in the woodpecker’s beak, but as far as I could tell, he was not successful in locating any tasty insects.

How do I know that his woodpecker is a male? Only male Downy Woodpeckers have the small red patch on the back of their heads that you can see in this photo.

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I often see vultures circling overhead when I am walking along the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Although I have gotten used to their presence, I find them to be slightly spooky and I try to make sure I don’t stand still for too long a period, lest the vultures think that I am carrion.

Most of the vultures that I see are Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), like the one in the first photo. Occasionally, though, I also see Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus). How do I tell them apart? As you can see in the second photos, Turkey Vultures have red heads, while Black Vultures have black heads. In addition, the pattern of the light feathers on the underside of the wings of the two vultures is different. Black Vulture have patches of light feathers near the tips of the wings and Turkey Vultures have light feathers along almost the entire length of the trailing edges of the underside of their wings.

Turkey Vulture

vultures

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I had a lot of trouble trying to track this energetic Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) as it moved about among the branches of a tree last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It paused for a moment and I was able to capture this image in which it looks like the little woodpecker is posing for me and smiling.

Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest woodpeckers in my area—about six inches in length (15 cm)—and are the ones that I see most often. I am always struck by the high energy level and industriousness of these little birds that seem to be foraging all of the time.

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When there is an abundance of berries, how does a bird decide which one to eat first? I thought that a bird would select the one that was closest to it. However, when I watched an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) last Friday in a patch of sumac at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I realized that it had a different criterion for selecting berries.

I captured this little sequence of photos that showed a bluebird reaching down and carefully selecting a single berry that met its unstated criteria. After holding the berry in its beak momentarily, the bluebird swallowed the berry and, judging from the final berry, seemed to enjoy its flavor before choosing another one.

I am absolutely delighted to see bluebirds at this time of the year, when the number of birds has been steadily decreasing. These little birds, along with Northern Cardinals, add a burst of color during the long, gray days of the winter months.

bluebird

Bluebird

Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I generally have trouble identifying trees, but one that I can often pick out is an American Sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua), thanks to its distinctive spiky balls. At certain times of the year the ground in various part of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge is carpeted with the spiky seedpods, making walking a bit uncomfortable.

Last Friday I watched a Carolina Chickadee as it extracted seeds from some of the spiky sweetgum balls still hanging from the tree branches. The chickadee would hang from its claws from one of the balls and thrust its beak into the center of the ball. Sometimes the long stem of the ball would sway a bit, but I never saw one give way—either the stem is really strong or the chickadee is really light (or both).

The chickadee was high in the tree, but I managed to capture this cool shot of the little bird in action.


Carolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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During the winter months it is not uncommon for me to see large flocks of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). When the lighting is poor, they appear to be entirely black in color. When the sun is shining brightly, however, I am sometimes able to see the speckles in their feathers and a shiny iridescence that often looks greenish or pinkish in color.

This starling was part of a flock that I spotted on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The birds were foraging high in the trees and most of them flew away as I approached. This one hung around for a bit longer than the others, allowing me to capture these shots that highlight markings pretty well.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “All the European Starlings in North America descended from 100 birds set loose in New York’s Central Park in the early 1890s. The birds were intentionally released by a group who wanted America to have all the birds that Shakespeare ever mentioned. It took several tries, but eventually the population took off. Today, more than 200 million European Starlings range from Alaska to Mexico, and many people consider them pests.”

Another fun fact that I learned on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website relates to the feathers of this cool-looking bird. “Starlings turn from spotted and white to glossy and dark each year without shedding their feathers. The new feathers they grow in fall have bold white tips – that’s what gives them their spots. By spring, these tips have worn away, and the rest of the feather is dark and iridescent brown. It’s an unusual changing act that scientists term “wear molt.””

European Starling

European Starling

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It had been over a week since I last went out with my camera, so I was thrilled yesterday to walk the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. One of the first places where I usually look for activity is the large eagle nest shown in the second photo. It may be a little early for the eagles to begin nesting, but an eagle couple is often in the surrounding area at this time of the year.

I scanned the trees in the immediate area, but came up empty-handed. As I continued down the trail, however, I spotted the bright white head of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). As I maneuvered about, trying to get a clear shot, I suddenly realized that there were two eagles partially hidden in the trees. I don’t know for sure if the eagles were a couple, for they seemed to be perched far apart for a couple—maybe the pandemic has caused the eagles to practice social distancing.

I was happy to be able to capture an image that shows both of the eagles pretty well. As I have said many times before, any day when I am able to photograph eagles is a good day.

Bald Eagles

 

eagle nest

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I hear hawks crying out more often than I see them. Quite often when I do manage to spot one, it is soaring high in the sky and my photos show only the underside of the hawk.

Last week, however, I managed to capture this image of a hawk as it flew by at treetop level at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I think that the bird is a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), but I must confess that I sometimes have trouble distinguishing between Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks.

It almost looks like I was at eye level with the hawk when I took this photo, but I can confirm that my feet were firmly planted on the ground at that moment. I love the way that I was able to capture both wings in good positions as the hawk was flying and the determined, intensely-focused look on its face.

hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I really liked the way that the light was falling on the face of this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), so I zoomed in close to capture this portrait-like headshot of the handsome heron last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) had turned its head away from the light when I spotted it last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but I love the way that the light coming from the side illuminated the pale yellow color on its belly. I really like the rakish masks and crests of Cedar Waxwings. Normally the tips of their tails are bright yellow in color, but the tail of this one seemed to have a reddish-orange coloration.

Cedar Waxwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I first became aware of the presence of this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) last week when I caught sight of it lifting off into the air from a small stream at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I swung my camera around quickly and captured a few in-flight shots of the large bird.

Normally I would not post photos of a bird flying away from me, which are derisively referred to as “butt shots” by many photographers. In this case, however, I was quite taken by the way that the dangling feet of the heron stand out in the photos. The heron was flying only a short distance and did not bother to lift its legs. In the second photo, the heron was preparing to land on the large branch that was protruding from the vegetation.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was really cool on Monday to see a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) working on a new nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge while the other member of the couple kept watch from a nearby tree. I suspect that this is the same nest that another frequent visitor to the refuge recently photographed. It is not yet clear if this will be a replacement for one of the nests used in the past or will be an additional one.

In the past I have seen active eagle nests in only two locations in the past. One of them is very large, but seems to be getting a bit precarious. The other is quite small and prior to last year’s nesting season seemed to have partially collapsed. Eagles were successful in the large nest this past season with at least one eaglet, but I don’t know for sure of there was an eaglet in the smaller nest.

In case you are curious, the new nesting site is almost equidistant from the two existing sites. It is a long way from any of the trails from which I can take photos and I suspect it will be tough to monitor when the leaves return to the trees in the spring.

eagle nest

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love to take photographs of large powerful raptors, like the Bald Eagle and the Red-tailed Hawk that I featured recently in blog postings. However, I am equally happy to capture images of the small birds that I often hear, but have trouble spotting. This past Monday I spotted these little birds as I wandered about at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. None of the shots are particularly spectacular, but I find that there is incredible beauty in the details of these little birds.
I can’t help but be reminded of some of the words of a hymn that we occasionally sing at church called “All Things Bright and Beautiful” that was written by Cecil Frances Alexander.
“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.”
You may be familiar with some of these birds, but in case you need a reminder, they are an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis); a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa); a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata); and a Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis).
Eastern Bluebird
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Carolina Chickadee
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most woodpeckers are black and white in color with occasional pops of red. The Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), however, has an amazing assortment of colors and patterns, like this handsome one that I spotted on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The flicker spent most of its time on the back side of the tree, but I waited patiently and eventually it popped out for a moment into the light and I was able to capture this image.

In the United States, today is Thanksgiving Day, a day set aside for giving thanks for all of the blessings in our lives. I am truly blessed in so many ways. As I get older, I am growing increasingly conscious of the fact that every single day is blessing in and of itself—tomorrow is not guaranteed.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks.” Happy Thanksgiving.

Northern Flicker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are the most common hawks in North America, but I rarely see one. Most of the hawks that I photograph in my home area of Northern Virginia are Red-shouldered Hawks.

I was delighted on Monday when I spotted a perched hawk through the vegetation at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The hawk was perched in a small tree just above eye level. I had to work to find a visual tunnel that let me get a relatively unobstructed view of the beautiful hawk, as you can see in the first photo.

Before long, the hawk detected my presence and took to the air. I reacted quickly and was able to capture some shots of the bird as it flew away. I really like the way that the second and third shots show the markings on the underside of the hawk that I think is a juvenile.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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What a difference a month makes. When I last visited Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, it was still relatively warm and many of the leaves were still on the trees. Butterflies were relatively abundant and there were lots of other insects, including dragonflies.

Yesterday, it was cold and breezy, with temperatures in the mid 40’s (7 degrees C). Virtually all of the leaves were stripped from the trees and there were very few insects. Already I have pulled out my thermal underwear and insulated boots. It feels like winter is almost here.

One of the advantages of the naked trees was that I was able to spot some larger birds from a greater distance, like these Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) that I photographed at different locations in the refuge. The eagle in the first photo was part of a pair that I had spotted. As I moved closer, one of them who had been looking at me flew away. The other one had its back to me and I tried to creep closer to it to get a better shot. Somehow the eagle detected my presence and looked back at me over its shoulder and I managed to capture its look of disapproval.

In the second shot, the eagle was pretty far away, but it was perched in the open, so I was able to frame my shot reasonably well. As you can see, the sun was shining brightly, though it did not provide much warmth, and the skies were blue.

The eagle in the final photo was perched in a sweetgum tree and I like the way that the spiky balls of the tree provice some color and texture to the image. Like the eagle in the first photo, this eagle was also looking over its shoulder at me. This eagle’s look appeared to be more coy and curious than annoyed.

Later in the day I spotted an eagle working on what appears to be a new nest. As we move closer to nesting season, I will try to keep track of the activity at the nesting sites that appear to be in use. In the past, eagle couples have used two different sites and I am not sure if this new nest will be a replacement for the older ones or will be a new addition.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled yesterday afternoon to spot this Barred Owl (Strix varia) as I was walking on a trail along the Colorado River in Bastrop, Texas, within walking distance of my friends’ house where I am staying. The owl  appeared to be busy eating something when I first spotted it, as you can see in the second photo below, and may have been a little distracted.

I am not at all certain what was in owl’s mouth. Any ideas?

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been pretty lucky recently in capturing images of birds in settings that include colorful fall foliage. On Tuesday I photographed a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Steophaga coronata) perched in a tree in full of persimmons at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I am not sure if the warbler was interested in the persimmons or if it was more interested in the poison ivy berries that you can see in the upper left portion of the image.

I do not know much about persimmons and can’t tell if the ones in the photo are ripe. I have been told that persimmons can be very tasty when ripe, but are very bitter when not yet ripe. To the best of my recollection I have never tasted one, but I know that the raccoons in another local park love to feed on these fruits.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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