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Archive for the ‘dragonfly’ Category

Whenever I can, I like to give a sense of the environment in which I find a dragonfly by including natural elements in the image. For example, I really like the fern in this photo of a female Painted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula semifasciata) that I spotted last Thursday while wandering about in Prince William County.

Many of you know that I enjoy taking photos at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a grassland and wetland habitat at the confluence of the Potomac and Occoquan Rivers where I am able to find an amazing assortment of birds, animals, and insects. This past month, however, I have been spending a lot of time in a different habitat.

I have traded the coastal plains for a hilly, forested area in Prince William County and replaced the broad river expanses with small mountain creeks and streams. Why? Many of the early spring dragonflies are found only in very specific habitats and the area that I have been exploring meets the requirements of several of those species.

It is difficult to describe these “new” areas, so I have included a couple of photos to give you a few indications of what I see and feel there. The second photo shows a relatively flat area adjacent to a stream. The forest floor is covered completely in ferns and dragonflies can sometimes be found perching in that vegetation, as you can see in the first photo.

The final photo shows one of the streams that I love to explore. Sometimes there will be dragonflies flying over the water or perching on the banks. I don’t want to give you the false impression, though, that there are lots of dragonflies here. My sightings are infrequent, but it is easy for me to spend hours on end in places like this—any photos that I manage to take are a bonus.

Last Saturday, for example, I explored for little over six hours and covered 10.8 miles (17 km) on a day when I knew the weather was too cool and cloudy to find many dragonflies. Yeah, I am a bit of a fanatic sometimes.

Painted Skimmer

forest ferns

creek

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Can a dragonfly smile? I seemed to detect a cocky little smile when I moved in close for this shot of a handsome male Stream Cruiser (Didymops transversa) last Thursday in Prince William County. The macro view also allowed me to appreciate the beauty of his two-toned eyes and to note the curious-looking “chin strap.”

The second shot shows the entire body of the Stream Cruiser, a medium-sized dragonfly that is about 2.2 inches (56 mm) in length. The image also gives you a sense of the environment in which I spotted him—a large expanse of interrupted ferns adjacent to a stream.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Almost a month ago, fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford spotted a Selys’s Sundragon dragonfly (Helocordulia selysii), the first time that one had been spotted in Prince William County, Virginia where we were searching for dragonflies. This is an early spring dragonfly that is quite uncommon and we were both happy to get shots of it, though as I noted in my blog posting about the encounter, we did not realize until after the fact that this was a new discovery—we thought that it was a Uhler’s Sundraagon, a closely related species that I had previously seen at that location.

Whenever I encounter a brand new species in a location, I wonder if it is a one-off sighting, a vagrant who has wandered out of its normal territory, or if perhaps there is an established population. I may have gotten a partial answer to that question on Thursday when I spotted several Selys’s Sundragons a couple of miles upstream on the same creek where Walter made his initial discovery.

I managed to photograph two of these beautiful dragonflies while they perched on interrupted ferns that were growing in abundance in the area, including the dragonfly featured in the first two photos. The markings on the dragonfly’s body were quite distinctive and unfamiliar to me, given that this was the first time that I had seen this species at close range. Whenever I am out in the field, I tend not to worry about identification of my subjects and instead focus on getting the best shots that I can—I can sort things out when I get home and pull up the images on my computer screen.

A short time later, I also was able to capture some in-flight images of a Selys’s Sundragon when he cooperated for me by hovering a bit over the water. That made things marginally easier, but it is still a challenge to focus on a moving subject that is only 1.6 inches (40 mm) in length. Perhaps it is my imagination, but the dragonfly in the final photo seems to be glancing up at me, as though he was wondering if we were done yet with the photo shoot.

So, it looks like we may have at least a small established population of Selys’s Sundragons in this county. What is the flight season for the species? Walter and I were recently joking about that—as Walter pointed out, we are the baseline. We know that the season for this species in our area lasts at least from 13 April, when Walter had his initial sighting, to 6 May, when I took these photos. According to available information, the flight season for this species in our home state of Virginia lasts from 17 March to 23 May.

I hope to be able to make a return trip to this location to add another data point (and hopefully some new photos) to our information about this species or maybe some additional dragonflies are waiting to be discovered.

Selys's Sundragon

Selys's Sundragon

Selys's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spent a lot of time tracking this Common Green Darner (Anax junius) as it patrolled over a field of vegetation yesterday in Prince William County and was thrilled when it finally perched for a moment. Like most darners, this one was hanging vertically and as I got closer, I was immediately struck by the muted color of its abdomen.

I could tell from its terminal appendages that it was a female and I suddenly realized that most of the Common Green Darners I have photographed in the past have been males that often have bright blue abdomens. It had never really struck me that female Common Green Darners have tan-colored abdomens. It is not that surprising, though, because, as is the case in much of the animal kingdom, female dragonflies generally tend to have more subdued colors than their more ostentatious male counterparts.

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I was delighted to spot several more Stream Cruiser dragonflies (Didymops transversa) while wandering about in Prince William County. This handsome male Stream Cruiser  looked like he could have starred in the well-known “got milk?” publicity campaign in the United States that featured photos of celebrities with milk mustaches and was designed to make milk more interesting and to emphasize its wholesomeness.

The print campaign with the the milk mustaches was started by the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) as a follow-on to a very popular series of television commercials in which people went to extraordinary lengths to make sure they did not run out of milk, according to this Fast Company article about the history of the Got milk? campaign.

Celebrities almost literally lined up to participate in this campaign and famous photographer Annie Leibovitz photographed more than 180 of the advertisements, according to the aforementioned article. One of the few requirements for participation in the campaign was that the celebrities had be milk-drinkers—I think they might have waived that requirement for Kermit the Frog—which was a problem for Whoopi Goldberg, who is lactose-intolerant. However, she was featured when the campaign ran an advertisement for lactose-free milk.

I don’t drink very much milk these days, but have fond memories of growing up with milk in my cereal bowl each morning. Got milk?

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is still relatively early in the dragonfly season, but already I am running across dragonflies with tattered wings, like this Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina) dragonfly that I spotted yesterday at Occoquan Regional Par. Despite the extensive damage to all of its wings, the dragonfly did not appear to have any problems flying. In fact, I tracked it for a lengthy period of time as it patrolled over a small pond, waiting and hoping that it would finally land.

When the dragonfly decided to take a break, it perched on several pieces of vegetation that were covered with old spider webs. The vegetation was about as tall as I am, so I was able to shoot at a slight upwards angle that let me capture the wing patches that reminded someone of “saddlebags” when they were naming the species.

I was shooting almost directly into the sun, which gave a nice effect by illuminating the dragonfly’s wings from behind, but I kept having to adjust my camera to keep the body from appearing as a silhouette. I experimented with a number of different techniques, including using my pop-up flash for the final photo, which gives the image an almost studio-like appearance.

Carolina Saddlebags

Carolina Saddlebags

Carolina Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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On a recent visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I stumbled upon a Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura) at the edge of a pond that was in the final stages of the process of emergence. The first photo shows the dragonfly only seconds after it popped open its wings for the first time—note how shiny and clear the fragile wings are at this stage. The second photo shows the dragonfly a few minutes earlier, when its wings were still closed and its markings were just beginning to appear.

The dragonfly remained in place for a few minutes as its wings began to harden. It then made a short fluttering flight to some nearby vegetation, a safer and less exposed location to rest and complete its amazing metamorphosis.

 

 

Common Baskettail

 

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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If you want a fun photographic challenge, try to photograph a dragonfly in flight. It is definitely a test of your skill and patience to track and photograph a subject this small (about 1.6 inches (41 mm) in this case) while it is flying past you. I captured this image of a male Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura) last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I will try to photograph dragonflies in flight at least several times every season. Some dragonfly species, like this one, will hover a little at times, which gives me a slightly better chance of getting a shot that is in focus. My camera does not focus quickly and accurately enough for me to use autofocus, so I end up focusing manually most of the time.

This shot is unusual in that I managed to freeze all of the motion of the wings—most of the time the wings are blurry. If you click on the image to see it in higher resolution, you will also note the way that the Common Baskettail (and many other species) folds its legs up under its “chest” (technically it is called the “thorax”) while flying to minimize wind resistance.

For those of you who might be curious, I ended up cropping the original image significantly, because I took the photograph with “only” my 180 mm macro lens and the dragonfly was flying over the water—I would have to have been in the water to get any closer.

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was pretty cool to spot this male Aurora Damsel damselfly (Chromagrion conditum) on Friday while I was exploring in Prince William County. I love the accents of brilliant yellow on the sides of its upper body that make this damselfly stand out from many others that are also black and blue.

I also managed to get a shot of an Aurora Damsel couple in what is known as the “tandem” position. The female of this species, the lower damselfly in the second photo, also has the yellow accents, although her body coloration is more subdued, as is often the case with damselflies and dragonflies.

When they are mating, damselflies join together in a heart-shaped position, known as the “wheel position,” and afterwards the male will often remain attached to the female, including while flying, as she lays her eggs. He does this by retaining his grip on the front part of the female’s thorax, as you can see in the second photo, using claspers located at the tip of his abdomen.

If you have never seen the distinctive sidewards-heart that damselflies make when mating, check out a posting that I did last year entitled Sidewards heart that shows a pair of Ebony Jewelwing damselflies forming the aforementioned heart.

aurora damselfly

aurora damselfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been having a really successful spring season in photographing dragonflies. Shaking off some of the winter doldrums, I have spent endless hours this month tramping about in a variety of habitats searching for these magical little creatures. I feel like I am now sprinting to the finish of a marathon on this final day of April

I was amazed to spot Stream Cruisers (Didymops transversa) on Monday at Occoquan Regional Park. I have seen Stream Cruiser dragonflies before, but never at this location. I was able to get shots of both a male (in the first photo) and a female (in the second photo). You can easily see the difference, I think, between the two genders, especially at the ends of their abdomens (the “tail”). Both of them, though, have the same long legs that always make their perching positions seem. a little awkward.

Earlier this spring, I spotted a large exuvia, the discarded exoskeleton of a dragonfly that has emerged, that my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford was able to identify as being from a Stream Cruiser. I have included a photo of that exuvia as a final photo to give you a sense of the shape of the final stage of the water-dwelling nymph before it crawled onto dry land and began its metamorphosis to a new and exciting stage of its life as a dragonfly.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser exuvia

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was quite surprised and delighted to spot a male Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I thought I would have to wait another couple of weeks to find one of these tiny dragonflies that are only 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length, but perhaps our recent warm weather prompted this dragonfly to emerge early.

The Calico Pennant is one of a small group of dragonflies known as “pennants.” As you can see from these two images, pennant dragonflies like to perch on the very tips of flimsy stalks of vegetation where they are whipped about by the slightest breezes like pennants in the wind.

Calico Pennant

 

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled to spot this beautiful male Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifasciata) on Monday, at Occoquan Regional Park, the first dragonfly of this species for me this season. I just love the way that the distinctive markings on the wings really make this dragonfly “pop” with a golden glow.

Painted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been seeing Common Green Darner dragonflies (Anax junius) in the air for several weeks now, but only this past Monday did I finally catch one taking a break from patrolling while I was tracking it at Occoquan Regional Park. It is quite common to see Common Green Darners patrolling high overhead in a wide variety of habitats, darting to and fro, feeding on the fly.

These large colorful dragonflies—about three inches (75 mm) in length—are among the first to be spotted in the early spring and among the last to disappear late in the autumn. How is such a long flight season possible? The simple answer is that Common Green Darners are a migratory dragonfly species. Kevin Munroe described the migratory cycle on his wonderful Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website in these words:

“Common Greens seen in our area in early spring are in fact migrants from points south. They emerge in the Southeast and fly north, arriving here late March thru May. After their long flight, they mate, lay eggs and die. Their young emerge in July and August. Congregating in large swarms, this second generation begins flying south in September. They lay eggs that fall, after arriving in their southern destinations, and die. When their young hatch in March, they fly back to Northern Virginia and it starts again— a two generation migration.”

I love the bright and cheery colors of the Common Green Darner, colors that reminded one of my Facebook viewers of a tropical parrot. I also really like the bullseye pattern on the dragonfly’s “nose,” just below its large compound eyes. Be sure to click on the image if you want to see these details better.

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Have you ever watched a dragonfly-to-be break out of its exoskeleton and undergo a remarkable metamorphosis from a water-breathing nymph to an amazing aerial acrobat? It is an amazing and fascinating process that rivals (or maybe even surpasses) the more familiar transformation of a butterfly that many of us studied in school.

On a recent excursion to look for dragonflies in Prince William County, my good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford excitedly called out to me that he had spotted a dragonfly that was midway through the process of emergence. We had not had much success up to that point in the day, so Walter’s news was especially welcome.

When dragonflies are in the process of emergence, they are very vulnerable. Their bodies are undergoing some incredible changes and they do not yet have the ability to fly. If you look at the first photo and compare the size of the exoskeleton (often referred to as an exuvia) to that of the dragonfly, you can get a sense of the magnitude of the changes that were occurring.

I moved a little closer for the second shot, being careful not to disturb the dragonfly, in order to capture some additional details. The exoskeleton shows, for example, little wing pads that are tiny when you compare them to the wings that are still closed over the dragonfly’s body. A little later in the process, the dragonfly will unfold the wings and will be be able to fly, albeit weakly at first.

At this stage, we could tell that the dragonfly was a female, because of the shape of the terminal appendages, but we could not determine its species, because its colors and markings were still really pale. Depending on the species, this transformation process can take as long as several hours and it can sometimes take a few days for the colors and markings to darken. (If you are interested in this whole process, I witnessed the it from start to finish several years ago and took a series of photos that documented the process in a blog posting called Metamorphosis of a dragonfly.)

Walter was eventually able to determine that this was a female Uhler’s Sundragon (Helocordulia uhleri). My final photo shows an adult female Uhler’s Sundragon that I photographed later that same day, so you can easily see that the dragonfly was not yet done with her transformation when we photographed her. 

How did Walter do it? For the answer to that mystery, check out Walter’s blog posting today called Uhler’s Sundragon dragonfly (emergent female) for the fascinating story of his detective work and additional photos and details of our encounter with this emerging dragonfly.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragonfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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When I photographed this dragonfly on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I had no doubt in my mind that it was a Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura).  I had seen dragonflies of this species several times near that area of the refuge, including once earlier this year. Besides, what else could it be?

I got a quick response to that question when I posted a photo to the Virginia Odonata group, a Facebook forum devoted to dragonflies and damselflies. One viewer suggested that it looked more to him like a Slender Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca costalis) than a Common Baskettail. Eventually several experts weighed in and also opined that it looked like a male Slender Baskettail, though one acknowledged that it was difficult to make a definitive call based on my photos that he judged to be “suboptimal.”

So how do you tell the species apart? Slender Baskettails tend to have a narrower waist and are relatively slimmer, but the only way to know for sure is by the length of the cerci, the dark black terminal appendages at the tip of the abdomen (the “tail”). The cerci are longer on male Slender Baskettails than on Common Baskettails. (If you want to know more about dragonfly terminal appendages, check out a posting by fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford entitled Dragonfly terminal appendages (male, female).)

The folks who suggested that this dragonfly is a Slender Baskettail did so on the basis of my photos, but that is not really a reliable method, because the angle and lighting can distort perceptions. How do you know for sure? One expert stated that “you can really only ID them by measuring the cerci which I do of a specimen under a microscope.” I may be a little geeky when it comes to dragonflies, but I am not about to measure a specimen’s anatomical parts with a microscope.

I am left therefore with a bit of a scientific mystery. Is it a Slender Baskettail or a Common Baskettail dragonfly? It might be a bit of heresy to some, but it does not really matter to me. I was simply happy to capture these cool photos of a beautiful creature.

Shakespeare’s words about a rose in “Romeo and Juliet” could easily be applied here, “A rose (or a dragonfly) by any other name would smell (or look) as sweet.”

 

Slender Baskettail

Slender Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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I was thrilled yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to spot my first Blue Corporal dragonfly (Ladona deplanata) of the season. This little dragonfly—about 1.4 inches (36 mm) in length—is one of the earliest dragonflies to reappear each spring in my area and was one of my target species for the day.

If you look carefully at the upper part of the thorax (the “shoulders”) you can see the two light-colored stripes, the traditional military insignia for a corporal, that are responsible for the name of this species. Blue Corporals most often perch flat on the ground, which can make them really hard to spot when they land. In this case, the ground was so cluttered with dried reeds that I could barely detect the dragonfly’s wings. (You can see the wings more easily if you click on the image to enlarge it.)

Blue Corporal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spent most of my time looking for birds during a trip last week to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I managed to capture the images of the bald eagles that I featured yesterday. The day had started off cool and overcast, more suitable for birds than for dragonflies, but when the sun finally broke through in the late afternoon, I decided to swing by a small pond on my walk back to the parking lot on the off chance that I might find a dragonfly.

My hunch paid off when I spotted this female Ashy Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus lividus) perched low to the ground. At that moment I had my Tamron 150-600mm lens attached to my camera and that presented a challenge, because its minimum focusing distance is 8.9 feet (2.70 meters), so I had to back up. At that distance it is hard to locate and focus on a subject that is only 2 inches (50 mm) in length. Fortunately I have been in this situation before and I steadied myself, focused manually, and captured the first image before the dragonfly flew away.

Having established that there there was at least one dragonfly in the area, I switched to my Tamron 180mm macro lens, my preferred lens for dragonflies, and continued my search. A few minutes later I spotted another female Ashy Clubtail when it flew up into some low hanging vegetation and I captured the second image. There is a good chance that this was the same individual that I photographed earlier—both of them are pale in color, suggesting that they had only recently emerged from their larval state.

As I moved a little closer for the final shot, the dragonfly closed its wings overhead, reverting briefly to an earlier stage when it was in the process of emerging. I have seen this happen before when a newly emerged dragonfly, sometimes referred to as a teneral, flew for the first time and its wings were still in a very fragile state. At this point, I decided to stop shooting, fearful that I might spook this newly emerged dragonfly into flying at a time when she clearly needed to rest.

If you are unfamiliar with the amazing process that a dragonfly goes through in transforming itself from a water-dwelling nymph to an aerial acrobat, check out my blog posting called Metamorphosis of a dragonfly that documents the entire process in a series of photos.

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Here are a few shots of one of the cool early spring dragonflies in our area, the distinctive Twin-spotted Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster maculata). I photographed what I believe are two different males on 16 April at Occoquan Regional Park. I was fortunate to spot these dragonflies as they were flying about low to the ground and was able to track them visually to their perches less than a foot (30 cm) above the ground. As you can see from the photos, Twin-spotted Spiketails hang from vegetation at an angle rather than perch horizontally as some dragonflies do.

This species is considered to be uncommon in our area, so I was quite happy to spot them again this year in a location where I had seen them last year. According to Kevin Munroe’s wonderful website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, Twin-spotted Spiketails “are uncommon to rare, and need small, perennial, forest streams with stable, relatively un-eroded banks and a noticeable, steady current. They don’t need the cold, highly-oxygenated, rocky waters of a trout stream, but do need streams with halfway decent water quality and relatively low stormwater surges.”

Over the past few years I have learned, thanks to the helpful instruction of fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, that the habitat really matters for many of the uncommon dragonfly species in our area. There are no guarantees that I will find the my target species when I go searching for them, but there is a much greater chance if I know where to look and when, given that some of these species are present for only a few weeks each year.

In case you are curious, these dragonflies are much larger than the Uhler’s Sundragons and Selsys’s Sundragons that I featured in recent postings. The sundragons are about 1.5 inches (40 mm) in length, while the Twin-spotted Spiketail can be almost 3 inches (76 mm) in length.

Twin-spotted Spiketail

Twin-spotted Spiketail

Twin-spotted Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Normally when I photograph a new species of dragonfly I am immediately ecstatic, but that was not the case on Tuesday. After a long day of searching for Uhler’s Sundragons (Helocordulia uhleri) in Prince William County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, we were excited when we finally spotted a few of them. It had been an overcast day and it was only when the sun came out after noon that the dragonflies began to appear. Walter was thrilled, but my excitement was a little more muted, because I had photographed this species the previous week—check out my posting First dragonflies of the season for details and photos of my adventures that day.

After a while, Walter noted to me that all of the Uhler’s Sundragons that he had seen so far were female and that he hoped he would see a male. This may sound a little strange, but with some species of dragonflies, the females hang out in a separate area from the males until they are ready to mate, so you do not always see the genders intermixed.

I was wandering around the area a bit, as I am prone to do, when Walter called out to me that he had found a male. I rushed over and managed to get some shots of the specimen, including the first two images below. As it turns out, that was the only male that we saw all day.

The following day, Walter sent me an excited Facebook message informing me that the male dragonfly that we had both photographed was not a Uhler’s Sundragon, but was a Selys’s Sundragon (Helocordulia selysii), a similar species that neither of us had ever seen before. Walter did a records search and it looks the species had never before been documented in Prince William County. Finally I was ecstatic.

How did we not notice immediately that this was a different species? One of the primary differences between the species is that Uhler’s Sundragons have amber-colored markings mixed with dark ones at the base of their wings, while Selys’s Sundragons have only the dark markings. Given the small size of these dragonflies, these differences are hard to spot in the field, but are much easier to see when reviewing images afterwards.

For comparison purposes, I have included a photo of a male Uhler’s Sundragon that I photographed last week. If you look carefully, you can see the amber-colored markings in the final photo that are absent in the first two photos.

You may also notice that there is a spider on the branch in the final photo that appears to be reaching down and tapping the dragonfly on the “shoulder.” In this scenario, I am not sure which species would be the predator and which would be the prey. I have documented several cases in which dragonflies have been caught in spiderwebs and also a case when a jumping spider took down a much larger dragonfly (see my 2014 posting Spider captures dragonfly—the story for a fascinating series of images).

If you would like to see Walter’s account of our encounter with the Selys’s Sundragon, check out his blog posting today entitled Selsy’s Sundragon dragonfly (male).

Sely's Sundragon

Sely’s Sundragon, 13 April 2021

Sely's Sundragon

Sely’s Sundragon, 13 April 2021

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler’s Sundragon, 8 April 2021

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Thursday I finally photographed my first dragonflies of the season. I had previously spotted Common Green Darners several time, but they don’t really “count” because I was not able to capture images of them. I initially checked out several locations at a stream in Prince William County, Virginia, where I had seen Uhler’s Sundragon dragonflies (Helocordulia uhleri) in recent years and came up empty-handed.

However, I was thrilled when later in the day I spotted Uhler’s Sundragons at several locations further upstream from my previous locations. Uhler’s Sundragons have a brief and very early flight period and are considered rare in our area. They also are habitat specialists and “they need clean, small to medium, rocky forest streams with gravelly and/or sandy substrate, and a decent flow,” according to the wonderful Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website.

These three photos are indicative of the types of photos that I often try to capture of dragonflies. I love to try to get as close as I can and take extreme close-up shots, like the first one. You can easily see the spines on the legs of the dragonfly and even some of the ommatidia, the optical units that make up the amazing compound eyes of the dragonfly.

The second shot of a female Uhler’s Sundragon is a good illustration of the way that I try to separate my subjects from the background. The final shot of a male Uhler’s Sundragon shows more of the habitat in which I found the dragonfly. The background is a little busy, but I like the way that the image shows the transparency of the dragonfly’s wings.

In case you are curious about how I can tell the gender of these dragonflies, one of the primary keys is to look at the tips of the abdomens (the “tail”)—you will probably note the different anatomical shapes if you compare the second and third images.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Many of you know that dragonflies and damselflies are my favorite subjects to photograph in the warm months of the year. There is something magical about these colorful aerial acrobats that spend most of their lives underwater before undergoing a remarkable metamorphosis. If you are not familiar with a dragonfly’s total transformation, you may want to check out a posting I did a few years ago called Metamorphosis of a dragonfly that documents in photos and in words the step-by-step metamorphosis of a Common Sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus).

It is still a bit early in the season, but I have already been searching for dragonflies and damselflies for a couple of weeks now. Yesterday I finally found my first damselfly, the female Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita) in the first photo that I spotted as she perched on some skunk cabbage in a muddy seep at Occoquan Regional Park. I scoured the area and eventually spotted a few more Fragile Forktails, including the male in the second photo that was also perched on the leaves of a skunk cabbage.

As their name suggests, Fragile Forktail damselflies are quite small and delicate and are only .8 to 1.1 inches (21-29 mm) in length. This species is fairly easy to identify, once you manage to spot one, because both genders have interrupted pale shoulder stripes that look like exclamation marks. I encourage you to click on the images, especially the first one, in which you can see the incredible details of this little lady, including her amazing wings, spiny legs, and tiny feet.

The dragonfly/damselfly season has now officially started for me and I will now begin to intensify my search for spring species, many of which can be found only in specific habitats for a limited period of time. Can you feel my excitement? Yeah, I an unapologetically a bit geeky about these little creatures.

 

Fragile Forktail

Fragile Forktail

© 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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The end of the season has come for most species of dragonflies, with only a few hardy survivors still flying. However, I am delighted that to note that I am still seeing plenty of Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) and expect to continue see them for at least a number of months. For me, the appearance of these bright red dragonflies is one of the signs of the change of the seasons.

I love trying to capture images of Autumn Meadowhawks perching on colorful fall foliage, but they are rarely as cooperative as the dragonfly featured in the first two photos. I’ll be trying to capture similar shots as the season progresses. The final photo provides a somewhat more isolated view of the stunning brown eyes of this male Autumn Meadowhawk and the beautiful red tones of its body.

The dragonfly season may be winding down, but from my perspective it is far from being over.

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The beautiful colors on this dragonfly that I spotted yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park are so amazing that it it hard for me to call it “common,” even though I know that it is a Common Green Darner dragonfly (Anax junius). I initially spotted this dragonfly when it was patrolling over a field and was thrilled when I saw it land nearby.

Although my telephoto lens zooms out to 600mm, I needed to extend it to only 450mm, because Common Green Darners are so large, about 3 inches (75 mm) in length. As a result, the images were sharper and I was able to capture a lot of detail. I encourage you to double-click on the images to see those details, like the bullseye pattern on the top of the “nose” and the spectacular rainbow colors of this dragonfly.

Common Green Darners are a migratory species that flies in swarms so big that they can be picked up on weather radar. This dragonfly seemed to be alone, so it could be a migratory straggler or simply a part of the local population.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

 

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was fortunate when the Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) that I was tracking finally landed on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I was able to capture this image. Black Saddlebags spend most of their time gliding and circling overhead and it is rare for me to see one perching. This species is one of only a handful of dragonfly species in North America that migrate and this dragonfly may have been merely visiting the refuge on a southward journey.

As I noted in my posting yesterday, I have now switched to my 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens as my walkaround lens and I captured this image with that lens. The lens was fully extended to 600mm for this shot and I was using a monopod for some additional stability. It is a little unusual for me to try to photograph such a small subject with my long lens, but this shot shows that it is possible to get a reasonably sharp image if I pay a lot of attention to my technique.

 

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am always excited to see brightly-colored Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum ambiguum) at this time of the year when the overall number of dragonflies is dropping. This couple that I spotted last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge was doing its best to ensure that I see this species for years to come. The acrobatic pose in the photo, sometimes referred to as the “wheel position,” is used by dragonflies and damselflies when mating, with the male clasping the female by the back of her head.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) are among the first dragonflies to appear in our area in the spring and among the last to disappear in the fall. They thrive in a wide variety of habitats and are probably our most frequently seen and easily identified dragonfly—the name “common” seems to fit quite well.

Despite their ubiquitousness, I enjoy trying to photograph these little dragonflies whenever I can. Many of my photos are almost carbon copies of previous photos (you have to pretty old to remember carbon copies), but sometimes I manage to capture an image that is different and distinctive. At times I can envision such a moment when I am out in the field, but often I discover that things “clicked” only when I am examining the images on my computer.

I captured this image of a female Common Whitetail last Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The dragonfly had been perching on the ground, as dragonflies of this species are wont to do, and flew up to a precarious perch on a bent stalk of vegetation. She was not there long, but it was enough time for me to snag this shot. For me, it is the wonderful twisting curve of the vegetation that makes the shot work so well as an “artsy” environmental portrait of a Common Whitetail dragonfly.

Common Whitetail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Nature sometimes saves the best for last. Many dragonflies that have kept me company through the long, hot days of summer have started to disappear. The appearance in autumn of the spectacularly colored male Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) compensates in part for this sense of loss.

I spotted this handsome dragonfly on Wednesday as I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I hope to be seeing this species for another month or so and also its “cousin,” the Autumn Meadowhawk, which has a similarly colored body but has brown eyes. 

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes I can get an indication of the species of a dragonfly by the way that it perches. Most skimmer dragonflies, the family of dragonflies that you are most likely to see, perch horizontally, sometimes on the ground or on vegetation. Other species perch vertically, hanging from vegetation. Finally, there are some dragonflies that never seem to perch and spend most of their time patrolling in the air—when they do take a break from flying, they often perch high in the tree canopy, where they are extremely hard to spot.

Stylurus is a genus of dragonflies whose members are commonly known as “Hanging Clubtails,” because of their habit of hanging nearly vertically when they perch. This past Tuesday I was thrilled to spot a male Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus plagiatus), one of the “Hanging Clubtails,” during a visit to Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford.

During this summer I have been blessed to spot Russet-tipped Clubtails several times at two separate wildlife refuges. As the dragonfly season starts to draw down, it is special to find some of my favorites again, never knowing if it will be the final sighting of that species for the year.

The image below was my second sighting of a Russet-tipped Clubtail in the same general area. A short time earlier I had spotted another male Russet-tipped Clubtail in the trees, but it flew away before I could get any good shots of it. This may well be the same dragonfly, albeit in a different perch.

If you look closely at the image below you can see how the dragonfly is clinging to the leaf and hanging almost vertically. You can also note the prominent “club” that makes it easy to identify as a clubtail dragonfly and the terminal appendages (the shape at the end of the abdomen) show that this is a male. As you can imagine, dragonflies that perch this way are hard to spot—if they don’t move, it is easy to miss them.

Our weather has turned cooler now as we move deeper into autumn (or will begin it soon, depending on which calendar you use for the seasons). It is premature to start a countdown for the dragonfly season, but already I am noting diminishing numbers of certain species. Will I see another Russet-tipped Clubtail this season? If I am lucky, perhaps there will be another. For now I will simply say au revoir—one of the French ways of saying good-bye , with a literal meaning  of “until we meet again.”

Russet-tipped Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Dragonflies are fierce predators that eat a wide variety of insects. However, predators can easily become prey, as was the case with this male Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia) that encountered a Black and Yellow Garden Orbweaver Spider (Argiope aurantia). When I spotted this pair last Friday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, the spider had already immobilized the dragonfly and may have been injecting it with venom at that moment.

dragonfly and spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am pretty old, but I was not born in 1669. However, a Dutch painter, Maria van Oosterwijck, was fascinated by dragonflies and butterflies, as I am, and included them in a floral painting called Flower Still Life that she completed in 1669. Molly Lin Dutina, one of my faithful subscribers, thought of me when she saw the painting in a museum recently and wrote this delightful blog posting. Be sure to check out her blog Treasures in Plain Sight for more of her postings that are thoughtful, inspirational, and always a joy to read.

Treasures in Plain Sight

He seems to follow me everywhere! His interest in dragonflies, butterflies, flowers and nature in general keep me intrigued with his blog. Until he gets to the snakes. Then I tune him out. Yuck. https://michaelqpowell.com/2020/09/04/dragonfly-and-duckweed/

Because of him I am exponentially aware of dragonflies, though I cannot identify hardly any of them. As my oldest friends are aware I love butterflies, but Mike researches his and posts details about them. I merely admire. Well, except for the monarchs and especially their caterpillars. My husband and I garden milkweed especially for those!

Recently Bob and I made a trip to the Cincinnati Art Museum, wearing our masks and social distancing in the almost deserted museum. One exhibit was called “Women Breaking Boundaries” and this painting was done by Maria van Oosterwijck in 1669 entitled Flower Still Life. I was admiring the flowers: nasturtium, peony, tulip, lily of the valley, carnation or…

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