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Archive for the ‘dragonfly’ Category

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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One corner of the pond at Ben Brenman Park was covered with so much duckweed on Sunday that it look almost solid, like a floating carpet of green lentils. As I was scanning the surface of the water for frogs, which sometimes hang out in duckweed, I spotted a  dragonfly buzzing low over the water. When it finally landed, I captured this image of what turned out to be a male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis).

This image really appeals to me for artistic reasons. I like the different colored branches that cut across the frame; I like the texture provided by the duckweed in the background; and I like the color and the angled pose of the dragonfly, and its wonderful shadow as an added bonus.

I am drawn in by the image’s simple composition, as is frequently the case with my favorite photographs. Photography, I’ve found, is often most effective when it is reduced to its most basic elements, as I tried to do in this image of a dragonfly and duckweed.

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This has been a crazy year in so many different ways, including for dragonfly hunting. I post images almost every day, so I may provide the mistaken impression that I am out shooting every day. In fact, I have been staying at home a lot more and have been generally limiting my photography forays to a couple of times a week, supplemented by periodic trips to my neighbor’s garden to photograph flowers.

As a result, I have not seen some of “the usual suspects,” i.e. the dragonflies that I am used to seeing every year. I was quite excited when I spotted this female Painted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula semifasciata) during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, because I had not seen this species this season. You may have noticed that I really like dragonflies with patterned wings—I think that those patterns at an extra dimension to their beauty.

Dragonflies tend to be distracted when they are eating, which sometimes lets me get a little closer for a photograph. You can’t help but notice that this Painted Skimmer is feeding on some kind of insect with a bright red body. It looks a little like some kind of wasp or similar insect, though I really am not sure what it is.

I had no idea that “The Usual Suspects” was the name of a 1995 movie starring Stephen Baldwin and Kevin Spacey, so folks of a younger generation may associate those words with that movie. For me, however, “the usual suspects” will forever be a reference to a line in Casablanca, my absolutely favorite movie. If you are unfamiliar with the movie and would like to see the full line “round up the usual suspects” in its original context or simply want to relive that movie moment, check out this short clip from YouTube.

Painted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I do not recall seeing a single Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus plagiatus) last year, but I am more than making up for it this year. I have already done postings this month of female and male Russet-tipped Clubtails that I spotted during trips to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and was pleased to spot some more last week at a different location.

The first time that I see a species each year, I am extremely happy to capture any shot at all. If I am fortunate enough to have additional sightings, I will work to get a better shot, even though I know that I risk scaring the subject away. I traveled to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge twice last week and was delighted to spot a male Russet-tipped Clubtail each time.

My subjects last week chose very different perches—one flew up into a tree and one was in some vegetation lower to the ground—so I used different approaches for each one. When the dragonfly in the first photo initially landed in the tree, I was facing into the light and the details of the dragonfly were lost in the shadows. I was able to circle around so that the sun was to my back and managed to find a shooting angle that allowed me to avoid other branches and have the blue sky as the background.

My second subject was hanging vertically and was facing away from me. My initial shots captured the beautiful details of the wings, but the background was so close that I could not blur it out and it was somewhat cluttered in the images. I moved to the side and was able to compose the second shot below that eliminated the problem with the background. Yes, I sacrificed some wing detail, but in return I got a pose that is much more pleasing. We now have a better view of the eyes and the dragonfly has some personality—he almost looks like he is talking to me.

In photography, as in many other areas, it is the results that count. I could have simply shown you the photos and left it at that. However, I thought some of you might enjoy a brief peek inside of my head, a sense of my mental process as I was shooting. Quite often I opportunistically shoot whatever presents itself to me, but in situations like this I made some conscious decisions to improve my situation. In both cases I was able to get some better shots, which is why you see some more Russet-tipped Clubtails today.

Russet-tipped Clubtail

Russet-tipped Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you have a favorite dragonfly? Almost everyone who reads my blog knows that I love dragonflies. Like parents with children, I am probably supposed to love them all equally, but I actually do have a favorite dragonfly, the Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum). On Thursday, I was thrilled to spot my first Blue-faced Meadowhawk  of the season at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge which turned out to be a female.

Why are these my favorites? The males of this species are spectacular, with bright red bodies and stunning turquoise eye and I also find the females to be quite attractive. At a time when the dragonfly season feels like it is starting to wind down, these little dragonflies appear on the scene and keep me company for several more months—that is at least as important to me as their physical appearance.

If you want to know a bit more about why I like dragonflies so much and especially Blue-faced Meadowhawks, check out my posting entitled “My favorite dragonfly?” Almost every year I am flooded with similar feelings when I see my first Blue-faced Meadowhawk and the linked post shows a handsome male that was the first one that I spotted in 2018—it is also an easy way for you to compare today’s female with that male to see some of the differences between the two genders.

Blue-faced Meadowhawks are also special to me for a personal reason—I was awarded second place in a local photo contest several years ago for a macro shot of a Blue-faced Meadowhawk. Here is a link to the 2015 posting Second place in a local photo competition that shows that prize-winning entry and tells some of the back story of the image.

I captured the two images below from more or less the same spot—it is interesting to see how much difference a slight change in the angle of view can make. I like the overall pose and the background of the first image, which I believe was shot from a crouched position. The second image, which looks like it was shot from a higher angle, is a little sharper and you can see some of the details much better, like the spines on the legs. Overall, I think I prefer the first one. What do you think?

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

 

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Almost all of the male Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) that I have seen this season have been immature. How can I tell? When male Calico Pennants are young their abdomens are bright yellow, like those of the females. As they mature their abdomens turn a beautiful shade of red, like the male Calico Pennant in the image below that I captured on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

You might think that it would be easy to spot a dragonfly with such gaudy colors, but Calico Pennants are small and elusive. I usually manage to find them in the waist high vegetation in a field at the edge of a small pond at the refuge.

If you would like to compare the coloration of this male Calico Pennant with that of an immature male, check out the my posting from a couple of weeks ago entitled “Immature Calico Pennant dragonfly.”

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Blue Dashers are one of our most common dragonflies where I live and it is easy to pass them by and take them for granted. When I stop and look closely at them, however, I am reminded of their beauty. I spotted this striking male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge.

There is a lot of detail in this image—like the little amber patch on the wings and a tiny orange simple eye (ocellus) in the middle of the “face” adjacent to the larger compound eyes—and I recommend that you double-click on the image to get a closer view. (If you want to learn more about dragonfly eyes, check out this fascinating article entitled “Dragonflies: eyes and a face” at benkolstad.net.)

Beauty is everywhere.

Blue Dasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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This week I made three visits to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and I was excited to spot a male Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus plagiatus) during two of those trips. Some of you may recall that I spotted a female Russet-tipped Clubtail earlier this month, which I documented in a posting entitled “Russet-tipped Clubtail in August,” but my sightings this week were the first males that I have seen this season.

Some species of dragonflies are so widespread that I will see dozens or even hundreds of members of that species in a single day. Other species, like the Russet-tipped Clubtail, have such a low population density that I can walk about for several hours and consider myself lucky to spot a single one, even when I know that I am in an area where they can be found.

Russet-tipped Clubtails belong to the genus Stylurus, a group often referred to as “hanging clubtails” from their tendency to hang nearly vertically when they perch, as in the second photo below that I captured on Tuesday during a photowalk with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. On rare occasions you can find one perched horizontally atop a leaf, as in the first image below that I captured yesterday.

If you compare these photos of the male Russet-tipped clubtails with those of the female in the previous posting, you will see many physical similarities, including the long, thin abdomen and the stunning green eyes. The most notable differences between the two genders are the much larger “clubtail” on the male and the different-shaped terminal appendages at the tip of the abdomen.

Many summer dragonfly species are still hanging on and several more late-summer/early autumn species should be emerging soon, so I hope to continue to include a healthy dose of dragonflies in my postings, along with more of the beautiful butterflies that seem to have had a summer resurgence.

 

Russet-tipped Clubtail

Russet-tipped Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Some dragonflies seems to seek the highest possible perch and I love photographing them with the sky and the clouds as the simple backdrop.  I spotted this female Needham’s Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula needhami) last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I was thrilled that I was able to maneuver myself into a shooting position almost directly below the dragonfly and shoot upwards at a sharp angle. I was also happy to capture the beautiful golden markings near the leading edges of the wings, one of the most distinctive characteristics of this species that is quite common where I live.

 

Needham's Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Male dragonflies are often territorial and spend a lot of their time chasing off intruders, like these rival male Eastern Amberwing dragonflies (Perithemis tenera) that I spotted earlier this month at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Although Eastern Amberwing dragonflies are quite small (one inch (25 mm) or less in length), they tend to hover a bit when they are flying, which makes them a little easier to photograph in flight than most other dragonfly species.

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was happy last Monday to finally get a shot of a female Swift Setwing dragonfly (Dythemis velox) at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge—all of my previous photos this year have been of males. With some dragonfly species, like Common Whitetails, I generally see an equal number of males and females, but with other species, like the Swift Setwing, the females tend to hang out in different places than the males and are rarely seen. The female visits the location where they males are found—in this case, the pond—only when she decides that she is ready for mating.

The first image shows the typical wings-forward pose of Swift Setwings, which allows us to see the beautiful markings on the upper part of the abdomen of this female. In the second image, she has raised her wings into a position much like that of other dragonflies, which lets us get a better view of her face. As I recall, a breeze was blowing in the face of the dragonfly when I took the second shot and she may have raised her wings to reduce her profile and wind resistance.


Swift Setwing

Swift Setwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some of the dragonfly species that I search for are around for only a few weeks, while other species have a flight season of multiple months. Calico Pennants (Celithemis elisa) are in the latter category. I photographed some Calico Pennants in the middle of June and spotted this colorful immature male this past Tuesday—I am happy to see that they are still around.

Calico Pennants are so small—about 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length—that many viewers have probably never seen one. I love their bright colors and multi-colored wing markings. Adult males are red while females and immature males, like this one, are yellow. I can tell that this one is a male because of the distinctive appendages at the tip of the abdomen.

If you want to see photos of a female Calico Pennant and an adult male, be sure to check out the earlier posting entitled “Calico Pennant dragonflies in June.”

 

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It has obviously been a rough summer for this female Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina). Her tattered wings are testaments to her struggle to survive. We can only speculate about what caused all of that damage, for only she truly knows what experiences led to those ragged edges. Somehow it seems appropriate that the perch that she chose is equally full of rough and jagged edges.

This summer has been difficult for many of us too and I suspect that a lot of us feel as frazzled and beat-up as this beautiful little dragonfly, even though we may not show it on the outside. Be gentle with yourself and with others that you encounter. You never know how fragile they may be or what struggles they are going though—we all have ragged edges.

Halloween Pennant

 

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you photograph the same subjects over and over again? I know that I do, hoping that each new opportunity might provide something different—perhaps a new pose, an unusual angle of view, or different lighting conditions.

That is why I was chasing after this male Eastern Amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) last week at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Usually I find the males of this common species buzzing around at water’s edge or perched on vegetation overhanging or growing out of the water. This individual, however, was flying over a grassy patch adjacent to the pond, periodically pausing to perch only a few inches above the ground.

I took this shot from almost directly above the little dragonfly—Eastern Amberwings are less than an inch (25 mm) in length—and that angle helped me to capture the entire body in relatively sharp focus. Sharpness, though is only one of the factors that I use in evaluating my photos and often it is not the most important one. In this case, I really like the angled pose of the dragonfly and I the dominant colors in the image. I absolutely love the way that the beautiful warm brown colors of the dragonfly contrast with the cool greens in the background.

Sometimes we grow so comfortable with our familiar surroundings that we take them for granted. I strive to look at the world with optimism and fresh eyes each day, confident that I will discover beauty almost anywhere that I find myself.

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is not yet the end of summer, but already it seems like the numbers of dragonflies of some species are diminishing. Many of the survivors show signs of wear and tear, with damage to their wings and scratches on their bodies. However, there are some dragonfly species that do not appear on the scene until late in the summer or even in the autumn, so those of us who enthusiastically chase after dragonflies still have plenty to keep us occupied—in my area certain dragonflies are around until December and even occasionally into early January.

Yesterday I was excited to spot one of those late-summer dragonflies at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, a female Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus plagiatus). When I first spotted her, she was clinging to some vegetation, as you can see in the second photo. I was so entranced by her beautiful green eyes, though, that I decided to lead this posting with a close-up shot shot of those spectacular eyes that remind me a little of malachite.

In the final two photos, you can clearly see the distinguishing features of the “tail” that are responsible for the common name of the species. As is often the case with clubtail dragonflies, the “club” is much more prominent with the male Russet-tipped Clubtail than with the female. If you would like to see some cool shots of a male for comparison, check out my blog posting from September 2016 entitled “Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly.”

Russet-tipped Clubtail

Russet-tipped Clubtail

 

Russet-tipped Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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I was really happy yesterday morning when I spotted a female Tiger Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster erronea) while exploring a small stream in Prince William County, Virginia and absolutely thrilled when she started ovipositing, giving me a chance to capture these images. For several years I have been trying to photograph this elusive species. In the past I have gotten a glimpse of a Tiger Spiketail on several occasions, but never managed to get a shot of one.

Why have I had such problems? Kevin Munroe, who developed the wonderfully informative website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, described the species in these words:

“This secretive and seldom seen forest dweller has an almost elven quality. It lives deep in mature woodlands and spends most of its life around tiny, almost invisible spring-fed seepage streams. When startled, it disappears into the leafy canopy, which is also where pairs fly to mate, often hidden for hours. Their larvae live in such small, food-scarce streams that they take several years to mature. Tigers live in smaller streams than any other Northern Virginia spiketail. Their numbers are relatively low, and it’s unusual to see more than one or two together. There’s a certain thrill to finding a Tiger Spiketail at its stream—you know you’ve stumbled upon a clean, quiet and special corner of whatever park you’re exploring.”

Tiger Spiketails fly patrols low above the water of these tiny forest streams. If you find the right kind of stream, you stand and wait, hoping that a Tiger Spiketail will fly by. If one appears, you might have a second or two to get off a shot of the flying dragonfly before it disappears from sight. You repeat the cycle and if all goes well, the dragonfly may come back again within fifteen to thirty minutes or you may never see it again.

I was really lucky yesterday. Earlier in the morning I had had several sightings of a Tiger Spiketail, but had gotten only a single very blurry shot. When a Tiger Spiketail flew into view, I immediately started tracking the dragonfly visually and I was shocked when she began to dip the tip of her abdomen in the water to deposit an egg, a process known as ovipositing. What this meant was that she would hang around in a spot for several seconds and then move upstream a bit and repeat the process.

Although I had the Tiger Spiketail in sight, getting a decent shot was a challenge. In addition to her lateral movements, she was also moving up and down as she deposited her eggs. Much of the stream was in the shade or the light was heavily filtered, so it was hard to get enough light to capture a moving subject. I managed to get a few reasonably sharp action shots of the Tiger Spiketail. If you double-click on the first image, you can actually see the dragonfly’s “spiketail” and other details including its beautiful markings and striking green eyes. The second shot gives you a better view of the environment in which I found this dragonfly, which is considered rare in the area in which I live.

Whenever I manage to capture of a new species, I am so excited that I do not worry much about the quality of the images. Before long, though, the excitement dies down and I will hit the trails again, determined and hopeful that I will be able to get some better shots. That crazy, quixotic vision is what drives most of us nature and wildlife photographers to go out repeatedly, always in search of the next best photo.

Tiger Spiketail

Tiger Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What do you do to cope on a hot sunny day? Most of us stay indoors in an air-conditioned space, possibly with a cold beverage. Dragonflies do not have those options, so many of them assume a pose, often known as the obelisk posture, in an attempt to regulate their temperature by reducing exposure to the direct sunlight.

You may seen dragonflies in a handstand-like pose, looking like gymnasts in training—that is the obelisk posture. The dragonfly lifts its abdomen until its tip points to the sun, thereby minimizing the amount of surface area exposed to solar radiation. At noontime, the vertical position of the dragonfly’s body suggest an obelisk, which in my area immediately brings to mind the Washington Monument. According to Wikipedia, scientists have tested this phenomenon in a laboratory by heating Blue Dasher dragonflies with a lamp, which caused them to raise their abdomens and has been shown to be effective in stopping or slowly the rise in their body temperature.

While visiting Green Spring Gardens last week on a hot humid day, I observed obelisking behavior in a male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) and a male Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera). I have always been intrigued by this pose and would love to try it out to see if it works for thermoregulation in humans too. Alas, I lack both the upper-body strength and the lower body flexibility to make a go of it, so I’ll continue to be merely a spectator of these beautiful little acrobats.

Blue Dasher

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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It love it when dragonflies cooperate and choose particularly photogenic perches, as these female Eastern Amberwing dragonflies (Perithemis tenera) did on Tuesday at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia, not far from where I live. The males of this species, whose wings are a solid amber in color, mostly seemed to be hanging out at a pond at the bottom of a hill, while the females were flitting about among the flowers in the gardens at the top—the gender separation reminded me of the awkwardness of junior high dances when I was growing up.

As many of you may recall, dragonflies and damselflies are part of the Odonata order of flying insects. My friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford has coined the term “odonart” to refer to artsy-style photos that we manage to capture of our favorite aerial acrobats. I think that both of these images qualify to fit into that self-created category, given the beauty of the dragonflies and their particularly photogenic perches.

Eastern Amberwing

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Dragonflies are carnivorous—they feed on other live insects. Most of their diet consists of gnats, mosquitoes, and other small insects, but they also prey upon bees, butterflies, damselflies, and even on other dragonflies.

When I first spotted this male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) on Saturday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, it had just perched on a stalk of vegetation. As I moved a little closer, the dragonfly changed its position, looking almost like it was trying to hide behind the stalk. What I did not realize at the time was that the dragonfly had just snagged a damselfly and was preparing to eat his lunch. Obviously he did not want to share it with me.

Almost all of the times that I have seen dragonflies with prey, they been Eastern Pondhawks, which seem to be particularly fierce predators. Some dragonflies eat their prey in mid-air and I never see them do so. It may also be the case that some other dragonflies fly up into the trees and consume their prey out of sight, while the Eastern Pondhawk is content to eat in public.

It is often difficult to judge the relative size of dragonflies and damselflies. This images lets you see how much smaller and thinner damselflies are than dragonflies. An Eastern Pondhawk is about 1.7 inches (43 mm) in length and the unidentified damselfly looks to a bit over an inch (25 mm) in length.

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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We are definitely in the summer doldrums, with day after day of oppressive heat and humidity. This week has been a bit different only because we have had some violent thunder storms. In terms of dragonflies, the common skimmer species are flying about in great numbers. In my area, that means that on a trip Tuesday to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I saw lots of Common Whitetails, Eastern Pondhawks, Needham’s Skimmers, Blue Dashers, and Great Blue Skimmers.

Although I have photographed these species many times, I still chase after them, trying to capture new behavior or interesting portraits, perches, or backgrounds. That is why I was able to capture this image of this smiling female Great Blue Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans) as she perched on some stalks of Eastern Gammagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides). I do not know vegetation very well, but I remember my friend Walter Sanford identifying this type of grass to me a few years ago and somehow the name has stuck with me.

In many ways, this photograph is indicative of my favorite approach to wildlife photography. Although I will sometimes look for rare species to photograph, I especially enjoy photographing common species and highlighting their uncommon beauty. Beauty is everywhere.

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I ventured out into the heat for a couple of hours yesterday and was rewarded for my efforts by this beautiful female Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) that I spotted at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

What makes a portrait perfect? For me, an optimal portrait captures an interesting subject in a dynamic pose with good lighting and a complementary background. I think that this images ticks all of those boxes. Why, then, do I call it “almost” perfect in the title? I guess that there is a part of me that is never completely satisfied, that is steadfastly convinced that I can do better. That is why I was out walking the trails yesterday when temperatures soared above 95 degrees (35 degrees C). Don’t worry, I stayed in the shade, carried lots of water, and took it slowly. The good news was that social distancing was a breeze—I saw only one other crazy person walking about in the midday heat.

Halloween Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) are one of our most common dragonflies and were an early favorite when I started to get more serious about my photography eight years ago. I still enjoy capturing images of them, especially when the lighting is as interesting as it was last Tuesday during a visit to Green Spring Gardens with my friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer.

I had a lot of fun trying to track the male Blue Dasher dragonflies as they flew among the lotuses and water lilies at a small pond. Most of the time they would perch on distant plants, out of range of my macro lens, but on a few occasions they came closer. The first image shows one perched on the broken-off stalk of a lotus, partially in the shadow of other lotuses. The second image shows a Blue Dasher perched in the light, atop what I believe is one of the lily pads, though there is a slight chance that it might be a lotus leaf.

Yes, Blue Dashers are still among my favorites, even after all of these years.

Blue Dasher

Blue Dasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I tend to associate dragonflies primarily with marshes and ponds, but a few dragonflies also like sandy beaches. Most of the times that I have observed Common Sanddragon dragonflies (Progomphus obscurus) they have been perched directly on the sandy edges of forest streams, which makes sense, given their name. On Monday I was thrilled to spot some Common Sanddragons at Wickford Park, a small park adjacent to Huntley Meadows Park, a marshland refuge where I used to do a lot of shooting before it became too popular.

Although the dragonfly in the first image may look like he was perched on the ground, he was actually on the slanted side of a concrete drainage ditch. Normally I try to avoid man-made backgrounds for my subjects, but this shot provided a good overall view of the entire body of the Common Sanddragon. It might be my imagination, but it looks to me like this little guy was glancing up at me and smiling. Double-click on the image and see what you think.

In many ways I prefer the second shot, with the Common Sanddragon dragonfly perched amidst the rocks at the edge of the stream. I love the different colors, shapes, and textures of the rocks and don’t mind that the dragonfly itself is harder to spot. I consider the image to be a kind of environmental portrait.

 

Common Sanddragon

Common Sanddragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was walking past one of the fields Huntley Meadows Park on Monday, I spotted a large dragonfly patrolling back and forth, flying low over the heavy vegetatation. I tracked the dragonfly’s movements with my camera as it flew tantalizingly close to me, only to abruptly change directions each time. All of the sudden, the dragonfly zoomed past me and disappeared into the foliage of a tree on the other side of the trail on which I was standing,

Fortunately I was able to see where the dragonfly had landed and eventually I found it perched on the underside of a branch. The second shot shows the view that I had after I had approached the dragonfly cautiously. If you look closely at the space between the dragonfly’s head and the branch, you will see that it is in the process of eating what looks to be a black and yellow insect of some kind. In my experience, when dragonflies are eating, they tend to be so focused on their food that I can get closer to them than might otherwise be possible.

From that distance I could already identify it as a Swamp Darner dragonfly (Epiaeschna heros), one of the largest dragonflies in our area, almost 3.5 inches in length (89 mm). I was happy to be able to get the side shot, but wanted a different angle, so I maneuvered my way around and captured the dorsal view shown in the first photo. From this angle you get a really good view of its amazing blue eyes and the wonderful circular ring markings on its abdomen. The angle of view also showed me some body parts that allowed me to determine that this is a male.

I spent only a couple of hours hunting dragonflies on Monday, but had a very successful day, finding the elusive Mocha Emerald that I featured yesterday and this gorgeous Swamp Darner. Folks frequently ask me why I like dragonflies so much and I think that the first photo is a convincing visual response to such a query—no further explanations should be required.

Swamp Darner

Swamp Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It has been a few years since I last saw a Mocha Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora linearis), so I was excited when I spotted one yesterday while exploring at Huntley Meadows Park. The male Mocha Emerald was patrolling along above a small stream in a way that is typical, but infuriating—he would fly a bit and then hover, but before I could focus on him, he would fly some more, each time moving again before I could catch up to him. Fortunately, Mocha Emeralds perch pretty often and I was absolutely thrilled when this one chose a perch within sight of where I was standing.

As you look at the photos, you cannot help but notice that the dragonfly’s body long, dark, and skinny body, although you eyes may well be drawn first to his brilliant emerald eyes. You may also note that he does not really perch, but instead hangs from the branch to relax. The position reminds me of the one what I assume when I am doing pull-ups and definitely would not be my preferred position for resting.

I am often surprised by the amazing diversity in the dragonfly world. When I first started to focus on dragonflies, it was obvious that they came in different colors. As I have learned more about dragonflies and photographed them, I have grown more attuned to body shapes, behavior, and habitats. Yes, I am somewhat obsessed with these beautiful creatures and enjoy searching for hours for little jewels like this Mocha Emerald.

 

 

Mocha Emerald

Mocha Emerald

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

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As summer progress, the once pristine wings of dragonflies and butterflies become increasingly tattered and torn. When I spotted this handsome Spangled Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula cyanea) last week at Occoquan Regional Park, I couldn’t help but notice that he has varying degrees of damage on the trailing edge of all of his wings. Comparatively speaking, the damage is minor and did not seem to inhibit his activity in any way—I have seen dragonflies with much more severe damage that were still able to fly.

How did his wings get damaged? Predators such as birds or even other dragonflies could inflict damage as could vegetation with sharp branches and thorns. When I looked closely at this dragonfly’s abdomen, I also noticed scratches there, which made me think of another potential source of some of the damage. It is now the prime season for mating and like most male dragonflies, this dragonfly is vigorously trying to do his part to perpetuate the species.

Dragonfly mating can be rough and could be the source of some of the visible damage. The final photo shows a mating pair of Spangled Skimmer dragonflies and, judging from the locations of the damage to its wings, the male in the first photo appears to be one of the participants.

In case you are curious about identifying this dragonfly species, the white “stigmata” on the trailing edge both male and female Spangled Skimmers, i.e. the “spangles” responsible for its common name, make this species an easy one to identify.

Spangled Skimmer

Mating Spangled Skimmers

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some dragonfly species are special to me because of their beauty; some—because of their rarity; and some—because of the specific circumstance under which I found them. Swift Setwings are in the latter category.

Four years ago I photographed a strange-looking dragonfly at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and could not identify it. I was a little shocked when experts told me it was a male Swift Setwing dragonfly (Dythemis velox), a primarily southern species that had never before been spotted as far north in Virginia as Fairfax County where I live.

Every year since that first encounter, I make a pilgrimage to the spot of my first sighting to check on “my” dragonflies, which now seem to have a well-established breeding population. Alerted by a Facebook posting by a fellow photographer, I visited the refuge this past Tuesday and was thrilled to spot several male Swift Setwing dragonflies.

As you can see from the two photos below, Swift Setwings have a distinctive posture—they typically perch on the tip of branches with their wings angled down and forward and their abdomen slightly raised. Apparently the stance reminded some scientist of a sprinter at a track meet on the blocks in the “ready, set, go” position” and that is supposed to be the source of the somewhat unusual name for the species.

Usually the vegetation on which a Swift Setwing is perched hangs over the water and the dragonfly faces the water. As a result, I too often have to hang over the water to get a decent angle for a shot. So far, I have managed to keep from falling into the pond, though I must admit that I have come close to doing so a few times.

Swift Setwing

Swift Setwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Where can you find dragonflies? You can find them almost anywhere where there is some kind of water nearby, but different species have preferred habitats. Some dragonflies can be found at lakes or ponds or streams or in sunlit meadows or in the margins of the forest.

Some of my favorites, including the Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi) are creatures of the seeps, those mucky forest areas where skunk cabbages are likely to grow. Most of the photos that I have published of Gray Petaltails have shown them perching vertically on sunlit trees near those seeps. That is where they are found most often, although they will sometimes perch on people with gray shirts, perhaps mistaking them for trees. I have had it happen to me on multiple occasions and, even though I love dragonflies, it is a little disconcerting when one of these large dragonflies flies by your head with an audible whir and lands on you.

As I was exploring a seepy area in Occoquan Regional Park on Wednesday, I was thrilled to be able to capture a shot of a Gray Petaltail perched horizontally on some skunk cabbage. What was he doing there? My first thought was that maybe he had just emerged and was waiting for his wings to harden. Unlike many other dragonfly larvae that live in the water, Gray Petaltail larvae live in the moist leaves in and around the seeps, so that is were they undergo their amazing metamorphosis from larvae into dragonflies.

When the dragonfly flew to a nearby tree, as shown in the second shot, it appeared to be a full-grown adult. I am still at a loss to explain why he was previously perched on skunk cabbage. Who knows? However, I do like the way that way that the background of this image is diagonally broken up into a kind of yin-yang pattern, a wonderful backdrop for this dragonfly’s muted colors.

The final photo is a quick shot to give you a visual impression some of the elements in a sun-lit forest seep, the preferred habitat for a Gray Petaltail dragonfly. This seep is on the side of a hill, so the water is not stagnant, but instead slowly oozes its way into a stream. If you want to find a Gray Petaltail on your own, this is the kind of place where you need to search.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

seep

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I was happy on Tuesday to spot this male Lancet Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus exilis) perched in the vegetation overhanging the small pond at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I would like to have gotten a closer shot, but the bank was steep and the water in the pond appears to be deep at that spot. Staying dry, I was content to capture this environmental portrait of the handsome little dragonfly with such striking blue eyes.

lancet clubtail

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If you are lucky and persistent, it is not hard to photograph a perched dragonfly. Some of them are amazingly tolerant of the presence of a human and will let you get really close to them. Even when they do fly away, many of them will return to the very same perch.

If you want to really challenge your skills as a photographer and perhaps even your sanity, you attempt to photograph members of dragonfly species that fly almost constantly and rarely perch, like this male Prince Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca princeps) that I spotted late in June at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. This dragonfly was flying irregular patrols low over the waters of a small pond at the refuge—sometimes he would fly relatively close to the shore, but often his flight path was unpredictable.

So how do I do it? I generally use the same 180mm macro lens that I use for close-up shots of dragonflies. However, I know that the lens tends to focus slowly and autofocus simply can’t acquire the subject, because it fills such a small part of the frame, so I switch to manual focus. I pre-focus on a general area and then as I track the dragonfly, I adjust the focus on the fly as he zooms by and fire away in burst mode. As dragonflies go, a Prince Baskettail is relatively large, almost 3 inches in length (75 mm), but it is really tough to get an in focus shot of one while he is flying.

On a second occasion when I was visiting the same refuge, I got a chance to try a variation of the technique. The dragonflies were patrolling  high overhead as I stood in a grassy area at one end of the pond. The second shot was the best that I could manage—the wing pattern suggests that it is also a Prince Baskettail, but the eye coloration and the terminal appendages at the tip of the abdomen make me wonder if this one is a female. What I discovered is that it is actually a lot harder to focus on a dragonfly when I am looking straight up than when looking down at the water and my arms get tired a lot quicker when holding my camera up hight for an extended period of time.

Prince Baskettail

Prince Baskettail

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