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Archive for the ‘Insects’ Category

As I was walking through a grassy field on Thursday at Huntley Meadows Park, I inadvertently disturbed a grasshopper that flew to a nearby tree. It had been weeks since I had last seen a grasshopper, so I searched carefully for the insect and was happy when I managed to locate it on the trunk of the tree.

Although I carefully composed my shot, I did not have high expectations for it—it was a simple shot with a simple composition. I was stunned when I reviewed the image on my computer at how well it turned out. I love the way I was able to capture the texture of the tree bark and of the grasshopper, though I must confess that the background on the right hand side of the image may be my favorite element of the image.

One of the joys of photography for me is the discovering images like this, appealing images in which the separate components work together to create a harmonious whole. If someone had asked me when I first returned home from the shoot if I had captured any good images, I probably would have responded negatively—I would have been wrong.

Have a wonderful weekend.

grasshopper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I noted in a recent posting, there appear to be only two active dragonfly species remaining in my area—Wandering Gliders and Autumn Meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum). Today I decided to feature some shots of Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies that I spotted last week during a visit to Huntley Meadows Park, a local marshland refuge.

Quite often Autumn Meadowhawks perch flat on the ground which makes it easy for me to get shots of them. However, those shots tend to be relatively uninteresting from an artistic point of view. I am always on the lookout for those dragonflies that choose more photogenic perches, especially those that include colorful fall foliage.

I was quite fortunate that the Autumn Meadowhawks were cooperative last week in helping me to capture images that matched my “artistic vision,” which does not always happen in wildlife photography. Wildlife photography has so many variables over which I have little or not control, including the weather, the lighting, the environment, and the subjects themselves. Success is certainly not guaranteed, but I have found that patience, persistence, knowledge, and a bit of skill can often help to tip the odds a bit in my favor.

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Throughout this autumn season I have frequently seen large wasp-like insects as I have explored Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Often I would catch a glimpse of red color as one flew by and I would think that it was an Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly, which has a bright red body. Once I got a better look at my target, I could easily see that it was not a dragonfly.

What was it? Earlier this month I finally get a decent photo of the insect and began my search to identify it. I have come to the conclusion that it is probably a European Hornet (Vespa crabro). As the name suggests, this species originated in Europe and was first reported in North America about 1840 in New York. SInce then it has spread to most of the eastern United States, according to an article by North Carolina State University.

The first thing I noticed about European Hornets is that they are big, over an inch (25 mm) in length for workers and 1. 5 inches (38 mm) for queens. Fortunately they do not appear to be very aggressive, so I have never had to worry about being stung by one, although I must admit that I keep a healthy distance from them. In fact, I took the photo below with my telephoto zoom lens fully extended to its maximum focal length of 600 mm.

In the fall all of the workers die and the only individuals that survive are fertilized queens. The queens overwinter in protected places, such as under the bark of fallen trees, and construct new nests the following spring.

European Hornet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am happy to see that some butterflies are still with us as we move deeper into November. Eastern Comma butterflies (Polygonia interrogationis), like the one in first photo, overwinter as adults, rather than as eggs or pupae as most butterflies do, so there is a chance that I will continue to see them for a while longer if the weather does not get too bad.

Common Buckeyes (Junonia coenia), like the one in the second photo, cannot tolerate cold temperatures. Some of them, according to Wikipedia, migrate to the south for the winter and then return when the weather warms up in the spring.

I was most surprised this week to spot the Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) in the final photo—it had been a month or so since I had last seen a Black Swallowtail. This species spends the winter in the chrysalis stage, and adults emerge in the spring to seek out host plants.

We are nearing the end of the butterfly season, but I am delighted to share my walks in nature with these fragile little creatures for a little while longer.

Eastern Comma

Common Buckeye

Black Swallowtail

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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My dragonfly season is slowing winding down. During the month of November, I have seen only two species of dragonflies—Wandering Gliders (Pantala flavescens) and Autumn Meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum), but I have had multiple encounters with each species. Autumn Meadowhawks are usually the last dragonflies standing each year and there is a chance that I will see one in December.

Wandering Gliders, on the other hand, may disappear from the scene at any moment, so I am especially delighted whenever I spot one flying about, patrolling back and forth over a field. If I am lucky, I will see it perch on some vegetation when it comes down to earth for a rest and I will have a chance to get a shot. I took the first shot this past Tuesday, 9 November, at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge at a moment when I had my macro lens on my camera. I really like the way that I was able to capture the intricate patterns on the dragonfly’s body.

The two final photos are of a Wandering Glider that I spotted on the 1st of November. It is probably hard for you to tell, but I took these shots with my long telephoto zoom lens, which still managed to capture an amazing amount of detail, especially in the wings in the last image. I encourage you to click on the images to get a better look at those details.

It is raining today and the ground is littered with fallen leaves. As the trees are laid bare, I will have a better chance to spot some of the birds that I have been hearing recently, but have not seen.

For now, though, I am enjoying the waning moments of the season with my magical little dragonfly friends. Their time is not over until it is over.

Wandering Glider

Wandering Glider

Wandering Glider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love milkweed plants—their shape and texture fascinate me at all stages of of their development. I photographed this milkweed plant last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a plant that most might describe as past its prime—I would call it beautiful.

If you look carefully at the photo, you will see several red Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) crawling about on the plant. It is always worthwhile to examine milkweed plants carefully, because a fascinating variety of insects feed on milkweed or use it as part of their habitat.

milkweed

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am still on the lookout for summer dragonfly stragglers and survivors. There are certain dragonfly species that I expect to see during the autumn, but there are also a few particularly hard individuals from the summer species that are managing to hang on. Over the past week and a half I have spotted one Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans), one Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), and one Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis), as shown in the photos below.

It is interesting to note that all three of these dragonflies appear to be females. I wonder if female dragonflies tend to outlive their male counterparts, as is the case with humans.

I went looking for dragonflies today, after several frosty nights, and did not see a single dragonfly. The daytime temperature was only about 52 degrees (11 degrees C), which is a bit cold for dragonfly activity. Temperatures are forecast to rise to 68 degrees (20 degrees C) early next week and I anticipate that I will see a few dragonflies then.

 

Great Blue Skimmer

Eastern Pondhawk

Blue Dasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I really do not expect to find any damselflies this late in the season, so I was both surprised and delighted to spot several Familiar Bluets (Enallagma civile) last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. As many of you may recall, damselflies are the smaller “cousins” of dragonflies—together they make up the order of insects known as odonata. Damselflies have eyes farther apart than dragonflies and generally perch with their wings held closed above them, unlike dragonflies that extend their wings when perching.

The damselfly in the first photo is a female Familiar Bluet. The brown, nondescript color is fairly typical for female damselflies, which tend to be less colorful than their male counterparts. In order to determine the species, I have to look at the pattern of stripes on the thorax (the “shoulders”) and the abdomen (the “tail”) and the color and size of the eye spots.

The damselfly in the second photo is a male Familiar Bluet. Like most other male bluets, this damselfly’s body is covered in patterns of black and blue. I often have trouble distinguishing between the different species of bluets, but once again the eye spots, shoulder stripes, and the specific color pattern are key factors that I look for in trying to come up with an identification.

I am not sure if these damselflies are unusually late or if I simply was not looking for them as hard in previous years. At this time of the year I spend a lot of time looking up at the distant trees for indications of bird activity and I may not have been paying as much attention to the vegetation at my feet.

Temperatures have dropped close to the freezing mark the last couple of nights and I fear that the frosty weather may hasten the demise of these beautiful little creatures. If so, these may well be the last damselflies that I will see until next spring. Au revoir, mes petits amis.

Familiar Bluet

Familiar Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I am shocked and delighted by the number of butterflies that I continue to see at the end of October, despite the cooling temperatures and decreasing number of hours of daylight. Last Thursday, 28 October, I spotted a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and multiple Variegated Fritillaries (Euptoieta claudia) and Common Buckeyes (Junonia coenia).

The dominant browns and oranges in the color palette of these butterflies seems to be a perfect reflection of the autumn season, when the colors in nature seem more muted than they were during the spring and the summer. For me, though, there is an inner warmth and comfort in these colors, like the feel of a well-worn flannel shirt or the taste of an autumn soup.

Monarch

Variegated Fritillary

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Here’s a couple of looks at an enormous praying mantis that I photographed on Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I was walking towards the parking lot at the end of a day of shooting when I passed a couple of fellow photographers who asked me if I wanted to photograph a praying mantis. I think that praying mantises are pretty cool, so of course I was quite happy to have them show me where it was.

I had never seen such a large praying mantis—I estimate that this one was about 5 inches (127 mm) in length. It was a challenge to find a shooting angle that allowed me to get most of this insect’s long angular body in focus. However, the mantis was cooperative and stayed in place until I was able to get some shots that I liked.

I am pretty sure that this is a Chinese Praying Mantis (Tenodera sinensis), a non-native species that is much larger and more aggressive than the native species. I did a little research about mantises in the United States and apparently there are a variety of views about the degree to which the non-native species are “invasive,” i.e. that cause environmental harm.

When I posted a photograph on Facebook, several readers commented that it looked like “my” mantis was about ready to lay her eggs. I had not initially considered that possibility, but it certainly does look like the mantis has a swollen abdomen. Female mantises generally lay their eggs in the fall in a protective sac structure called a “ootheca” and then she dies. The nymphs hatch in the spring when the weather warms up again.

Nature is amazing!

Chinese Praying Mantis

Chinese Praying Mantis

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I went out with my camera on Tuesday, I made sure to carry both my 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens, my preferred lens in the cold months, and my 180mm macro lens, my lens of choice during the warm months. As you may have noticed, I have started photographing more birds during the month of October than in previous months, so I really need the additional reach afforded by the long lens. However, I also know that there is a good chance that I will see some dragonflies, and the macro lens helps me get certain photos that are just not possible with other lenses.

I spent most of my time that day trying to photograph little birds, like sparrows and goldfinches. In the early afternoon, though, I changed lenses when I spotted some Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) basking in the sun on the wooden rails of a split-rail fence. I have learned in the past that Autumn Meadowhawks are often willing to let me move in close for shots and sometimes they will even perch on me—the perfect scenario for me to use my beloved macro lens.

In the first photo, I was so close to the dragonfly that I was balancing the lens hood on the edge of the rail on which the dragonfly was perched. As you can see, the depth of field was pretty shallow and most of the body is blurry. I am ok with that, because the eyes are in relatively sharp focus—I encourage you to click on the image to see some of the amazing details that I was able to capture, include the hairy “stubble” on the dragonfly’s face.

The second shot gives you a better overall view of the body of a male Autumn Meadowhawk. The bright red color of of its body really stands out again the backdrop of the brown fallen leaves and the gray gravel.

We will soon be moving forward to a new month. I am hopeful that November will include additional encounters with these colorful little Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies.

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There are not very many dragonflies flying around this late in the season, so I was happy to spot this Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I was even more thrilled when it perched within range of my long telephoto zoom lens and I was able to get the first shot below. The dragonfly was perched really look to the ground in a grassy field and it was a challenge to frame a shot where my view was not blocked by the tall grass.

What could possibly be better than getting a shot of an elusive dragonfly like a Wandering Glider? How about capturing two of them in a single photo? My first thought when I spotted the two Wandering Gliders together last Monday at the same refuge was that they were trying to hook up—I think that one of them is a male and one a female. The hook-up did not happen, at least not while I was observing them.

The weather forecast for this week shows lots of clouds and rain and cooler temperatures. None of those conditions are particularly hospitable to dragonflies, so I suspect that the population will continue to drop as members of some species die off and others, like these Wandering Gliders, migrate to locations with more favorable conditions.

Wandering Glider

Wandering Glider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) are among the first dragonflies to appear in the spring and one of the last to disappear in the autumn. I spotted this handsome male Common Whitetail last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I love taking photos of everyday species, ones that may be ignored by many others. I like what Kevin Munroe wrote about Common Whitetails on his wonderful website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia:

“Dragonfly geeks like myself tend to turn our noses up at the ubiquitous and ever-present whitetail – but thank goodness for them! Often seen in large numbers, almost swarm-like, they’re essential members of the urban and suburban food chain. There they are, eating mosquitos (both as larvae and adults) in our urban parks where few other dragonflies can help us out. And literally everything eats them: praying mantids, birds, frogs, raccoons, fish, spiders.”

You may not be as much of a dragonfly enthusiast as I am, but I am sure that you can find equally beautiful and fascinating things in your immediate surroundings, if you take the time to seek and savor them—beauty is everywhere.

Common Whitetail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been amazingly fortunate this dragonfly season in being able to capture images of dragonflies that rarely perch. My luck continued on Monday when a Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) that I was observing as it patrolled high in the air came down to earth and perched within range of my long telephoto lens while I was exploring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Black Saddlebags are one of a handful of dragonflies that migrate in the late summer/early fall. On this particular occasion, the Black Saddlebags appeared to be part of a small swarm that also included at least a half-dozen Wandering Gliders and a Common Green Darner.

Black Saddlebags dragonflies are relatively large—about 2.2 inches (56 mm)—and are pretty each to identify, thanks to the distinctive dark patches on their hind wings that are visible when they are flying overhead. I encourage you to click on each of the images to get a better look at the wonderful details of this dragonfly, including its two-toned eyes and colorful markings on its wings and abdomen.

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What marks the arrival of autumn for you? Is it the colorful fall foliage or perhaps the shortening of the daylight hours and the arrival of cooler weather? For me, the reappearance of Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) is one of the surest signs of the change in the seasons.

It seems like I have had to wait longer this year than in the past, but I am finally starting to see these small reddish-orange dragonflies as I walk the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. On Monday I spotted my first male Autumn Meadowhawks of the season, as shown in the first two photos below. The coloration of the males is startlingly bright, but you actually have to look hard to spot them, because they are only 1.3 inches (33 mm) long and often perch on low vegetation or on the ground itself.

The final image showcases the two-toned look of a female Autumn Meadowhawk. She seems to be glancing over at me and smiling, confident in her radiant beauty, her warm coloration a beautiful reflection of the autumn season.

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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The weather is turning cooler, but there are still some hardy dragonflies around, like this beautiful female Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) that I spotted last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, perched high on a branch as she basked in the autumn sunshine.

Most of the time when I see an Autumn Meadowhawk it is perched on the ground, so it was a treat to see this one on an elevated perch that gave me a really good look at the shape of her tiny body—Autumn Meadowhawks are only about 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length. This dragonfly species is generally the last one that I see each year and several years I have seen Autumn Meadowhawks in December. From my perspective, the dragonfly season is still far from being over.

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most people are familiar with the words, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Perhaps they have heard them read in a church, where they would be identified as coming from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. For folks of my generation, it is ever more likely that they would be associated with the words of a song by Pete Seeger made popular by the Byrds in the 1960’s.

Recently I have been really conscious of the changing seasons, of the never ending cycle of life and death. I have seen this phenomenon in nature and I have been very sensitive to it in other parts of my life.

Some of you may have noticed that I have not made a blog posting in several days, after more than a year of posting every day. I have spent the last few days in Massachusetts with my family celebrating the life and mourning the death of one of my younger brothers who died a week ago of lung cancer.

So often we think of growing older with grace and beauty, like the female Great Blue Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans) pictured below, thinking that we can somehow live forever. In fact, our days are numbered—life is so precious and yet so fragile. Celebrate life and love freely.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

 

Great Blue Skimmer

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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I was ecstatic on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to finally capture some images of Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies (Somatochlora filosa), a species for which I have been searching repeatedly this past month. Fine-lined Emeralds are one of several species that appear in the autumn, just as the number of most species of dragonflies is beginning to drop precipitously. I had spotted what I think were Fine-lined Emeralds several times earlier in September, but for me the sighting does not really “count” if I am not able to take a photograph.

Fine-lined Emeralds like to spend a lot of time patrolling, and a lesser amount of time perching. Unlike many of species that fly about high in the air, this species often flies at at somewhere between knee and eye-level.

On this day I spotted at least two individuals patrolling along one of the trails that runs parallel to the water. I alternated between chasing after the dragonflies and waiting for them to return—the patrol routes seem to be of a fixed length and the dragonflies would do a U-turn when they reached the end and fly back where they had been.

The dragonfly in the first two images is the same individual with a damaged rear wing, while the one in the final photo seems to be a different individual with an intact wing. I love the beautiful green eyes of this species, a characteristic they share with other members of the Emerald family. Those eyes seem to glow when the dragonfly is flying right at you.

If you look closely at the abdomen of the dragonflies, you can see the thin white/golden lines that I thought were responsible for the “fine-lined” portion of the name of this dragonfly species. However, a sharp-eyed fellow dragonfly enthusiast gently reminded me, after he read my initial posting, that the fine white stripes on the sides of the thorax (the “chest”) are responsible for the “fine-lined” name—you can see them best in the middle photo. I checked my identification guide and he is correct. Humility comes with the territory when it comes to identifying wildlife species.

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This past Saturday I visited Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in nearby Vienna, Virginia with several photographer friends and was pleasantly surprised to see that a lot of flowers are still in bloom. Those flowers kept the bees busy as well as an assortment of small butterflies, including this Variegated Fritillary butterfly (Euptoieta claudia).

This is a species that I do not see very often, so I was happy to capture a mostly unobstructed shot of it when it opened its wings—I am more used to seeing the somewhat similar Great Spangled Fritillary.

Variegated Fritillary

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been really fortunate recently in getting shots of Black Saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea lacerata). Early last month I spent lots of times trying to photograph Black Saddlebags as they patrolled overhead, convinced that they rarely come down to earth to perch. As the month progressed, I was ecstatic when I managed to capture a couple of images of perched Black Saddlebags.

The last week or so, I have spotted at least one Black Saddlebags on varying types of vegetation during each of three separate visits to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Have these dragonflies changed their behavior? Have I changed my approach by switching from a macro lens to a longer telephoto zoom lens? Am I growing more alert and patient?

Rather than ponder the answer to these questions, I think it is best for me to celebrate the beauty of what I was able to capture in my photos, to live fully in the moment. Most of the time that I go out with my camera, I do have not specific expectations—I take things as they come and try to make the best of the opportunities that I am given.

Recently I watched a vlog by Nathaniel Drew, a  young YouTube creator whose videos I regularly watch, who stated that, “Unhappiness is wishing that things were another way.” The alternative, he continued, is to have a purpose—”Purpose, on the other hand, is about finding meaning, making sense of how things are.”

How do you find happiness? In many ways I am striving to be like the Apostle Paul, who was able to write to the Philipians, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” True contentment, I believe, can come from treasuring and celebrating what we have in our lives and not complaining or focusing on those things that we do not have.

Have a wonderful weekend.

 

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

 

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I had given up on Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) for the season, so I was thrilled when I spotted several of them on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I do not know if these are local butterflies, but I like to imagine that they are temporary visitors who stopped in to visit during their magical migration journey to warmer locations.

I photographed these two butterflies in different parts of the wildlife refuge. I thought about using only one of the two photos for this posting, but decided that I really like the impact that the images have as a pair, presenting a kind of yin-yang contrast in light and shadows and overall mood. What do you think?

Monarch

Monarch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As we rush towards the end of September, the number of butterflies is continuing to drop and many of the ones that I see are faded and tattered. Yet somehow, despite the obvious signs of age and infirmity, they manage to adapt and survive. I photographed this Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

For folks of my generation, the title of this blog will immediately bring to mind the memorable song by that name as sung by Gloria Gaynor in the late 1970’s.

“Oh no, not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive
I will survive”

Black Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Autumn has officially arrived, but I continue to see damselflies at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, albeit in ever-decreasing numbers. The damselfly in the first photo is a female Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile) and the one in the second image is a male Big Bluet (Enallagma durum).

I like the way that I was able to capture hints of the changing season in the images, with the reddish autumn tones in the first shot and the gnawed leaf in the second one.

Familiar Bluet

Big Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It has been a while since I last saw a Monarch butterfly, but I continue to see lots of similar-looking Viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus), like these two little beauties that I photographed in the past few days at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico and parts of southern California each year and may already left our area, while Viceroys do not migrate. I suspect that we will continue to see Viceroys for another month or so before they die off. Viceroy butterflies overwinter here as caterpillars and in spring we will start to see them again.

I just glanced over at a calendar and noted that today is the first day of autumn for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. I have noted already some changes in the weather, though we are still having more heat and humidity that I would prefer.

 

viceroy butterfly

Viceroy butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Life can be a risky proposition when you are relatively low on the food chain, like a damselfly. Some larger insects may hunt you down while you are flying—see my recent post called Predator that shows an Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly consuming a damselfly. Other creatures may try to trap you and then immobilize you.

Several times this past week during visits to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I have encountered Black and Yellow Garden Orbweaver spiders (Argiope aurantia) that had captured a damselfly. I did not see the actual capture, but the spider in the first photo was in the process of wrapping up the damselfly when I spotted.

Spiders can produce variety of types of silk. In cases like this, the silk (known as aciniform silk) comes out in sheets that look like a gauze bandage and the spider spins around the prey as it wraps it up. If you want to get a better look at how the spider emits these sheets of silk, check out a 2014 posting called Wrapping up a meal. If you have every wrapped presents at Christmas time, you know how difficult it is to wrap an irregularly shaped object. The spider has done an amazing job in making a compact package of the long skinny body and wings of the hapless damselfly—I encourage you to click on the image to see the details of the trapped damselfly.

In the case of the second photo, the spider was content to do a looser wrap, which lets us see the damselfly a little better. I think this damselfly and the one in the first photo are Big Bluets (Enallagma durum), though it is difficult to be certain of the identification.

spider

Big Bluet damselfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I see them all of the time, but I still think that Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) are really cool, like this handsome male that I spotted last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of those cases when the name of the species actually matches up well with its appearance, at least for the mature males of the species. Still, I always cringe a little when I see the word “common” in the name of a species, because “common” is often used in a way that somehow suggests that beauty is tied to rarity—I am in favor of more species having the word “great” in their names.

Are you familiar with with the Common Whitetail dragonfly? I really like this description of the species found on the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website:

“Without question, this is our most commonly seen and easily identified dragonfly. The male especially is hard to miss and easy to remember. Its bold wing patches, white-blue abdomen and habit of perching on pathways and sidewalks brings it into contact with more people than any other dragonfly…Dragonfly geeks like myself tend to turn our noses up at the ubiquitous and ever-present whitetail – but thank goodness for them! Often seen in large numbers, almost swarm-like, they’re essential members of the urban and suburban food chain. There they are, eating mosquitos (both as larvae and adults) in our urban parks where few other dragonflies can help us out. And literally everything eats them: praying mantids, birds, frogs, raccoons, fish, spiders.”

We often take for granted those things (and people) that we see all of the time. It is so easy to get trapped in a cycle of endlessly pursuing something new and different, of focusing so much on the future that we lose touch with the present. Increasingly I am finding in my life that contentment comes in being conscious of and appreciating what I do have and not worrying about what I do not have, in finding uncommon beauty in everyday things.

Common Whitetail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was shocked and thrilled last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when I managed to get some shots of Black Saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea lacerata) at ground level—Black Saddlebags spend most of their time patrolling overhead and only rarely do I see one perched.

If you follow this blog regularly, you may realize that this is the third posting that I have done on this dragonfly species in a little over two weeks. There has been a progression in my shots as I have been able to get closer and closer to these elusive dragonflies.

My first of this little series was called Flying Overhead and I was excited to get capture some in-flight images of Black Saddlebags—the dragonflies were pretty far away and the shots were not super sharp, but you could clearly see the distinctive dark patches on the hind wings. The second posting was called Perching Black Saddlebags and I was ecstatic when I was able to get some shots of Black Saddlebags perched high on some dead branches with the sky in the background.

As a wildlife photographer, I am often happy with my images, but rarely am I fully satisfied. There is a part of me that whispers in my ear that I can always do better. Giving in to that siren’s song, I will often return to the same locations to shoot the same subjects again and again.

I went out a bit earlier than usual on Friday—the sun had already risen, but there was still dew on some of the vegetation. If you look closely at the third shot (you may need to click on it to see the details), you can see water drops on some of the plants. I was stunned when I saw the Black Saddlebags dragonfly almost dive into the greenery from the air and perch really low. I have seen photos of dragonflies covered in dew and I have always aspired to take such a shot—this is not yet that aspirational shot, but I am getting closer to my goal.

I captured the first two shots a bit later in a totally different part of the refuge. Once again the dragonfly chose a low perch and I was able to position myself to capture quite a bit of detail. I was even able to change my shooting angle without spooking the dragonfly.

I am still on the lookout for a few more autumn species that I have not yet seen, so I will be heading out as often as I can, wide-eyed and hopeful that more cool encounters in nature await me.

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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I was excited to stumble across a cluster of Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) last Friday as I was exploring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It had been several years since I had last seen these colorful little bugs that not surprisingly were gathered together on milkweed pods. There are so many cool insects that are associated with milkweeds that I often stop to examine the plants whenever I come upon them.

A little over nine years ago, I studied these bugs  pretty closely and documented their stages of development in a posting that I called Life phases of the large milkweed beetle. Be sure to check it out for more information and fascinating photos of these colorful little bugs.

The short version is that as a “true” bug, milkweed bugs undergo incomplete metamorphosis. They go through a series of nymph stages, known as instars—the large milkweed bug has five instars. At each stage, the bug is covered by an inflexible exoskeleton that constrains its growth. Periodically it bursts out of the exoskeleton and can grow to twice his size as the new exoskeleton develops and hardens.

If you look closely the image, you will see that there are milkweed bugs at various stages of development. The youngest ones are smaller and are completely red. In some of the older ones you can see the development of tiny black wing pads. The orange and black one at the top of the group appears to be an adult.

Every time that I see this combination of bright red and green, my mind immediately thinks of Christmas. However, I doubt that anyone would choose to feature this image on their annual Christmas card.

large milkweed bugs

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Dragonflies are really fierce predators and will eat almost any insect that they can catch. Some dragonfly species will consume mosquitoes or other small insects while in flight, while others will hunt larger larger insect prey and, if successful, will perch at ground-level in order to enjoy a more leisurely meal.

Although they are not all that big in size, Eastern Pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) are the species that I most often encounter with a large victim, often another dragonfly or a damselfly. I spotted this female Eastern Pondhawk last Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as she was feasting on a hapless Big Bluet damselfly (Enallagma durum).

I apologize if the image is too gruesome for some viewers, but I have grown accustomed to the “circle of life” in nature and recognize that all creatures have to eat. As for today’s predator, the Eastern Pondhawk, she could easily become tomorrow’s prey and be captured by a bird or a larger dragonfly.

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is always a little tricky taking photos in the bright sunlight, but I like the way that this photo turned out of a Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes)that I encountered last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Why do I like it? It is often really difficult for me to describe precisely why I like a particular photo, particularly when it is one of my own, which makes it almost impossible for me to assess it objectively.

I love it when viewers take the time to describe their reactions. When I posted this image in Facebook in the Nature Lovers of Virginia group, Patricia Holt made the following comment that absolutely delighted me.

“This photo is a pleasure. I love the way the lower flower is a darker hue mimicking the darker spots lower on the butterfly. The way the spots on the butterfly are narrower at the top than the bottom contrary to the flower petals. It struck me how there’s a vague sense of a mirror image but not. Definitely the light and you have captured a feeling of balance as in yin yang. So pretty!”

As is generally the case, I recommend clicking on the image to get a better look at some of the wonderful details in this image.

Have a wonderful Friday.

Black Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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