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Archive for the ‘Insects’ Category

On Tuesday I was excited to spot this pretty Red-banded Hairstreak butterfly (Calycopis cecrops) while visiting Occoquan Regional Park. These tiny butterflies are only about an inch (25mm) in length, so I had to get pretty close to photograph one. Fortunately this butterfly seemed preoccupied with feeding, so it tolerated my presence pretty well.

My macro lens allowed me to capture an image that reveals many of the butterfly’s wonderful colors and patterns. It is also nice to be able to see the little “tails” protruding from the hind wings that are responsible for the name “hairstreak” and the pattern of colors on the antennae.

Red-banded Hairstreak

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I am intently searching for dragonflies, my eyes are drawn to anything that is moving through the air. Once I detect movement, I will try to track the subject until I am able to identify it. Early in the season, things were a bit easier, because there were not many insects around, but as the weather has warmed out, it has gotten tougher and the air now seems filled with grasshoppers, bees, and other flying creatures as I move about in the fields and forests.

As I was wandering about last Thursday in Prince William County, I detected a black and yellow insect and tracked it until it landed on some vegetation. Ten years ago, I might have simply called it a “bee”—my knowledge of insects was so limited that I would have divided insects into broad categories like bees and butterflies. If pushed for more specificity, I might have called this a “small bee.”

My identification skills and my knowledge of insects has grown exponentially over the years. As soon as I saw the way that the insect was flying, I could tell that it was a hover fly, a member of a group of flies that you may know as flower flies, because of where they can be found most often. I was immediately attracted to the beautiful, elaborate patterns on the insect’s body and recalled that I had seen a similar one last year in the garden of my friend Cindy Dyer.

I believe that this cool-looking hover fly belongs to a species known as the Eastern Calligrapher Fly (Toxomerus geminatus), though there are over six thousand hover fly species worldwide, so it could also be a related species. Nevertheless, I love the thought of someone hand drawing the delicately etched pattern with pen and ink, creating a miniature work of art.

As I was composing a shot, I grew fascinated with the details of the leaf on which the hover fly was perched—it is easy for me to lose myself when looking at the world through a macro lens. It appears that some other insect had been chewing on the leaf before the Calligrapher Fly arrived and I like the way that I was able to capture the holes in the gnawed-on leaf.

Eastern Calligrapher Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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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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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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Life can be rough when you have fragile wings. I spotted this Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) last Friday at Occoquan Regional Park and could not help but notice the significant damage to its wings. The damage might have actually happened last fall, given that this species overwinters with us as adults, awakens in the spring, and has a lifespan of 11-12 months, one of the longest lifespans for any butterfly.

As I poked about on the internet, I was intrigued to learn that this species is known as the Camberwell Beauty in the United Kingdom. I do not see Mourning Cloak butterflies very often—most of the time it is only when I am in a wooded area, rather than in a marsh or open field. When I do spot one, it is usually hyperactive and I rarely have the chance to capture an image.

The second photo below is the only other photo that I have managed to take of one this spring, and I took it from quite a distance away. Still, I like the way that it shows some of the butterfly’s habitat. I always have to remind myself of the value of these kind of environmental portraits—my normal tendency is to get close with either a macro or a telephoto lens and isolate the subject from its background.

Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was excited on Friday to capture this image of a colorful male Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis) as I was wandering about at Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton, Virginia. I love the color combination of the light green thorax and the turquoise accents near the tip of the abdomen.

Generally when I see these little damselflies they are perched flat on the ground or on vegetation close to the ground—this slightly elevated perch made it a bit easier for me to get a good shot of its entire body. In case you are curious about the size of this damselfly, Eastern Forktails are only 0.8-1.3 inches (20-33 mm) in length, so you have to look really carefully to spot one.

Eastern Forktail

© 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 was thrilled yesterday to spot this Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) as I was wandering about in Occoquan Regional Park. This fascinating insect looks a lot like a bumblebee, but acts a lot like a hummingbird and hovers when it is feeding. Unlike a hummingbird that has a long pointed beak, members of this species have a long proboscis that they curl up when it is not in use, as you can see in the first photo.

The active little moth was very focused on the tiny violets and did not seem bothered by my presence, so I was able to move in quite close for these shots. However, the moth did not linger long on any flower, so I had to move quickly. I do not know how fast the moth was moving its wings, but the shutter speed for these photos was as high as 1/2000 of a second and there was still some wing blur. In case you are curious, Snowberry Clearwing Moths are about 1.25-2.0 inches (32–51 mm) in length.

 

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

© 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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I was pleasantly surprised last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to spot a few Zebra Swallowtail butterflies (Eurytides marcellus), including this one that posed momentarily for me. Generally this butterfly species is associated with the pawpaw tree, on which its larvae feed exclusively, but this one apparently spotted something of interest in the dry vegetation at the edge of the trail and decided to investigate it.

It is so exciting to see familiar spring species begin to reappear one-by-one.

Zebra Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There always seems to be something fun and whimsical about ladybugs, like this one that I spotted last Saturday at Occoquan Regional Park. This is probably an invasive Harlequin Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis), rather than a native ladybug, but I still find it to be beautiful.

The Harlequin Lady Beetles, also known as Multicolored Asian Lady Beetles, may assist with control of some aphid pests, but may also harm native and beneficial insects and are considered by many to be pests.

My interests tend to be primarily photographic, so I tend not to make distinctions between weeds and flowers or between native and invasive species in the way that others, such as gardeners and farmers, may need to do. I am trying to capture my subjects as well as I can and I am pretty happy with the way this particular image turned out, given the small size of the ladybug and the fact that it was moving about as I was trying to get a shot.

ladybug

© 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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It is nearly impossible to miss the ostentatious displays of brilliant color as a succession of flowers and trees burst onto the springtime scene. Sometimes, though, they overwhelm my senses and I find myself more drawn to the delicate beauty of the tiny wildflowers that pop up in fields and forests.

Yesterday I was happy to photograph a skittish Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) as it moved about in a small patch of Spring Beauty wildflowers (Claytonia virginica) in a forested area of Prince William County. With my macro lens, I was able to capture the distinctive “tail” and orange chevrons that help in identifying this tiny butterfly that has a wingspan of only ¾ – 1¾ inches (22 – 29 mm). I also managed to capture the beautiful pink markings of the spring beauties, including the anthers at the tips of the stamens.

It is easy to lose myself in this magical tiny world or perhaps it might be more correct to say that I find myself there.

Eastern-tailed Blue

© 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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When it comes to mating, many male insects are really aggressive—they will do everything they can to prevent their rivals from hooking us with a desirable female. I think that is what was going on in this image I captured on Sunday of three bees outside of a bee house in the garden of my friend and neighbor Cindy Dyer. It looks to me that the top bee in this ménage à trois was trying to dislodge a rival and somehow gain access to the female. Yes, as the old song simply states, “birds do it, bees do it.”

Perhaps you have a better explanation of what was transpiring, like they were simply playing piggyback and wanted to see how strong the bottom bee was. What do you think? I encourage you to click on the image to see the details better.

I often tell you that I was not as close as it seems, because I generally shoot with a telephoto lens or a long macro lens. In this case, though, I was shooting with a 60mm macro lens and was only a few inches away from the “action” and had to dodge bees that were entering and exiting the tubes of the bee house.

bees

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What do you call a group of butterflies? There are apparently many collective nouns for butterflies in English, but my absolute favorite is “kaleidoscope.” The word combination “kaleidoscope of butterflies” captures well for me the magical and fanciful nature of these colorful creatures.

I was excited yesterday when I spotted an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) fluttering about near a stream at Prince William Forest Park—it was my first “big” butterfly of the spring season. I was even more thrilled later in the day when a spotted this kaleidoscope of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails clustered together on a rocky ledge at water’s edge, engaged in what is often referred to as “puddling.” Many species of butterflies congregate on wet sand and mud to partake in “puddling”, drinking water and extracting minerals from damp puddles or even from animal droppings.

According to a posting by Westborough Land Trust, “When tiger swallowtails emerge from their chrysalises, one of the first things they do – especially if they’re male – is to head for a mud puddle. There they fill up on water and get minerals needed for reproduction. They suck water and dissolved minerals up through their long “tongue” or proboscis, which they also use to drink nectar.”

It is really early in the season and all of the butterflies were in perfect condition, with fully intact wings and vibrant  colors. I am always energized to see the emergence of new life in the spring in plants and in all of the small and large creatures that I love to photograph.

 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Is it a bee? Is it a fly? It is a Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major), a parasitic bee mimic that is one of the earliest spring pollinators of wildflowers. I photographed this bee fly as it was feeding on the nectar of a Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) on Monday at Prince William Forest Park.

I was quite happy to be able to capture so many of the details of this curious creature, including its long proboscis, spindly legs, patterned wings, and fuzzy body. In case you are curious, the body of one of these bee flies is about six-tenths of an inch (15mm) in length and its wing span is about one inch (25mm). I recommend that you double-click on the image to get a better looks at the little details of this bee fly.

If you would like to learn more about these fascinating little bee flies, including their parasitic behavior, check out the article on the US Forest Service website by Beatriz Moisset entitled “A Pollinator with a Bad Reputation.”

Greater Bee Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the signs of spring where I live is the emergence of small wildflowers in the wooded areas, including Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica), like this one that I photographed yesterday at Prince William Forest Park in nearby Triangle, Virginia. According to the description of the Spring Beauty in Wikipedia, “the individual flowers bloom for three days, although the five stamens on each flower are only active for a single day.”

I do not know if this was “the day” for the stamens of this particular flower, but a large hairy fly was definitely attracted to its nectar. I cannot identify the species of the fly, but think that it is a kind of Tachinid fly. The large family of Tachinid flies differ in color, size, and shape but many somewhat resemble house flies and tend to feed on liquids such as nectar.

When I showed this image to fellow blogger and dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, he noted the low angle at which I had taken this shot and characterized it as a “belly flopper photo.” Walter has seen me in action multiple times and knows that I will often try to get as low as I can to get a shot, which was pretty low in this case, given the fact that Spring Beauties are often only a few inches tall.

How low do I go? Check out a posting that Walter did in 2016 called Opposing viewpoints to see a shot of me sprawled on the ground trying to get at eye level with a snake and my posting that same day called Close to a garter snake to see the kind of images that you get when shooting at such close range.

spring beauty

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday was a beautiful spring day and I finally managed to photograph my first butterfly of the year, a Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) that I spotted in the underbrush at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Within the past two weeks I have had several sightings of larger butterflies that overwinter as adults, including the Mourning Cloak and the Question Mark/Eastern Comma butterflies, but was unable to capture images of them.

This little butterfly almost certainly emerged recently from a chrysalis and is a female, judging from the two black spots on each of the forewings (males have a single spot on each forewing). Cabbage White butterflies, known by many different names, originated in Europe and have now spread to many parts of the world including Australia and New Zealand, according to Wikipedia.

I look at the butterfly as a beautiful little creature, but in its caterpillar form it is considered to be a dangerous agricultural pest that is responsible for large-scale damage to the cruciferous plants on which it voraciously feeds. As adults, however, Cabbage Whites butterflies feed on nectar from many flowers, including dandelions, red clover, asters, mint, and strawberries and do not cause any damage.

 

Cabbage White

Cabbage White

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

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

Pearl Crescent butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There are still a few butterflies flying around, like this beautiful Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike most other butterflies that I have seen late in the season that were faded and tattered, this one seemed to be in perfect condition. As several of my Facebook friends noted, there is nothing “common” about the beauty of this butterfly.

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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