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Archive for the ‘Insects’ Category

In a recent posting featuring my first Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of the year, I lamented the scarcity of Monarchs this summer. A few days later, I was delighted to spot several more Monarchs during a visit to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. The Monarchs moved about quite a bit and I ended up sweaty and out of breath after chasing them all over, but I was more than happy with the results.

The Monarchs concentrated most of their efforts on several patches of swamp milkweed at the edge of a small pond. I moved quickly as I tried to compose shots with both a good background and a photogenic wing position, which often was easier said than done.

In the first shot you get a view of some of the vegetation growing in the pond and the lighting from that angle really made the colors pop. The second shot gives you a wide view of the largest patch of swamp milkweed that the Monarch was sharing with some much smaller Pearl Crescent butterflies. I captured the final image in an adjacent field. The dominant green of the vegetation and the vertical lines of the stalks of the vegetation give this image a much different feel that the other two images. I think the three images work well together as a little collection.

I continue to remain hopeful that I will continue to see more Monarchs (and other butterflies too) as we move deeper into summer.

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Having recently photographic some hummingbirds in flight, I couldn’t help but think of them when I first spotted several Snowberry Clearwing Moths (Hemaris diffinis) last week at Occoquan Regional Park. The fight characteristics are quite similar as they hover in mid-air and extract nectar from flowers. Unlike hummingbirds that have a skinny bill and a tongue, clearwing moths use a long proboscis to reach into the flowers.

In our area we have two similar species of clearwing moths, the Snowberry Clearwing and the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hermaris thysbe). They are similar in appearance and behavior, but generally the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth is redder in appearance, so I believe these are all Snowberrys.

The clearwing moths seem to be very attracted to several small patches of swamp milkweed. Other insects had a similar attraction and if you look in the center of the milkweed in the second photo, you will note an orange insect that I can’t see well enough to identify.

 

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When it comes to damselflies, you often have to look closely for identifying marks, because so many of them are colored with variations of blue and black. I really could not identify the species of this little damselfly when I took this photo on Wednesday while exploring a creek in Prince William County. I decided that if he was willing to pose for me on a leaf, I was more than willing to take his picture.

When I pulled up the image on my computer, I immediately noticed some distinctive blue markings near the tip of the abdomen. Those markings helped me to  identify it as a male Dusky Dancer (Argia translata), a species that I had never before photographed.

We are still in a kind of summer doldrums period, where the summer dragonflies have been buzzing around for quite some time, and it is too early for the autumn species to appear. It is therefore pretty exciting for me to photograph a new species—I might have seen a Dusky Dancer in the past, but I am pretty sure that I was not able to capture an image, so in my mind it did not “count.”

Be sure to click on the image if you want to get a closer view of the distinctive markings and beautiful eyes of this cool-looking Dusky Dancer damselfly.

Dusky Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What do you think of when you hear the word “common?” Although this term can refer simply to the frequency with which something is seen or experienced, it often has a derogatory connotation of inferiority. For that reason, I am often uncomfortable with the use of the word “common” in the name of many species.

I could easily argue, for example, that this Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) that I spotted on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge is uncommonly beautiful. The orange markings and wonderfully-colored eyespots make this a stunning butterfly. Yes, I see this species quite often, but its distinctive beauty never fails to take my breath away.

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Do you chase wildlife or do you wait for it to come to you? I tend to be in the former group and will sometimes walk for hours and hours in search of suitable subjects.

On Wednesday, however, the action came to me. I was returning from a walk along a stream hunting for dragonflies and was shocked as I approached my car to see a pair of Red-footed Cannibalflies (Promachus rufipes) mating on my car. I watched in fascination as they moved from one part of the car’s exterior to another, locked in the peculiar tail-to-tail position that robber flies use for mating. (Even before this incident, I knew that I needed to wash my car, as you can readily see in the second photo.)

I must confess that I have long had a fascination with this insect species—there is something really cool and slightly horrifying about the macabre moniker ‘Red-footed Cannibalfly.’ They are fierce predators who reported have been able to take down a hummingbird. They inject their victims with a toxin that paralyzes them and liquifies their insides so that the cannibalfly can more easily ingest their innards. If you are not totally creeped out by now, you might agree that cannibalflies are cool insects.

I have written over 3500 blog postings over the past eight years and my most-viewed regular posting is one that I published in August 2013 with the simple title of “Red-footed Cannibalfly,” with 2595 views. Yes, a lot of people seem to be interested in this insect and somehow find their way to that blog posting each year. It is a good posting, I think, but neither the prose nor the photos are great, but sometimes that doesn’t matter for popularity in this digital world. (You can judge for yourself by clicking on the title of the posting that I linked to the original posting.)

Some of you may have noted that I used the term “regular posting” in describing my posting on the red-footed cannibalfly. In November 2014 I was fortunate to be at a local nature park during the rescue of an injured bald eagle by the animal control officers of the local police department and documented it in a blog posting entitled “Rescue of an injured Bald Eagle.”

Several news outlets picked up the story including the Washington Post , some local radio and television stations, including WTOP, and the Fairfax County Police Department News. A number of them included a link to my blog posting, which had over 3000 views in a couple of days, but has had relatively few views since that time. I had authorized the Police Department to use my posting and photos and as a result of that exposure I was contacted by a number of media organizations asking permission to use my photos, which I agreed to, requesting that they give attribution and, if possible, a link to my blog.

A small number of media organizations, including the Washington Post, used my photos without asking for permission, though the Washington Post did at least give attribution. When I contacted the reporter, he said that he had “assumed” it was ok, because he had obtained the photos through the Police Department site. I have not had to deal with the media since, but know now to be a bit careful in doing so.

Red-footed Cannibalfly

Red-footed Cannibalfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There were so many butterflies concentrated in a small patch of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) that they looked like a bouquet of orange flowers when I first spotted them on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I believe that they are all Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos), though there is also a chance that they might be the similar-looking Silvery Checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne nycteis).

pearl crescent

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some of our smallest butterflies are among our prettiest, like this tiny Banded Hairstreak butterfly (Satyrium calanus) that I spotted on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I always check out a patch of wildflowers in one corner of this small refuge and once again it paid dividends.

I was able to photograph this butterfly as it nectared on one of the many black-eyed susans that are now in bloom. Actually I am not entirely certain if these flowers are black-eyed susans, but they are the same shape and color and may be part of the larger rudbeckia flower family.

UPDATE: A friend of mine on Facebook who is more experienced than I am with butterflies tells me that this is probably a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus), not a Banded Hairstreak. The difference is so subtle that I am not sure I can see it and certainly cannot explain it. At least the beauty is undeniable.

Banded Hairstreak

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Most folks who live in the Eastern part of the United States can probably identify an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) when they see one. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are large and have a distinctive pattern of bright yellow and black on their wings. However, not all Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are yellow—females come in two distinctly different variants, black and yellow.

The yellow morph looks a lot like a male, but with a conspicuous band of blue spots along the hindwings that the males do not have. The dark morph female has similar markings, but most of its body color is black, like the one below that I spotted last week at Green Spring Gardens. The perfect condition of its wings this late in the season suggests to me that this is a newly emerged butterfly.

So why do the females come in two colors? I read an interesting on-line article about this subject entitled “Why are you that color? The strange case of the dark phase tiger swallowtail.” The author speculates that the dark morph is an evolutionary attempt to mimic a similar-looking Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly that predators know is toxic, a practice known as Batesian mimicry. So, in theory the dark morph would have a better chance of survival. For unknown reasons, however, the males do not seem to be as attracted to the dark morph females, “These guys are apparently traditionalists and prefer the good ol’ yellow and black that their species is known for.” So the genes that might benefit species survival are not always passed on.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last week when I was exploring Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, I spotted this very strange looking caterpillar in one of the trees. It was quite small and was in motion, so getting a photo was somewhat of a challenge. As I was doing research, I was a little shocked to discover that this is actual the larval stage of a Dogwood Sawfly (Macremphytus tarsatus), a wasp-like insect. The larvae go through a number of different phases of development and this looks to middle-instar stage.

No matter how many times I return to a location, there always seems to be something new and different to see, as long as I take the time to look slowly and carefully.

 

Dogwood Sawfly larva

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This butterfly had its choice of flowers as I chased after it last week at Green Spring Gardens, but it chose instead to grab some nectar from a lowly clover plant. Still, I can’t complain—it was my first sighting of a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) this season.

Monarch Butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I had forgotten how small Fragile Forktail damselflies (Ischnura posita) are until I spotted one perched in some vegetation last week while I was exploring at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Even by damselfly standards, Fragile Forktails are tiny at only .8 to 1.1 inches (21-29 mm) in length. The good news is that they are relatively easy to identify, because they have pale interrupted shoulder stripes that look like exclamation points.

I love how the green of the damselfly’s thorax and in its eyes match the soft green palette of the rest of the image. For me, there is something really soothing about this simple portrait of a tiny damselfly.

Fragile Forktail

© 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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In one corner of Jackson Miles Wetland Refuge there is a patch of wildflowers that I love to explore whenever I visit the refuge. In the past I have spotted bird, butterflies, and dragonflies amidst the flowers. Black-eyed Susans are now in bloom in that patch and I was thrilled on Saturday to capture this image of a Silvery Checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne nycteis) feeding on one of the flowers. As I noted in an earlier posting, I have not seen many large butterflies this season, so it is especially nice to see the smaller ones.

I am pretty sure that this is a Silvery Checkerspot butterfly, though I have sometimes had troubles in the past distinguishing between Silvery Checkerspots and the somewhat similar Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos).

Silvery Checkerspot

© 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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It seems like I have seen fewer butterflies this year than in previous years, so I was especially thrilled to spot this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) last week during a trip to Green Spring Gardens with my photography mentor Cindy Dyer. Normally by this time of the year I have seen lots of Monarchs and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, but I have not seen a single Monarch yet and only a few swallowtails. This butterfly was the only large butterfly that I saw that day—all of the others that I spotted were the much smaller skipper butterflies.

Generally I prefer to have a natural background when photographing wild subjects, but that was not possible in this case. The blurred background is part of the welcome center of the gardens. The bands of color at the bottom of the image add some visual interest without being distracting, so I am not all that dissatisfied with the way the shot turned out.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This stunning Variable Dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis) was living life on the edge when I spotted him amidst the leaves last week during a trip to Green Spring Gardens with my good friend Cindy Dyer. Many of you probably realize that this violet-colored beauty is one of my favorites, given that my most frequently used banner image for this blog is a photo of a Variable Dancer. Perhaps there are other insects that are this color, but none come to mind.

As for the title of this post, consider it to be a sign of the times—the content could easily have gone in multiple directions.

variable dancer

© 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 exploring the banks of a creek yesterday hunting for dragonflies with my friend, Walter Sanford, I stumbled upon a really cool-looking caterpillar. I love fuzzy white caterpillars and apparently I am not the only one—an August 2013 posting that I entitled “Fuzzy White Caterpillar” is my third most-viewed posting ever, with over 1820 views. The photos in that posting are definitely not among my best ever, but somehow people find their way to that posting when doing Google searches.

I was immediately struck by the bright red head and the “horns” and the front and back end of the caterpillar. Those characteristics made it easy to identify the caterpillar as a Sycamore Tussock Moth caterpillar (Halysidota harrisii). I do not know trees very well, so I cannot tell if the fallen log that the caterpillar was exploring was a sycamore, but perhaps one of my viewers can identify it for me.

Be sure to double-click on the images if your would like to get a closer view at the wonderful details of this unusual-looking caterpillar.

Sycamore Tussock caterpillar

Sycamore Tussock caterpillar

© 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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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

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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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

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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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

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I spotted this mating pair of Halloween Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis eponina) last Thursday during a brief visit to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia with my dear friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer. The wing patterns and coloration of Halloween Pennants have always attracted me, making them one of my favorites. As most of you know, however, I tend to have lots of favorites when it comes to dragonflies.

I was in stealth mode as I slowly moved closer to this couple and attempted to frame the image in a way that was interesting and creative, while trying not to feel too much like a voyeur. Yes, I will boldly assert that this is art, and not insect porn.

Halloween Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris rapae) are so small and plain that many people mistakenly believe they are moths. I find real elegance in their simplicity, especially when I am able to see their striking speckled green eyes. I spotted this little beauty during a brief visit yesterday to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia with my friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer.

Cabbage Whites are always hyperactive, in constant motion as they flit about from flower to flower, stopping only momentarily for a short sip. Consequently they are hard to track and you have to be quick on the trigger to have a chance of getting a shot. In the first photo I was lucky enough to capture a “bonus bug,” a hoverfly that was in action below the much larger butterfly. Cindy coined the term “bonus bug” to refer to insects that are in the frame that you never even noticed when you were taking the shot.

Be sure to double-click on each image to get a more detailed view of this beautiful butterfly, including its mesmerizing eyes.

Cabbage White

Cabbage White

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Most dragonflies are slender and acrobatic, prompting one of my friends recently to call them “dainty.” There is absolutely nothing dainty, however, about Dragonhunter dragonflies (Hagenius brevistylus)—with their massive upper bodies and powerful legs, they remind me of powerlifters. Dragonhunters, unlike some other large dragonflies, do not fly patrols overhead in their search for food. Instead, they are patient hunters who perch, waiting for passing prey, and then use their powerful back legs to snag their victims, which are often other dragonflies.

One thing that always strikes me when I spot perched Dragonhunters is that they seem uncomfortable. Their back legs are so long and ungainly that Dragonhunters’ poses look awkward, bringing to mind gawky teenage males who have undergone recent growth spurts and have not yet gotten used to their longer limbs.

I was thrilled to spot this Dragonhunter last week while exploring a stream in Fairfax County with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. It was a hot, humid day and we did not have any success in finding Eastern Least Clubtails, our main focus for the day. In fact, during the day we did not see many dragonflies at all. Walter had been at this location repeatedly and at the start of the day had commented to me that he had often seen Dragonhunters perched on branches overhanging the stream. In fact, we spotted Dragonhunters several times during the day, but did not manage to get good shots of them.

As the skies began to darken, signaling an approaching rainstorm, I knew our time was drawing to an end. I decided to return to a fallen tree where we had seen a Dragonhunter earlier in the day and was pleasantly surprised to see a Dragonhunter holding on to the very tip of a branch. I waded into the stream and moved a little closer to the dragonfly, slowly making my way across the slick, uneven rocks. I called out loudly to Walter, who was a good distance downstream from me, and eventually I heard his response.

I became the patient hunter now as I stood in the calf-high waters of the stream, trying to minimize my movements as I struggled to get a decent shot without disturbing the dragonfly, waiting for the arrival of my friend and hoping that the dragonfly would stay in place. Well, Walter arrived and we both managed to get some shots. I then felt free to move a bit more and crouched low to get a better angle for a shot. Lost in the moment, I did not initially notice that my backside was getting wetter and wetter as I squatted lower and lower. Fortunately I had moved my wallet and keys to my backpack which remained dry.

Eventually the Dragonhunter flew away from its initial perch, but the flights were short and relatively direct and we were able to track the dragonfly to its subsequent positions. The Dragonhunter looked a bit more comfortable at its new perches, but I was not. The rocks underfoot were getting bigger and more uneven and navigation through the water was increasingly difficult. At one moment I encountered an unexpected small drop (maybe 6 inches or so) and I slipped and momentarily lost my balance, but somehow managed to stay dry.

I was tired and wet when we began the uphill trudge back to the parking area, but I was feeling happy about our encounter with this Dragonhunter, one of the powerful giants of the dragonfly world. If you would like to see Walter’s photos and commentary on our Dragonhunter adventure, be sure to check out his blog posting today entitled “Dragonhunter dragonfly (male).” While you are there, be sure to poke around on his site—he has lots of cool images and fascinating information on all kinds of dragonflies and other creatures too.

Dragonhunter

Dragonhunter

Dragonhunter

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How much does the  background matter in a wildlife photograph? Is it merely a potentially distracting element or should it help convey a sense of the environment? Like many photographers, I often obsess over the background when I compose my images, trying to frame the shot and to adjust the camera settings to produce a certain effect. I suspect that my mindset is frequently more like that of a portrait photographer, who wants to draw your attention to the main subject, than that of a landscape photographer, who wants everything in the viewfinder to be in focus.

During the month of June I have been blessed to spot Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) on multiple occasions at several locations. I have taken lots of photos of them and the majority of those photos show the dragonfly perched vertically on the trunk of a tree—that is what petaltails do most of the time. My personal challenge has been to capture some images of Gray Petaltails doing something a bit different.

In the first image, the Gray Petaltail was perched horizontally, a position that I have rarely seen. The background in this shot is completely blurred—you don’t know for sure what is behind the dragonfly, though the colors suggest that it is vegetation. The blurred background forces you to focus on the main subject and to a limited extent on its perch. It is the type of portrait image that I strive to capture most often, though rarely am I this successful in doing so.

The second image uses a different approach. I visually separated the dragonfly from its perch by shooting from the side so that the details of its body are not lost in the shadows of the tree. The background is slightly blurred, but it lets you know that the dragonfly was perched in a sea of interrupted ferns. I like the way that you can see the patterns and color of those ferns. I took the shot from a lot farther away than I did with the first image, so the dragonfly occupies a much smaller part of the frame. As a result, the details of the perch grow in importance and in many ways the tree shares the spotlight with the dragonfly. This is the kind of environmental portrait that I really like, but often forget to take. Too often I am so driven to fill the frame with my subject that I forget to try different approaches.

The final shot is a kind of compromise shot, taken from a medium distance with a background that is more suggestive of the environment than in the first image, but not as detailed as in the second one. The perch has some details, but is intended to play a supporting role, rather than be the co-star as in the the second image. The dragonfly fills less of the frame than in the first image, but more than in the second.

In the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, she repeatedly tried two extremes, before setting on one that was “just right.” Is that the moral of the story here? Au contraire, mes amis. You can come to your own conclusions as you look at these three images, but for me it is clear that there is no single solution to the question of backgrounds. Blurry backgrounds can be good, but not always. Close-up shots are great, but may come with a cost. Showing some details in the background can enhance an image, except when it doesn’t.

What is best? Some folks may be unhappy with the lack of clarity, but the best answer seems to be, “it depends.” With backgrounds, as with so much in photography, we are left in an ambiguous situation in which “rules” are at best general guidelines, intended to be broken as the situation dictates or as the photographer decides. That gives me unlimited possibilities and a maximum amount of freedom to create more cool images.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Bright, saturated colors can be wonderful, but in large doses they can overwhelm the senses and confuse a viewer’s eyes. I am often drawn to simple scenes with a limited palette of colors, scenes in which light and shadows and shapes and textures play a more prominent role than colors.

Those were my thoughts when I started to review my images of this male Powdered Dancer damselfly (Argia moesta) that I spotted on Thursday while exploring a stream in Fairfax County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. The Powdered Dancer is the closest that we come to having a monochromatic dragonfly or damselfly—the thorax and tip of the abdomen of males becomes increasingly white as they age.

I love the way that the coolness of the white on the body contrasts with the brownish-red warmth of the branch, the leaves, and the out-of-focus rocks in the background of the initial image. I like too the texture in the images, particularly in the bark in the first photo and in the rock in the second one. Shadows help to add some additional visual interest to both of these images, drawing a viewer’s attention to the damselfly’s head in the first image and to the details of its entire body in the second.

Powdered Dancer

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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