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Archive for the ‘Macro Photography’ Category

The weather has gotten decidedly colder, with daily high temperatures struggling to get past 60 degrees (16 degrees C). I am beginning to wonder if this female bluet that I saw last week at Huntley Meadows Park will be my final damselfly sighting of the season.

I was fairly confident that this was a female Familiar Bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile), but once again I learned how difficult identification can be when I posted the image to a Facebook forum for dragonflies and damselflies in Virginia. Several experts weighed in with suggestions that the eyespots made then think it was a female    Atlantic Bluet (Enallagma doubledayi), a species that I have never before encountered.

How hard can it be to identify a damselfly? One of the aforementioned experts noted that  “you cannot be completely sure about many female Enallagma without microscopic examination.” Microscopic examination? Yikes!

Familiar Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Large black spiders are often associated with Halloween—many people find them to be merely spooky, but some are totally creeped out by them. Maybe the spiders need better marketing and a new poster child for the autumn holidays. I would nominate this colorful Marbled Orbweaver spider (Araneus marmoreus) that I spotted on Thursday at Huntley Meadows Park.

When I spotted this spider, I was immediately attracted to the way that the light was illuminating its legs from behind and causing them to glow. As I made adjustments to my camera settings, I was a little shocked to see the beautiful orange coloration and intricate patterns on the spider’s body. The oval body brought to mind a kind of stylized jack-o’-lantern and I later learned that one of the informal names for this spider is “pumpkin spider.”

For many of us this is the season for voting. Would you vote for this spider as a new autumn mascot?

Marbled Orbweaver

 

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was walking along one of the trails recently at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my eyes were drawn to the bright orange of a patch of fungus. Orange is one of the colors that I tend to associate with autumn and with holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving, so I was feeling very seasonal. I do not know my fungi very well, but I think that this might be Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).

From what I have read, this mushroom can be used as a substitute for chicken and can be sautéed, deep fried, baked, and used in soups. I prefer to enjoy its beauty with my eyes only—the consequences of eating the wrong mushroom can be pretty dire.

The third image gives you an overall view of the mushroom “patch.” However, I had a macro lens on my camera, so I had fun exploring the different elements of the scene. The first image reminds me of Halloween candy corn, a traditional candy that most people either love or hate. In the second image, I was attracted to the circular rows of water droplets that paralleled the rings of colors of the mushroom.

Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Humans shed skin cells all of the time—according to one source, in one year, each of us sheds more than 8 pounds (3.6 kg) of dead skin. Snakes have an entirely different shedding process. Several times a year they grow a complete new layer of skin underneath the old layer. During shedding, snakes secrete a fluid to help separate the old skin from the new, and this fluid runs under their specialized eye caps, resulting in the opaque or blue quality of the eye.

Last Friday I encountered one of these blue-eyed snakes while exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Snakes are vulnerable during this stage when their vision is impaired and I was a little surprised to see this snake was in a fairly open area. I think this may be an Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis), but did not examine the snake at length for fear of disturbing it.

Moving as stealthily as I could, I leaned in with my macro lens to capture this image. If you look carefully into the eye (or double-click on the image to enlarge it) you will see that I managed to capture a “selfie” reflection.

As an interesting coincidence, my most viewed posting of 2020 has been a May 2016 posting that also featured a snake with a blue eye. That posting, entitled Blue-eyed garter snake, has had 597 views so far this year. If you are not totally creeped out by today’s photo, you might want to check out the 2016 posting, which has some full body shots as well as a close-up shot of the snake’s head.

Eastern Ratsnake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How flexible are you? I used to run marathons and, like most runners, I am not very flexible. I marvel at ordinary people who can bend down and touch the floor while keeping their knees straight and am utterly fascinated when I watch gymnasts and acrobats. Several years ago I attended a Cirque de Soleil performance and was mesmerized the entire time.

I don’t think of grasshoppers and katydids as being particularly flexible—their outer shell seems rigid and armor-like. Imagine my surprise and delight when I stumbled upon this flexible female Handsome Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum pulchellum) last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Normally her ovipositor, the yellow scimitar shaped appendage at the end of her abdomen, faces to the back. In this case, though, she has arched her back so much that the tip of the ovipositor extends further forward than her head.

What is she doing? I think that she is somewhere in the process of depositing eggs. I do not know exactly how that works, but a University of Arkansas website described the ovipositing for a similar katydid with these words, “An ovipositing female embraces a plant stem with her prothoracic and mesothoracic legs and brings the curved and sword-like ovipositor far forward so its tip can scrape the substrate.” There are a lot of unfamiliar scientific words there, but I think I get the gist of what is going on.

I do not recall photographing this process before, but a search of my blog revealed that, in fact, I captured a series of images in a September 2013 posting entitled “Rainbow katydid depositing eggs?“. Be sure to check out that earlier posing for more fascinating photos of a flexible katydid.

Handsome Meadow Katydid

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The weather has turned cooler, but traces of summer still remain, like this tiny Summer Azure butterfly (Celastrina neglecta) that I spotted last Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The Azure butterflies are among the smallest butterflies in our area, with a wing span of just over one inch (25 mm). My current approach is to shoot any insect that I can find—it won’t be long before they are all gone and I will change to a longer lens and focus primarily on birds.

Summer Azure

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first spotted this large grasshopper last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge it was so still that I was not sure that it was alive. I gently rustled the vegetation and the grasshopper moved a little, so I knew that it was not dead. As I watched, I could see its mouth moving and I think that it might have been eating, which might explain why it was distracted and did not immediately fly away. The first photo was an unsuccessful attempt to determine what the grasshopper was eating.

I am not very good at grasshopper identification, but my friend Walter Sanford, with whom I was hunting for dragonflies, knew that it was a Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis). The prominent chevrons on the hind femur are apparently one of the identification features for this species.

differential grasshopper

differential grasshopper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Roses are red and bluets are blue, except when the bluets are damselflies, when they might be a different color. Last week while photowalking at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford pointed out this Orange Bluet damselfly (Enallagma signatum) that was perched in a tree just above eye level. As he pulled back a branch that was blocking my view, I was able to get this unobstructed shot of the beautiful little damselfly.

You might think that the bright coloration of this damselfly would make it easy to spot, but Orange Bluers are small, less than an inch and a half (38 mm) in length, and elusive. I am lucky if I manage to spot a couple of them during an entire season, so I was thankful for Walter’s sharp eyes.

This Orange Bluet, I think, would make a good mascot for the autumn season, when oranges and browns begin to dominate the natural and manmade landscape and the stores are filled with decorations for Halloween and Thanksgiving. I suspect that some stores are already starting to decorate for Christmas, but I am not ready to give up on the waning moments of summer—for some of us, tomorrow is the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall.

Orange Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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What’s my favorite insect? If I were to do a survey of readers of this blog, I am confident that most would say that my favorite insect would have to be one of the many dragonflies that I regularly feature here. I do love dragonflies and spend endless amounts of time during the warm months photographing them, but if I had to choose one favorite insect, it would not be one of them—it would be the Handsome Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum pulchellum).

I remember my sense of amazement the first time that I spotted one of these multi-colored beauties. I literally could not believe my eyes and it was love at first sight. To this day, I never fail to be mesmerized by the neon colors and the blue eyes of the Handsome Meadow Katydid. Love is love—when we are smitten, words somehow are inadequate to explain our feelings.

I spotted this beautiful female Handsome Meadow Katydid on Tuesday while photowalking at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. You can tell that this one is a female because of the yellow scimitar-shaped appendage at the tip of the abdomen that is an ovipositor used to deposit eggs on plants.

I really like the the ways that the colors of the katydid are repeated in the background and the repeated pattern of the vegetation leads the eye and somehow manages to be unobtrusive. All in all, it seems to be the perfect backdrop for the appropriately-named Handsome Meadow Katydid, my favorite insect.

Handsome Meadow Katydid

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Over the years I have developed the habit of checking milkweed plants carefully whenever I spot them. Milkweed plants host an extensive cast of colorful characters including ladybugs, milkweed beetles, and Monarch butterfly caterpillars (Danaus plexippus). Though I have been keeping an eye out for them for the last couple of months, I was unsuccessful in spotting a Monarch caterpillar until this past Sunday when I finally spotted one at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

This Monarch appears to be in one of its final phases of development as a caterpillar, when fattening up seems to be a priority before forming a chrysalis. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the edges of the leaves in this photo have been gnawed on by the caterpillar. This caterpillar seems to be a little late calendar-wise in its path to becoming a butterfly, but I did spot several Monarchs yesterday, so it seems that the Monarch migration has not yet taken place, or at least not in its entirety.

 

Monarch caterpillar

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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My eyes were attracted to the pinkish-colored asters when I spotted them last Friday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and I moved closer to investigate them more closely. I was delighted to see several green metallic sweat bees (g. Agapostemon) busily gathering pollen. I have always loved the coloration of these sweat bees that are so much smaller than the bumblebees and carpenter bees that I am more used to seeing.

The sweat bees were in almost constant motion and I got a little dizzy as I tried to track their circular movement around the center of the little flowers. I was happy that I was able to get a few shots in which the speckled eyes of the bees are visible—you may want to double-click on the images to enlarge them and see this cool little detail.

Asters generally appear in my area in late summer and early fall, another sign that the seasons are starting to change. I am not ready to let go of summer, though I must confess that I enjoy the somewhat cooler weather that we have been experiencing, especially during the nighttime hours.

sweat bee

sweat bee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

 

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Have you ever tried to wrap a present that is large and awkwardly shaped? I have childhood memories of helping my parents wrap tricycles and wagons for my younger siblings on Christmas Eve. No matter how much wrapping paper I used, it was pretty obvious what was underneath the wrapping.

I have watched Black and Yellow Garden Spiders (Argiope aurantia) capture prey multiple times. After the initial capture, the spider wraps up its prey in a special kind of silk that looks like a long gauze bandage. (Check out my 2014 posting called “Wrapping up a meal” for a more detailed explanation and some close-up shots of the wrapping process.)

When I spotted this Black and Yellow Garden Spider on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I could see from a distance that the spider had captured something that was as large as it was, but I could not determine what it was. Once I got closer, I could see that the spider had awkwardly wrapped up what appeared to be a large cicada—it was impossible to hide the shape of the cicada’s large wings.

At some point in this process the spider injects venom into the prey, killing it and liquefying its internal organs for consumption. I cannot tell for sure if that is what the spider was doing at the moment I captured this image, but the position of the spider’s body suggests that possibility.

Spider and cicada

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Over the years I have gradually learned which plants tend to attract butterflies and Buttonbushes (Cephalanthus occidentalis) are one of my favorites.  The plant’s spiky spherical flowers are quite distinctive and make a nice compositional element in a photo. I used to mentally associate these flowers with medieval weapons, but nowadays when people see one, they can’t help but think of the well-publicized structure of the Covid-19 virus.

Last week I spotted this Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) nectaring on a buttonbush flower at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I was hoping that one of the Monarchs that were fluttering by would also stop to sip at one of these photogenic flowers, but the Monarchs seemed to prefer the taste of the swamp milkweed flowers.

Silver-spotted Skipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the distinctive coloration of Orange Bluet damselflies (Enallagma signatum), whose name always causes me to smile at the apparent oxymoron. I spotted this couple in tandem earlier in August at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Many damselflies remain in this position after they have completed mating, with the male at the top attached to the female as she deposits her eggs.

As the name “bluet” suggests, most of the 35 members of the genus American Bluet (Enallagma), the largest damselfly genus in North America, are blue. However, certain species come in other colors including red, orange, and green and the Rainbow Bluet combines red, yellow, and green.

 

Orange Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the stunning eyes of this handsome male Blue-fronted Dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) that I spotted yesterday during a visit to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge with fellow odonata enthusiast Walter Sanford. Normally these little guys perch on or near the ground, but I was fortunate when this damselfly chose to perch on some vegetation at almost eye level, which made it a lot easier to get a clear shot of its amazing eyes.

Blue-fronted Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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

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


Swift Setwing

Swift Setwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I have observed animals, birds, and animals, I have noticed that sometimes the male is larger than the female and sometimes the opposite is the case. Quite often the size difference is so slight that you have to rely on other characteristics to try to determine the gender of a subject.

When it comes to spiders, though, the size difference is shockingly large—the male is often one quarter the size of the female or even smaller. On Monday I spotted my first black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) of the season. I have long been fascinated with these large spiders and the distinctive zigzag pattern that they weave into their webs.

When I looked at my images on my computer, I was surprised to see that there was a second, smaller spider just to the left and behind the main subject. Could this possibly be a male garden spider? According to Wikipedia, males range in size from .2-.35 inches (5-9 mm) and females range in size from .75 to 1.1 inches (18 to 28 mm), so the size differential seems about right. Additional the smaller spider looks like photos I was able to find of male garden spiders.

Spider mating can hazardous for male spiders. In some species, if the male is rejected by the female, she eats him. I thought that might be the case for these garden spiders, but came across a fascinating article at newscientist.com with the sensationalist title “Spider sex causes spontaneous death” that suggests something stranger than cannibalism.

According to a study conducted at Concordia University and the University of California, “Researchers found that for male orb-weaving spiders of the species Argiope aurantia completing copulation leads to certain death. The deceased suitor’s corpse is then trapped in the female genitalia. This may be a strategy to prevent other males from subsequently mating with the female, say the scientists.” The scientists determined that the female did nothing to kill the males who died spontaneously and concluded, “The females do sometimes remove and devour their dead mates. But the researchers do not think the death program evolved to give her a post-sex snack, as the males are too tiny to provide much nutrition.”

Nature can be wild, weird, and wonderful and endlessly fascinating. I guess that is what prompted the scientists to carefully study 100 pairs of spiders mating. 🙂


Argiope aurantia

© 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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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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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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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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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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When dragonflies and damselflies complete the metamorphosis from water-dwelling nymphs to air-breathing aerial acrobats, initially their wings are clear and shiny, their bodies are pale and colorless, and they are very vulnerable. At this stage of development, it is often difficult to identify the species to which they belong. Over time, their wings harden, their bodies take on the markings and coloration of their species, and identification becomes easier.

During a dragonfly-hunting trip earlier this month with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, I spotted several damselflies that had recently emerged, a stage often referred to as “teneral.” The first one was perched on a rock in the creek that we were exploring and the second was perched in some vegetation alongside the creek.

If you click on the images to get a more close-up view of the damselflies, you will note some indication of stripes on the thorax and thin rings around some of the segments of the abdomen. During the day, we saw adults of at least three different damselfly species, so we can infer that these tenerals belong to that small group of species, but there is not enough information to make a call. I’m happy that I was able to capture some cool images of the damselflies.

If you would like to read Walter’s discussion of the first damselfly and to view his photos, check out his blog posting that he titled “Acceptable uncertainty.”

teneral damselfly

teneral damselfly

© 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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Many of the species that I photograph have names that do not match up that well with their physical appearances. While I was exploring a creek this week with my friend Walter Sanford, it was wonderful, therefore, to spot a dark damselfly with blue at the end of its abdomen that is appropriately called the Blue-tipped Dancer (Argia tibialis). If you click on the images, you will note that this male damselfly has beautiful purple stripes on its thorax (upper body) in addition to that blue tip.

When photographing damselflies like this one that perch on the ground, I try to get as low as I can in order to see eye-to-eye and simplify the background. I managed to do that in the first image and I really like the soft glow in the background from the waters of the creek.

I did not get as close for the second shot, in part because the damselfly was a bit skittish. However, I do like the way that I was able to capture the colors and textures of the rocky environment along the edge of the stream, giving the viewer a better idea of this damselfly’s habitat.

Like most damselflies, Blue-tipped Dancers are tiny, no more than 1.5 inches (38 mm) in length, so it is always a challenge to get detailed shots of them. The largest damselflies that I have ever photographed were the appropriately named Great Spreadwings, that are as much as 2.4 inches (61 mm) in length. If you want to see what one of those beautiful “giants” looks like, check out this posting from October 2015 entitled “Great Spreadwing damselfly (male).”

blue-tipped dancer

blue-tipped dancer

© 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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Some of the dragonflies that I feature in my postings are uncommon species in my area. They are found in very small numbers, have a short flight period, and require very specific habitats. My good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford did an extensive amount of research two years ago and re-discovered the Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Stenogomphurus rogersi), a species that is considered to be rare in Northern Virginia. Several of us were able to capture numerous images of this beautiful species during the 2018 dragonfly season.

Since that time, however, the habitat at that location has deteriorated significantly. As a result of some imprudent dumping of dirt and the resulting runoff, the stream habitat has been compromised by increased silt and higher levels of vegetation. Last year, as far as we know, there was only a single sighting of Sable Clubtails at this spot.

Had the population of Sable Clubtails been wiped out? During May and June this year, I made repeated trips to this location and on 12 June I captured the second shot below. When I took the shot, I was not sure if it was a Sable Clubtail, so my excitement was somewhat muted while I was in the field.  However, when Walter confirmed that it was in fact a male Sable Clubtail, I was really happy. In many ways, though, my excitement was no match for Walter’s the next day, when we returned to that location and, after much searching, had several encounters with Sable Clubtails, including the one shown in the first image.

For more background on the saga of the Sable Clubtails, be sure to check out Walter’s posting from last Friday entitled “Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Male No. 1).” The posting includes Walter’s photos, range maps for the species, and fascinating details on the backstory. Walter has a background in science and his systematic and analytical approach allows him to view things from a different perspective than I do with my background in languages, literature, and political science. Our approaches are quite different, but are definitely complementary.

 

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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