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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

I was not sure what kind of dragonfly this was when I photographed it last Thursday while exploring a stream in Prince William County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, but Walter was able to immediately identify it for me as a Black-shouldered Spinyleg dragonfly (Dromogomphus spinosus). Unfortunately the dragonfly flew away before Walter was able to get a shot of it himself.

As I look at the photo now, I am pretty confident that I would have eventually come up with the correct identification. If you look carefully at the upper portion of the long back legs, you can’t help but notice the distinctive leg spines that are responsible the common name for this species and that help him to snag and hold onto prey. As for his “shoulders,” the wide shoulder stripe looks a little more brown than black in this photo, but may darken with age.

Many of you know that when I am out in the field, I do not worry too much about making definitive identifications of my subjects. I am amused whenever I see birders pulling out identification guides or checking their favorites apps when they are out in the field. I am content to worry about identification after I have returned home and I tend to follow what I like to call the “law of the Old West”—shoot first and ask questions later.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I had a really close encounter with this male Bar-winged Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula axilena) last Thursday while exploring a small pond in Prince William County, Virginia with fellow dragonfly enthusiast and blogger Walter Sanford. It is a challenge to handhold a macro shot when I am that close to a live subject, but the dragonfly was pretty cooperative and stayed put while I composed the shot. The colorful vegetation on which he was perched added some additional visual interest to the image without drawing attention away from the primary subject.

Bar-winged Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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How do you draw attention to the main subject in your photograph? One effective way is to choose a camera setting that will give you a shallow depth of field, so that only the subject is in sharp focus and the rest of the image is blurred. Another way is to ensure that the colors and texture of the background contrast with those of the subject.

I used both of these techniques yesterday morning when I spotted this metallic green sweat bee (g. Agapostemon) on one of the Shasta daisies growing in the garden of my neighbor and photography mentor Cindy Dyer. I love these little bees with their large speckled eyes and shiny green bodies and got as close to this one as I dared with my Canon 60mm macro lens.

I opened the aperture of the lens all the way to f/2.8 to let in lots of light and to achieve the narrowest possible depth of field. That is why the center of the daisy falls so quickly out of focus. As I was composing the shot, the flower reminded me of an egg that had been fried “sunny-side up” and I chose an angle that emphasized that look. (In case you are curious about the other camera settings, the ISO was 800 and the shutter speed was 1/800 sec.)

There is nothing super special about this image, but it is a fun little photo taken close to home that reminds me that beauty is everywhere. A series of creative choices in camera settings and composition by the photographer can often help to draw a viewer’s attention to that beauty. (I encourage you to click on the image to get a better view of the beautiful details of the little green bee.)

green sweat bee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Eye contact and posture are often key factors when trying to assess the attitude of another person we encounter. Is the same true for dragonflies? I am certainly guilty of anthropomorphism when I attribute human emotions and other traits to my little flying friends, but I often cannot help but do so—it is fun to let my imagination run free.

I grew up watching cowboy movies and one of the traditions of these movies was a showdown, often at high noon, at which two gunfighters face off for a climactic formal duel. I spotted the first male Lancet Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus exilis) on Tuesday in the rocks on the banks of a stream in Prince William County. The small dragonfly did not seem to be afraid of me at all and in fact his whole attitude and direct stare seemed almost confrontational, like he was challenging me to a gunfight.

The male Lancet Clubtail in the nearby vegetation, by contrast, seemed shy and demure, glancing at me only out of the corner of his eyes. Perhaps he was hoping that I would simply go away, but he did not want to push the issue and definitely seemed to be avoiding a direct confrontation.

Who knows what goes on in the minds of dragonflies and other wild creatures? Whenever I look at the massive compound eyes of a dragonfly, I am acutely aware that they perceive the world in a way that is radically different from the way that I do. My mind threatens to explode when I try to imagine what it would be like have that kind of sensory input. Sometimes I try to interpret their behavior in human terms, but most often I simply gaze at them with awe and wonder, marveling at their beauty and extraordinary capabilities.

Lancet Clubtail

Lancet Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Like many other nature photographers who take pictures of birds and dragonflies, I am always looking for subjects that have chosen photogenic perches or are engaged in some interesting activity. Some photographers even look derisively at commonplace photos of “a bird on a stick.” Yes, it is always nice when I can capture images like yesterday’s shots of a Prince Baskettail dragonfly in flight, but the reality is that most birds and dragonflies spend a lot of time perched in a single spot and I do my best to capture their beauty as well as I can.

I was thrilled on Tuesday to see quite a few Bar-winged Skimmers (Libellula axilena) as I explored a small pond in Prince William County. I do not see Bar-winged Skimmers very often and the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website notes that they are “uncommon” in our area. Superficially they look a bit like the Great Blue Skimmers and Slaty Skimmers that I see quite often. Great Blue Skimmers, however, have bright white faces and male Slaty Skimmers tend to have more uniformly dark bodies.

I was particularly excited when one of the Bar-winged Skimmers that I was tracking perched on a bent-over stalk of vegetation, giving me a great view of both its abdomen and its face. The second shot is a bit more of an ordinary view, but it shows the wing markings really well that are responsible for the common name of this species. In both images, I was thrilled as well with the beautiful green background.

Bar-winged Skimmer

Bar-winged Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I stopped by Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge yesterday and noticed that a changing of the guards has taken place. The last time I was there, Common Baskettail dragonflies (Epitheca cynosura) were patrolling the pond, but it looks like they have now been replaced by Prince Baskettail dragonflies (Epitheca princeps). The species are relatively easy to tell apart, because the Prince Baskettails have dark patterns on their wings, a feature that is visible even when they are flying.

In both cases, these are dragonflies that fly endlessly, moving back and forth in low patrols near the edges of the pond, never seeming to perch. The only way to capture an image of one is to photograph it in flight. If you watch one for long enough, though, you can start to detect patterns in the way that it flies. Each Prince Baskettail seems to have its own area of responsibility and often will turn around when it reaches its outermost boundaries.

So there is some predictability in the flight path of the dragonfly, but the dragonfly will instantaneously alter its path when it needs to chase off intruders or when the wind changes or for other reasons that I cannot understand or anticipate.

Here are a few of my more successful shots from yesterday—I had lots and lots of shots in which the dragonfly was out of focus or entirely missing from the frame. In some cases, a Prince Baskettail would fly relatively close to the shore and I was able to point my camera down at it, as in the first photo. Most of the time, though, I had to try to focus on the dragonfly at a greater distance and my camera was more level, as you can see in the second image and to a certain extent in the final photo.

I am often content to photograph dragonflies when they are perched, but from time to time it is good to push my skills and my patience by attempting shots like these. I remember my sense of amazement the first time I saw photos of dragonflies in flight and never imagined that I would eventually be able to capture similar images.

 

Prince Baskettail

Prince Baskettail

Prince Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I was delighted on Monday to see that Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is now flowering at Huntley Meadows Park, a local marshland refuge. Butterflies really seem to like all varieties of milkweed and I was thrilled to photograph several different species that were feeding on these fabulous flowers, including a Spicebush Swallowtail(Papilio troilus) in the first image; an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) in the second image; and in the final image, a Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus), a smaller skipper that I cannot identify, and a bee.

Spicebush Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Silver-spotted Skipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Unlike Great Blue Herons, which remain throughout the winter, “our” Great Egrets (Ardea alba) overwinter in warmer places. Great Egrets may have returned weeks or even months ago, but it was only on Monday that I spotted my first ones of the year, while I was exploring Huntley Meadows Park, a marshland refuge not far from where I live. This park used to be my favorite place for wildlife photography, but it became so popular that it is frequently crowded, and for that reason I visit it now only occasionally.

As I approached a small viewing platform overlooking the central wetland area, I could see four Great Egrets, including one that was fairly close to the shore. I was mostly looking for dragonflies, butterflies that day, so I had my 180mm macro lens on my camera and a 24-105mm zoom lens in my bag. I was hoping that the close-in egret would remain in place, so I would have a chance of getting  a shot with my macro lens, but the large white bird took off as I approached.

I had anticipated that this would happen, and managed to capture a few shots of the egret in flight. I was fortunate that the egret flew only a short distance to a nearby pile of branches and remained there, allowing me time to compose some additional shots.

Although I would have liked to have gotten closer to the action with a longer lens, I am pretty happy with the shots that I got, which highlight the habitat as well as the beautiful bird. I love the feathery wingspan in the first photo as the egret was preparing to land. In the second photo, you can see that the long feathers of the egret’s breeding plumage if you click on the image to see the details better.

Whenever people ask me about camera gear, I encourage them to use whatever they have, rather than staying a home and lamenting that they do not have. Make the best use possible of what you have—I try to apply that lesson in other aspects of my life and not just in photography.

Great Egret

Great Egret

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

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I was happy yesterday to spot several Common Sanddragon dragonflies (Progomphus obscurus) while exploring a creek that runs through a small suburban park in Fairfax County, only a few miles from where I live. Unlike many other dragonflies that like areas with vegetation, this species prefers sunny, shallow creeks with sandy or gravelly banks.

Quite often Common Sanddragons will perch flat on the sand or with their abdomens raised a little or even a lot, as shown in the third image. The third image is quite unusual, because it shows a Common Sanddragon perched off of the ground and away from the water. When I first spotted the dragonfly perched on that dead branch, I had to look really closely to convince myself that it was in fact a Common Sanddragon. Fortunately, male Common Sanddragons have bright terminal appendages, known as cerci, at the tip of their abdomens that make them easy to identify.

Common Sanddragon

Common Sanddragon

Common Sanddragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How do you stand out from the crowd? A touch of gold always adds a bit of bling, especially if you are a dragonfly. I spotted this young male Needham’s Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula needhami) yesterday while exploring a small pond in Fairfax County.

At the moment this juvenile male Needham’s Skimmer has the same colors as a female, but eventually his abdomen will turn an orange-red in color, but retain the black stripe down the middle. It is still a bit early in the season, though, for me to see an adult, as Needham’s Skimmers are a summer species that is just now starting to emerge—this is my first sighting of one this year.

 

Needham's Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was happy to spot this handsome male Painted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula semifasciata) during a recently trip to Occoquan Regional Park. A Painted Skimmer was the first dragonfly that I spotted this year on 26 April and I have not seen very many of them since that time at this park, the location of that first sighting. (See the posting Painted Skimmer in April for further details.)

Usually when I am trying to get a side shot of a dragonfly, I will shoot from above the wings or below the wings. In this case, though, I attempted to shoot between the wings, which gives the image an unusual perspective.

I would have liked to have been able to move forward a little to get a better view of the head, but I would then have been standing in several inches of water and mud of an uncertain depth. I opted to keep my feet dry at that moment, though later in the day I ended up with one foot stuck in mud that went above my ankle.

 

Painted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the spectacular colors of the Asiatic lilies that are now blooming in the garden of my dear friend and neighbor Cindy Dyer. These brilliant colors, which look almost neon in their intensity, were especially welcome yesterday, when it was gray and rainy the entire day.

Asiatic lily

Asiatic lily

Asiatic lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When it comes to damselflies, I love the sidewards heart that their bodies create when they are in this mating position. I have been told that the process is somewhat brutal, but I like to think of it as romantic, two hearts joined as one.

I spotted these Ebony Jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) last Sunday in Fairfax County. At this time of the year Ebony Jewelwings are quite common, especially in the shaded forest streams that I like to explore.

In addition to the sidewards heart, I really like the interplay of the light and the shadows in the background that adds a lot of visual interest without detracting from the primary subjects. You can get a really feel for the dappled sunlight that kept the scene from being in complete shade.

Ebony Jewelwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week in a posting entitled Sable Clubtail in June, I expressed my concern about the survivability of this uncommon dragonfly due to the degradation of its habitat at the one location in my area where they can be found.  One of my fellow dragonfly followers has seen them several times recently, including at least one female, and I was thrilled to have several encounters with Sable Clubtail dragonflies (Stenogomphurus rogersi) last Sunday along a small forest stream in Fairfax County, Virginia.

I am presenting the images in reverse chronological order, because I wanted the close-up shot to be the one that shows up in the Word Press reader (and because it is my favorite of the three images). Let me discuss them, though, in the order in which I took took the shots.

The third shot shows a male Sable Clubtail perched low on some vegetation overhanging the stream. In my experience, this is the most common place to spot this dragonfly species and, in fact, this was quite close to the places where I have seen a Sable Clubtail in previous years.

This year I decided to expand my search area and on a different part of the stream I spotted the dragonfly in the second image. It was perched on a dead branch that extended horizontally about six inches (15 cm) above the surface of the stream. My initial shots were from quite a distance away, but slowly and stealthily I moved forward and captured this image as I looked down at the dragonfly and the shining stream bed.

Some readers know that I really enjoy close encounters with dragonflies and will not be surprised to learn that I decided to move in and try to get a head-on shot of this handsome male Sable Clubtail. As you can see in the first photo, my subject was quite accommodating and I was able to get a wonderful shot of his stunning green eyes that look like they were carved out of solid chunks of malachite. He even seemed to be smiling for me.

I feel like I can breathe a little more easily now that I have some evidence that this species is still around. The populations of many of the dragonflies that I have photographed this spring tend be low density in our area, often limited to a small number of dragonflies in a few specific habitats with a short flight season. Each season I begin with hopeful expectations of seeing new species at new locations, but those hopes are tempered by the reality that a species could also disappear from a location for ecological or other reasons.

 

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Things are not always as they seem. When I spotted this Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) last Friday at the edge of a pond in Fairfax County, I thought for a moment that it might be a female. After all, females have yellow and brown bodies and have one large dark blotch per wing, while males have blue bodies and have one dark and one light blotch per wing.

However, immature male Widow Skimmers look a lot like females, as is the case with many dragonfly species. The colors of “fresh” dragonflies tend to be pale and wing patterns may not have developed fully yet, so you cannot rely exclusively on those markings for identification.

The first photo below provides a pretty clear view of the “claspers” at the tip of the abdomen, which indicates that this is a male—the terminal appendages are often the most important indication of the gender of a dragonfly. For comparison purposes I have included a photo of a mature male Widow Skimmer at this same location from a 2019 posting entitled Male Widow Skimmer dragonfly. It may be a little hard to envision, but the dragonfly in the first photo will eventually grow to look like the one in the second image.

You may wonder why this species is called a “Widow Skimmer.” Someone apparently thought the dark patches on the wings looked like the mourning crepe that historically widows wore. Even the Latin name “luctuosa” means “sorrowful.”

I used to hesitate a bit when I used the the words male and widow together, wondering if perhaps I should call a male of this species a Widower Skimmer. Over time I have gotten used to this seeming incongruity and now I even happily speak about male damselflies. I wonder how those guys feel about being called damsels.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was excited to spot this male Unicorn Clubtail dragonfly (Arigomphus villosipes) last Saturday as I was exploring a small pond in Fairfax County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, my first sighting of this species this season. The dragonfly changed perches multiple times, but steadfastly remained out of reach and facing the pond, forcing me to shoot from an awkward angle.

If the ground at the edge of the pond had not been so soft and muddy, I might have waded into the water a bit to improve my position. As it was, my feet ended up soaked and I just missed tumbling into the water as I leaned forward to try to get as close as I could.

I included the second image to give you an idea of the habitat in which we found the Unicorn Clubtail. I really like the way the dragonfly opportunistically used the floating leaf as a temporary landing pad. I am not sure what caused the concentric ripples in the upper left corner of the photo, but they were interesting enough to justify not cropping the image to give you a closer view of the dragonfly. You can always click on the image if you would like to see more details of the floating dragonfly.

Unicorn Clubtail

Unicorn Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Many of the irises have withered in the garden of my dear friend and neighbor Cindy Dyer, but her lilies are now starting to open, like this beauty that I photographed early on Sunday morning. It is hot and humid today, so I did not feel much like venturing outside with my camera. Instead I decided to share this burst of bright color.

Have a wonderful Monday.

lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Directional lighting can add a lot of drama to a portrait—studio photographers spend a lot of time balancing the power and placement of multiple lights to create that sense of drama. When I am out in the field, though, I have almost no control over the lighting. However, I can vary my shooting angle and positioning and adjust my camera settings to take maximum advantage of the light that I do have.

Yesterday afternoon about 3:30 in the afternoon (1530 hrs) I spotted my only Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi) of the day while exploring Occoquan Regional Park. Most of the time Gray Petaltails perch vertically on the trunks of trees, where they blend with the tree’s bark. This dragonfly thankfully chose to perch horizontally on a fallen tree in front of me rather than fly off to a more distant tree.

The sunlight was strong, but I found an angle that made it serve almost as a spotlight, illuminating the dragonfly’s white face. I deliberately underexposed the shot to darken the background and deepen the shadows to create a sense of depth in the bark of the fallen tree. As I processed the image, I was really careful not to go too dark, though, because I wanted to maintain the color and the texture of the moss on the tree.

I must be in a bit of an “artsy” mood—I just realized that this is the second day in a row that I have posted an image that focused as much on artistry as on the wildlife subject itself. Of course, it is never strictly an either/or proposition. Like all photographers, I make a lot of creative choices before I press the shutter release and many of those choices are instantaneous and instinctive.

Sometimes, as was this case with this photo, I have the luxury of being a little more deliberate in my composition and settings, which increases the odds that I will create the photo as I imagine it. Nonetheless, there are never any guarantees in wildlife photography, so I cannot afford to hesitate too long or the subject may move away or the lighting may change completely.

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Some say that the secret to capturing an effective image is to eliminate all of the non-essential elements. This image is about as minimalistic as I can get. The raindrops on the vegetation provide a sense of what has been and the shadows a hint that the sun was shining again when I spotted this stunning female Ebony Jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) at Occoquan Regional Park on Friday.

The image itself is simple, but I am amazed at the details that I was able to capture of this tiny creature and encourage you to click on the image. If you do, you may be as shocked as I was, for example, at the length of the “hairs” on the damselfly’s legs—clearly leg shaving is not practiced among the ladies of this species.

Ebony Jewelwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I spotted this beautiful American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) yesterday morning as I was exploring one of the trails at Occoquan Regional Park. There is a similar-looking butterfly called a Painted Lady and I had to wait until I got home to figure out which one I had photographed. The American Lady has two large eye spots on each hind wing, while the Painted Lady has four. The second image below, I believe, shows only two eye spots.

I love to try to time my butterfly photos to get shots when the wings are fully opened, revealing the butterfly’s inner beauty. In this case, though, I think that the American Lady butterfly is even more stunning when its wings are closed. Alas, I couldn’t move fast enough to get a good side shot before she flew away. The second shot at least gives you a general sense of how pretty she is.

American Lady

American Lady

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I see all kinds of flies when I am out in the wild with my camera, but I don’t think that I have ever seen one like this brightly-colored one that I spotted on Tuesday at Occoquan Regional Park. Some internet research suggests that it is a Golden-backed Snipe Fly (Chrysopilus thoracicus). It was hard to find detailed information about the life cycle of this species, but I did come across an amusing and informative article by Joe Boggs at The Ohio State University entitled Snipe Hunting, if you are interested in learning a little more about this unusual-looking fly.

Golden-backed Snipe Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some of the rarest dragonflies in our area are quite muted in their appearance, like this male Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Stenogomphurus rogersi) that I spotted on Tuesday while exploring a park in Fairfax County in Virginia, the county in which I live. Sable Clubtails are generally found only 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 and re-discovered the Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Stenogomphurus rogersi) at this location in 2018.

When a dragonfly population is so small and localized, there is always a fear that they could be wiped out by extreme weather conditions or by a change in their habitat. At this specific location, the stream habitat has been compromised somewhat by increased silt and higher levels of vegetation as a result of some imprudent dumping of dirt and the resulting runoff. (For additional information about the damage to the stream and some of the back story of Walter’s re-discovery of the species, check out his June 2020 posting entitled Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Male, No. 1).)

Each year since Walter’s rediscovery I have returned to the same stream with a certain degree of trepidation, unsure if I will be able to find any members of this relatively rare species. This year I spotted them further upstream than previously, suggesting the possibility that the small Sable Clubtail population has relocated. According to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, Sable Clubtails appear “to prefer small, relatively clean, shallow and stable forest streams, with plenty of low vegetation and a gentle flow.”

Over the next few weeks, I will probably return to this stream multiple times to see if I can gain a better understanding of the state of this population. I am hopeful that there will be signs that the population has rebounded and it would be really cool to spot a female Sable Clubtail too.

Sable Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was a bit startled on Tuesday when I spotted this small, pale snake as I was walking along a trail at Occoquan Regional Park. In the first place, I am not used to seeing a snake at waist level, coiled up atop the vegetation. Secondly, I have never seen a snake that looked like this one. Was it a young snake of a familiar species?

I did some research and determined that it is almost certainly a DeKay’s Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi), a snake that on average is only 9 to 13 inches (23 to 33 cm) in length in Virginia. I had never even heard of this snake, so I headed over to the Virginia Herpetological Society for some information. According to the society’s website, “Dekay’s Brownsnakes are terrestrial, secretive, and seldom found in the open. They are nocturnal, but are most often found under surface objects such as boards, trash of all sorts, logs, and rocks. Their microhabitat may be described as the soil-humus layer.” I am not sure why this one was in the open, but the fact that this species spends a lot of time in the dirt, where it feeds primarily on slugs and worms, explains why I have never seen one before.

I was intrigued to note that this species is viviparous, which means that it gives birth to living young rather than lay eggs as many snakes do. The gestational period is 105 to 113 days and the average litter size is about 11, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society website, which also noted that “mating has not been observed in Virginia.” After the young are born there is no parental care involved, but sometimes young brown snakes will stay close with the parent, according to information on the Animal Diversity Web website.

I have visited this park dozens of times at different times of the year and it is exciting for me to be able to continue to spot new species there. It is humbling to think about how little I know about the diverse population of living creatures in this one location.

DeKay's Brown Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was thrilled to encounter Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) multiple times on 27 May as I explored a stream in Prince William County, Virginia. There are no other dragonfly species in our area that look like Gray Petaltails, so they are easy to identify if you can spot them. It is a real challenge, though, to see them because they often perch vertically on the trunks of trees where they blend in with the bark of the tree. On several occasions last Thursday, my first indication that there was a Gray Petaltail on a tree right in front of me was when it flew away.

Many of the Gray Petaltails were quite skittish and I had to settle for long-distance shots, but in the case of the first image below, the dragonfly was accommodating and let me get close enough to look deeply into its stunning gray eyes. Often I would attempt to maneuver myself around for a side shot, like the second image below, to try to get a little separation of the dragonfly from the tree and allow the viewer to see its body better.

In the final photo, the Gray Petaltail was perching almost horizontally on a fallen tree. I like the way that both the lichen in the foreground and the out-of-focus ferns in the background give you an idea of the moistness of the area that I was exploring. I was often trudging through a sea of ferns that came almost up to my knees at time as I followed the path of the stream. Gray Petaltails usually originate in seepy area and I will usually scan the sunny side of trees when I am in such areas.

Gray Petaltails are unusual in a lot of different ways. I really like the list that Kevin Munroe composed for the Gray Petaltail page of the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website:

“This wonderfully odd dragonfly stands out in several ways: 1) Their eyes, unlike most dragonflies, are widely spaced and don’t touch. Only clubtail dragonflies share this trait. 2) This is our only dragonfly with no bright colors that uses camouflage as a daily defense. 3) They spend most of their lives perched on, or vertically exploring, tree trunks. 4) Seemingly quite tame, petaltails often perch on people—perhaps they mistake us for trees. 5) They establish territories at tiny forest seeps, and their larvae can live out of water, among wet leaves on the forest floor in and around their seeps.”

I did not have a Gray Petaltail perch on me last week, but expect that it will happen sometime later this season, especially if I keep wearing gray shirts, which the Gray Petaltails seem to prefer. It was a little disconcerting the first few times that it happened, because these dragonflies are quite large, about three inches (76 mm), in length and sometimes they will perch on my head and shoulders. Now I am used to it and quite enjoy it when a dragonfly chooses to use me as a perch. In case you are curious, here is a link to a re-blog of a posting by my friend Walter Sanford entitled You look like a tree to me! with photos of a Gray Petaltail on my chest and on my shoulder.

 

gray petaltail

Gray Petaltail

gray petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the cool tones of this image of a male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) that I photographed last week at Occoquan Regional Park—the green of the vegetation seemed a perfect complement to the colors of this handsome dragonfly. In most dragonfly species the male stands out more than the female, but with the Eastern Pondhawk, it is the female who is more often in the spotlight with her emerald green thorax and the black striped abdomen, as some of you may recall from my posting last week entitled First Eastern Pondhawk of 2021.

A male Eastern Pondhawk starts out with the same bright green coloration as the female, but over the course of his adult life the green is gradually transformed into a duller shade of blue and finally a powdery bluish-grey. A number of other dragonflies have a similar shade of blue on their bodies, but it is fairly easy to identify male Eastern Pondhawks because they, like the females, have bright green faces and their terminal appendages at the tip of their abdomens (the “tail”) are white in color.

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this beautiful female Turquoise Bluet damselfly (Enallagma divagans) on 27 May as I was exploring the edge of the woods adjacent to a small pond in Prince William County, Virginia. While I was out in the field, I recognized that it was a bluet, but could not determine its species. Even when I returned home and consulted resources in print and on-line, I quick became confused as I assesed the relative size of the eyespots on the the top of the damselfly’s head, the width of the occipital bars (the band that joins the eyespots), and the placement and size of the blue areas on the abdomen (the “tail”).

Fortunately I am a member of several Facebook groups focused on dragonflies and damselflies and the experts in those groups came to my rescue and identified this as a female Turquoise Bluet, a species that I had never before encountered. I was happy that I was able to capture a lot of detail in my photo and encourage you to click on it to see those details. For reference, Turquoise Bluets are 1-1.4 inches (25-36 mm) in length.

Turquoise Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I love to see dragonflies with patterned wings and it is a real bonus when they have two different colored patterns, like this young male Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) that I spotted last week at Occoquan Regional Park. I can tell that it is a male, because females do not have the white spots, and that it is young, because as the males get older, their bodies develop a waxy blue powder called pruinescence.

Some of you who are mathematically inclined may have tried to count the dragonfly’s spots and come up with a number higher than twelve. It is a little confusing, but someone in the past decided to count only the dark spots, three on each wing, to come with the name Twelve-spotted Skimmer. It many not make complete sense, but I have long ago given up trying to understand the “logic” of some of the names of species that I have encountered.

This dragonfly seemed quite skittish and flew around a lot over the pond before it settled for a moment on some vegetation close to me. The multiple spots on the dragonfly’s wings make it easy to track visually, making it look almost like a butterfly. When I took my shots and afterwards in post-production, I tried a few different ways to present the butterfly. For the first image, I shot from a front angle and cropped to a square to give greater emphasis to the dragonfly.

For the second image, I moved a little more to the side and shot from a higher angle so that more of the surface area of the wings was visible. I also used a portrait aspect ratio to show more of the interesting vegetation on which the dragonfly was perched.

I like each of the two images for different reasons. Is there one of the two that stands out to you more than the other?

 

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Whenever I go out searching for dragonflies in the early morning or after a rainstorm, I am hoping to photograph a dragonfly covered with drops of water. It has not happened yet, but it remains as one of my aspirational goals.

There were plenty of raindrops on the vegetation on Thursday morning when I began my adventures in Prince William County. I was happy to spot this tiny male Fragile Forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita) peering over the edge of the water-spattered leaf on which he was perched. I really like the simplicity of the image that I captured, with its limited number of shapes, colors, and patterns.

Photography does not have to be complicated to be effective—minimalistic images are often the most powerful.

Fragile Forktail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I can’t help myself—whenever I see a dragonfly moving through the air, I feel compelled to try to capture an image of the dragonfly in flight. It is an almost impossible challenge and success is often dependent as much on luck as it is on skill. Last Thursday as I was exploring in Prince William County, I was feeling particularly patient and repeatedly spotted dragonflies flying.

Early in the day at a small pond, I spotted a Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina) and a Common Green Darner (Anax junius) that were patrolling over the water. In situations like this when the dragonflies are flying at a constant height, it is marginally easier to get shots, because there is one fewer variable than when the dragonfly is moving up and down.The Carolina Saddlebags was flying a little closer to the shore, but I had to contend with all of the vegetation that wanted to grab my camera’s focus, so I focused manually (first photo). The Common Green Darner was flying over the open water that presented a less obstructed background, but it filled such a small part of the frame that again I was forced to focus manually—my camera’s auto-focus had trouble focusing quickly on the moving dragonfly (second photo).

My greatest challenge, however, came later in the day. If I were to assign a degree of difficulty to my photos, the final photo would be near the top of the list. When I moved to a new location and got out of my car, I immediately spotted a group of large dragonflies frenetically flying through the air, feasting on insects as they flew. The dragonflies were moving in unpredictable ways, constantly changing their flight altitude and speed. Unlike some dragonflies that hover a bit when patrolling, these dragonflies were in constant high-speed motion.

I did my best to track the dragonflies visually, but it was tough to even get one in my viewfinder. I was ecstatic when I finally managed to capture a more or less in-focus image of one of the Swamp Darners (Epiaeschna heros) as it zoomed past me relatively low to the ground, as you can see in the final photo.

When it comes to wildlife photography, some shots are easy and straightforward—I see something and take the shot and that is it. At other times, I have to work really hard and take a lot of shots before I can get a potentially good one. Last Thursday definitely fell in the latter category more than in the former one. Was all that effort worth it? I think so, but I must confess that at times I felt like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

If you want to get a more detailed look at the details of the three flying dragonflies, be sure to click on the images.

 

Carolina Saddlebags

 

Common Green Darner

Swamp Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Generally I like to photograph dragonflies on natural perches, not on manmade ones. However, every time I visit Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge I always check a piece of rebar that sticks out of the water of Mulligan Pond, because I have found that dragonflies love this perch. On Wednesday I spotted this young male Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia) on that perch, the third dragonfly species that I have photographed there—I have also photographed a Slaty Skimmer and an Eastern Amberwing at that spot.

I really like the juxtaposition of the natural and manmade elements in this image and the ways that the markings of the rebar seem to mirror those on the abdomen of the dragonfly. As this young male Common Whitetail matures, his body will grow whiter as he develops a white powdery substance often referred to as “pruinosity.”

Although Common Whitetails are the most common dragonfly species in my area, I never get tired of trying to get shots of them.

Common Whitetail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I have always been fascinated by the intricate patterns of spider webs and I love to attempt to photograph them. Of course, the first challenge is to spot them. In the past I have had some success in early morning hours when the webs were covered in dew—see, for example, my posting from September 2012 called More spider art. In more recent years, though, I have most frequently encountered spider webs when I have run into them stretched head-high across trails.

I was pretty excited therefore when I spotted this backlit spider in its web last Thursday as I was exploring a forested area in Prince William County. I loved the way that the light was shining through the body of what I recognized to be an Orchard Orbweaver spider (Leucauge venusta). I toyed around with ideas on how to compose the image and decided to include only the upper half of the web—I wanted to make sure that the viewer’s eyes would be drawn to the spider.

Orchard Orbweaver spiders are quite common in my area and I encountered another one later that same day and captured the close-up image below that shows some of the spider’s beautiful coloration. I know that some people find spiders to be creepy and threatening, but hopefully these spider shots can help to convince at least a few of those viewers that spiders can also be quite beautiful.

Orchard Orbweaver

Orchard Orbweaver

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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