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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Zebra Swallowtail butterflies (Eurytides marcellus) are amazingly skittish. They fly all about, approaching plants as though they were planning to land and then change course at the last moment. I was thrilled during a recent trip to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when this beautiful Zebra Swallowtail landed on a small wildflower and stayed still long enough for me to lower my monopod and focus on it.

I was shooting at the extreme end of my long telephoto zoom lens and was not sure if I could capture the fine details of the butterfly—the lens is supposedly soft at 600 mm. I was delighted when I saw my shots on my computer to see that I had managed to capture the beautiful red markings that really pop amid the zebra stripes pop on this swallowtail. Even the long antennae and the “tails” of the butterfly are pretty sharp.

Zebra Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is getting late in the season for Uhler’s Sundragon dragonflies (Helocordulia uhleri), so I was particularly happy when I spotted several of them last week while I was exploring a creek in Prince William County. Uhler’s Sundragons appear in early April and their flight period lasts for only a month or so, so it is always a challenge to find them and photograph them for the season.

Both of the dragonflies in the photos are males, judging by the appendages at the tips of their abdomens and their indented hind wings. I think that they are two separate individuals, but cannot be sure, since I spotted them in the same general area.

Some of you may have noticed that I did not do postings on Saturday and Sunday. I try to do a posting every day and during the past year “missed” only four days. I spent this past weekend in the mountains of Virginia at a church retreat and disconnected myself from the internet during that time. I had a wonderful time and feel uplifted emotionally and spiritually. After all of the covid-related travel limitations of the past two years, it felt good to get away and break out of my normal routine.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Do you worry about how you look when you are taking a photograph? Most of the time I am by myself in remote locations, so I don’t feel at all self-conscious when I kneel and lean or even sprawl onto the ground in order to get a better angle for a shot. Recently, though, I was at Meadowlark Botanical Garden, a relatively crowded public space, with some friends and one of them, my photography mentor Cindy Dyer, photographed me in action.

You probably cannot help but notice my brightly colored sneakers. Since I retired, I have developed a fondness for Chuck Taylor Converse All Star sneakers and have pairs that are aqua, orange, and blue, in addition to the hightop coral ones in the photos. Did you notice that I was using a monopod for additional stability for the macro shot that I was taking? I was also leaning my elbow onto my knee to steady my shot.

What was I shooting? I was photographing a tiny spider on the side of a snowflake flower that is barely visible in the foreground of the photos. I reprised the photo of the spider that I originally included in a posting entitled Spider on snowflake to give you a sense of the distance that I was from the subject. One of the real benefits of the 180mm macro lens is that it lets me get close-up shots without having to be be on top of the subject, as would be necessary with my 60mm macro lens or even my 100mm macro lens.

In case you are curious, I tend to wear more subdued footgear when I am out in the wild. Many of my subjects are probably colorblind, so they would not be mindful of my bright shoes—I am more worried about covering them with mud and dirt, which I seem unable to avoid when I am trekking about in nature.

mike powell

Mike Powell

spider and snowflake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last Monday I was really excited to spot several male Stream Cruiser dragonflies (Didymops transversa), one of the early spring dragonflies that heretofore had eluded me this season. Stream Cruisers are habitat specialist, according to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, and prefer “stable, small to medium, forest streams, with good flow and rocks. The best place to find them is hunting in sunlit meadows near their woodland waterways.”  That is am accurate description of the spot where I photographed these Stream Cruisers alongside a stream in Prince William County, Virginia.

I love the overall look of a Stream Cruiser, with its distinctive green eyes, its colorful markings, and its long, gangly legs. If you look closely at the first image, you can see that the dragonfly is holding onto both sides of the forked branch with its long legs. I marvel too at the way that the Stream Cruiser is hanging in the second and third images—the pose looks awkward and precarious, but somehow the acrobatic position worked for the dragonfly.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Every year I challenge myself by attempting to capture images of dragonflies in flight. Some dragonfly species help out by flying in somewhat predictable patterns or by hovering a bit, but it is still pretty tough to capture a tiny moving subject like a dragonfly.

This week I managed to photograph Common Baskettail dragonflies (Epitheca cynosura) in flight on two consecutive days at different locations using different lenses and techniques. Male Common Baskettails often patrol around the edges of small ponds in fairly limited areas. If you observe them long enough, you can get a general sense of the track that they are following.

For the first photo, I extended my Tamron 150-600mm lens to its maximum length and pre-focused on an open area that appeared to be part of the patrol route at a small pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. My camera was on a monopod and when the dragonfly entered the target area, I would attempt to track it and focus the lens manually. It sounds pretty straightforward, but the hand-to-eye coordination required makes this approach quite daunting. However, as you can see in the first photo, it is possible to get a decent shot. If you click on the image, you can see lots of cool details, including the way that the dragonfly has folded up its legs under its thorax.

The next day I was exploring a small pond in Prince William County when I spotted a patrolling dragonfly—it was another male Common Baskettail. I had my Tamron 180mm macro lens on my camera and was not using a monopod. I was able to track the dragonfly a bit more freely with this lighter lens, which proved to be beneficial when the dragonfly deviated from its flight path. Once again I focused manually and was thrilled with the results I got in the second and third images below. I particularly like the way that I was able to capture some of the pond environment in the second shot, while managing to get the dragonfly in sharp focus.

Why do I use manual focus? My Canon 50D is a long in the tooth and has a relatively primitive focusing system with only nine focus points, which means that my camera can’t focus fast enough or accurately enough to shoot a dragonfly in mid-air. More modern camera have much faster and more sophisticated focusing systems and theoretically can produce better results. I saw a video recently, for example, in which a photographer was able to use animal eye focus on a moving dragonfly. Yikes! You pay a real premium, though, for that advanced technology, with camera bodies costing up to $5,000 and lenses up to $12,000.

I am not all that impressed by fancy camera gear and would rather focus on mastering the more modest gear that I have and spending as much time as I can out in the wild. In my mind, that recipe sets me up best to take advantage of the opportunities that arise as I wander about in nature.

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I kept hearing loud singing coming from the top of the trees on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but had trouble locating the source of the singing. Leaves are now covering the trees, complicating my efforts to spot small songbirds. Eventually I managed to locate the birds and they turned out to be Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea).

Once again I was amazed by the deep blue coloration of the male Indigo Buntings—its intensity never fails to startle me. The bold color of the Indigo Buntings, sometimes nicknamed “blue canaries,” was matched by the cheerfulness of their songs. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Male Indigo Buntings whistle a bright, lively song of sharp, clear, high-pitched notes that lasts about 2 seconds. They are voluble, singing as many as 200 songs per hour at dawn and keeping up a pace of about one per minute for the rest of the day.” Check out this link to hear samples of some of the songs of Indigo Buntings.

I was amazed to discover about how Indigo Buntings learn to sing. According the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Indigo Buntings learn their songs as youngsters, from nearby males but not from their fathers. Buntings a few hundred yards apart generally sing different songs, while those in the same “song neighborhood” share nearly identical songs. A local song may persist up to 20 years, gradually changing as new singers add novel variations.” Wow!

I believe that Indigo Buntings will be with us all summer and I hope to get some shots at closer range. I have fond memories of the first time I photographed a male Indigo Bunting in August 2017 as he perched on the drooping head of a sunflower—check out the posting entitled Indigo Bunting and Monarch.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Monday I spotted my first Green Heron (Butorides virescens) of the season at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Unlike Great Blue Herons that remain with us all winter, Green Herons migrate to warmer places in the fall and return to our area in the spring and spend the summers with us.

When I first spotted the heron, it was perched in a tree, as shown in the final photo. I passed by the heron, stopped a short distance away, and waited. Eventually the heron grew comfortable with my presence (or chose to ignore me) and hopped down out of the tree. Recent heavy rains had caused a pond to overflow onto a road and I was happy to be able to get some shots as the heron poked about in the shallow waters at the edge of the road.

I crouched as low as I could and waited for the heron to move into one of the patches of light. The little moved slowly and deliberately, gradually Green moving into the dense undergrowth where I had trouble tracking it. It was a cool encounter with one of my favorite birds—in my experience Green Herons show a lot of personality than other herons.

Green Herons are also one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Green Herons “often create fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” I have not yet seen this kind of behavior, but try to be particularly alert whenever I spot a Green Heron. It would be easier for me to recognize the behavior if the Green Heron used something more distinctive, like a little fishing pole.

Green Heron

Green Heron

Green Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was absolutely delighted yesterday to spot several colorful Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) while I was exploring a pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There is something really special about dragonflies with patterns on their wings, and Calico Pennants have wonderfully intricate patterns on their wings, particularly on their hind wings.

Yesterday was our first sunny day in a week or so and the weekend had been unseasonably cold, so it felt especially good to be outdoors again. It is still early in the season for many dragonflies species, but I try to be diligent in searching areas where they might be present. Some days, like last Friday when I spotted the Lady’s Slipper orchids that I featured yesterday, I am not able to find any dragonflies at all, while other days my persistence pays off—that is the fate of a wildlife photographer.

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Orchids are rare and beautiful and it is amazing to find them growing in the wild. Last Thursday I went on a hike in a hilly forested area of Prince William County in Virginia. It was cool and overcast, less than idea circumstances for finding the dragonflies that I was seeking. After coming up empty-handed at my favorite dragonfly spots, I decided to switch to Plan B.

I vaguely remembered where in previous years I had seen some Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), a beautiful wild orchid that is native to North America, and decided to go off on a quest to find these treasures. I noticed that a lot of trees had fallen over the past year. Although workers at this national park had cleared the trails themselves, the limbs from the fallen trees obstructed my view in my target areas.

Orchids are pretty fragile and require specific habitats and I was worried that those habitats might have been damaged or destroyed. I walked very slowly, scanning the forest floor for hints of red or pink, wondering if I had come too early or too late. Eventually I found one small patch and then a second one a bit later (as shown in the final photo).

Pink Lady’s Slippers are sometimes called “moccasin flowers.” According to the New England Today website, “Native American folklore tells the story of a young maiden who ran barefoot in the snow in search of medicine to save her tribe, but was found collapsed on the way back from her mission with swollen, frozen feet. As a result, beautiful lady slipper flowers then grew where her feet had been as a reminder of her bravery.”

As I did a bit more research I learned more about this delightful flowers, including the specific requirements for them to grow that include a particular type of fungus. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “In order to survive and reproduce, pink lady’s slipper interacts with a fungus in the soil from the Rhizoctonia genus. Generally, orchid seeds do not have food supplies inside them like most other kinds of seeds. Pink lady’s slipper seeds require threads of the fungus to break open the seed and attach them to it. The fungus will pass on food and nutrients to the pink lady’s slipper seed. When the lady’s slipper plant is older and producing most of its own nutrients, the fungus will extract nutrients from the orchid roots. This mutually beneficial relationship between the orchid and the fungus is known as “symbiosis” and is typical of almost all orchid species.”

In a recent posting about Bleeding Hearts, I commented that I really liked heart-shaped flowers. At that time I was referring to the stylized shape that we associate with love. In the case of these Lady’s Slippers, I have always found that they look like actual human hearts, at least as I have seen them in movies that included open-heart surgery. Wow!

Depending on your angle of view, I also find that Pink Lady’s Slippers look like angels. I have tried to show you what I mean in the second photo, in which I have focused on a single flower. Do you see the hovering angel?

The final photo is one that I snapped with my iPhone. It gives you a sense of the habitat in which I found these beautiful little flowers. I feel blessed to have found them again this year and hope to see them again in future springs. According to the U.S. Forest Service article cited above, Pink’s Lady Slippers can live to be twenty years old or more.

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this Common Green Darner dragonfly (Anax junius) during a recent trip to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It was patrolling overhead within a fairly confined area and I was able to track it visually until it finally landed. The photo makes it look like the dragonfly was climbing its way out of a deep pit. In reality, however, it was hanging from some roots sticking out from a big pile of dirt.

I was a little surprised that I was able to capture as much detail as I did, given that I was shooting with my Tamron 150-600mm lens fully extended to 600mm. Supposedly the lens is soft at 600mm, but good stabilization techniques (including using a monopod) and a little tweaking with software produce images that are acceptably sharp to my eyes.

I love the multi-colored bodies of Common Green Darners, one of the largest dragonflies in our area with a body length of about 3 inches (76 mm). I think that this is a male. Mature males normally have bright blue abdomens, but they may turn purple when temperatures are low, which seemed to be the case when I took this photo. Females, by contrast, have abdomens that tend to be a mixture of tan and gray-green. For both genders, the thorax (the “chest” area) is bright green.

If you click on the image, you can get a better look at the dragonfly’s “bullseye” marking, the black and blue dot that is found on the “nose” of both male and female Common Green Darners. I am always thrilled when I manage to get a shot that captures the bullseye so well.

We are in the midst of a spell of cool, rainy weather so I have not seen any dragonflies in over a week. The weather is forecasted to warm up a bit, so I am hoping that I will have better success in the upcoming week.

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It is prime time for the bearded irises in the garden of my dear friend and fellow photographer Cindy Dyer. There are several dozen irises in bloom now in multiple colors, including these beauties, and it looks like even more flowers will be blooming soon.

Beauty is everywhere.

bearded irises

Bearded Iris

Bearded Iris

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It did not seem like there was much pollen inside of each little phlox flower, but bees were busily collecting it when I spotted several of them last Saturday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia. I love the way that some bees, including honeybees, collect pollen in little pouches on their back legs. When the pickings are really good, I have seen those pouches, which technically are called corbiculae, so full and bulging that they seem ready to burst—that was not the case this early in the spring, when not very many flowers were in bloom.

I was pleasantly surprised when I managed to capture a bee in flight in the second photo below as it surveyed the phlox flowers and planned its next assault. My 180mm macro lens is notoriously slow to acquire focus, so I rarely try to use it to try to capture moving subjects. The lens also is so noisy when focusing that one of my friends calls it “The Grinder.” Nonetheless, my trusty Tamron lens is my constant companion during the warm months and it is the one I use most often for my insects and other macro shots.

bee and phlox

Bee and Phlox

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Some of the coolest looking plants that I saw last Saturday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens were Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit flowers (Arisaema sikokianum). There is something so alien and exotic about this plant that it stopped me in my tracks when I first spotted it.

According to the Plant Delights Nursery, Inc. website, the dark pitcher and two five-lobed leaves of this plant emerge on a 12 inch tall (30 cm) fleshy stalk from an underground tuber in early spring. As the pitcher opens, it reveals a swollen, pure white, protruding spadix that provides a dramatic contrast to the purple of the pitcher.

The Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit is closely related to the Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), which, according to Wikipedia, is common to the eastern United States. I checked the range map and the Jack-in-the-Pulpit can be found in Virginia where I live, though I have not yet spotted one. When I looked at photos of the American species, it looks fairly similar to the Japanese variant, but the spadix, the part that is the “Jack” in the name, is darker in color and the pitcher more closely matches the leaves. Check out this blog posting by Steve Gingold to see a beautiful photo of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit growing wild in his area of New England.


Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am a bit of a romantic, so my eyes are immediately drawn to the heart-shaped blooms of Bleeding Heart flowers whenever they are present in a springtime garden. Most of the time they are reddish in color, as their name suggests, but they also come in other colors. I spotted these beautiful White Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spectabilis alba) last Saturday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens.

I was fortunate to be able to get close enough for the first photo to be able to focus on the delicate shape of a single flower. Somehow the little wings on the hearts make me think of angels or maybe the little cherubs that we associate with Valentine’s Day. The second image gives you an idea of the way that these flowers grow in rows, suspended from tiny filaments from a stalk, twisting and turning in the wind.

Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A speedy little Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) was perched on a paved path at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens last Saturday and I captured this first image as it was taking off. The shot is a little blurry, but I love the the really cool shadow that the swallow was casting onto the ground. The second image shows the same swallow just before it took off and give you a better view of the coloration and markings of a Barn Swallow.

When I first spotted the birds in the final photo, I thought they might also be Barn Swallows, but when I took a closer look and did a little research, I determined that the bird on the outside of the nest was a male Purple Martin (Progne subis) and the one with her head poking out was a female Purple Martin. As far as I can recall, this is the first time that I have photographed this bird species, which is the largest swallow in our area.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Purple Martin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I love the shape and colors of columbine flowers that appear in many of the gardens that I visit during the spring. According to Wikipedia, the genus name for these flowers Aquilegia is derived from the Latin word for eagle (aquila), because of the shape of the flower petals that are said to resemble an eagle’s claw. The common name “columbine” comes from the Latin for “dove”, due to the resemblance of the inverted flower to five doves clustered together.

I spotted several spectacular columbines during a visit to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia last Saturday. The purple columbine was in the middle of a flower bed and I could not get very close to it. I was really happy though that I had to shoot from a longer distance away than normally, because I able to capture some of the shadowy shapes of the ferns in the background.

I did manage to get quite a bit closer to the pretty pink columbine. I smiled when I saw a marker that indicated that this variety is called “Strawberry Ice Cream.” I now have an overwhelming urge to buy some strawberry ice, one of the many ice cream flavors that I love.

columbine

columbine

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Most warblers forage in the forest canopy and I have to strain my neck to search for them. Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum), however, mainly forage on open ground or in low vegetation.  When I saw a flash of yellow in some low bushes last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I therefore suspected that it might be a Palm Warbler.

I watched and waited and eventually the bird hopped up onto a branch and I managed to get a clear shot of it. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure that it was a Palm Warbler, but the color and markings looked about right and I could see the rust-colored cap on its head, another identification feature for a Pine Warbler. Some experts in a Facebook forum confirmed that “my” bird is indeed  a Palm Warbler.

The warblers are with us for only a limited period of time in the spring before they continue their migration northward, so I don’t know how many more times I will have a chance to photograph them. At this time of the year, though, colorful flowers are popping up and insects are reappearing, so I won’t suffer from a lack of subjects when the wablers depart.

Palm Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) are probably the most common dragonflies in my area. They are among the first species to appear in the spring and among the last to be seen in the autumn and can be found in a variety of habitats. I photographed my first Common Whitetails of the season last week at Accotink Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

When they are adults, it is easy to distinguish the male Common Whitetails from the females—the males have white-blue abdomens and the females have brown abdomens. Immature males, however, have the same coloration as the females. If you look at the first two photos below, you can see that the coloration and markings on the two dragonflies is quite similar, but the first one is an immature male and the second one is a female.

For Common Whitetails, the first thing I do is to look at the pattern of dark patches on the clear wings. Males have two patches per wing and females have three, including one that extends to the wingtip. This is really easy to see in the first two photos, because the dragonflies were perched above the ground.

Quite often, though, Common Whitetails will perch flat on the ground in the leaf litter, as in the third photo, and it is a little tougher to see the wing markings. As long as you can see a clear wingtip, however, you can tell that it is a male.

There are, of course, other ways to tell the gender of a Common Whitetail, if you can’t see the wings. If you look really closely at the tips of the abdomen (the “tail”), for example, you can see that they are shaped differently—the male’s terminal appendages are more tapered, while the female’s are more stubby in appearance.

I don’t consider myself an expert in dragonflies and my background is not in science, but I have learned about these colorful aerial acrobats over the last ten years of photographing them. Folks sometimes ask me how I can tell the gender of a dragonfly and I think it cool to be able to explain what is going on in my mind when I am trying to figure out what I have photographed. This is especially true when I have photos that show both the male and female of a species, as was the case with these Common Whitetail dragonflies.

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this colorful Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor) as it was singing high in a tree on Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the time I spot birds like this when they fly to a new perch, but this warbler stubbornly refused to move. I stared and stared at the tree, desperately trying to locate the source of the song that the bird was singing over and over again.

I finally located the warbler in the crook of a branch. I was looking upward at such an acute angle that I mostly got a view of the underside of the bird, but eventually I captured the first image in which the warbler was singing. Prairie Warblers have an unusual rising song that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology described in these words, “The Prairie Warbler sings a distinctive, rising and accelerating song with a buzzy quality, zee-zee-zee-zee-zee-zeeeee.” If you click on this link, you can listen to several sound samples of the songs of the Prairie Warbler.

I do not know how much longer the migratory warblers will be in my area, but I hope to have another chance to see some of these joyous little birds. I am still not confident in my identification skills for warblers, so there is a chance that I am wrong about this being a Prairie Warbler, but its beauty is undeniable.

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was delighted yesterday to spot this beautiful Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the first one that I have seen this season. At this time of the year I am always struck by the pristine look of the newly emerged butterflies—later in the season they will become tattered and faded.

In my area we have four different black swallowtails—the Black Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail, the Pipevine Swallowtail, and the dark morph female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the species, but in this case it was really easy. Male and female Black Swallowtails can be identified by the black dot inside the orange dot in the middle of the bottom of the hind wings, as you can see in this photo. Several years ago I came across a wonderful posting by the Louisiana Naturalist that has side-by-side comparisons of these four species and tips on how to tell them apart.

Last Friday, Jet Eliot, a wonderful writer and blogger who lives on the West Coast, wrote a fascinating blog posting entitled Swallowtail Butterflies that looked at some of the swallowtails in her area as well as others that she has encountered during her worldwide travels. The photos in the posting by Athena Alexander are astounding and Jet’s prose is informative and inspiring. I encourage you to check out the posting and leave you with this wonderful snippet from Jet—”I am often buoyed by these dancing kaleidoscopic creatures who start out so immobile and teensy and dark, and as each day turns to the next, they somehow know what to do. Soon they have mysteriously blossomed into delicate splendor.”

Have a wonderful weekend.

Black Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was tracking a Common Green Darner dragonfly (Anax junius) in my viewfinder yesterday at Occoquan Regional Park, when suddenly another dragonfly flew into the frame. The two dragonflies appeared to hook up in mid-air and I assumed that they were mating. When they landed in some nearby vegetation, however, I discovered that it was hunger and not lust that had brought them together. The Common Green Darner was having lunch with a Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), and it was the main course.

Dragonflies feed on other live insects and they aren’t picky eaters—they will eat any insect they can catch, including other dragonflies. Midges and mosquitoes make up the bulk of their diet, but dragonflies also prey on flies, bees, beetles, moths, butterflies, and other flying insects. The larger the dragonfly, the larger the prey insect it can consume.

As you can see from the photo, Common Green Darners are quite large, with an overall length of approximately three inches (76 mm), while Common Whitetails are considerably smaller, with an overall length of approximately 1.7 inches (43 mm).

Common Green Darners are really powerful fliers too and are one of only a handful of dragonfly species that migrate. The adult Common Green Darners that I see this early in the season are likely to be migrants from locations further south. Kevin Munroe described their migration really well on the wonderful Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website:

“They emerge in the Southeast and fly north, arriving here late March thru May. After their long flight, they mate, lay eggs and die. Their young emerge in July and August. Congregating in large swarms, this second generation begins flying south in September. They lay eggs that fall, after arriving in their southern destinations, and die. When their young hatch in March, they fly back to N. VA and it starts again – a two generation migration.”

The Common Whitetail in the photo probably emerged only recently and may have been particularly vulnerable. Some may find this photo to be a little disturbing or a bit too graphic, but I think it shows the “circle of life” in nature. Yesterday the Common Green Darner was the predator, but tomorrow it could become the prey of a bird or some other creature higher up on the food chain—all creatures have to eat.

 

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is now the season for irises. All kinds of irises are starting to pop open in the garden of my dear friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer. We are neighbors in a townhouse community in Northern Virginia, which means there is relatively little space for gardening, but Cindy manages to pack an amazing amount of flower power into her limited area. Fortunately, she and her husband, who is also a Michael, live in an end-unit, so they have a bit more space than the interior units.

Cindy likes to select flowers to grow that she knows will be photogenic and love to pore over the flower catalogues on line. Our challenge is to figure out how to capture the  beauty of these carefully selected flowers in the crowed garden. One of Cindy’s techniques is to use a small artificial background to help to isolate the flower. Often she uses a white foam core board to which she has attached a piece of black velvet-like material. She can then create studio-like images with a black or white background, depending on the flower.

This technique requires two people, because it is almost impossible to hold the background in place and frame a shot at the same time. I took these iris photos yesterday while Cindy held the background in place for me and then we reversed positions. In some of the images it looks like I was using some kind of studio lighting, but it was all natural night on a somewhat cloudy day that diffused the light nicely.

You don’t really need any special equipment to create this effect—you could use almost anything for a background. The day before, our improvised background was a collapsible black storage cube from IKEA that Cindy had just given me. The final photo, taken by Cindy with her iPhone, shows me holding that black cube and gives you a sense of the garden environment and how the technique is used.

bearded iris

bearded iris

bearded iris

iris

background

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When the dragonfly season first starts, I am content to get a record shot of each species, which is to say that I am looking primarily to document the species and am not all that concerned about the quality of the initial images or their artistic merits. After the first excitement dies down, I try to get better and better images and one of the things that I often try to do is to photograph males and females of each species.

How do you tell the gender of a dragonfly? In some dragonfly species, the mature males and females have different colors and are easy to tell apart. However, quite often immature males have the same coloration as the females, so color alone is rarely a reliable marker. I have found that the best way to determine the gender is to look at the tips of the abdomen (the “tail”)—I won’t go into the details of dragonfly anatomy, but suffice it to say that the males and females have different shapes in this area so they can fit together for mating.

Over the last two weeks I have had several encounters with Uhler’s Sundragon dragonflies (Helocordulia uhleri) and was able to get shots of both a male and a female. The dragonfly in the first image is a female. I can tell its gender by the shape of the “terminal appendages” and also by the curved shape of the hind wings where they join the body.

If you look closely at the second image, which is a shot of a male, you can see that the lower portion of the abdomen is slightly enlarged—the abdomen is more uniformly shaped with a female—and the shape of the tip of the abdomen is different. You might also notice that the shape of the hind wings is “indented” where they meet the body, unlike the smooth curves of the female.

With some species, you can find the males and the females in the same area, so it is not hard to get shots of both genders. However, with other species, the females hang out in separate areas and do not mingle with the males until the females decide it is time for mating, which forces me to search a much wider area to photograph males and females.

I apologize if I got a little “geeky” in this posting. I am a little obsessed with dragonflies and am endlessly fascinated by them, so it is easy for me to get a little lost in the details.

female Uhler's Sundragon

male Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Quite often the simplest of subjects can be incredibly beautiful, like these little white butterflies that I photographed last week. Many folks might dismiss these nondescript creatures as moths or simply ignore them. It really is worthwhile to slow down and look at them closely.

The butterfly in the first photo is a Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) that was feeding on a patch of what I believe is purple dead nettle. Although it looks like a macro shot, I captured the image at the 600mm end of my telephoto zoom lens.

I took the next two pictures with an actual macro lens, my trusty Tamron 180mm lens. The tiny Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) has a wingspan of about an inch (25 mm) and I was thrilled to capture so much detail of its beauty, including the little “tails.”

Beauty is everywhere.

Cabbage White

Eastern Tailed-blue

Eastern Tailed-blue

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was wandering about on Friday in Prince William County, a dragonfly zoomed by me and perched on some nearby vegetation. At the time I took the shots, I had no idea what it was because of the poor lighting. I was able to capture a few images and when I opened them on my computer I was delighted to discover that I had photographed a beautiful female Stream Cruiser dragonfly (Didymops transversa).

This was the first live Stream Cruiser dragonfly that I have photographed this spring. A week earlier I stumbled upon a Stream Cruiser that had had some unspecified problem in emerging and was dead, as shown in the second photo. Dragonflies are extremely vulnerable when they are emerging and unfavorable weather conditions and predators  almost certainly lower their survival rate. Given the magnitude of their remarkable metamorphosis, it seems remarkable to me that any of them can survive.

My experience with the Stream Cruiser in the first photo reminds me of the importance of being constantly vigilant. I was walking down a hill, headed towards a stream, when I glanced to the side and saw the flying dragonfly. I made a quick 180 degree turn and tracked the dragonfly as it landed. I took two steps forward and and had time to snap off only a few photos and that was it.

Fortunately I had my camera settings were somewhat appropriate and I was able to react quickly. As is often the case with wildlife photography, those two factors were key to capturing a shot. If the circumstances had been different, I might have been able to get a better image, but I am pretty happy with the image I captured. Needless to say, success is not guaranteed—I have plenty of stories from that day of the ones that got away.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I could hear a bird singing in a tree on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but I had trouble finding it. Eventually I spotted some movement and was able to track the bird, but it remained mostly hidden. I saw some flashes of yellow and assumed that it was some sort of warbler. I finally managed to get decent shot of it and was anxious to check out my birding guide to see what it was.

When I looked through the warbler section of the book, none of the images seemed to match “my bird.” What else could it be? Suddenly I remembered that a couple of other local photographers had mentioned seeing vireo at this refuge. Could this be a vireo?

The overall coloration and the stunning eye convinced me that this is almost certainly a White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus), a new species for me. This is definitely one of the coolest looking birds that I have seen in a long time. I love the wash of pale yellow on its breast and the darker yellow around its bill. If you click on the image and look carefully at the bill, you will see that it is slightly hooked, which is not the case with warblers.

I went to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website to learn a bit more about the behavior of this species—”White-eyed Vireos hop among branches and make short flights between shrubs, making sure to stay well hidden in the process. Males sing from the edges of understory vegetation all day long, even during the heat of the day.” I still have trouble geolocating a bird on the basis of sound, but can use all the help I can get.

I am currently alternating between looking for birds and looking for dragonflies. At this time of the year, they are found in vastly different habitats, so I have to make a decision when I set out in my car. I am absolutely thrilled that I have already had some success with both birds and dragonflies this spring and look forward to new discoveries.

White-eyed Vireo

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I featured a warbler that was so brightly colored that it was impossible to miss. Today’s warbler is the complete opposite—it was so nondescript and so well hidden that it was almost impossible to see and initially I could not even identify it from my photos.

My eyes detected some motion high in a pine tree on Wednesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I stopped. I had set my long lens on a monopod, so my arms did not get tired as I strained to make out the bird that was moving about among the pine needles and the pine cones, though my neck quickly became sore. It looked like the bird was feeding on little seeds, so it would stop momentarily from time to time, giving me a change to find it in my viewfinder and acquire focus.

None of my shots was spectacular, but I was able to capture enough details of the bird’s body that some experts in a Facebook birding group identified it as a Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus). Not only were they able to identify the species of the bird, they determined that it was a first year female on the basis of its markings and coloration. I am always amazed when confronted with that level of expertise.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I set aside my macro lens and put my telephoto zoom lens back on my camera.  Over the past week, I have seen some amazing photos by local photographers of a variety of colorful warblers that migrate through our area in the spring and the fall and I felt compelled to try to photograph them. I must confess, though, that I have never had much success photographing warblers. I can often hear these little birds, but have trouble locating them in the tops of the trees—they seem to be teasing me as they flit about and sing their songs.

I walked around a lot and eventually had several encounters with Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Some warblers have markings and colors that allow them to be camouflaged in the foliage, but the plumage of a Prothonotary Warbler is such a bright yellow that it is impossible for one to hide.

These warblers never seem to sit still for very long and they move quickly from branch to branch. I was happy that I was able to track them reasonably well, considering that I had my zoom lens extended to its maximum length. It takes some practice to be able to see something with your eye and then be able to point the lens in the proper direction.

I exceeded my expectations in getting these shots and also managed to photograph several other bird species that I will probably be featuring in future postings. Today I will probably switch back to my macro lens and focus again on insects. The transitional seasons definitely keep me busy as I try to keep an eye on close-in subjects and those that are farther away.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Ashy Clubtail dragonflies (Phanogomphus lividus) like to perch on the ground, which makes them really difficult to spot. Fortunately I saw these two dragonflies land last Friday during separate encounters in Prince William County and was able to get close enough and low enough to photograph them. If I had not seen them move, I probably would not have been able to detect them.

Both dragonflies had really shiny wings, an indication that they had emerged fairly recently. Initially the wings are fragile when a dragonfly emerges and they are folded above its head. The dragonfly gradually pumps fluid through the veins of the wings and they progressively harden and pop open into the normal outstretched resting position. Sometimes, as you can see in the final photo, a dragonfly will temporarily hold its wings closed over its head in their former position.

Dragonfly metamorphosis is a fascinating phenomenon, a remarkable transformation of a water-dwelling larva into an incredible aerial acrobat. Several years ago I managed to witness the entire process with a Common Sanddragon dragonfly and documented the thirty-minute process in a blog posting entitled Metamorphosis of a dragonfly. Be sure to check out that posting to see photos of the different stages of the amazing transformation.

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Recently I did a posting that featured Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus)—see Swallowtails in the forest.  None of those butterflies seemed to be involved in searching for nectar and seemed content to take in minerals and water.

Last Friday I returned to that same location in Prince William County, Virginia and discovered that the butterflies were taking advantage of the few small flowers that were blooming. In the first photo, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was nectaring on the small bluets (Houstonia caerulea) that are sometimes referred to as Quaker Ladies. The butterfly was so low to the ground that it looked like it was dragging its “tails.”

The butterfly in the second image is a dark morph Eastern Tiger Swallowtail female. Females of this species are dimorphic—there is a yellow variant that looks like the one in the first photo and a dark variant that looks like the one in the second image. The dark morph female was almost flat on the ground as she gathered nectar from a very short dandelion.

As more flowers begin to bloom, I am sure these butterflies will have a better selection of sources of nourishment, but the early arrivers have to make do with a really limited menu of choices.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Have you ever taken a close-up look at a dragonfly’s amazing compound eyes? Dragonflies have the largest compound eyes of any insect; each containing up to 30,000 facets, and the eyes cover most of the insect’s head, resembling a motorcycle helmet. According to a wonderful article by GrrlScientist, “each facet within the compound eye points in a slightly different direction and perceives light emanating from only one particular direction in space, creating a mosaic of partially overlapping images.”

How exactly does that work? Scientists are still not sure how this visual mosaic is integrated in the dragonfly’s brain. If you can get close enough for a shot, you can actually see the individual facets, technically known as ommatidia. The first image below is a cropped image of an unusually cooperative Uhler’s Sundragon (Helocordulia uhleri) that I encountered last Friday while exploring a stream in Prince William County. If you click on the image, you can see the pattern of facets in the eyes.

The second image is an uncropped version of the first photo. I like the way that I as able to capture so many details of the dragonfly as it perched, like the spiky hairs on its legs and the stubble on its face as well as the pollen on its body.

The dragonfly in the third shot is another Uhler’s Sundragon that I spotted later in the day. From this angle, you can see the dragonfly’s tiny feet as it grasps the dried stalk of vegetation.

I love close-up images and will often try to capture them after I have taken some initial shots. When I am at close range, the angle of view is particularly important, because the depth of field is so shallow—some legs of the dragonfly, for example, will inevitably be out of focus, so I have to choose carefully what I want to be in focus.

Hand-holding and breathing techniques are also really important, because any movement will cause the fine details to be blurred. This is a bit of a challenge with the 180mm macro lens that I use because it does not have any built-in image stabilization.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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