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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Normally when I see American Coots (Fulica americana) I see only a few of them at a time, but last Friday I spotted a whole raft of them in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. They seemed to be of mixed ages, not just old coots like me.

I zoomed out with my 150-600mm lens to capture the whole raft and then zoomed in to capture some details. I recommend that you double-click on the images, especially the second one, to see wonderful details, like all of the red eyes. There seem to be a number of different colored beaks in the group, suggesting the possibility that there are some other species mixed in, though it appears to be mostly coots.

American Coots

American Coots

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this bird from a distance on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when it was perched and when it took to the air. The tail struck me as being exceptionally long and the wings seemed relatively short in length, so I decided it was probably not a Red-shouldered Hawk or a Red-tailed Hawk, the two most common hawks where I live. Was it a falcon or one of the smaller hawks?

As I usually do in situations like this, I asked for help in a Facebook group devoted to birding in Virginia. Some experts there identified this as a mature Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology described the species with these words, “Among the bird world’s most skillful fliers, Cooper’s Hawks are common woodland hawks that tear through cluttered tree canopies in high speed pursuit of other birds…Finding a Cooper’s Hawk is typically a matter of keeping your eyes peeled – they’re common but stealthy, and smaller than other common hawks like the red-tailed, so your eye might skip over them in flight.”

Cooper’s Hawks are about the size of crows, although males are significantly smaller than their mates. Mating can therefore be a tricky proposition for a male Cooper’s Hawk, given that females Cooper’s Hawks specialize in eating smaller birds.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When I first started photographing birds, all sparrow looked the same to me—they were all nondescript little brown birds. Over time I have come to appreciate the subtle variations in color and markings that help to differentiate the species, although identification is still a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition for me.

I spotted this handsome sparrow on Monday as I was exploring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I believe that it is a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), one of the relatively common sparrow species where I live. I really like the sparrow’s perch and the fact that it includes some of the dried leaves that will soon be falling from the branch. The white skies in the background give this image an almost wintry feel, though it is way too early for me to be even thinking of snow.

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is hard to appreciate the length of the wings of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) when it is standing in the water. When it takes off, however, the heron extends its wings fully and the sight is amazing, especially when the heron is flying away from you. This Great Blue Heron that I spotted on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge initially was standing on a small sandbar, but took to the air when it detected my presence. It started out heading away from me and gradually turned to my right as it gained altitude.

In case you are curious, the wingspan of a Great Blue Heron is 65.8-79.1 inches (167-201 cm), according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. Wow!

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

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With Halloween on the horizon, I thought I would share an image today of a Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) that I spotted on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The bird’s wide-open pale eyes give it an eerie look that fits in well with other Halloween icons like black cats, witches, and skeletons.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, “Rusty Blackbird is one of North America’s most rapidly declining species. The population has plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.” Needless to say, I was thrilled to see this Rusty Blackbird that appeared to part of a small flock high in the trees.

Rusty Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I spotted Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) multiple times.  However, there is a huge difference between getting a glimpse and getting a shot of one of these hyperactive little birds, particularly when many of the trees still have their leaves.

I captured the first image when one of the warblers was feasting on clusters of poison ivy berries. I definitely was not complaining when he did not offer to share his “treats.” I was surprised to learn several years ago that these berries are a primary food source for a number of small birds during the winter months.

In the second image, I believe the warbler was getting ready to move to a new perch or may have just arrived at this one. In either case, I think it looks pretty cool to see the one wing partially extended.

The composition of the final photo is the simplest—it is just a shot of the perched warbler. However, I really like the way that some of the foliage shows through in the blurry background. You may have noted that the backgrounds are light-colored. On the day when I took these shots, the skies were completely overcast and appeared to be a solid white.

 

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

Familiar Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some birds are with us for only a season or two before they migrate to new locations. Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), however, stay in our area throughout the year and I can generally find one if I look hard enough. When I spotted this one recently at Huntley Meadows Park, it was perched on a single leg on a wood pile near the edge of the forest.

The heron was in the process of preening and if you look closely, you can see what I think are tiny feathers in its long bill. I noticed that the heron’s eyeswere only half-open, almost like the heron was still half-asleep as it prepared for the new day.

Great Blue Heron

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I thought that all of the migrating warblers had already finished passing through our area, so I was delighted when I spotted this beautiful little Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) this past Monday at Huntley Meadows Park. We had several days of warmer than average temperatures, so I had switched back to my macro lens from my longer telephoto lens, thinking there was a chance I might get some close-ups of late season dragonflies. As it turned out, I did not see many dragonflies, but did see a small group of birds including this one.

Close-up shots of the warbler were out of the question, but I was determined get some shots nonetheless as the little warbler bounced all around in the vegetation. Although I had to crop these three shots quite a bit, I was pretty happy with them, because collectively they provide a nice view of the yellow coloration on various parts of this warbler’s body. The colors of the warblers in the autumn are beautiful, I believe, even though they tend to be significantly more subdued than the bird’s brighter colors in the spring.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The end of the season has come for most species of dragonflies, with only a few hardy survivors still flying. However, I am delighted that to note that I am still seeing plenty of Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) and expect to continue see them for at least a number of months. For me, the appearance of these bright red dragonflies is one of the signs of the change of the seasons.

I love trying to capture images of Autumn Meadowhawks perching on colorful fall foliage, but they are rarely as cooperative as the dragonfly featured in the first two photos. I’ll be trying to capture similar shots as the season progresses. The final photo provides a somewhat more isolated view of the stunning brown eyes of this male Autumn Meadowhawk and the beautiful red tones of its body.

The dragonfly season may be winding down, but from my perspective it is far from being over.

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Whenever I see a Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea), the frog appears to be sleeping. Why is that the case? Many frogs spend their time in the water and have an easy way to regulate their body temperatures. Tree Frogs probably need to avoid direct sunlight and I suspect they are more active earlier and later during the day.

I photographed these beautiful tree frogs on consecutive days last week during trips to different parts of Huntley Meadows Park. I love the simplified V-shaped tree crotch that makes a photogenic perch for the frog in the first photo. I am sure that I am imagining things, but the frog appears to be pensive or possibly daydreaming.

The previous day I was on the boardwalk with my friend Walter Sanford on the boardwalk when a passing woman with two young children, Dante and Aria, asked us if we wanted to see a tree frog. It had been a slow day for us photographically, so of course we said yes. The kids were really excited to talk with us and to show us their find.

Walter asked them to come up with a name for the frog and Aria chose the name “Sleepy.” Unlike the frog in the first photo that seemed semi-alert, the second frog seemed to be sound asleep, so the name certainly fit. Check out Walter’s posting on the encounter in his recent blog posting called “Sleepy” for more info and another photo of the sleeping tree frog.

 

Green Tree Frog

Green Tree Frog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Looking up into the trees at Huntley Meadows Park during a recent trip and lamenting the lack of brilliant fall foliage, I glanced down into the dark waters of the duckweed-spattered marsh and saw these wonderful abstract patterns of colorful shapes and textures. I love the fall.

floating fall foliage

floating fall foliage

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was absolutely delighted to spot this Handsome Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum pulchellum) last week when I visited Huntley Meadows Park with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. Some of you may recall that this colorful katydid is my favorite insect. The katydid, which appears to be a female, was sunning herself on the raised edge of the boardwalk that runs through the marshland at this park. I love the way she is sprawled out with her body fully extended, forcing me to take a panorama-style shot to capture her portrait.

If you look carefully, you may note that “wood” of the boardwalk is actually an artificial composite material. For me this is a real benefit, because I don’t get splinters when I lie down on the boardwalk, as I am wont to do to get certain shots. However, I have learned from past experience that this surface gets really slick when there is frost or ice.

Handsome Meadow Katydid

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We do not have many lizards where I live, so it is always fun to spot one. The lizard that I see most often is the appropriately named Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus). The adults are cool-looking, but they are no match in appearance for the juveniles that sport a brilliantly blue tail.

I spotted this handsome little skink last week while exploring Huntley Meadows Park. The skink was spread out wide on the trunk of a tree in an apparent attempt to warm up in the sunlight. I snapped off a few quick shots with my long telephoto zoom lens before I stealthily moved forward to improve my shooting position. However, as is usually the case, the skink was skittish and disappeared from sight as soon as it detected my presence.

Common Five-lined Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was very excited last Thursday when a passing photographer pointed out this little tree frog to me last Thursday as I was walking along a trail at Huntley Meadows Park. I think that it is a Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor), through there is a chance that it could be a Cope’s Gray Tree Frog (Hyla chrysoscelis). According to the Virginia Herpetologcal Society, “Our two native gray treefrogs are identical in appearance. In the field the only two ways to distinguish H. chrysoscelis from H. versicolor is by their call and in some cases geographic location.”

The green and gray pattern on its body looks unusual to me and makes it look like the frog has lichen on its back. The Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute website notes that, “The gray tree frog’s scientific name is Hyla versicolor, which comes from the Latin for “variable color.” It is named for its ability to alter its skin color based on the time of day and surrounding temperature. The skin becomes much lighter at night and darker during the day.”

I was starting to feel a little cold as I was observing the tree frog and wondered what would happen to it in the winter. I was shocked to discover that Gray Tree Frogs hibernate during the cold weather. The Smithsonian website mentioned above states that, “The gray tree frog hibernates in the winter by taking refuge in trees. It survives freezing temperatures by producing glycerol to “freeze” itself while maintaining interior metabolic processes at a very slow rate.” Wow!

 

Gray Tree Frog

Gray Tree Frog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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My idea of a perfect bird shot during this autumn season would be to capture a pretty bird perfectly posed against a background of colorful foliage. Alas, things don’t often work out that well in the real world, so I have to make the best of what I am able to find.

In this case, it was a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) that I spotted during a recent visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The feathers of this catbird are muted in color, as are the colors of the dying leaves that surround it. Nonetheless, I like this rather pleasing portrait of a bird that has a vocal repertoire equal to that of a mockingbird.

Gray Catbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Flowers are slowing giving up their colors and fewer insects are flying as we move deeper into fall. It lifts my spirits to see the survivors, like this Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae) that I spotted during a trip to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge at the end of September. The Cabbage White may appear to be completely monochromatic, but if you double-click on the image, you can get a look at its beautiful speckled green eyes.

Cabbage White

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

Marbled Orbweaver

 

 

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On Wednesday I travelled to Huntley Meadows Park with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford in search of some late-season species. A vernal pool in the woods, where we had seen them in the past, unfortunately has largely filled in with dense vegetation over the course of the last few years. The changed habitat appears to have caused out target species to disappear and we left that area empty-handed.

Fortunately, though, there are other areas in the park to explore, including a boardwalk that runs through a wetland areal, and we did manage to get some shots of other subjects. The day was starting to come to a close and we started down a gravel-covered trail heading for the parking lot. As I was scanning the vegetation on the side of the trail I suddenly caught sight of a spreadwing damselfly perching in a patch of greenbrier vines.

I was not sure what species it was, but Walter initially identified it as a female Southern Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes australis), but a closer examination of the photos of the dragonfly by an even more experienced dragonfly revealed that it is a female Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis). The damselfly was reasonably cooperative and perched in a couple of different places on the vines before it flew away.

Walter and I shoot with very different gear configurations and we often like to do complementary blog postings to show how two photographers shooting the same subject can produce somewhat different results. I was shooting with my Canon 50D and Tamron 150-600mm zoom lens, which has a minimum focusing distance of 8.9 feet (2.7 meters), so I had to be pretty far from the damselfly to get a shot and focused manually. I was also using a monopod for stability. Walter was shooting with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ300 superzoom camera and a full-sized flash and was able to get a bit closer to our subject and composed his shots from different angles.

Be sure to check out Walter’s blog posting today entitled “Slender Spreadwing damselfly (female)” to read his narrative and see his excellent photos of this beautiful female Slender Spreadwing damselfly.

 

Southern Spreadwing

Southern Spreadwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Red Admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) are quite common in my area, but for some unknown reason I have not seen very many of them this year. I was therefore quite happy to spot this one during a recent visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In this image, the red leaf in the bottom of the frame helps to remind us that we are well into autumn and more and more of the foliage is changing colors or dropping to the ground—after a recent heavy rainstorm, the grown was covered with fallen leaves.

Red Admiral

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although I really like the bright red color of the male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), there is something even more special about the subtle beauty of a female cardinal, like this one that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The muted colors of this bird seem particularly appropriate for autumn in this area. The changing foliage here rarely has the brilliant yellows and reds found in other parts of the country, but transitions to paler shades before the leaves all fall to the ground.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As many of you know, I am always excited to see a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). This season started slowly and after a few months I feared that I would not see any of them at all. However, late in the season I began to spot them at multiple locations. Often they were by themselves and only occasionally did I see two of them in the same location.

Imagine my joy when I managed to capture three of them in a single shot on the first of October at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, long after I expected them to have migrated out of our area. The butterflies were feverishly feeding on some thistles that were flowering, probably packing in energy for the long migratory journey south.

I suspect that this will be my last sighting of this colorful butterfly species this year. I bid these three monarchs farewell and wish them a safe onward journey.

Monarch butterflies

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was excited to spot several female Slender Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes rectangularis) during a visit to Huntley Meadows Park this past Thursday. As damselflies go, Slender Spreadwings are quite large, up to 2 inches (51 mm) in length, and are very striking in appearance. Normally spreadwings, as their name indicates, perch with their wings outstretched, though the one in the first photo has its wings mostly closed above its body like a “normal” damselfly—its paler coloration suggests to me that it may have emerged relatively recently.

The middle photo shows well the typical perching style of a spreadwing, with its body held at an angle and several legs grasping a thin stem. The final photo shows a female Slender Spreadwing depositing eggs in the leafy stem of a plant.

I have noted several times my dismay at the winding down of the dragonfly/damselfly season, so it is particularly gratifying for me to spot species like this one that I rarely see.

Slender Spreadwing

Slender Spreadwing

Slender Spreadwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The beautiful colors on this dragonfly that I spotted yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park are so amazing that it it hard for me to call it “common,” even though I know that it is a Common Green Darner dragonfly (Anax junius). I initially spotted this dragonfly when it was patrolling over a field and was thrilled when I saw it land nearby.

Although my telephoto lens zooms out to 600mm, I needed to extend it to only 450mm, because Common Green Darners are so large, about 3 inches (75 mm) in length. As a result, the images were sharper and I was able to capture a lot of detail. I encourage you to double-click on the images to see those details, like the bullseye pattern on the top of the “nose” and the spectacular rainbow colors of this dragonfly.

Common Green Darners are a migratory species that flies in swarms so big that they can be picked up on weather radar. This dragonfly seemed to be alone, so it could be a migratory straggler or simply a part of the local population.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

 

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have always admired Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), the smallest woodpeckers in our area, because they are so energetic, hard-working, and focused. They are fun to watch as they move all around in a tree, poking and probing as they search for a tasty treat. I spotted this Downy Woodpecker, which looks to be a female because it does not have a patch of red on the back of its head, last week as I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

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How sticky are the toe pads of a tree frog? This Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea) had no problems clinging to the painted surface of a sign when I spotted it last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Was it technically in violation of the access policy?

Green Tree Frog

Green Tree Frog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first saw this bird bouncing around on the ground on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I thought that it might be a sparrow. Then I caught a flash of yellow as the bird wagged its tail and I realized that it was a Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum).

Most warblers forage high in the trees, where they are difficult to see. The Palm Warbler, however, forages mainly on open ground or in low vegetation, making it marginally easy to spot and to identify.

Palm Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was fortunate when the Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) that I was tracking finally landed on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I was able to capture this image. Black Saddlebags spend most of their time gliding and circling overhead and it is rare for me to see one perching. This species is one of only a handful of dragonfly species in North America that migrate and this dragonfly may have been merely visiting the refuge on a southward journey.

As I noted in my posting yesterday, I have now switched to my 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens as my walkaround lens and I captured this image with that lens. The lens was fully extended to 600mm for this shot and I was using a monopod for some additional stability. It is a little unusual for me to try to photograph such a small subject with my long lens, but this shot shows that it is possible to get a reasonably sharp image if I pay a lot of attention to my technique.

 

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday marked the change of seasons for me—I switched the walkaround lens on my camera from my 180mm macro, which has been my almost constant companion throughout the spring and summer, to my much longer 150-600mm telephoto zoom lens. The change signifies my reluctant acceptance of the reality that the insect season is slowly drawing to a close and that increasingly I will be focusing on birds.

Warblers are still passing through our area as they head south, so I decided yesterday to try to find some at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a location where I know that other photographers have spotted a variety of warblers. Although early morning is usually the best time for birding, I went at midday to avoid any potential crowds.

Most of the leaves are still on the trees, so it is a challenge to spot little birds and even tougher to photograph them. I was thrilled when I caught a glimpse of yellow after a long fruitless search and managed to get this mostly unobstructed view of a handsome warbler. I had no idea what species it was, but some experts on a Facebook birding forum informed me that it was a Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina), a species that I had never before encountered.

Cape May Warblers breed in the spruce-fir forests in the North and winter in the Caribbean, in lush habitats with plenty of insects and flowers—I think I might enjoy that lifestyle. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, the tongue of the Cape May Warbler is unique among warblers—it is curled and semi-tubular and is used to collect nectar, almost like a hummingbird does.

Cape May Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am always excited to see brightly-colored Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum ambiguum) at this time of the year when the overall number of dragonflies is dropping. This couple that I spotted last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge was doing its best to ensure that I see this species for years to come. The acrobatic pose in the photo, sometimes referred to as the “wheel position,” is used by dragonflies and damselflies when mating, with the male clasping the female by the back of her head.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How long do butterflies live? According to most sources, Mourning Cloak butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa), which can live for 10-11 months, are thought to be the longest living butterflies in their range. I am always thrilled to see these darkly colored butterflies, which are known as “Camberwell beauties” in Great Britain, in the early spring and in the autumn.

Where are they the rest of the time? Mourning Cloaks spend part of the summer in aestivation, a hibernation-like state of inactivity to avoid the heat and lack of water. They are active in the fall, eating voraciously to fatten up and then overwinter as adults in another state of dormancy, often on the underside of fallen trees. In the spring, they reawaken to eat, mate, and die. In the north, there is often only a single brood annually, but in the south there may be two or more.

I spotted this butterfly on the first of October at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It looked to me like the butterfly was getting nutrients from the soil or possibly from animal droppings—unlike some butterflies, Mourning Cloaks do not rely on nectar from flowers as a primary source of nutrition.

Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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