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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

In an ideal world, I would be able to photograph a dragonfly up close and from multiple angles. My close-up shots of a Gray Petaltail dragonfly in yesterday’s posting were the result of almost perfect circumstances. Real life, alas, is rarely that perfect. My entire life, it seems, I have heard the words of the Rolling Stones, reminding me that “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”

Last week I spent almost an entire day with fellow dragonfly enthusiast and blogger Walter Sanford searching for dragonflies in a variety of habitats. It was a long, grueling effort, conducted often in the hot direct sunlight and sometime involving wading through waist-high vegetation. Walter and I have worked together often enough over the years that we have developed some routines. Most of the time we try to stay in sight of each other, so if one of us spooks a dragonfly, the other has a chance of being able to track it to its next perch.

Towards the end of day, we had wandered a little farther apart than usual when I heard Walter tell me emphatically to stop—he had spotted a dragonfly. I was in an awkward position when I stopped and I could barely see the dragonfly through the lens of the camera. It was hanging vertically from a thin stalk of vegetation that was swaying vigorously back and forth in a breeze that had suddenly kicked up. My heart started to beat a bit faster when Walter told me that it looked to be a male Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster obliqua), an uncommon species that I have seen only a few times.

So there I was, frozen in place far from my subject, trying desperately to focus manually on my moving subject that I knew might take off at any moment. I tried to pay attention to the background as I composed my shots, bending my body and flexing my knees to get some minor variations in my angle of view. What you see below are three of those variations. I like the way that they captured the Arrowhead Spiketail in the environment in which we found it—I may not have gotten what I wanted, but perhaps I got what I needed, i.e. I got some decent shots of my subject.

Walter observed this dragonfly from an entirely different angle of view and, as always, approaches things from a different perspective. I encourage you to check out his blog posting today “Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly (male)” to see his photos and to read about his reactions to seeing this uncommon dragonfly in an environment that was not “according to the book.”

Arrowhead Spiketail

Arrowhead Spiketail

Arrowhead Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) are one of the friendliest and tamest dragonfly species that I have encountered. If you hang around with them often enough, they are almost certain to land on you, particularly if you are wearing gray clothing that somehow reminds them of a tree. It is a little hard not to flinch when one of these relatively large dragonflies (3 inches (75 mm) in length) perches on your head or shoulder.

Gray Petaltails will also let you get pretty close to them when they are perched on trees. Quite frequently, though, they are perched above eye level, so being that close does not allow you to capture close-up images. This past Saturday when I was hunting for dragonflies with my friend Walter Sanford, we spotted a Gray Petaltail perched on a fallen branch that was at knee level. After we had both taken some shots, Walter challenged me to see how close I could get to the dragonfly to capture images with my macro lens.

The first shot shows one of my attempts to get a head-on shot. It is very cool to look another creature straight in the eyes, but it is rare that one will permit you to do so, especially at such close range. It seemed clear to me that the dragonfly was quite aware of my presence, but did not consider me to be a threat.

I took the second shot from the side as I moved even closer to my subject. I was trying my best to capture some of the details of the dragonfly’s eye that was nearest to me and was not concerned that most of the rest of its head was out of focus. If you double-click on the image, you can see some of the ommatidia, the individual optical units that make up a dragonfly’s amazing multi-faceted compound eyes.

If you want to learn more about dragonfly eyes, check out a wonderful article at medium.com entitled  “30,000 Facets Give Dragonflies A Different Perspective: The Big Compound Eye In The Sky“. Scientists, for example, know that the thousands of ommatidia produce a mosaic of “pictures,” but how exactly this visual mosaic is integrated in the insect brain is still not known.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I posted a photo of a male Common Whitetail dragonfly that was hovering in the air to fight off rivals and protect the female with which he had mated as she deposited her eggs in the water, a practice know as hover guarding. In some dragonfly species, the male will remain attached to the female throughout the entire process of oviposition, a process known as contact guarding. In other dragonfly species, the female is entirely on her own to deposit the eggs.

Black Saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea lacerata) use a different technique for guarding that I like to call “release and catch.” After mating is completed, the male and female Black Saddlebags fly together over the water in a tandem position, with the male in the front. At certain moments, for reasons that I cannot determine, the male releases the female and she drops down to the water and taps it to release one or more eggs. As she rises up out of the water, the male catches the female and reattaches the tip of his abdomen to the back of her head. They continue to fly in tandem and repeat this cycle multiple times.

On Saturday I was fortunate to be able to capture this sequence of shots that documents the entire process. Most of the time these dragonflies chose spots that were too far away for me to photograph them, but in this case they flew a bit closer to the edge of the pond where I was standing. As you probably suspect, I had to crop in a good amount to highlight the action for you, given that I was shooting with my trusty 180mm macro lens, which has a more limited reach than the lens that I use when photographing birds.

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When you are walking near the edge of the water, it is good to look down from time to time. Sharp-eyed Walter Sanford, a fellow dragonfly fanatic, spotted this Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) as we were searching for dragonflies in Fairfax County, Virginia last Monday. This is a non-poisonous snake, but I have read that it will bite and the wound may bleed a lot, because its saliva contains a mild anticoagulant.

Three years ago I had an encounter with a similar snake and watched it capture and devour a catfish. If you missed that posting, click on this link and check outSnake captures catfish—if you are like me, you will be fascinated and slightly horrified by the encounter and may avoid wading in the water at the edge of rivers for a time.

Northern Water Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What is the most common dragonfly where you live? Over the last few weeks I have noticed more and more dragonflies at the ponds and marshes that I visit, an indication that many of the summer dragonfly species have emerged. Here in Northern Virginia, the most common dragonfly is probably the appropriately named Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia). This species is one of the first to appear in the spring and one of the last to disappear in the fall. They are easy to identify and are such habitat generalists that they can be found almost anywhere.

Many of you know that I will often spend lots of time looking for rare dragonfly species, but I try not to take for granted the more common ones that many people (and photographers) ignore. The first image shows a male Common Whitetail that was hovering for a moment as he kept watch over a female as she deposited eggs in the water.

The second image is a portrait of a male Common Whitetail as he perched on some vegetation overhanging the water. If you look at the angle at which I took the shot, you can probably guess that I was at risk of falling into the water when I took the shot. The final shot is a portrait of a beautiful female Common Whitetail. When they are young, males have a similar coloration on their bodies as the females, but the wing patterns are different. You can also tell the genders apart by looking at the tip of the abdomen (the “tail”) where the terminal appendages are sexually differentiated.

As is often the case for species saddled with the name “common,” Common Whitetail dragonflies are uncommonly beautiful.

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the time Red-eared Slider turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans) slide into the water as soon as they detect my presence. Yesterday, however, this turtle seemed to be in such a deep meditative state that it remained in place when I approached it at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. The turtle was even impassive to repeated buzzings by several Eastern Amberwing dragonflies, some of which flew within inches of its face.

I was hoping to get some a shot of a dragonfly landing on the turtle’s shell, but was content to capture this image with both the turtle and a passing dragonfly.

Red-eared Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The genus Argia, commonly known as dancers, is a large New World group of damselflies. Although the genus name Argia, αργία in Ancient Greek, is translated as “idleness,” dancers are quite active and alert damselflies, according to Wikipedia. Why are they called “dancers?” They are known as dancers “because of the distinctive jerky form of flight they use which contrasts with the straightforward direct flight of bluets, forktails, and other pond damselflies.” I wonder if I am part damselfly, because “distinctive” and “jerky” are definitely adjectives that could be used to describe my attempts at dancing.

This past week, I have seen three different species of dancers. The first one, the Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea) has perhaps the most strikingly beautiful color of any of the dragonflies and damselflies that I have seen—I love that shade of violet. Some of my longtime readers may have noted that a photo of a Variable Dancer has been the banner image for this blog for many years.

The damselfly in the second image is a Blue-fronted Dancer (Argia apicalis). The thorax of the males of this species are almost completely blue, with only hairline stripes in the middle of their backs and shoulders.

The final damselfly is a Powdered Dancer (Argia moesta), our only mostly white damselfly. As you can see in the photo, members of this species often like to perch on stones at the edge of the water. I chose to leave this image mostly uncropped, because of the way that it shows the water moving around the stone and the submerged stones on the stream bottom in the background.

All of this talk of dancers brings to mind a country music song that I really like by Lee Ann Womack called “I Hope You Dance.” I am really touched by the basic message of the song—when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.

Here is the first verse of the song, just in case you have never heard it:

“I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance.”
(I Hope You Dance lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group, Songtrust Ave)

Variable Dancer

Blue-fronted Dancer

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was really excited to spot this male American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana) on Monday while exploring in Fairfax County, Virginia with my good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. I have seen this species only a few times before, but had no trouble identifying it, thanks to the distinctive “rubyspot” on its wings.

The first image gives you the best view of this gorgeous little damselfly, but the second shot is my favorite. I love to look straight into the eyes of dragonflies and damselflies—they have an almost hypnotic effect on me. Whenever I get the chance, I try to get a close-up shot of the eyes of these acrobatic insects that fascinate and delight me endlessly.

American Rubyspot

American Rubyspot

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I usually try to fill the frame as much as possible when I photograph wildlife, but it is equally cool sometimes to take a wider shot that shows the subject’s environment. That was the case with this photo of a Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps) that I took last Friday at Occoquan Regional Park. As many of you know, during this time of the year I shoot most often with a macro lens that does not zoom. When I spotted this skink from a distance, I took this shot, suspecting that the skink would scamper away if I got any closer. As soon as I took one more step, the skink disappeared under the tree.

I love the contrast between the bright orange head of the skink and the vibrant green moss on the trunk of the fallen tree. This is probably a male skink, given that the head in males becomes bright orange, as in the photo, during the mating season (spring) but fades and reduces in size in other times of the year.

Broad-headed Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It is lily season now in the garden of my neighbor and photography mentor Cindy Dyer. Here are a few photos that I took yesterday morning of some of the lilies blooming in her beautiful garden. It is always reassuring to know that I do not have to travel far to find colorful subjects to photograph—as a photographer and graphic designer, Cindy chooses flowers to plant that she know are photogenic.

lily

lily

lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Every year I enjoy taking photos of dragonflies perching on a piece of rusted rebar that sticks a few inches out of the water of a small pond at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I have seen dragonflies of several species use this particular perch, but photographically speaking my favorite is probably a male Eastern Amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) like the one in this photo from last Friday—the orange-rust colors of the dragonfly and its perch are complementary and soften what might otherwise be a jarring juxtaposition of the natural and man-made worlds.

You can’t see it really well, but there is a spider, probably a long-jawed spider, visible onthe lower portion of the rebar. I don’t know for sure if that spider could capture the dragonfly, but it is a potentially dangerous situation for the dragonfly and in the past I have photographed several dragonflies that had fallen prey to spiders.

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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We have a number of different dark swallowtail butterflies in the area in which I live, which can make identification a little tricky. I spotted this beautiful butterfly last Friday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and believe that it is a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus). The perfect condition of its wings suggest to me that it has emerged quite recently—as we move deeper into summer, I often spot butterflies with tattered wings.

Spicebush Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Yesterday I posted images of Eastern Amberwings, one of the most easily identified dragonfly species in my area. Today I am going to continue the mini-trend of going easy on my identification skills by presenting our most easily identified damselfly species, the Ebony Jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata).

I spotted this beautiful female Ebony Jewelwing last week as I was exploring in Occoquan Regional Park. Ebony Jewelwings are found most often along wooded slow-moving streams and frequently perch on low shrubbery in sun-lit openings in the forest canopy, which pretty well describes the circumstances of my encounter with this little beauty.

How do I know that it is an Ebony Jewelwing? There is no other damselfly in our area that has completely dark wings like the Ebony Jewelwing. How can I be sure that it is a female? Females have a conspicuous little white patch on their wings, technically known as a “pseudostigma,” that is pretty obvious in the photo below.

Some recent postings have noted the difficulties in making a correct identification of the dragonflies and damselflies that I photograph. I enjoy a mystery from time to time, but there is something reassuring about spotting a familiar species and being able to identify it immediately.

 

Ebony Jewelwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I spotted my first Eastern Amberwing dragonflies (Perithemis tenera) of the season at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. These distinctively colored dragonflies are a frequent sight throughout the summer as they buzz about over the waters of ponds. Eastern Amberwings are small, even by dragonfly standards, with a total length of less than an inch (25 mm) and are considered to be a wasp mimic. According to Wikipedia, “The Eastern Amberwing dragonfly is one of the only types of dragonfly that actively mimics a wasp. The yellow and brown stripes on its abdomen encourage predators to stay away. When perched, they will wiggle their abdomen and wings in a wasp-like fashion to deter other animals from eating it.”

My second and third shots are portraits of perched male Eastern Amberwing dragonflies that were carefully composed and sharp, but my favorite image of the day is the dynamic shot of two dragonflies in flight. It may not be obvious what is going on in the photo, so let me explain. After mating, the female in the upper left corner is getting ready to deposit her eggs in the water, while the male in the lower right corner hovers in the air, ready to keep any rivals from interfering with the process.

Eastern Amberwing

Eastern Amberwing

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Dragonflies have been around for a long time, with fossils showing dragonfly-like creatures that date back to the Jurassic period, more than 150 million years ago. It is generally believed that dragonflies of the Petaluridae family, including the Gray Petaltail (Tachopteryx thoreyi) most closely resemble those ancient species.

I was thrilled to find several Gray Petaltails this past Monday at Occoquan Regional Park, about 20 miles (32 km) from where I live. Most of the time Gray Petaltails perch vertically, flat against tree trunks at eye level or higher. The first photo is a little deceptive, because it makes it look like it is easy to spot these rather large dragonflies (three inches (76 mm) in length). However, in my experience it is rare to see a Gray Petaltail on a smooth-barked tree. When they perch on trees with coarser bark, these dragonflies almost melt into the trees. You get a hint of how this camouflage works in the second image below.

The final image shows a more typical scenario. From a distance, I saw a Gray Petaltail land on a tree. When I snapped the photo, though, I could not see the dragonfly, even though I knew exactly where it was. Can you see the Gray Petaltail in the final photo? I think that my post processing may have made it a little easier to spot, but the dull color and pattern of the dragonfly help it to blend in with the light and shadows on the tree trunk.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How do you grow a lot of plants in a small space? My amazingly creative friend, neighbor, and photography mentor Cindy Dyer decided to take advantage of vertical space and created this incredible wall of flowers and plants on the interior portion of the fence that encloses her back yard. Wow!

I do not know all of the details about how she set it up, but I think that the material, which Cindy describes as “felt-like,” has sewn-in pouches into which she inserted all of the plants and flowers. She mentioned to me that she had mixed some water-storing crystals in with the potting soil to reduce water stress and plans to water the wall regularly.

flower wall

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled on Monday to see lots of butterflies as I was exploring Occoquan Regional Park. Many of them were small skippers that skittishly flew away whenever I approached them. Only a few were large and colorful, like the Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) in the first photo. When it first landed on the plant, its wings were closed, but I waited and eventually the butterfly opened its wings. The damage to one of those wings this early in the season really emphasizes the fragility of these beautiful little creatures.

I also saw some brown woodland butterflies and I chased after several of them. I was out of breath but finally managed to catch up to one. Identification of this type of butterfly is always problematic, because there are quite a few similarly-colored species that vary only in the number and placement of the the eyespots. I think that the butterfly in the second shot is a Little Wood Satyr butterfly (Megisto cymela). I contemplated cropping closer, but decided I liked the little plant on the right side of the image and kept it. With this framing, I am able to create the illusion that the butterfly is staring at the plant.

Red-spotted Purple

Little Wood Satyr

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of you know that I love to photograph dragonflies. In a recent posting, I thought I was featuring photos of a Cobra Clubtail dragonfly, but it turns out that it was a Splendid Clubtail dragonfly. Here is Walter Sanford’s behind the scenes account of the initial misidentification of the dragonfly, with photos showing the differences between the two species, and how experts determined that we had made an error. His posting provides some fascinating insights into the complications sometimes associated with making an identification of a species (and why it is important to photograph subjects from multiple angles, if possible).

Be sure to click on the “View original post link” if you are using the WordPress Reader to read Walter’s complete posting on his blog or go directly to his posting by using this link.

walter sanford's photoblog

A Splendid Clubtail dragonfly (Gomphurus lineatifrons) was spotted during a photowalk with Michael Powell at an undisclosed location in Fairfax County, Virginia USA. Easy for me to say now. As it turns out, my initial identification was incorrect.

The first photo I took of the dragonfly — the record shot — is shown below. Notice the pattern of yellow lateral marks/spots on its abdomen. Also notice the yellow blotch on the side of abdominal segment eight (S8) extends onto the club flange, as shown in the full-size version of the image. (Thanks to Michael Boatwright, founder and administrator of the Virginia Odonata Facebook group, for sharing these key field marks for Splendid.)

26 MAY 2020 | Fairfax County, VA | Splendid Clubtail (female)

In contrast, the pattern of yellow lateral marks/spots on the abdomen of a female Cobra Clubtail (Gomphurus vastus), shown below, looks…

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On Tuesday I spotted this handsome male Spangled Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula cyanea) at Occoquan Regional Park. This species is fairly easy to identify because of the “spangles,” the little white patches on the leading edges of the wings, often referred to as stigmata or pterostigmata. Most other species have darker colored stigmata or none at all.

If you use the meteorological calendar, summer started on the first of June. For most of us, though, who use the astronomical calendar, we have a few weeks to wait until the summer begins on the 20th of June. No matter how you calculate summer, I have noticed a lot more of the summer dragonfly species during my most recent outings. If things work out well, June could be a great month for dragonfly hunting, with the possibility of seeing some of the remaining spring species, plus the new summer ones.

spangled skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Last Tuesday I spotted this cute little toad—I think it may be a Fowler’s Toad (Anaxyrus fowleri)—while exploring the wilds of Fairfax County. The toad was just chilling (or more accurately may have been warming itself) on a rock ledge with a bumpy texture and mottled coloration that matched those of the toad pretty well.

It is hard to know what the frog was thinking, but it appeared to be in deep contemplation. “I think, therefore I am.”

Fowler's Toad

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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We have started a new month and new flowers are blooming in the garden of my friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer. Iris season has almost ended, but more lilies are opening each day. Today’s featured star is the bold, fragrant oriental hybrid known as the Stargazer Lily (Lilium ‘Stargazer’). Wow—there is nothing subtle about this flower that overwhelms both the eyes and the nose.

The words “star gazer” bring to mind some words from one of my favorite songs, The Rainbow Connection as sung by Kermit the Frog. “What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing and what do we think we might see? Someday we’ll find it, that rainbow connection, the lover, the dreamer, and me.” Now more than ever, we all need hope.

I want to share with you the concluding portion of a prayer distributed to us by our local Episcopal bishop yesterday, a National Day of Mourning and Lament for those who have died of COVID-19. “God of all hope, God of all goodness, we are a people hurting, lost and divided. Our world seems a strange and foreign land, our days a blur of separation and isolation. Gather us to your very heart as we pray for our nation, receive all who have died into the fulness of your heaven, guide the hands of all who serve others. Bless our efforts to love all people in concrete action and, in your powerful ways and in your perfect time, make us whole for the sake of a world so desperately in need of You. Amen.”

Stargazer Lily

Stargazer Lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Names can sometimes be misleading. There is a genus of damselflies, consisting of 35 species, called American bluets. As the common name “bluet” suggests, most members of the genus are primarily blue in color. One notable exception is the adult male Orange Bluet (Enallagma signatum) that often does not appear to have even a speck of blue on its body.

I spotted this little guy last Friday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and was a bit shocked by his bright red eyes when I looked through the viewfinder of the camera. The male Orange Bluet was perched at the extreme end of some vegetation overhanging a pond.

I would have liked to have gotten a shot in which more of its body was in focus, but I did not want to risk falling in the water, which looked to be pretty deep at that spot. As I look at the photo now, I realize that the soft focus of the body may actually be a good thing, because it draws a viewer’s attention even more to the eyes of the handsome little damselfly.

orange bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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UPDATE: Some experts have looked at the photos that Walter took of and it appears that the dragonfly in the first photo (and possibly all of the ones in this posting) is a Splendid Clubtail (Gomphurus lineatifrons), a new species for me. The differences between the two species are subtle enough that I am definitely relying on the expertise of others in making this identification.

I spent most of this past Tuesday exploring wild areas in Fairfax County, Virginia, hunting for dragonflies with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. It is still a little early for many species, so we had to work really hard for each one that we were able to find.  I was really excited when we spotted several Cobra Clubtail dragonflies (Gomphorus vastus) during the day, all of which turned out to be females.

As you can see from these photos, the Cobra Clubtails were hanging vertically with their abdomens pointing downwards, which made them hard to spot when they landed in the abundant green vegetation. In one nearby location, there is an annual mass emergence of Cobra Clubtails, with dozens emerging at the same time. We made a brief stop there, hoping to see more Cobra Clubtails, but learned from employees there that the Cobra Clubtails have not yet arrived this year—we may make another try sometime fairly soon.

If you would like to see Walter’s posting on our adventures with the Cobra Clubtails, click on this link to his blog.

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This is the time of the year when warblers are moving through the area in which I live and bird photographers have been congregating at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a local hotspot for warblers and other birds that, unlike many other parks, has been open during this shutdown. Not wanting to risk contact with so many people, I have been avoiding this refuge for the most part, even though it is my favorite place to take photos.

Last week, though, I made a trip to the wildlife refuge on a weekday morning when the weather was less than optimal. As I had hoped, the weather kept most of the other photographers away and I was able to visit some of my favorite spots. I checked out several osprey nests, hoping to see some baby ospreys. The ospreys were no longer sitting on any of the nests, but I could not tell if there were baby ospreys in them or not.

Peering through the branches near one nest, I spotted this perched Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with a fish in its talons. The osprey was at the stage of consumption when quite often it will take the remaining portion to its mate. I never did see its mate, but was happy to capture this shot before the osprey flew away.

Osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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The irises in the garden of my neighbor Cindy Dyer have mostly faded, but her lilies are starting to flower. I believe that this beauty is an Asiatic lily, the second lily bloom of the season in her garden with many more to follow.

I captured this image late one morning this week as the rain was beginning to taper off and the colors were wonderfully saturated. I also love the multiple raindrops on the flowers—these are a few of my favorite things.

Asiatic lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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From a distance I did not notice the large snake coiled up in the grass near the bank of the river—I spotted it only when I was a footstep or two away from stepping on it. My first thought was that it was probably a non-poisonous Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon). After my encounter with an Eastern Copperhead snake last year, though, I have been a little more anxious to get a good look at any snake that I see, especially its head, in order to assess my relative risk—the copperhead has a large angular head and its eyes have a vertical pupil.

So my eyes began to trace the coils of the snake, trying to find its head. This image gives you a pretty good idea of the view that I had as I bent over slightly to look at the snake. In the photo, it is easy to be distracted by the beautiful colors and pattern of its scales and by the sinuous curves of its body. I was a bit relieved when my eyes finally found the round pupils of the eye of this snake which, believe it or not, is visible in this image. Can you find it?

In case you are curious, I took this photo this past Tuesday when I was exploring in the wilds of Fairfax County, Virginia, hunting for dragonflies with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. Although our primary target was dragonflies, my eyes were always scanning surrounding areas for other interesting creatures. (If you still have not found the snake’s eye in the image, here is a clue—look near the extreme left in the photo towards the middle.)

Northern Water Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Tuesday morning I was thrilled to spot this female Umber Shadowdragon dragonfly (Neurocordulia obsoleta) while exploring in Fairfax County, Virginia with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. We were searching for perched dragonflies in a sunlight field with vegetation that was often waist-high and occasionally as tall as I am. One of my aspirational goals is to be able to photograph a dragonfly covered with drops of morning dew.

I was attracted to a stalk of vegetation when I spotted a cicada perched at eye-level. As I was looking into the cicada’s bright red eyes, I noticed that there was an exuvia, the discarded exoskeleton from which a cicada had recently emerged, a bit lower on the plant.  I looked downward and was shocked to see a dragonfly hanging from the underside of the broad leafy stalk of the vegetation, using it like an umbrella to shade itself from the sun.

I did not know what kind of dragonfly it was, but suspecting that it might be something unusual, I stopped dead in my tracks and called out to my friend Walter. I bent a little bit from the knees and captured a few shots, but was afraid to move any more than that for fear of spooking the dragonfly—the wings are clipped in the photo because I was using my macro lens, which does not zoom, which meant I would have had to back up to capture a shot of the entire dragonfly. Unfortunately, as Walter was approaching, the dragonfly took off, spooked perhaps by my efforts to point out its location, and Walter was not able to get a shot of it.

When I got home, I was able to identify the dragonfly as an Umber Shadowdragon, a species that I had never seen before and about which I knew very little. Kevin Munroe, who created the wonderful website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, described this species in almost poetic language: “The name alone creates images of a shadowy creature, mysterious and unique. It also sent me to a dictionary to look up “umber”. It turns out to be a clay pigment containing iron oxides that have an attractive red to golden brown coloring, originally found in the hills of Umbria, Italy. Even better, “umber” comes from the Latin word umbra, which means shadow. So the name means, Shadow Shadowdragon. This species certainly lives up to its enigmatic name – it does in fact only show itself among shadows, waiting to leave its high, leafy haunts until after 8:00 PM (2000 hours) on summer evenings. It can even be as late as 8:30 before they start their river patrols. Listen for that brief period when the day-singing cicada and nighttime katydids are both calling; the changing of the guard between light and dark. That’s when shadowdragons make their appearance and will often fly into early night, cruising fast and low, just above the river’s surface.”

I feel like I was really, really lucky to spot this dragonfly in broad daylight. The nocturnal habits of this species are such that most sources indicate that it is not even known if this species is rare or if it is common. If you are interested in learning more fascinating information about this species, be sure to check out this page of the website referenced above. I also highly recommend that you double click on the image to get a better look at the amazing details of this beautiful dragonfly, including the rows of little golden dots on the leading edges of its wings.

Umber Shadowdragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I featured an actual mud turtle, but today’s muddy turtles  are actually Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) that appear to have been painted with a coating of mud. The last few months we have had a lot of unusually cool weather, and I think the turtles have been spending a lot of time in the mud at the bottom of the ponds. Last week the weather improve  and there were turtles in all kinds of places at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge trying to absorb the warmth of the sun.

The pose of the first two turtles brings to mind a well-known scene from the movie Titanic in which Jack and Rose (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) were standing at the railing at the prow of the ship. I must confess that I spent 4+ hours watching the movie on television last Sunday night, which may be why the scene is so fresh in my mind. Yeah, I’m a bit of a romantic.

I encountered the second Painted Turtle as it was slowly making its way across a trail at the wildlife refuge. In addition to noting the large amount of fresh mud still on its shell, I was delighted by the way the two little leaf fragments on its shell matched the yellow markings on its neck.
Painted Turtle

Painted Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last Tuesday I spotted these rather scruffy-looking non-breeding male Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. One viewer in a birding forum on Facebook commented, “He won’t get a date looking like that.”

I sort of expected all male Indigo Buntings to have a color that rivals or surpasses that of a male Eastern Bluebird—I had never before encountered the mottled coloration of a non-breeding male. For the sake of comparison, I have included as a final photograph an image that I captured in August 2017 of a breeding male Indigo Bunting on a sunflower. Click this link if you would like to see the final photo in the context of the original posting in which it was one of the featured images.

 

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first spotted this insect last Thursday at Occoquan Regional Park, it looked like a large bumblebee. I tracked it visually as it buzzed about and when it landed, I could see from its distinctive wings that it was definitely not a bee. In our area we have two species of clear wing moths that are similar in appearance and behavior, the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) and the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe). Identification guides warn that both species are variable in color, which complicates identification, but the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth has light-colored legs, so I am pretty confident that this one is a Snowberry Clearwing Moth.

Most of the time when I see clearwing moths they are beating their wings rapidly and hovering in the air as they collect nectar from a variety of flowers, which causes some people to think they are hummingbirds. I do not know why this one was perched in the low vegetation—perhaps it was taking a break—but its static position allowed me to get a detailed look at its wings and the rest of its body.

Snowberry Clearwing moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Generally when I spot a Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), it is flying. The distinctive dark blotches, which some scientist decided look like saddlebags, are visible even when the dragonfly is in the air. Some dragonflies spend most of their time perching, while others spend most of their time flying—the Black Saddlebags is in the latter category. I was therefore quite excited when I saw this one land in the low vegetation last Thursday at Occoquan Regional Park.

When a subject is this close to the ground, the background is almost inevitably going to be cluttered. In an effort to soften the potential distraction, I opened up the aperture to f/6.3 and tried to shoot almost directly down on the subject. I like the resulting image that has most of the dragonfly in sharp focus and most of the background a bit blurry.

 

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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