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Quite often when I am walking through grassy fields, the ground in front of me seems to explode with grasshoppers arcing through the air in all directions. Last week during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I managed to capture images of two of them.

I am not certain of the species of the formidable looking grasshopper in the first photo. When I looked through sources on line, however, it looked most like an American Bird Grasshopper (Schistocerca americana). Grasshoppers like this always make me think of medieval knights, suited up in protective armor.

The insect in the second image is almost certainly a katydid, and not a grasshopper—the extremely long antennae are often an easy identification feature. I love the brilliant green of the katydid’s body and its matching green eyes. There are lots of different kinds of katydids and I do not know to which species “my” katydid belongs.

We have had a lot of rainy weather recently and temperatures have noticeably dropped. Today’s forecast calls for intermittent rain and a high temperature of only 50 degrees (10 degrees C). I wonder if this cool, rainy period will mark the end of the season for some of the insects that I have been photographing during the past few months.

grasshopper

katydid

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday afternoon at Potomac Episcopal, a loose confederation of four local Episcopal churches that has worshipped together since the start of the pandemic, we had a special Blessing of the Animals service in celebration of The Feast of Francis of Assisi. We held the service indoors in the parish hall at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, one of the four churches, because of the rain caused by the remnants of hurricane Ian.

There were about 25 dogs and two cats that participated in the service. Participants also brought photos of pets and representations of pets that could not be present (including a parrot and some aquatic turtles) as well as mementos of pets who have died during the past year.

These are a few of the many photos that I took during the event that we uploaded to a Shutterfly website for viewing by all participant. Although we did not have music, we had a chorus of dogs barking throughout the short service, as you can hear in a video clip that I recorded. I have embedded at the end of this posting the YouTube version of that eight minute video that includes prayers and readings in celebration of the animals. It can also be found by clicking this link.

One of my favorite parts of the service was entitled “Litany of Thanks for Animals in the Life Cycle of Earth,” the text of which I have included below.

“We thank you, Lord, for the gift of animals in our lives. We thank you for animals that comfort us, delight us and give us companionship. We thank you for dogs and cats, birds and hamsters, guinea pigs and fish.

We thank you, Lord for the gift of animals.

We also thank you, Lord, for animals that give us wool and feathers to keep us warm. We thank you for the animals that give us milk, cheese and eggs to help us grow and keep us healthy. We thank you for horses, donkeys and oxen that work hard on farms throughout the world.

We thank you, Lord for the gift of animals.

We thank you, Lord, for animals that eat plants and fertilize the soil, making it richer and more fertile for new growth and new life. We give thanks for the gift of insects, bees, and butterflies, who pollinate fruit and vegetable plants for us to eat and flowers to give us joy.

We thank you, Lord for the gift of animals.

We thank you, Lord, for being our Good Shepherd, for seeking us when we are lost, for showing us water to quench our thirst, and for leading us to green pastures. Help us to share our blessings with others and to help others have clean water and green pastures to feed and nourish their families, too. In Christ’s name,

Amen.

Blessing of the Animals

Blessing of the Animals

Blessing of the Animals

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As many of you probably realize, I generally do not spend much time photographing landscapes and focus primarily on insects, in the warmer months, and birds, in the colder months. This past Wednesday, however, I was absolutely captivated by the clouds and tried to capture them in both landscape and seascape images at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I used my Canon 7D for the first two images and shot the panorama in the final shot with my iPhone 11.

As I look at these images, I can’t help but think that I should keep my eyes open more often for opportunities to take landscape shots. Last year I managed to capture some of the fall foliage in Virginia when I traveled to Shenandoah National Park and I may try to do so again later this month. There is a chance, though, that I will miss the peak color, because I will be driving to Austin, Texas near the end of the month for a wedding.

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was delighted this past Wednesday to spot several Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I often see news stories about Monarchs being threatened or becoming endangered, so I am happy whenever I see some. The ones that I saw looked to be in perfect condition—perhaps they have recently emerged and are preparing for migration.

I tried several different angles when photographing this Monarch. The first photo shows the detail of the butterfly best, but I really like the way that I was able to capture the curve of the vegetation in the second shot by shooting in a vertical format.

 

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Wednesday I spotted a small group of a half-dozen of so Common Green Darner dragonflies (Anax junius) patrolling over a large field at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Common Green Darners are one of few species of dragonflies that migrate. Perhaps the ones that I saw are preparing to migrate from the local area or are just stopping off on their journey southward.

It is a fun challenge to point your camera toward the sky and to try and capture photos of these colorful dragonflies as they zoom overhead. The first image is the sharpest image that I was able to capture and it provides a good look at the dragonfly. In many ways, though, I am even happier with the second and third image that include some vegetation and help to provide some context to the shots.

The migration cycle of the Common Green Darner involves three generations. I highly recommend a research article entitled “Tracking dragons: stable isotopes reveal the annual cycle of a long-distance migratory insect” that was published in 2018 in the journal Biology Letters that explains the migration cycle and has some fascinating maps and diagrams. Despite the geeky-sounding title, it is actually quite easy to read and understand.

Here is an extract from the abstract for the article, in case you do not want to read the entire article:

“Using stable-hydrogen isotope analysis of 852 wing samples from eight countries spanning 140 years, combined with 21 years of citizen science data, we determined the full annual cycle of a large migratory dragonfly, the common green darner (Anax junius). We demonstrate that darners undertake complex long-distance annual migrations governed largely by temperature that involve at least three generations. In spring, the first generation makes a long-distance northbound movement (further than 650 km) from southern to northern range limits, lays eggs and dies. A second generation emerges and returns south (further than 680 km), where they lay eggs and die. Finally, a third resident generation emerges, reproducing locally and giving rise to the cohort that migrates north the following spring. Since migration timing and nymph development are highly dependent on temperature, continued climate change could lead to fundamental changes in the biology for this and similar migratory insects.”

Wow!

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I was delighted to spot another Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum), one of my favorite dragonflies, while wandering the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  The previous one that I saw earlier this month was perched high in a tree, so it was difficult for me to get a good shot of it.

The newest Blue-faced Meadowhawk, a male, was perched on the ground amid the leaf litter, which is where I usually see this species. I love the way that the fallen leaves provide an instant indication that we are now in the autumn season. The drab brown color of those leaves really helps to make the bright red and blue of this spectacular dragonfly really pop.

It was almost impossible to blur out the background completely, but I got low and carefully chose an angle that makes the clutter a bit less distracting. It turned out that this was the only Blue-faced Meadowhawk, so I was happy that I managed to get some decent shots of this one before he flew away.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Generally I prefer to photography my wildlife subjects in natural surrounding and often try to frame my shots so that they do not include manmade elements. During a recent visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I inadvertently spooked a small bird, which looks to me to be a juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), and I watched as it flew to a tall wooden post. I looked at it as a mixed blessing, because I had a clear view of the bird, even though the perch was manmade.

I captured this image when the bluebird turned its head to look at me. I really like the way that the composition of this modest little image turned out. I remember moving a bit to make sure that the sky was in the background, but hadn’t really counted on the background being as pleasantly blurred as it is. The wires and other hardware attached to the post add some additional visual interest to the foreground without being too distracting.

 

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As we approach the end of September, I am keeping a mental checklist of the dragonflies that I continue to see. Some species have already disappeared for the season. With other species, I see only the tattered survivors. There are a few other species that will remain with for at least another month.

Here are some shots of three of the dragonflies that I saw last Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The first one is a colorful male Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa). We are nearing the normal late date for this species, so I was particularly happy to see this dragonfly.

The second image shows a female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia), one of the most common dragonflies in our area. This species is always one of the first to appear in the spring and one of the last to disappear in the autumn.

The final photo shows a male Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) perching in the vegetation at the edge of a pond. This species is probably the most common one that I see right now when I am visiting a pond. I thought about cropping the image a little closer, but decided I really like the pops of pinkish-purple provided by the flowers near the edge of the frame.

There are, of course, other species still around that I have featured in recent postings, such as the Russet-tipped Clubtail, the Blue-faced Meadowhawk, and the Prince Baskettail, as well as several others. I am still searching for my first Autumn Meadowhawk of the season, a small red dragonfly that is often the last species to disappear.  I have seen Autumn Meadowhawks as late as the 3rd of December. If you want a sneak preview of what an Autumn Meadowhawk looks like, check out the December 2018 blog posting of that late sighting.

Calico Pennant

Common Whitetail

Slaty Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been playing around with video again and made a little YouTube video about some of my challenges in trying to photograph dragonflies in flight. I tried to combine some video footage captured when I was out in the field (the second shot below is a still extracted from the video) with some of my still images that you may have already seen in past blog postings. I did a voiceover with the still photos that provides some information about my camera settings and techniques as well as commentary about the location where I was shooting. The first image is the thumbnail for the video, which I included to give you an indication in the Reader about the content.

I embedded the video link at the end of this posting that you can click directly if you are viewing directly from my blog. After I posted a video this way in the past, I learned that those folks who receive the blog in their e-mail are not able to see the embedded video. If that is the case for you, here is a link that you can click that will take you to the YouTube video. The video is about eight minutes long, but I think you will find it enjoyable and informative.

I shared the video directly with one of my subscribers, Jet Eliot, who commented, “I absolutely loved your video, Mike. Your enthusiasm and expertise for dragonflies comes through beautifully. I like how upbeat you are about photographing dragonflies, and encouraging. Your voice is rich, vocabulary lovely, and diction is smooth. A complete joy to watch–I’m still smiling.” Be sure to check out her wonderful blog Jet Eliot–Travel and Wildlife Adventures for her weekly essays, photos, and anecdotes on lively, interesting places and creatures that she has befriended all over the world.

YouTube_thumbnail

In the Field

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Carolina Chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) are small and active, so I rarely get a clear view of one of them, especially during the times of the year when there are leaves on the trees. Last week I was happy to get some photos of this chickadee at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as I was searching for warblers.

The leaves in the first two images and the tiny acorns in the final photo provide indications of the change in seasons. Temperatures are really dropping as we approach the end of September and the leaves are just beginning to change colors. In my area, unfortunately, the leaves mostly tend to turn brown—the fall foliage is definitely not as bright and vibrant as the colors in New England, where I was born and grew up.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was looking over my photos from my visit last Wednesday to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, I was struck by the variety of perching styles of the dragonflies that I had photographed. The dragonfly on the left in the first photo, a Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta), was using the style that I see most often—he was perched horizontally with his wings extended outwards. The dragonfly on the right, a male Swift Setwing (Dythemis velox) had his abdomen raised to about a 45 degree angle and had pulled his wings forward.

In the second image, the dragonfly was perched at a slight angle as it held onto the vegetation. The coloration of this dragonfly is so faded that it is hard for me to identify its species, though I think it might be an old Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans).

In the final photo, the dragonfly is in an almost vertical position as it clings to the stalk of the vegetation. The shadows make it tough to identify this dragonfly, but I am not worried about that—I like the “artsy” feel of the photo.

This little posting barely scratches the surface of the topic of dragonfly perching behavior, but I hope it raises your awareness of the diversity in the world of dragonflies, not just in their appearances, but also in their behavior.

 

dragonfly perches

dragonfly perches

dragonfly perches

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I never realized how much the face of a Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus plagiatus) looks like the face of a human—the one in the first photo appears to have a nose, a chin, and even lips. The dragonfly was flying over the pond at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge this past Wednesday and I watched it land in the goldenrod at the edge of the water, where I was able to capture the image.

When the Russet-tipped Clubtail was flying, it stayed in the center of the pond and did not come near to the shore, which made it tough for me to capture an in-flight shot. I was thrilled when I managed to capture a long distance shot of the dragonfly and its cool, distorted reflection in the water, as you can see in the second photo below.

As I was walking around the small pond, I inadvertently flushed another Russet-tipped Clubtail and it flew into a tree. I could see where it was perched, but the lighting was tricky, because I was shooting almost directly into the sun. I liked the interplay of the light and shadows on the leaves of the tree and the way that sunlight illuminated the “tail” (which is technically the abdomen) of the dragonfly, which made for a nice environmental portrait.

Generally I consider myself lucky if I have a single encounter with a dragonfly like this, so it felt amazing to have multiple encounters with the Russet-tipped Clubtails and multiple chances to capture some beautiful images.

Russet-tipped Clubtail

Russet-tipped Clubtail

Russet-tipped Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was a little surprised on Wednesday to see a Prince Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca princeps) flying over the pond at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge—I thought they were all gone by now. There were not too many other dragonflies around, so I concentrated on trying to capture in-flight shots of this elusive dragonfly that I never saw perch.

Photographing dragonflies while they are flying is a huge challenge for both my skill and my patience. I had a general idea of the area in which this dragonfly was flying as he flew repeatedly over a patch of lily pads. However, his specific flight path varied a lot and he often changed directions without warning.

Most of my photos were blurry or did not contain my subject, but I eventually managed to get a few decent shots of the Prince Baskettail. The first one is the sharpest, but it does not give you much of a sense of the environment in which the dragonfly was flying. The second shot has a bit of blur, but I really like the background pattern of the water of the pond. The dragonfly was flying away from me when I took the final photo, but I like the way that the image shows the pond vegetation and the tiny perched Eastern Amberwing dragonfly in the foreground was a nice bonus.

Prince Baskettail

Prince Baskettail

Prince Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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During a short period in the spring and again in the early autumn, migrating warblers move through the area in which I live. Occasionally I will manage to get a shot of one during the spring, when the warblers are sporting their colorful breeding plumages. During the autumn, however, their plumage is duller in color and the leaves on the trees block them from view, so I rarely see a warbler (though I can hear them) and even less frequently photograph one.

On Tuesday during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I spotted a flash of yellow high in a tree. Although I did not get a good look at the bird itself, I knew immediately that it was some kind of warbler. I focused on the area in which the bird moving about and watched and waited, snapping off shots whenever even the slightest bit of yellow was visible.

I never did get an unobstructed shot of the warbler, but different shots helped me to identify various features of the bird. In the first photo, for example, I can see the gray head and white eye ring. In the second and third images, I can see the extent of the yellow underparts, the white wing bars, and the moderate streaking.

What kind of warbler is it? I went through my bird identification guide—I use the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America—and decided that it was possibly a Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia). I was uncertain of my identification, though, so I sought confirmation on a birding forum on Facebook. Shockingly I was correct in my identification. I think I have about a 50 percent success rate in correctly identifying warblers and similar birds.

I would love to get clear unobstructed close-up shots of these beautiful birds as some photographers are able to do, but I am quite content with these shots. They highlight for me the beauty and mystery of the warbler in what I consider to be its natural habitat.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled yesterday to spot my first Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) of the season during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Although there are reports of this dragonfly emerging in mid-summer, I tend to see them in September and October. I have repeatedly searched for Blue-faced Meadowhawks this month in areas of the refuge where I have seen them in past years, but had come up empty-handed until yesterday.

The Blue-faced Meadowhawk is somewhat uncommon in our area, according to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, and “Although black rings over the top of the abdomen make this one of the easiest meadowhawks to ID in our area, it is in fact the rarest and hardest to find.” You would think that the bright red bodies would make them easy to spot, but they are pretty small (about 1.4 inches (36 mm) in length and blend in surprisingly well with the autumn foliage.

I absolutely love the striking colors of this dragonfly—the turquoise face, blue eyes, and red body—and consider it to be one of my favorites. It is also special to me too, because I took second place in a local photo contest in 2015 with a macro shot of a Blue-faced Meadowhawk. Check out this December 2015 posting to see that photo and learn the back story of how I overcame my inhibitions and entered the contest.

Normally I see Blue-faced Meadowhawks closer to the ground, but the yesterday’s subject was perched high in a tree. As you can see, I tried several slightly different shooting angles, but couldn’t get any closer. As it turned out, that was my sole sighting of a Blue-faced Meadowhawk for the day. I will probably return to the wildlife refuge next week to see if I can find some more of these beautiful dragonflies.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The season has ended for many dragonflies—many of the species that were present a month ago are now gone. From time to time, though, I will see a few strong survivors who are hanging on, like this female Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami) that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Though her wings are almost completely shredded, she still manage to fly, when necessary.

She somehow seemed to be content to turn to the light and enjoy the warmth of the sunlight, determined to enjoy life’s simple pleasures in her remaining days.

Needham's Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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For the last few weeks I have been diligently searching for Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies (Somatochlora filosa), a relatively uncommon dragonfly species both nationally and locally. They seem to prefer a coastal plain and are active for only about a month, generally the month of September. Over the past five years I have photographed them at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, though usually I only have a few sightings each year.

What makes this dragonfly so special? In his excellent website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, Kevin Munroe described some of the allure of this particular species— “One of Northern Virginia’s most rare dragonflies, possibly our rarest, this species is seldom seen and little known throughout its range, from New Jersey to Florida, and west to Kentucky and Texas. Most field guides describe its breeding habitat as ‘unknown’.”

On the 9th of September, a fellow dragonfly enthusiast photographed a Fine-lined Emerald at the wildlife refuge, the first known sighting of the year. I encountered him that same day after his sighting and, encouraged by his success, I redoubled my efforts, but came up empty-handed for this species. On the 13th of September, I was equally unsuccessful.

Finally on the 14th of September, I spotted a Fine-lined Emerald in flight. Quite often Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies patrol at knee to chest height along the roads that run parallel to the shoreline. I was able to track the dragonfly as he flew back and forth along the road and was excited when I saw him perch. Usually dragonflies of this species perch at an angle or hang vertically from bare stalks of vegetation. The first photo below is not a very good photo, but it is good enough to document my first Fine-lined Emerald dragonfly of the season.

An hour or so later, I spotted another Fine-lined Emerald in the same general area. It might have been the same individual, but it is hard to know for sure. This time the lighting was better and the dragonfly chose a more photogenic perch. In the final two photos, you get a look at the dragonfly’s striking emerald eyes and beautiful markings. I initially thought the red, flowering stalk was Eastern Gamagrass, but now I am not sure. In any case, the red of the vegetation provides a nice contrast with the dominant greens in the rest of the last two images.

Once again, my persistence paid off. I will almost certainly be returning to this location with hopes of getting some additional shots of the Fine-lined Emeralds and getting my first shots of the year of Autumn and Blue-faced Meadowhawks, two species of little red dragonflies that appear during the late summer and early fall.

 

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was quite shocked when I spotted this Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) with a frog in its mouth on this past Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. When I first spotted the bird, it was mostly hidden in the foliage of the tree, but I could clearly see the dangling frog. I stopped in my tracks, quickly adjusted the settings on my camera, and took some shots. When I moved slightly to the side to try to get a better angle, alas, the bird detected my presence and flew away with its prey.

I had no idea that a bird like a cuckoo would consume a frog. Wow! According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Caterpillars top the list of Yellow-Billed Cuckoo prey: individual cuckoos eat thousands of caterpillars per season. On the East coast, periodic outbreaks of tent caterpillars draw cuckoos to the tentlike webs, where they may eat as many as 100 caterpillars at a sitting. Fall webworms and the larvae of spongy (formerly gypsy), brown-tailed, and white-marked tussock moths are also part of the cuckoo’s lepidopteran diet, often supplemented with beetles, ants, and spiders. They also take advantage of the annual outbreaks of cicadas, katydids, and crickets, and will hop to the ground to chase frogs and lizards. In summer and fall, cuckoos forage on small wild fruits, including elderberries, blackberries and wild grapes. In winter, fruit and seeds become a larger part of the diet.”

I love to capture images like this one. No how many times I visit a familiar location, there always seems to be something new to see.  My favorite encounters most often seem to occur when I am by myself and moving slowly, immersed in the natural world. Fortunately I am quick to react with my camera, for these moments tend to be ephemeral and fleeting.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I think that the small spider in the foreground may be a male Black and Yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) and the larger one in the background a female of the same species. The body length of male Argiope aurantia spiders ranges from 0.20–0.35 inches (5–9 mm) and for females ranges from 0.75–1.10 inches (19–28 mm), according to Wikipedia.

A male Argiope spider communicates with a potential mate by plucking and vibrating the female’s web, according to the same Wikipedia article, which may explain what was happening when I captured this image on 13 September at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I saw more than a dozen of the large female spiders at the wildlife refuge during my most recent visit there. Many of them had prey wrapped up in web material, stashed for future consumption. One of them, however, was busily consuming a ladybug, as shown in the second image below.

 

Argiope aurantia

spider and ladybug

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It may come as a surprise to many readers of this blog that my favorite insect is not a dragonfly—it is the Handsome Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum pulchellum). I still recall the first time that I encountered a Handsome Meadow Katydid ten years ago and the resulting double take—I could not believe what my eyes were seeing. It was love at first sight. The bright rainbow colors of the body were astonishing and seemed so unreal that one of my friends wondered if I had colorized a photo that I had posted.

It is the eyes, though, that make this insect so attractive for me. There is just something so alluring about those blue eyes, eyes that I don’t expect to see in an insect.

I spotted this Handsome Meadow Katydid on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It was hopping about in the vegetation and I was thrilled when it finally perched on a stalk where I could get an unobstructed shot. I captured images from multiple angles. The first image provides a close look at the colors and details of this cool-looking insect. The second image gives you a look at the incredibly long antennae of the katydid. One of the quickest ways to distinguish between a grasshopper and a katydid is to look at the antennae—grasshoppers have relatively short, thick antennae and katydids’ antennae are often longer than their own bodies.

Do you have a favorite insect? I ask this strange question every few years and only occasionally will I get a response. In the past, some have told me that they like ladybugs or Monarch butterflies. What about you?

Handsome Meadow Katydid

Handsome Meadow Katydid

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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There has been an explosion of butterflies in the last few weeks in my area. Throughout most of the summer, I felt lucky when I managed to spot a few large, colorful butterflies.  All of the sudden I am seeing lots of butterflies in multiple locations at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Here are a few of my favorite butterfly shots from a visit to the wildlife refuge last Friday. Quite often I will focus on a single species in a blog posting, but in this case I like the way that these three images work as a set that highlights the beauty and diversity of these wonderful creatures that I was blessed to photograph that day.

The butterfly in the first image is a Monarch (Danaus plexippus); the butterfly in the second image is a Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus); and the butterfly in the third image is a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes).

I like each of the photographs for different reasons, but, if pressed, I would probably say that the final one is my favorite. Do you have a favorite?

Monarch butterfly

Zebra Swallowtail

Black Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

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Hummingbird Clearwing Moths (Hemaris thysbe) act a lot like hummingbirds. With rapidly beating wings, they both hover and fly from flower to flower seeking nectar. Instead of a beak like a hummingbird, however, a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth has a long proboscis that rolls out of its coiled tube to reach the nectar deep inside flowers.

Normally when I get shots of a hummingbird moth, its proboscis is fully extended and the moth is sucking up nectar through this flexible hollow tube. On Monday, I was delighted to capture this first image in which the moth’s proboscis was still curled up as it approached a thistle in bloom. The second image shows the Hummingbird Moth actively feeding through the proboscis.

From the first moment when I encountered one, I have been fascinated by these curious creatures. They seem almost magical, combining characteristics of different species, or perhaps mythical, like a centaur or a sphinx. It is always fun to observes a Hummingbird Moth in action, but you have to react quickly to get shots when you see them, because they are really fast and in constant motion.

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I often have trouble identifying shorebirds, because so many of them are similar in appearance. When I spotted this one last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I immediate thought it might be a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). This bird seemed to be perfectly content to be by itself, pursuing its goals at its own pace, marching to the beat of a different drummer. Was it an introverted shorebird of a different species or was it really a Solitary Sandpiper?

As I stood there at the edge of the pond, I realized that we were a lot alike, the bird and I. It was a moment for reflection. Most of the time I too would rather enjoy nature in solitude, separated from others.

I make a conscious effort to avoid contact with other people when I am out with my camera and avoid certain locations because they are too popular and crowded. I generally prefer to spend my time communing with wildlife.

Solitary Sandpiper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Summer dragonflies continue to hang in there as we approach the September Equinox next week that for many marks the start of fall in the Northern Hemisphere and spring in the Southern Hemisphere—some places alternatively use the meteorological calendar in which autumn begins on the 1st of September in the Northern Hemisphere. This year the equinox arrives on Thursday, 22 September.

Last Friday I was delighted to see colorful Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) as I explored Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Calico Pennants are small in size—about 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length—but are among the most brightly colored dragonflies in my area. Adult males are bright red in color, as you can see in the first two photos, and females (and immature males) are bright yellow in color. Both genders have wonderfully intricate patterns on their wings.

I have noticed that the overall number of dragonflies has been dropping of later and I am mentally keeping track of which species are still around. In another month or so, most will be gone and I expect to see primarily Autumn Meadowhawks, Blue-faced Meadowhawks, and hopefully some Fine-lined Emeralds, a relatively uncommon late summer /early fall species that is found on coastal plains that include my favorite wildlife refuge.

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I really like Green Herons (Butorides virescens). Unlike their more stoic Great Blue Heron “cousins”, Green Herons seem to be full of personality. I have not seen one in several months, so I was delighted when I spotted this one on Friday at a small pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The vegetation around the pond had grown so high that I did not see the Green Heron until I was almost on top of him. My first indication that the heron was there was when I accidentally flushed him, but fortunately he flew away only a short distance and I was able to capture this image.

As is often the case, the heron was sporting the Mohawk-style look that always makes me think of punk rock. The lighting was good enough that I was able to capture some of the beautiful feather detail of the heron. Despite its name, though, I don’t really see much green on this green heron—I might have given it a different name if I had been in charge. 🙂

Green Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Damselflies in the genus Argia are known by the rather whimsical name of dancers, because of the distinctive jerky form of flight they use, in contrast to the straightforward direct flight of bluets, forktails, and other pond damselflies. This past Monday I was delighted to spot this male Blue-fronted Dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) while I was exploring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I have seen this species at other locations, but I think that this is the first time that I have spotted one at this refuge. Normally I have trouble identifying damselflies, because so many of them are similar in appearance, with multiple variations of black and blue. Blue-fronted Dancers, however, are quite distinctive because their thoraxes are almost completely blue, with only hairline black stripes on the shoulders and the middle of the back.

I like the way that the stems of the plants are arrayed in a linear, almost geometric pattern that adds visual interest to the background without distracting too much attention from the primary subject. The bright pops of blue on the damselfly really help to make it stand out from the primarily green background.

Blue-fronted Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is almost autumn, late in the season for most dragonflies. For many of them, their bright colors have faded and their wings are growing increasingly tattered. Yet somehow their beauty still shines through in their mature days.

With dragonflies, as with people, I am often drawn to their eyes, the so-called “window to the soul.” Dragonflies have such striking eyes and I invariably feel myself being pulled in as I gaze into them.

This past Monday I photographed several female Great Blue Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula vibrans) as I wandered the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In both of the photos below, the beauty of the dragonfly’s eyes really shows through. I encourage you to click on the images and you too can marvel at the wonderful colors and patterns of those eyes.

Our society tend to focus on youthful external beauty, which will inevitably fade. True beauty, I would argue, is not dependent on age—it depends more on the perspective of the beholder. If you look for beauty, you will find it for it is present all around us—beauty is everywhere.

Great Blue Skimmer

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first saw this bird on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I thought it was a type of gull. However, its flying pattern—it repeatedly flew low above the water— suggested to me that it was some other kind of bird. When I looked at my photos afterwards and checked my bird identification book, I concluded that it was most likely some kind of tern.

When I posted an image to a birding forum in Facebook, one of the experts there informed me that it was a Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia), a bird that I had never before seen. He pointed out “the heavy red bill, extensive black on the underside of the primaries, short tail, and full black cap” that indicated that this was a Caspian Tern and not the somewhat similar-looking Royal Tern.

As the summer begins to wind down, I will gradually shift my attention from insects to birds as my primary subjects. In the meantime, I will still be focused a lot on my beloved dragonflies and butterflies, with an occasional tern (or re-tern) to the birds.  🙂

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The sunlight was a bit harsh, but I actually like the way that it turned the background white, drawing even greater attention to the beautiful Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Every now and then I will take a shot, like this one, that turns out more “artsy” and stylized than my “normal” shots. It’s hard to explain, but this simple photo really appeals to me.

Viceroy

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Throughout most of the summer I have seen very few large butterflies. Recently, though, I have been seeing them in greater numbers. I do not know if this is somehow linked to the blooming of the thistle plants, but I have spotted numerous butterflies in patches of this plant during recent visits to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Last week I spotted this beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) high atop a plant and I captured the first image with the sky in the background. The second image is linked to a short video I captured yesterday of a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Most of the time I tend to associate Monarchs with milkweed, but this one sure seemed to be enjoying the thistle flower. Before long, it should begin its migration and perhaps this was part of the fueling process.

I am still experimenting with taking short videos with my iPhone and once again posted the video to YouTube. I have started a little channel on YouTube and have already posted a number of short clips, primarily of butterflies, bison, and butterflies, some of them with music tracks as accompaniment—I inserted some copyright free piano music, for example, in the Monarch video below. I have also experimented with some slightly longer compilations of clips with voiceover narration. Check out my channel Mike Powell if you are at all curious to see and hear what I have done so far.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I was delighted to spot this beautiful female Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) last Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. She was perched high in the vegetation and tolerated my presence pretty well, which permitted me to get shots from several angles. I love the way that the feet and the wings are in slightly different positions in each shot, as she adjusted her position to maintain her balance.

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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