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Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

I was busy this week, so I was not able to spend as much time out in nature as normally. The last two days, temperatures have soared well above normal to over 90 degrees (32 degrees C), so it has been really uncomfortable to spend much time outdoors. Later in the summer, my body will grow accustomed to the heat, but right now the high temperatures are unbearable.

I was able to make a short trip on Wednesday to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, a small nature preserve not far from where I live, and was delighted to spot this female Ashy Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus lividus). Ashy Clubtails are an early spring species—they appear in April and are gone by June—and I have seen them several times already this year. Most of the ones I have spotted have been males, so it was a treat to be able to photograph a female.

Ashy Clubtails like low perches and often perch on the ground, where they often are camouflaged by the vegetation. In this case, the dragonfly perched a bit above ground level, so I was able to get a pretty good shot of her profile. It is probably my imagination, but it seems to me that she was glancing up at me and smiling a little as she posed for this portrait.

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.li

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Although I enjoy photographing large, colorful butterflies, like the Zebra Swallowtail that I featured in a recent posting, I also love to photograph smaller, more nondescript butterflies. I spotted this pretty little Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and chased it about as it gathered nectar from several early spring wildflowers.

There are over 3500 species of skipper butterflies worldwide, according to Wikipedia, and the Silver-spotted Skipper is one of the few that I can reliably identify. Many of the others that I see are so similar in appearance that I have to pore over identification guides to try to figure out what kind they are. Often I end up guessing and am wrong just about as often as I am right in identifying a skipper.

Silver-spotted Skipper

Silver-spotted Skipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Normally you cannot gain access to the inside of a Mormon Temple if you are not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When one is built, open houses are held for a period of time and them the temple is dedicated and access is thereafter limited. The Mormon Temple in Washington D.C. has been under renovation the last four years and for the first time in almost 50 years, open house tours are  being offered there until 11 June. The Temple is scheduled to be rededicated on 14 August 2022.

Yesterday I had the chance to visit this amazing structure. It is the the third largest Mormon temple in the world (behind the temples in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles) with an interior space of 160,000 square feet (14864 square meters) and is the tallest at 288 feet (88 meters) at its highest point, the spire with a golden Angel Moroni with a trumpet, shown in the third photo below. There are six spires covered in 24 carat gold and the building is encased in white Alabama marble.

During our tour we visited six of the seven floors of the temple including the Baptistry (for ancestors), the Brides Room, Instruction Rooms, the Celestial Room, and the Sealing Rooms. The interiors are elegantly furnished and decorated, combining beauty with function. We were not permitted to take photos within the Temple, but there are number of videos on line showing the Washington D.C. Temple, including this one put out by the Mormon Church Newsroom that chronicles the renovation and shows the new interior.

There were lots of friendly volunteers throughout the Temple to help direct visitors and to answer any questions that we had. A lot of information about the Temple, including galleries of photos and historical information, can be found at the dctemple.org website. Although some of my personal beliefs are at odds with the teachings of the Mormon Church, I think that it is valuable to learn more about about others and to seek to understand more deeply what they believe—too often we rely on half-truths and falsehoods when looking at “others.”

 

Mormon Temple

Mormon Temple

Mormon Temple

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled to capture this image of an Eastern Comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) during a recent visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. When its wings are closed, this butterfly blends right in with the bark of the trees on which it frequently perches, so it was nice that it chose to perch on some green leaves.

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I set aside my camera for the most part this past weekend and enjoyed the company of others at Shrine Mont, a retreat center in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia, a welcome respite from the restrictions of the past two years. From time to time I would pull out my cell phone and capture a moment, but the most significant memories of the retreat are embedded in my heart and in my head.

There are lots of small cabins and other buildings scattered throughout the large property that encompasses over 1100 acres of forest, but the building that attracts your eye first is the massive Virginia House, shown in the second photo below. The Virginia House was formerly known as the Orkney Springs Hotel. It was built in 1873 and restored in 1987. At approximately 96,000 square feet, it is believed to be the largest wooden structure in Virginia.

On Sunday we participated in worship at the open-air Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration that serves as the Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, shown in the third photo below. The Shrine was built from 1924 to 1925 in the space of a natural amphitheater and includes a bell tower, a sacristy, a shrine crossing, choir and clergy stalls, a pulpit, a font and a lectern. Each of its stones was pulled by horse or rolled by local people from the mountain that embraces it, according to Wikipedia, and the baptismal font was originally a dugout stone used by Indians to grind corn.

As I was sitting in the outdoor pews during the church service, I happened to glance to the side and caught sight of a dozen or so Pink Lady’s Slipper orchids in bloom at the edge of the forest. Earlier that morning I had traipsed through the mud in search of some of these flowers that one of my fellow retreat members had spotted the previous day, and here there was an even greater abundance in plain sight. I was delighted to share my find with others when the service ended and it turned out that many of them had never seen a Lady’s Slipper in the wild or had not seen one since they were children.

Shrine Mont

Shrine Mont

Shrine Mont

Pink Lady's Slipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

Zebra Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have spent so much of my life living in cities and suburbs that this rural post office that I spotted this past weekend in Orkney Springs, Virginia seemed quaint and old-fashioned. According to the information that I could find on the internet, the population of this village is somewhere between 9 and 34 inhabitants. My only regret is that I was I was not able to visit the post office while it was open.

There are so many things I like about the scene that I was able to capture, from the vintage Coke signs to the bright orange folding chair on the porch.

orkney springs

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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

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

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

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

mike powell

Mike Powell

spider and snowflake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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

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

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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

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

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

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

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

Green Heron

Green Heron

Green Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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

Beauty is everywhere.

bearded irises

Bearded Iris

Bearded Iris

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

bee and phlox

Bee and Phlox

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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

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

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


Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Purple Martin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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

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

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

columbine

columbine

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As we were photographing some Spring Snowflake flowers (Leucojum vernum) on Saturday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, my dear friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer noticed what looked like a spider’s leg on the side of one of the flowers and asked me to go around to the other side of the flower to investigate.

Sharp-eyed Cindy was right—I spotted this tiny spider clinging to the side of the snowflake and was delighted that I was able to capture this image of it.

Leucojum vernum

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

Palm Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the rich color, velvet-like texture, and geometric shape of this beautiful little flower that I spotted yesterday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia. I believe that this is a Red Trillium (Trillium erectum). According to Wikipedia, Red Trilliums are also known as wake robin, bethroot, and stinking benjamin.

I was curious about the name “stinking benjamin,” so I searched on-line and learned that Red Trilliums produce fetid or putrid odors purported to attract carrion fly and beetle pollinators. Some describe the odor as similar to that of a wet dog—I did not get close enough to verify personally the accuracy of this assertion.

Red Trillium

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

Have a wonderful weekend.

Black Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most flowers have blooms at the end of their stems or at least in places above their leaves. Each spring, though, I encounter Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), a weird plant that seems to work in a totally different way. It puts out large umbrella-shaped leaves and eventually a single white blossom appears at the juncture point where the stem branches off in two directions. If you don’t know that the blooms are there, it is easy to miss them, because the large leaves hide them from view.

I saw a large number of Mayapples on Wednesday at Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge at the edge of Fort Belvoir, a nearby Army base where I have seen Mayapples in the past, but most often before or after they had flowered. I tried to capture the unique way that this plant grows in these photos, which was a bit of a challenge, because the blooms are so close to the ground.

I came across a fascinating article on the Wisconsin Horticulture website that noted that Mayapple  “typically grows in colonies from a single root in open deciduous forests and shady fields, riverbanks and roadsides…The upright stems grow from a shallow, creeping, branched underground rhizome, composed of many thick dark or reddish-brown tubers connected by fleshy fibers and downward spreading roots at the nodes. Each terminal bud produces a shoot. The mostly unbranched 12-18 inch tall stems are topped with umbrella-like (peltate) leaves. The leaves remain furled as the stem elongates in the spring, unfolding when the stem nears its full height. Each smooth, pale green, rounded, palmate leaf has 5-9 shallowly to deeply cut lobes. There are one or two leaves per stem, each up to a foot across. Only stems with more than one leaf will flower. Mayapple often forms large, dense colonies in the wild.”

As most of you know, I focus mostly on wildlife in my photography, but my almost insatiable sense of curiosity draws me to anything weird and wonderful that attracts my attention, like these Mayapples.

mayapple

Mayapple

Mayapple

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

bearded iris

bearded iris

bearded iris

iris

background

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

female Uhler's Sundragon

male Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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