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Archive for the ‘Portraits’ Category

Male Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) are rather odd ducks. They have an unusual pointed head and striking yellow eyes. However, they have a striped pattern on their bills that make them pretty easy to identify. Although they paddle about a lot like dabbling ducks, they will periodically dive to the bottom to eat submerged plants and aquatic invertebrates.

Despite their name, it is unusual to be able to see the chestnut collar on a Ring-necked Duck’s black neck. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the ring is “not a good field mark to use for identifying the bird, but it jumped out to the nineteenth century biologists that described the species using dead specimens.”

Like several other species that I have featured recently, this Ring-necked Duck was part of a small flock that I spotted swimming about in a small suburban pond not far from where I live. Sometimes in the winter I will make a quick visit to this pond when I to experience nature, but don’t have the time to devote to a trip to the larger wildlife refuges in my area.

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the spiky reddish “hairstyle” of a female female Hooded Merganser duck (Lophodytes cucullatus). I spotted this little beauty on Monday at a small suburban pond not far from where I live. Technically this is a “stormwater management facility,” but the pond is big enough and deep enough that a number of different duck species (and a lot of Canada Geese) are resident there during the winter months.

Hooded Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is wonderful to capture images of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in action, but most of the time when I spot one, the eagle is merely perching in a tree. Although the eagle is immobile, it is clearly keeping an eye on what is going on and is ready to spring into the air without warning.

Here are a couple of shots of perched eagle from a couple of recent visits to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Northern Virginia, about 15 miles (24 km) from where I live. The images are not spectacular or prize-worthy, but I nonetheless feel a special thrill whenever I see a Bald Eagle and doubly so when I manage to take a photo of it.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first spotted a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) perched high in a tree on Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I noticed that its head was bowed. I figured that it was either praying or napping, probably the latter.

The heron raised its head a little and opened its eyes when I got closer, but apparently it decided that I was not a threat. Gradually the heron’s head started to drop and it drifted off to sleep again. As you can see in the final photo, herons sleep with their eyes closed (or at least that is what it looks like they do).

Sweet dreams, handsome heron.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) are one of the birds that I hear a lot more often than I see. Most of the time these little birds are flitting about in the vegetation and leaf litter near the ground and and I am lucky to get a glimpse of one of them.

On Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a handsome Carolina Wren hopped up on a branch right in front of me and perched for a moment. I was thrilled to capture this little portrait of the wren that shows the beautiful markings on its wings and its distinctive white eye stripe.

Carolina Wren

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to spot two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the large nest at the refuge. They have been hanging around the area for a while, appearing to be keeping an eye on the nest, but this was the first time that I have spotted them inside of it. The eagle on the left was visible for an extended period of time, while the one on the right popped up only occasionally and appeared to working on renovating the interior of the nest.

The nest is quite large and deep, so it is often hard to tell when the eagles are in it, especially when they begin to sit on their eggs. I was not able to get many clear shots, but was happy with the two images below that show slightly different poses of the eagle couple.

UPDATE: I decided to add a third photo to give you an idea of the massive size of the eagle nest. Every year it seems like they add a new layer of sticks that increases its size.

Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles

eagle nest

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Late on Monday afternoon I spotted this large male Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as he was foraging in the leaf litter. The turkey was very focused on scratching about in the fallen leaves and let me get so close to him that I was able to take this shot at 250mm on my zoom lens that extends to 600mm.

The light was already starting to fade—the sun set at 4:53 pm that day—and I know that my relatively old DSLR does not handle low light very well, so I did not want to raise the ISO beyond ISO 800, for fear of introducing an unacceptable amount of graininess. Instead, I captured this image with an exposure of 1/40 second, a really slow shutter speed. Even though I was using a monopod for stability, many of my shots were blurry, but this particular image ended up pretty sharp.

I love the way that I was able to capture so many details of the turkey’s feathers. From a distance, the main feathers look to be a solid dark color, but up-close, they show a lot of color variation and patterns. I was happy too that I was able to get a good view of the turkey’s “beard.” I’ve read that you can estimate the age of a turkey on the basis of the length of its beard, but I am not confident that I could figure that out—all I can say is that the turkey appeared to be a mature male to me.

Wild Turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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On many cold winter days, sparrows are the most common birds that I see. No matter how inclement the weather may be, sparrows are busily foraging in the trees and on the ground. Last Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, on a day when it was sunny, but frigid, I was able to capture little environmental portraits of these three sparrows, all of which I believe are Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia).

My favorite of these three images is definitely the first one, with its smooth background colors and the linear shapes of the vines. However, I also really like the way that the second and third images show the little birds in their environments, with one with a cool palette of colors and the other with a touch of sunshine and warmer tones.

Many of you know that I love to photograph large birds like hawks and eagles, but I equally enjoy capturing the beauty of smaller birds, like these sparrows. Beauty is everywhere.

A belated Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate Christmas. I decided to turn off my computer yesterday and am starting to catch up today. On Christmas Eve, I played handbells in one church service and then sang in a choir for a second service. On Christmas Day, I ran the audio video portion of our service that we also broadcast on Zoom, so I have been pretty busy

In the Episcopal Church that I now attend, we have only just begun our celebration of Christmas and will continue to do so until Epiphany on 6 January, when we celebrate the arrival of the Three Wise Men. I grew up singing the song The Twelve Days of Christmas and thought that it referred to the twelve days leading up to Christmas. It was only later in my adult life that I learned that Christmas Day itself is the first day of Christmas. The radio stations may already have moved on from playing Christmas songs, but I will continue to do so for at least another 10 days or so (and I actually like singing Christmas carols throughout the year).

Merry Christmas and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2023.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A patch of sumac berries at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge has providing nourishment for a lot of different birds as we begin the winter winter season. On Tuesday of this week, I photographed a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) as it partook of the bounty of berries.

The day was cold, but sunny and the blue sky provided a beautiful backdrop for this little portrait of the mockingbird. The bird’s up-turned tail provided a nice visual counterbalance to the angled branch of the sumac plant and the visible berry in the bird’s open mouth was an extra bonus.

This morning as I was doing a little research on the sumac, I finally discovered the name of this type of sumac. I am pretty sure that this is a species know as Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra). According to the plant database at wildfire.org, Smooth Sumac is the only shrub or tree species native to all 48 contiguous states. I have never been tempted to taste the little berries, but they are reported to be very sour and can be used to make a drink similar to lemonade.

Northern Mockingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Bluebirds always make me happy and I will rarely pass up an opportunity to photograph one—I simply love that complementary color combination of blue and orange. I was doubly delighted on Tuesday to capture this image of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched on branches that formed a natural frame that highlighted his beauty.

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During the winter months it is not uncommon for me to see large flocks of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). When the lighting is poor, they appear to be entirely black in color. When the sun is shining brightly, however, I am sometimes able to see the speckles in their feathers and a shiny iridescence that often looks greenish or pinkish in color.

This starling was part of a flock that I spotted on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The birds were foraging high in the trees and most of them flew away as I approached. This one hung around for a bit longer than the others, allowing me to capture these shots that highlight markings pretty well.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “All the European Starlings in North America descended from 100 birds set loose in New York’s Central Park in the early 1890s. The birds were intentionally released by a group who wanted America to have all the birds that Shakespeare ever mentioned. It took several tries, but eventually the population took off. Today, more than 200 million European Starlings range from Alaska to Mexico, and many people consider them pests.”

Another fun fact that I learned on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website relates to the feathers of this cool-looking bird. “Starlings turn from spotted and white to glossy and dark each year without shedding their feathers. The new feathers they grow in fall have bold white tips – that’s what gives them their spots. By spring, these tips have worn away, and the rest of the feather is dark and iridescent brown. It’s an unusual changing act that scientists term “wear molt.””

European Starling

European Starling

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I really liked the way that the light was falling on the face of this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), so I zoomed in close to capture this portrait-like headshot of the handsome heron last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) had turned its head away from the light when I spotted it last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but I love the way that the light coming from the side illuminated the pale yellow color on its belly. I really like the rakish masks and crests of Cedar Waxwings. Normally the tips of their tails are bright yellow in color, but the tail of this one seemed to have a reddish-orange coloration.

Cedar Waxwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Warblers have tiny feet, though I usually can’t see them in my photos, because they are perched high in the trees. On Monday I was fortunate to capture a series of images of a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge that was perched relatively low in the vegetation and you can actually see its feet.

The warbler was in almost constant motion and gave me a whole variety of poses in a very short period of time. Here are some of my favorites from my mini portrait session with this beautiful little Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I love to watch Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias). Most of the time when I see them, they are standing motionless in the water, watching and waiting for prey to come within range. We both stand there, waiting for a decisive moment when the heron will strike.

When I spotted this heron last Friday, he was in shallow water, water that was much to shallow for it to be able to catch a large fish. The heron was hunched over and was making multiple strikes, but I could not tell if they were successful. From the angle at which I was shooting, the heron’s bill looked cartoonishly long and its body seemed much more compact and squat than normal.

Finally, as you can see in the second photo, the heron caught something big enough for me to see. The heron flipped the little fish into the air and I managed to capture the moment when the fish was in mid-air, just before the heron gulped it down. The positioning of the heron and the direction of the light made the heron’s mouth look a bit like that of a mini-pelican.

Later that same day I spotted a Great Blue Heron standing in some colorful vegetation that hid its lower body. Unlike the first heron that seemed to be having fun, this second heron seemed to be stern and intense as it surveyed the marshland. I really like the way that the vegetation in both the foreground and the background was blurred, which draws the viewer’s attention directly to the heron.

 

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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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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I was thrilled to spot this very pretty filly in the midst of a band of wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota on 10 August 2022. If you look closely, you’ll see that she has incredible blue eyes.

I think that this baby horse may be named Dreamer, born on 2 June, judging from the photos of the 2022 foals at the park on the North Dakota Badlands Horse website. The North Dakota Badlands Registry, according to its website, is a non-profit organization that “was established to register, promote, appreciate and preserve the wild horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota that are unique to the area.”

Several times during my visits to the national park, I encountered members of this organization while I was observing the , who shared with me a lot of information about the wild horses. One of the really cool things that the group does is keep track of the composition of the different bands of horses within the park—it is estimated that there are about 183 wild horses scattered throughout the national park.

It definitely was a challenge getting a clear shot of the baby horse’s face—most often her head was down or she was hidden behind her mother. However, I waited patiently and eventually was able to capture these shots of the sweet little horse.

wild horse filly

wild horse filly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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Do you shoot selfies? Generally I am not a fan of selfies, at least not in the way that some people use (and overuse) them on social media—I am not that much in love with my own face. Still, I am not totally against them. I remember times in the past, when I was shooting with a film camera, when I would ask someone to take a picture of me in front of some well-known site or monument.

When I do want to insert myself into the frame, I try to do so in a creative way. When I was recently in the badlands of North Dakota, for example, I decided I wanted to try to create a selfie that conveyed a “bad boy” vibe. I really am a nice guy, so I wasn’t sure that I could pull off the look and was pleasantly surprised with the result. Some of my friends say the shot makes me look like I had just stepped off of a Harley.

I love to take photos just after sunrise and just before sunset when the sun is so low that it creates elongated shadows of me that are perhaps my favorite type of selfie, a selfie without a face. They always remind me of the famous sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, like Walking Man. I took the second photo with my iPhone in the early morning of 28 July as I stared out at the vast expanse of North Dakota badlands at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The final photo is an unusual kind of selfie, a selfie without a face or a body. My orange KIA Soul is a representation of me, a kind of symbolic representation of who I am. I sometimes describe my car as practical, economical, and a little quirky, descriptors that apply equally well to me.

bad boy in badlands

elongated shadow

KIA Soul

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was so much fun to watch the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) that I encountered in multiple locations during my recent visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. I could see them from my car when I was driving along the roads looking for buffalo and wild horses, but I also encountered them on both sides of some of  the trails when I was hiking.

The prairie dogs seemed playful and energetic and were surprisingly vocal. They seemed to be calling out to each other all of the time in very distinctive squeaky voices. It seems like some of the calls were warnings that I was approaching, because quite often the prairie dogs would scurry into their holes as I drew near, sometimes peeking out with just the top of their heads and their eyes visible.

Here are some selected shots of prairie dogs in which I tried to capture a sense of their playful personalities.

Prairie Dogs

Prairie Dog

Prairie Dog

 

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As many of you know, I have spent the last week driving across the United States to spend some time with family outside of Seattle, Washington. I departed from Virginia at midday last Monday and by the time that I finally arrived on Saturday afternoon, I had traveled a distance of 3085 miles (4964 km).

I spent a lot of time driving, but made an extended stop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota, where I camped out for two nights. During my visit, I had multiple encounters with American Bison (Bison bison), including one memorable moment when my car was almost surrounded as a small herd of bison moved past me on the road.

It was a bit strange for me to take wildlife photos from inside my car, but that definitely was the safest thing to do with these bison. Some of the bulls looked to be as large as my KIA Soul. I noted that there were a good number of calves too, and definitely did not want to mess with a potentially mad mamma bison if I got between her and her baby.

I am still sorting through my images, but I thought I would lead with these little portraits that show some of the personality of the individual bison.

In addition to the bison at the national park, I was able to photograph wild horses, prairie dogs, birds, and even a few dragonflies. You should see some of them in the near future.

American Bison

American Bison

American Bison

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Dragonflies perch in many different ways and in many different places. Here are some simple shots of three dragonflies that I encountered last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The first one is a Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami) and I love the way that its coloration contrasts so well with the sea of green vegetation in which it is perched. The dragonfly in the second photo, my personal favorite of the three images, is a Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). When it’s hot outside, some dragonflies, like this one, like to assume a handstand-like pose, often called the “obelisk” position, to reduce their exposure to the direct sunlight. The final photo shows a Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans) perched on the tip of a leaf.

Each of these shots represents my efforts to isolate a dragonfly a bit from its surroundings and to highlight its beauty and its behavior. None of theme is spectacular or award-worthy, but they are pleasing little portraits of some of my summer companions.

Needham's Skimmer

Blue Dasher

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I had no idea that Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) liked mushrooms, but this squirrel certainly seemed to be nibbling on one when I spotted him on Wednesday at Green Spring Gardens. I love the way that he was holding the mushroom in his “hands” as he gently chewed on the stem—I think he may have already consumed the mushroom cap.

Squirrel and mushroom

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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June is Pride Month, a time to honor all LGBTQI+ people who are fighting to live authentically and freely. Pride Month is part of a broader ongoing struggle against intolerance, discrimination, and injustice. Diversity is one of our strengths and we must not allow it to be weakened by divisiveness and hatred. As a member of this community, I want to my small part to help to raise awareness and broader acceptance

The first image is from a photoshoot that I did last year with my dear friend Cindy Dyer and features my Pride edition Converse All-Stars. As you can tell I am pretty flexible. Cindy and I had a fun time in our studio as we tried to think of creative ways to feature my colorful sneakers.

The second shot was from the same session. We took lots of photos last year and Cindy featured some of them in two postings on her blog entitled In the studio with Michael Powell and In the studio with Michael Powell (in action!). Yesterday we went over the photos from a year and selected a few more to share. We tried out a number of different looks, including matching a Pride t-shirt with an old tuxedo jacket that I happen to own, which made for a cool and quirky look.

Cindy takes wonderful portraits and we took some more serious shots during our session last year, including the final shot below, which some of my friends have suggested needs to be on a book jacket. We played around with the image yesterday and Cindy decided to convert it to black and white in order to really draw attention to my eyes and away from the varying colors of my face when viewed up close.

Wow—Cindy is a magician with her camera!

Pride Month 2022

Pride Month 2020

Mike Powell

© 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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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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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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Some people speak figuratively about a “snake in the grass,” but that is literally what I encountered last Friday at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia. The Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) was moving about in a grass patch at the edge of a small stream when I first spotted it.

When the snake raised its head to look around, I got down low and moved closer. How close was I? I was using a relatively long macro lens, which makes it look like I was closer than I actually was, but I was close enough that you can see my reflection in the snake’s eye. The second image image is merely a cropped version of the first image that lets you focus more closely on the eye.

Photographically, though, I prefer the first image. I like the way that I was able to capture blurry grass in both the foreground and the background. The rocky area at the bottom of the image helps to ground the snake and provides a sense of the environment.

I recognize that some people find snakes to be creepy, but I am fascinated by them. It was interesting to note that as I was moving closer to the snake when I saw it, others were moving farther away from it.

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I could not get an angle that let me see what this Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was eating earlier this month at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but I was very much taken by the cute way that it had curled up its tail as it was eating. Normally I think of a squirrel with its long fluffy tail trailing behind it, so I was surprised to see the tail pulled into the squirrel’s body, making the small animal look even smaller.

In addition to the curious tail position, I like the way that I was able to capture the texture of the branch. The color of the branch was almost a perfect match for the squirrel’s fur and the brownish buds were almost the same color as the fur surrounding the squirrel’s eye.

squirrel

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I would not necessarily call this Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) handsome, but I am happy with the way that I was able to capture a bit of the bird’s personality in this close-up portrait shot. I spotted this vulture last week as it perched low in a tree just off the edge of a trail that I was following at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Some people are freaked out by the fact that vultures eat carrion, but most people acknowledge that these scavengers play a valuable role in our ecosystems. I am ok with a turkey vulture’s dietary choices, though I would probably refuse to join a turkey vulture in a meal if one of them made such an offer.

Turkey Vulture

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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