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Archive for the ‘Portraits’ Category

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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Last week I assisted fellow photographer Cindy Dyer in taking some headshots for a client and served as a test subject for the lighting setup. Cindy used a portable X-Drop background stand, several LED lights with soft boxes, a Westcott Eyelighter reflector, and a tall V-flat to achieve optimal results. Believe it or not, this is a relatively simple lighting setup.

Cindy and I share studio space with a video production company, so there is plenty of room for lighting setups like this one. I have very little experience with studio photography, so I learn a lot each time I assist Cindy. My job usually is to help set everything up, make adjustments to the lights as she is shooting, and engage with the subjects to keep them relaxed and comfortable. I marvel at the ease with which she poses the subjects to get wonderful results, a total contrast with the wildlife subjects that I normally photograph. I think it is good to stretch ourselves from time to time into new areas of exploration.

Cindy took these shots of the setup with her iPhone, but used a Nikon D850 for the actual headshots. If you want to see some examples of Cindy’s work, check out her portrait website at http://cindydyerportraits.com/portraits/.

Today is a big day for Cindy as the United States Postal Service releases another stamp with one of her photographs, a Global Forever stamp that features an African Daisy. This round, Global stamp can be used to mail a 1-ounce letter to any country to which First-Class Mail International service is available.

This new stamp is the eleventh image that Cindy has had published as a Forever® stamp. Previously, she had images for: Ferns 2014, Water Lilies 2015 and Kenilworth Park (as part of the National Park Service 100th Anniversary 16-stamp panel) in 2016. Check out Cindy’s blog posting for additional information on the African Daisy stamp, including a photo of the stamp itself. Congratulations, Cindy.

studio setup

studio setup

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Quite a few ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) have returned to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I spent a lot of time last Thursday trying to photograph them. Most of my efforts were focused on trying to capture images of them in flight.

Ospreys will fly in circles over the water and occasionally will hover and glide a little as they search for prey, which makes it somewhat easier to focus on them than on many other birds. However, it’s still a pretty formidable challenge to get shots in which the eyes are visible and in focus and in which the wing positions are good.

For the first image, I did not react quickly enough to zoom out when the osprey flew overhead, so I clipped its wings in the photo. I think that it is nonetheless a cool shot that provides a good look at the feather details of the osprey and at its eye and beak.

In the second shot, I captured the osprey at a moment when it had its wings fully extended. I like the way that the osprey’s yellow eye really stands out in the image.

I am sure that I will get lots of chances to photograph ospreys in the upcoming months, but it is always exciting me to them again for the first time each year—another sign that the seasons are changing.

osprey

osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Perched high atop the vegetation, this Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) posed for me during a recent portrait session at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The mockingbird could not decide which side was its best side, so I took profile shots with the bird looking in both directions.

I think the bird liked the results and tweeted them on Twitter.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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“This bud’s for you.” A Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) seemed happy that buds are finally starting to appear on the trees on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “In winter, the Carolina Chickadee’s diet is about half plant, half animal. The rest of the year about 80–90 percent of their diet is animal (mostly insects and spiders).”

Progress is uneven, but it looks like spring inexorably is on the way.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There are signs that spring is on the way, but progress is slow and the bright spring blossoms and flowers have not yet appeared. The grey of winter continue to dominate, so it is especially energizing to spot brilliant colors, like those of this male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I am more than ready for the return of spring as February comes to a close. It won’t be long, I am sure, before I see my first crocuses and daffodils—I am keeping my eyes open for them.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was dogsitting for some friends this past weekend, so I did not have a chance to go out into the wild with my camera. So I decided to try to capture some images of Apollo, my weekend companion. Apollo was adopted from a shelter and is still a bit anxious and a little hyper, so I decided that it would be less disruptive for me to come into his environment than for him to come into mine.

In the first image, I captured one of the rare moments when Apollo, who I believe is some variety of collie, was relaxing. Most of the time he was really alert, as you can see in the second image. His favorite spot was in front of a sliding glass door that allowed him to keep a close eye on activity in the back yard. When we went outside, he seemed to think that it was one of his responsibilities to chase away any birds that dared to perch on the ground.

Over the course of our time together, Apollo warmed up more and more, though he does not appear to be a snuggling kind of dog. On Sunday morning, though, he curled up on one end of the sofa as I participated in a virtual church service while seated at the opposite end. I really like dogs and my time with Apollo was a welcome change to my pandemic routine—a different kind of encounter with wildlife.

Apollo

Apollo

Apollo

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Recently I have been seeing Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) fairly frequently at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The long tail and the coloration of this bird makes it fairly easy to identify.

Normally mockingbirds are quite vocal, with an amazing variety of songs, but the ones that I have seen recently have been surprisingly silent. On the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, I learned that, “Northern Mockingbirds typically sing from February through August, and again from September to early November. A male may have two distinct repertoires of songs: one for spring and another for fall.”

I also learned that the most frequent singers are unmated males. “Northern Mockingbirds sing all through the day, and often into the night. Most nocturnal singers are unmated males, which sing more than mated males during the day, too.” I wonder if that means that the best singers cease singing once they have found mates and the ones that we hear most often are the second-tier singers.

I was happy with the little portraits that I captured of this handsome mockingbird. The first photo shows a bit of the environment in which I found the bird, a beautiful mixture of mostly shades of brown. I really like the way that the background came out, but found the small branches to be a little distracting.

I changed my shooting angle for the second shot and cropped a little close to focus attention on the subject. As you can probably tell, I also used Photoshop to remove the little branch from the frame. Some photographers are purists and won’t remove elements from their photos or even crop them, but I do edit my shots, though most of the time I make only a small number of changes and adjustments.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Brown Creepers (Certhia americana) are strange little birds. They crawl upwards on tree trunks and large branches in a spiraling motion, pausing periodically to probe crevices for tiny insects with their slender, downcurved bills—they never seem to perch and they rarely seem to fly.  Their mottled coloration helps them to blend in really well with the bark of the trees, so I rarely see a Brown Creeper, though I suspect they may be fairly common.

On Wednesday as I was walking along a trail at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my eyes detected some moment in a tree just off of the trail. By the time I spotted the bird, which I was able to identify as a Brown Creeper, it was already high up in the tree. Fortunately I was able to track the creeper when it dropped from that tree down to the base of an adjacent tree to begin another upward creep.

I took dozens of photos as the bird circled around the tree and in most of them the bird was blocked or blurred. However, I did manage to get a couple of clear shots. In the first image, you can see the Brown Creeper in action as it investigates a crevice. Note the curve in the bill and the way that it has positioned its large feet for stability. The tail is supposed to be really stiff too and provides additional support.

The second image provides a good look at the long, lanky body of this Brown Creeper. You can see the white underparts of the bird that are usually hidden against the tree trunks. I am fascinated by the patterns in its feathers and the markings on the creeper’s heads and encourage you to click on the image to get a more detailed look at these features.

I love the description of this bird on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that cited naturalist W.M. Tyler, who wrote in 1948 the following words:

“The Brown Creeper, as he hitches along the bole of a tree, looks like a fragment of detached bark that is defying the law of gravitation by moving upward over the trunk, and as he flies off to another tree he resembles a little dry leaf blown about by the wind.”

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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If I had to list my favorite birds, Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) would certainly be near the top of the list. The color combination of blue and orange is so striking and so beautiful that it delights me every time that I am blessed to spot a bluebird. Without fail, I also recall a comment I received several years ago from a young reader, Benjamin, who noted that the birds had as much orange as blue in their feathers and wondered why they were not called Orange Bluebirds. Why indeed?

I already posted a few bluebird photos from a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge last week, but decided that there were a few more that I just had to share. When the subjects are this photogenic, it is so much fun to see how many different “looks” I can get by varying my shooting angle and composition. I love how each of these there photos has a distinctively different background and “feel.”

Do you have favorite birds too? It should come as no surprise to those of you who follow this blog regularly, that Bald Eagles are probably at the top of my list.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This cool-looking bird is a female scaup—I love the white stripe on her face and her striking eyes. If I were a bit better at bird identification, I might be able to figure out is she is a Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) or a Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). The differences between the two species are pretty subtle, especially when it comes to females, so I will generally identify them simply as “scaups.”

Throughout this month, I have seen quite a few scaups in flocks in the deep waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Scaups are diving ducks and therefore rarely seem to come as close to the shore as dabbling ducks like mallards and pintails. It is therefore quite a challenge to get a detailed shot of a scaup.

On the day when I took this photo, the wind was kicking up and the waters were rough, which slowed down the scaup enough for me to be able to capture this image—I recommend clicking on the image to get a good look at the facial features of this distinctive duck.

scaup

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) definitely did not seem to be thrilled with my presence last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Despite its looks of disapproval, though, it remained in place for our little portrait session and was still perched when I continued down the trail.

You never know how wildlife will react when they detect your presence. Most often they will crawl, swim, or fly away immediately, because they perceive you as a predator. Occasionally, particularly when they are young, they will look back at you with a mixture of wonder and may even come a little closer. On rare occasions, you seem to come to a silent agreement with your subject to peacefully coexist.

Generally I photograph wildlife subjects from a good distance away (with the notable exception of insects that I like to photograph at close range) and try not to spook them. Sometimes, though, you just can’t help it. This eagle was perched on some branches overhanging the trail that I had to use to get back to where my car was parked—I had to pass right under the perched eagle.

I tried to move slowly and stealthily, but I knew from past experience that an eagle’s eyesight is much keener than mine and its reaction time much quicker—there was no way I was going to pass by unnoticed. As you can undoubtedly tell, I took these shots shooting upwards from almost directly below the eagle. I made small adjustments to my position as I tried to frame the eagle through the branches, but I did not want to scare away the eagle.

As I departed, I was really happy with the encounter and the fact that the eagle was able to retain its chosen spot. The eagle, for its part, was probably equally happy to return to basking in the warmth of the winter sun after being momentarily disturbed by a pesky photographer.

 

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last Wednesday was a wonderful day for photographing Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I spotted them at several locations on the refuge and even managed to get a few portrait-style shots in which the eagles look particularly regal and majestic.

Earlier in the day the sun was shining brightly and I had the brilliant blue sky as a backdrop, as you see in the second photo below. However, that eagle was buried a bit in the vegetation and the background is a little more cluttered than I would have preferred. Still, I like the expression on the eagle’s face, the kind of semi-smile that some people make when you ask them to pose.

Later in the day the skies clouded over and the color of the background was much more subdued. Somehow, that seems to fit well with the serious expression on the face of the eagle in the first image. I like too that he was perched on a “snag,” a dead or dying tree that is still standing, so there were no distracting small tree branches.

I am always happy when I manage to see a Bald Eagle, one of the symbols of the United States, and even more thrilled when I can capture images like this one.

bald eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Does a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) have a neck? Many birds look round in the winter, when they fluff up their feathers to retain heat, but that effect is exaggerated with Ruby-crowned Kinglets, because they have really large heads and no visible necks.

All in all the proportions seem all out of whack, giving the bird a cartoonish look. (Speaking of “whack,” I saw a wonderful cartoon recently. It showed an elevator with a sign that said “Out of Whack” with a subheading that added “More whack on order.” Sorry, I should have warned you that I have a warped sense of humor.)

I spotted this tiny little Ruby-crowned Kinglet on Monday as I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There is still a lot of snow in the untrodden, shaded areas of the refuge and there was a thin coating of ice on some of the ponds. Many birds were active, foraging feverishly in the trees and in the brush. This kinglet was full of nervous energy, constantly in motion, flicking its wings as it darted in and out of the vegetation.

Although the species name includes a ruby crown, that crown is almost always hidden. In the second photo, you can just barely see a little red stripe on the top of the bird’s head. Apparently when an adult male is excited, he flashes his brilliant red crown, but I don’t recall ever having seen anything that dramatic.

Given the modest size of the bird’s “crown” it is no wonder that he is known as a “kinglet”—if he had a more impressive crown, perhaps he would have been called a “king.”

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Did you know that woodpeckers have tongues? They use their long sticky tongues to probe the holes they peck for grubs or other small insects. Last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I observed a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) pecking away feverishly and was delighted when reviewing my photos to see that I had gotten some shots of its tongue at work. You can see the tongue clearly in the first photo below, though you may need to zoom in to do so.

As I was doing a little research, I came across a fascinating article by Rebecca Heisman on the American Bird Conservancy website entitled “The Amazing Secrets of Woodpecker Tongues.” The article explained the anatomy and function of a woodpecker’s tongue in a way that was both understandable and fun. For example, when talking about the length of a woodpecker’s tongue, it stated:

“The total length of a woodpecker tongue can be up to a third of the bird’s total body length, although the exact proportions vary from species to species. This includes both the part that sticks out past the end of the beak, and the part that stays anchored in the head. If our tongues were the same proportion, they would be around two feet long!”

So where does the tongue go when it is not in use? The tongue is retracted behind the skull and helps to protect the woodpecker’s brain when it is hammering away at a tree. Wow!

There are so many cool things to learn about nature—I often feel like I am only beginning to scratch the surface of a whole range of secrets that are waiting to be revealed to me as I explore more and more.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I always admire the agility and balancing skills of tiny birds—I know that I could not hold a position like that of this sparrow that I spotted last week at Huntley Meadows Park. I think that it is a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), but I am always a bit uncertain when it comes to sparrows.

As for balance, I know that I can always use more of that in my life. When I was still working full-time, all my employers gave lip service to the importance of “work-life balance.” The sad reality was that most of us were workaholics devoting way too much energy to our work and neglecting our lives. It was only when I cut back on my hours during the final decade of my work life that I began to discover some of that mythical sense of balance.

Part of that process has been a deliberate cultivation of my creative side, which I have neglected most of my life. My photography and this blog have played a critical role in that journey of discovery and rediscovery. I really appreciate all of the support and encouragement that so many of you have provided over the years and continue to provide as my journey continues. Thanks.

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I often see Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) soaring high overhead when I am exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I have always been amazed at the way that they effortlessly glide for long periods of time without having to flap their wings. I never really appreciated, though, how massive a wingspan Turkey Vultures have, because the the previous times I had seen a vulture at close range, they have generally been perched with their wings tucked in.

On Thursday, I managed to flush several Turkey Vultures that had been pecking away at something at water’s edge. They flew up into some nearby trees and began to preen themselves as they patiently waited for me to pass. I was quite surprised when one of them spread its wings wide open and then glanced back at me over its shoulder. The wing display was impressive.

I also took advantage of the situation to capture a portrait shot of one of the other vultures that was perched on a broken off tree. I not sure that I would call this bird “beautiful” in a traditional sense, but I do like the way that I was able to capture a bit of its personality in this shot—there is even a hint of a smile.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most woodpeckers have simple patterns of black and white feathers and sometimes a touch of red. Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus), on the other hand, have a beautiful brown plumage that is richly patterned with black spots, bars, and crescents and also have brightly-colored wing and tail feathers that, alas, are often hidden from view when they are perched—I like to think of flickers as the “rock stars” of the woodpecker world.

I was fascinated to read on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that there are two variants of Northern Flickers, an Eastern one and a Western one. “The key difference is the color of the flight-feather shafts, which are either a lemon yellow or a rosy red. Yellow-shafted forms have tan faces and gray crowns, and a red crescent on the nape. Males have a black mustache stripe. Red-shafted forms have a gray face, brown crown, and no nape crescent, with males showing a red mustache stripe.”

The flicker’s flight-feathers are not visible in the photo below, but you can see the male’s black mustache stripe, indicating that he is an Eastern variant. I highly recommend clicking on the image to get a closer view of the fascinating patterns in the plumage of this beautiful bird that I spotted on Wednesday at Huntley Meadows Park.

Northern Flicker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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