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Archive for the ‘spring’ Category

It is a simple law of nature that all creatures have to eat and many of my subjects are carnivores. The question of whether a creature is predator or prey is often a relative one—today’s predator can easily become tomorrow’s prey.

I try not to get emotionally involved when I witness one creature feeding on another, but that is not always possible. For me it is somewhat jarring when I see one dragonfly eating another—it feels like cannibalism.

For some reason, most such encounters that I have witnessed have involved Eastern Pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis). This species is not at that large or powerful, but seems particularly fierce. Some other dragonflies catch their prey and eat while they are flying, their version of “fast food,” so that may be why I don’t see dragonflies consuming other dragonflies very often.

In the first photo, a female Eastern Pondhawk was feasting on a male Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) that it had just caught. As you can see, the dragonfly holds its prey in its long legs and begins by eating the head.

In the second photo, taken at a different location, another female Eastern Pondhawk was munching on an unidentifiable damselfly. Readers sometimes ask me about the differences between dragonflies and damselflies and this photo gives you a general idea of the relative size and shape of their bodies.

According to a fascinating posting called “What do Dragonflies Eat?” on The Infinite Spider website, “All adult dragonflies are insectivores, which means they eat insects they catch with their spiny hairy legs.  The insects are then held in a basket-like device while flying. They particularly delight in mosquitoes (30-100+ per day per dragonfly!) as well as other pesky flight bugs  such as flies, butterflies, bees, and even other dragonflies.”

Check out the posting that I referenced in the previous paragraph, if you dare, for details about how dragonflies actually eat. Here is a sneak preview, “The main thing to notice is that they have jaws that work side to side and that are shaped like wicked meat hooks, mandibles that go up and down and maxillae that act like a lower lip and hold food.” Yikes!

Eastern Pondhawk

 

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Lilies are now blooming in the garden of my neighbor, Cindy Dyer, who is also my photography mentor and muse. There are all kind of lilies there, including daylilies, Asiatic lilies, and giant white ones. Cindy deliberately likes to plant flowers that she knows will be photogenic.

I always feel overwhelmed when trying to photograph groups of anything, so I naturally gravitate to close-ups of individual flowers, focusing in on details that grab my eyes. Sometimes it is shapes, while at other times it may be colors or textures. Here are a few photos from my visit on Tuesday to Cindy’s garden, my impressions of some of the beautiful lilies that I encountered.

lily

lily

lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I was excited to capture this image of a beautiful Turquoise Bluet damselfly (Enallagma divagans) as I explored the edge of a small pond in Prince William County, Virginia. The damselfly was conducting short patrols over the water and then would perch on the vegetation sticking out of the water.

I got low to the ground and squatted as close to the water’s edge as I dared, doing my best to avoid falling into the water as I leaned forward. I managed to stay dry as I waited patiently. Eventually the Turquoise Bluet perched within range of my lens and I was able to capture a pretty detailed image of the little bluet, which was about 1.4 inches (35 mm) in length.

Turquoise Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love dragonflies with patterned wings and one of the coolest ones in our area is the male Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), which has a distinctive combination of one dark and one white blotch per wing. Eventually the immature male in the first photo will turn bluish in color, but for now he has the brown and yellow colors that he shares with the females. The females have only a single large blotch on each wing, so usually I can tell the genders apart.

When the male first emerges, however, the white blotches may be hard to see, so I have to look more closely at other aspects of the dragonfly’s body. I am pretty confident that the dragonfly in the second photo is a very young male Widow Skimmer.

It was really easy to track a male Widow Skimmer dragonfly in the air, because its colorful wings made it look almost like a butterfly. However, the dragonfly in the first photo was remarkably skittish and would perch only momentarily in between its patrols over the waters of the small pond that I visited on Monday. Eventually my patience paid off and I was able to get a shot, albeit from a relatively long distance away.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When damselflies mate, it is often a very conspicuous event, easily recognized by the heart-shaped “wheel” formation of the mating couple. The male clasps the female by the back of her head and she curls her abdomen to pick up sperm from secondary genitalia at the base of the male’s abdomen. That’s about as graphic as I dare go in describing the process.

Yesterday I spotted a pair of mating Ebony Jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) as I was exploring a stream in Fairfax County, Virginia, the county in which I live. Ebony Jewelwings are immediately identifiable, because they are the only damselflies in our area with dark wings. They can be found at a wide variety of running waters, especially at shaded forest streams, like the one where I found this couple.

Male Ebony Jewelwings have wings that are all black, while females have dark brown wings with conspicuous white pseudostigmas—the male is on the right in this photos. The body of the males is a metallic green with copper highlights—in certain lights, their bodies may look distinctly blue. Females seem to have a bit more color variation, though it is hard to tell their true color because of the reflected light from their shiny bodies.

Ebony Jewelwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was delighted to spot this female Lancet Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus exilis) on Thursday in Prince William County, the first member of this species that I have seen this season. She seemed to be glancing upwards at me as she smiled and posed for me.

When I was doing some research on this species, I got a little confused, because sometimes the Latin name for the species was given as Phanogomphus exilis and sometimes as Gomphus exilis. As far as I can understand it, the Lancet Clubtail used to be included in Gomphus genus. However, according to Wikipedia, “As a result of phylogenetic studies, Gomphus subgenera Gomphurus, Hylogomphus, Phanogomphus, and Stenogomphus were elevated in rank to genus in 2017. With the removal of their member species, Gomphus ended up with 11 of its previous 54 species, none of which are found in the Western Hemisphere.” Yikes!

Lancet Clubtail

Lancet Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The sun rose really early last weekend when I visited Northfield Mount Hermon School (NMH) in Gill, Massachusetts for my 50th Reunion—officially dawn was at 0439 hours and sunrise was at 0514 hours. The rising sun woke me up in the dormitory room in which I was sleeping and I went for a walk on the beautiful campus of this private boarding college preparatory school where I spent the final there years of high school.

The sunlight was soft and beautiful as I looked to the east, where thick fog was visible over the waters of the Connecticut River. I took the first photo below with my Canon SL2 DSLR and a 10-18mm wide-angle zoom lens and the other two photos using the panoramic features of my iPhone 11. The effects of the two cameras were a bit different, but I like the way that I was able to capture a sense of the beauty and tranquility of the early morning moments—it was a wonderful way to start the day.

Northfield Mt Hermon

Northfield Mt Hermon

 

Northfield Mt Hermon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although Eastern Pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) are among the most common dragonflies in my area, I never fail to be startled by the brilliant emerald green color of the females and immature males. Their matching green faces and the striped pattern on their abdomen makes for a stylishly stunning look.

In many ways, however, I am even more drawn to the less flashy, two-toned look of the transitional males as shown in the second image. Males start out with the same look as the females, but eventually transition to become entirely blue, though they retain their green faces and eyes. I love the way the blue gradually fades into green during the intermediate phase of a male Eastern Pondhawk.

So what about you? Are you drawn more to the colors of the dragonfly in the first photo or the one in the second photo? If I am truthful in answering my own question, I’d have to say that my personal preference varies, depending on a number of factors including my mood and the weather.

Eastern Pondhawk

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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This Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) looked a bit bedraggled when I spotted it on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where it was perched just above the large eagle nest in which a young eagle was visible. Harried parent? Check out yesterday’s posting “Looking out of the nest” if you missed the photos of the inquisitive juvenile eagle.

The sky was totally overcast on the day when I took these photos and the sky was almost pure white. The resulting effect makes these shots look almost like high key portraits taken in a studio setting, although personally I would have liked a little more directed light to make the photos look less flat. Still, any day is a good day when I get to see a bald eagle.

bald eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was really cool on Tuesday to be able to capture these images of a young Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) looking out from the large eagle nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The growing eaglet appeared to be quite alert and was sitting up quite high near the edge of the nest. I love how you can see the mottled plumage, dark eyes, and multi-colored beak of this eaglet in these photos.

The nest is high in the trees and there is now a lot of vegetation growing, so it was quite a challenge to get a clear angle of view. I am pretty happy with the results that I was able to achieve. The eaglet looks to be big enough to be flying, but I am not sure if that is the case. One of its parents was perched on some branches just above the nest, so I am pretty sure that it is not yet ready to go out on its own—eagles normally take about 12 weeks to fledge and then may hang around with their parents for another month or two.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the cool things about traveling is having the chance to see species that are not present in my home area. This past weekend I drove north about 600 miles (965 km) to Gill, Massachusetts, the home of Northfield Mt Hermon School, where I celebrated my 50th graduation from high school. There was plenty of wild life at the reunion, with loud music, firepits, and adult beverages, but I also managed to squeeze in a few quieter moments with wildlife.

While I was walking along the edge of Shadow Lake, a small marshy lake on campus, I spotted some unfamiliar dragonflies on the floating lily pads. As I examined the dragonflies through my 55-250mm telephoto lens, the longest lens that I had with me, I was struck by the bright white faces of the dragonflies and the prominent dots on the top of their abdomens. I was a little shocked to learn later that the dragonflies that I photographed are Dot-tailed Whiteface dragonflies (Leucorrhinia intacta)—rarely has the name of a species fit so well.

The range map for Dot-tailed Whitefaces shows that it is primarily a northern species that does not exist in Virginia. I get the impression that this is a fairly common species, so locals would probably not be very excited to spot one. For me, though, it was a rare and exotic species that I was seeing for the very first time and I was thrilled. It is amazing how our reactions in so many areas of our lives are influenced as much by our perspectives as by the “objective” facts of a situation.

Dot-tailed Whiteface

Dot-tailed Whiteface

Dot-tailed Whiteface

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last Tuesday I spotted several beautiful Bar-winged Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula axilena) while I was exploring a small pond in Prince William County, Virginia. The dragonflies kept choosing beautiful, but flimsy perches, so I did not have much time snag shots of them before they flew away.

According to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, Bar-winged Skimmers have relatively specific habitat needs and consequently are one of the less common skimmers in our area. “It prefers very shallow marshy pools in the full sun. If there’s enough water for fish, it’s too deep for Bar-winged Skimmers. And of course shallow pools in the full sun tend to quickly evaporate and dry up, so stable populations in Northern Virginia are few and far between.”

I really like the backgrounds that I was able to capture in these shots—they are colorful, but not at all distracting. If you look closely at the leading edges of the wings, you can see the black spots and stripes that give rise to the name of this species.

Bar-winged Skimmer

Bar-winged Skimmer

Bar-winged Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the triangular shape of Spiderwort plants (genus Tradescantia). I tend to think of spiderworts as being a bluish-purple in color, but was delighted to discover them blooming in a variety of colors during a recent visit to Green Spring Gardens, a county-run historical garden near where I live. I think my favorite color combination may be the one in the middle photo, with the white flowers and the purple “fuzz” in the center.

Spiderwort

Spidewort

spiderwort

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although “treehugger” is a term that is sometimes used for environmentalists, it is even more applicable to Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi), like these ones that I spotted last Tuesday in Prince William County. Gray Petaltails love to perch on the trunks of trees, where they blend in almost perfectly with the bark, as you can see especially well (or almost not see) in the second photo.

I have been told that Gray Petaltails especially like the color gray and a number of times one has perched on me when I was deliberately wearing a gray shirt. Fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford capture that phenomenon in 2019 in one of his blog postings that he called “You look like a tree to me!

I drove up to Massachusetts this past weekend for the celebration of my 50th high school reunion at Northfield Mount Heron School, the private college preparatory boarding school that I attended for three years. I disconnected from the internet during that time there, which is why I have not posted in several days—my apologies to those of you who may be used to a daily “fix.”

It was fascinating to reconnect with high school friends, often for the first time in 50 years, and to meet some classmates for the first time. Northfield was founded as a girls school in 1879 by evangelist Dwight L. Moody and two years he established Mount Hermon as a boy school. In 1971 the two schools formally merged and those of us in the class of 1972, my class, were the first to graduate from Northfield Mount Hermon School. At that time there were close to 1300 students divided between the two campuses, which made it difficult to know everyone—in recent years the school consolidated onto the Mount Hermon campus and it currently has a student body of about 700 students.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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On Tuesday I was thrilled to spot this male Brown Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster bilineata) while I was exploring a marshy area in Prince William County, Virginia. Spiketail dragonflies are quite rare in our area and this was the first one that I have spotted this year.

Brown Spiketails are found only in a specific type of habitat. According to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, Brown Spiketails prefer “clean, small, sunlit, forest streams and seepages” and “perch often and low on grasses and shrubs in clearings, meadow edges and sunny forest edges.” As you can see from the background in these two images, the location where I found this dragonfly was full of ferns.

In case you are curious, spiketail dragonflies are so named because the long ovipositor of the female extends beyond the tip of the abdomen. The females lay their eggs by hovering over shallow water and driving the long ovipositor vertically into the shoreline mud or stream bottom in a fashion reminiscent of a sewing machine. Since these photos show a male, there is no “spike” to see for this spiketail.

I love the striking eyes of this dragonfly and the colorful markings his entire body and was happy to be able to capture such a detailed look at his beauty.

 

Brown Spiketail

Brown Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) only a few times in my life, so I was thrilled last week when I spotted one last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my second sighting of this species this year. Once again I was struck by the brilliant blue coloration of its feathers—even from a distance the bird’s amazing blue color really stood out.

As I was doing a little research, I was surprised to learn that Indigo Buntings, along with other buntings and grosbeaks, are part of the Cardinalidae family, which I tend to associate with the bright red Northern Cardinals. When I look at the first photo, though, I must admit that the raised crest on the head of the bunting does remind me a bit of a cardinal.

I did not notice it when I took the first photo, but as I was processing the first image I spotted what appears to be a band on the bird’s right leg—I encourage you to click on the image to get a closer look at that leg. There is a bird banding station at this wildlife refuge and several years ago I visited it and watched the fascinating process of bird banding (see my 2018 posting entitled Visit to a banding station). I recall being amazed at the range of sizes of the bands, which allow for the banding of birds even smaller than the Indigo Bunting, which is about 5 inches (13 cm) in length.

I believe that Indigo Buntings remain with us all summer, so I will be keeping my eyes open for them during future visits. However, I couldn’t help but notice how the trees are now covered with leaves and the vegetation is lush, which makes it really hard for me to see small birds, even when I am able to hear them.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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During a recent trip to Green Spring Gardens, a county-run historic garden near where I live, I was delighted to see that Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) was in bloom. Love-in-a-mist  is a flower that looks like it came from outer space, with wild tendrils shooting out of its middle and green spiky vegetation surrounding it. Like many forms of love, the flower simultaneously looks to be both inviting and threatening.

I find this flower to be incredibly beautiful and exotic and it is one of my favorites. Typically Love-in-a-mist is blue, but it also comes in shades of white, pink, and lavender. Many flowers lose our interest after they have bloomed, but I find the seedpods of Love-in-a-mist to at least as intriguing as the flower itself, as you can see in the final photo.

When I did a little research I learned that the striped, balloon-shaped object that I call a seedpod, is actually an inflated capsule composed of five fused true seedpods, according to an article by Wisconsin Horticulture. I also discovered that the thorny-looking spikes that make up the “mist,” which are not sharp, despite their appearance, are technically bracts, a specialized kind of leaves.

I smile whenever I use the name of this flower—we can always use more Love, whether it comes in a mist, in the sunshine, or even in a downpour.

 

Love-in-a-mist

Love-in-a-mist

Love-in-a-mist

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Saturday I spotted my first Spangled Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula cyanea) of the year at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It is remarkable easy to identify this species, because it is the only dragonfly in our area that has both black and white stigmata.

The stigmata, or pterostigmata, which is the more technical name, are the pigmented hollow structures on the leading edge of dragonfly wings. They are slightly heavier than the adjoining cells and have a significant effect on the aerodynamics of the wing, particularly while gliding, according to an article entitled “Dragonfly wings: tried and tested over millennia!” I confess that I don’t understand aerodynamics at all and look at dragonfly flight as nothing short of miraculous.

You may have noted that all the dragonflies in all three photos look pretty much the same, but the first two are male and the third is a female. Mature males are blue in color, but when they are young, the immature males share the brown and yellow coloration of the females. The easiest way to tell them apart is to look at the tip of the abdomen (the “tail”)—the terminal appendages of the two genders are quite different in appearance.

Spangled Skimmer

Spangled Skimmer

Spangled Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When the Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) emerged from the water on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I initially thought that he had snagged some underwater vegetation. However, it quickly became apparent that the prey was wriggling and squirming and was in fact alive. It looked a bit like a small snake or maybe some kind of marine worm, but several Facebook viewers later informed me that it was probably an American Eel (Anguilla rostrata).

The eel put up quite a struggle, but I believe that the grebe eventually subdued it and swallowed it. Unfortunately the grebe turned his back to me during the process, so I was not able to document the final phases of his efforts with my camera.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was a bit surprised and absolutely delighted to see my first Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of the year yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I love to see these colorful butterflies, but each year it is a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition, as habitats for Monarchs continue to be threatened and their numbers seem to be declining.

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There are a lot of sandpipers that are similar in appearance, so I was not sure what kind it was when I took these shots. As I looked through my bird identification guide, however, I realized that the spots on the bird’s chest and the orange bill made it quite easy to identify, because these traits are distinctive for breeding Spotted Sandpipers.

I was intrigued to learn on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that the female Spotted Sandpiper is the one who establishes and defends the territory—she arrives at the breeding grounds earlier than the male, unlike in other species of migratory birds, where the male establishes the territory and arrives earlier. More amazingly, the male of this species takes the primary role in parental care, incubating the eggs and taking care of the young. Wow!

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Many irises have come and gone this spring, but I was delighted to see that this stunning dark violet one was blooming yesterday in the garden of my neighbor and fellow photographer Cindy Dyer, a variant that she told me is a Louisiana iris ‘Black Gamecock.’ Cindy also has some gorgeous Calla Lilies blooming in a container on her front porch in a wide variety of colors.

Intermittent thunderstorms are in the forecast for most of today and I doubt that we will see the sun. My senses need the stimulation provided by bright colors, like those of these beautiful flowers in Cindy’s garden in late May.

iris

Calla Lily

Calla Lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I am finally starting to see many of the common species of dragonflies and damselflies that will keep me company through the long hot days of the summer. On Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I spotted my first Big Bluet damselflies (Enallagma durum) of the season, including the mating pair shown in the first photo below. This sidewards heart position, sometimes referred to as the “wheel position,” is quite distinctive and reminds me of something you might see in a Cirque du Soleil production.

American bluets are the largest genus of damselflies in North America and are often the most familiar and numerous damselflies that people see. As the genus name Bluet suggests, most members of this genus have bright blue coloration in various patterns, although I have also photographed Orange Bluets, which sounds like a contradiction in terms.

During the summer, I often see Big Bluets along the trails adjacent to the water at this wildlife refuge. As damselflies go, Big Bluets are comparatively large at 1.3- 1.7 inches (34 – 44 mm) in length. Big Bluets have elongated, arrow-shaped black markings on their abdomens, as  you can see in the second photo below, and this helps in distinguishing them from other bluets.

Damselfly identification is challenging under the best of all circumstances and even in this case, when I was fairly confident about my identification, I sought confirmation in a Facebook dragonfly group.

 

Big Bluet

Big Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I was tracking the movement of this colorful Prothonotary Warbler on Monday (Protonotaria citrea) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it hopped about in the dense green foliage, when suddenly it popped into the open and I was able to capture these images.

I absolutely love the bright yellow coloration of this warbler that never fails to put a smile on my face—years ago I used to drive a Toyota Matrix that was Solar Yellow and was visible from a long distance away. It was cool during this encounter that the bird was close enough to me that I managed to capture the reflection of the sky and the landscape in its eye.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was excited to spot this juvenile Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sitting up in the big nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Monday. I assume that this eaglet was born this spring, based on its coloration and markings.

Earlier this spring I had noted eagle activity around this nest and thought that the nesting process had already begun long ago. However, this nest is very large and so high up that it is impossible to tell when the eagles began to sit on the egg or eggs. I checked my blog postings from the past and saw that I posted a shot of eaglets at this same nest on 19 May last year (see the posting Eagle nest update in May), so things seem to be following the same approximate schedule.

I saw only a single eaglet this time, but will continue to monitor the nest for more eaglet activity, including indications that there is more than one eaglet. Earlier on the same day I spotted an adult eagle perched in a tulip tree—you can actually see some of the “tulips”— adjacent to the nest and suspect that this is one of the parents keeping an eye on the eaglet(s). I included a shot below of the presumed proud parent as a final photo.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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This bird was in the middle of a field on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when its movement caught my eye. When it hopped to the top of the vegetation, its brilliant yellow chest made it really hard to miss, even though it was far away. I am pretty sure that it is a Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens), my first sighting ever of this cool bird species.

Many of the migrating warblers that are passing through my area have various yellow markings, so I assumed that this was simply another warbler that I had never seen before. The reality, however, is hardly simple. According to Wikipedia, “The Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) is a large songbird found in North America, and is the only member of the family Icteriidae. It was once a member of the New World warbler family, but in 2017, the American Ornithological Society moved it to its own family. Its placement is not definitely resolved.”

Compared with most other warblers, the Yellow-breasted Chat seems much larger and bulkier and it has a relatively long tail and a rather robust beak. I love the bright yellow color on its breast and the distinctive eye-markings that make it look like the bird is wearing spectacles.

I think that we are nearing the end of the period of bird migration, but I will definitely keep my eyes open for possible new finds like this gorgeous Yellow-breasted Chat.

Yellow-breasted Chat

yellow-breasted chat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although I have photographed a Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) several times in the past, I had never seen one in colorful breeding plumage until yesterday. According to the range maps on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, Horned Grebes do not breed in my area, so this one, who was swimming by himself, may just be passing through as he migrates northward.

The colors and patterns on this bird are amazing. The gold circles in the grebe’s red eyes really grab a viewer’s attention, though I must admit that I find them to be a little bit creepy—it is definitely worthwhile to click on the photos to get a closer look at those eyes. The bird’s distinctive “horns” appear to be tufts of long golden feathers behind each eye in a pattern that is reminiscent of the haircut of a medieval monk, particularly in the middle photo. My favorite photo may well be the final one that captures some of the grebe’s spunky personality.

Like most other grebes, Horned Grebes have compact bodies, relatively short necks, blocky heads and straight, narrow bill that is very different from a duck’s bill. I observed the grebe as it repeatedly made short dives in search of food yesterday in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, during the breeding period Horned Grebes also feed heavily on insects and larvae, some caught in the air, others in or on the water.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When the weather turns warm and sunny, it is not uncommon for me to spot Common Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus), one of the few lizards that are present in my area. Most of the time I see them on the trunks of trees or on fallen logs, but occasionally I will see one on a man-made structure that has crevices and overhangs where they can hide.

Skinks are skittish and will scamper away if they detect my presence, so I have to be super stealthy in approaching them to get a shot. In the case of these photos, I was at the edge of a small pond at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge last week looking for dragonflies when some movement on a nearby concrete fishing platform caught my eye. The skink had just crawled out of the shadows and was surveying the area when I captured these images.

Juvenile skinks have blue tails and there appears to be some blue on the tail that is especially visible in the second photo, so I am guessing that it is almost a full-grown adult. Some scientists believe that the blue color functions as a decoy, diverting the attention of predators to this “expendable part” of the body—the tail is detachable and regrows if it is lost. Other scientists propose that the blue coloration serves to inhibit attacks by aggressive adult males, who might otherwise view the juveniles as rivals.

If you are curious and would like to see a photo of the blue tail of a juvenile skink, check out this 2021 blog posting entitled Juvenile Skink in April.

 

Five-lined Skink

Five-lined Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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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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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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