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Archive for the ‘Summer’ Category

I will always try to get a photograph whenever I see a Monarch Butterfly, as I noted in a recent post, so I immediately set out after this orange and black butterfly when I spotted it on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. When the butterfly landed and I got a closer look, I discovered that it was a Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus), a species considered to be a mimic of the Monarch. The two species share similar color schemes, but the Viceroy is smaller and has a black line across its hind wings that in not present on Monarch wings.

I had learned long ago that Viceroys used a type of defensive behavior, known as Batesian mimicry, in which a palatable species, the Viceroy, closely resembles unpalatable or toxic species, like the Monarch, to avoid predation. However, some research suggests that the Viceroy is also unpalatable, which would make the Viceroys and Monarchs co-mimics of each other, a phenomenon known as Müllerian mimicry, in which two or more noxious species develop similar appearances as a shared protective device.

In the abstract of his article entitled “Comparative unpalatability of mimetic viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) from four south-eastern United States populations” David Ritland stated, “Viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus), long considered palatable mimics of distasteful danaine butterflies, have been shown in studies involving laboratory-reared specimens to be moderately unpalatable to avian predators. This implies that some viceroys are Müllerian co-mimics, rather than defenseless Batesian mimics, of danaines.” (Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are part of the Daniadae sub-family (“danaine”) that Ritland mentioned.) Ritland tested his hypothesis with wild-caught butterflies and red-winged blackbirds and the results supported his hypothesis that Viceroys are unpalatable.

I have no idea what scientists have concluded about the mimicry question regarding the Viceroy butterfly, but it is fascinating to see the interrelatedness of different species that share this planet. We are all in this together.

 

 

Viceroy

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Have you ever tried to wrap a present that is large and awkwardly shaped? I have childhood memories of helping my parents wrap tricycles and wagons for my younger siblings on Christmas Eve. No matter how much wrapping paper I used, it was pretty obvious what was underneath the wrapping.

I have watched Black and Yellow Garden Spiders (Argiope aurantia) capture prey multiple times. After the initial capture, the spider wraps up its prey in a special kind of silk that looks like a long gauze bandage. (Check out my 2014 posting called “Wrapping up a meal” for a more detailed explanation and some close-up shots of the wrapping process.)

When I spotted this Black and Yellow Garden Spider on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I could see from a distance that the spider had captured something that was as large as it was, but I could not determine what it was. Once I got closer, I could see that the spider had awkwardly wrapped up what appeared to be a large cicada—it was impossible to hide the shape of the cicada’s large wings.

At some point in this process the spider injects venom into the prey, killing it and liquefying its internal organs for consumption. I cannot tell for sure if that is what the spider was doing at the moment I captured this image, but the position of the spider’s body suggests that possibility.

Spider and cicada

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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At this time of the year it is hard to spot Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) when they are almost hidden by the vegetation. I was really excited to get a tiny peek at this one yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my first eagle sighting in months. The eagle spotted me when I tried to move in for a closer shot and flew off. It is tough get a good shot when your subject has sharper vision and quicker reactions than you do.

As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, however, eagles have “stopping power” for me—I will invariably try to photograph a bald eagle when I see one, even if it is far away and almost hidden. Besides, I figured that some of you might like a momentary respite from an almost steady diet of insect photos recently.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Over the years I have gradually learned which plants tend to attract butterflies and Buttonbushes (Cephalanthus occidentalis) are one of my favorites.  The plant’s spiky spherical flowers are quite distinctive and make a nice compositional element in a photo. I used to mentally associate these flowers with medieval weapons, but nowadays when people see one, they can’t help but think of the well-publicized structure of the Covid-19 virus.

Last week I spotted this Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) nectaring on a buttonbush flower at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I was hoping that one of the Monarchs that were fluttering by would also stop to sip at one of these photogenic flowers, but the Monarchs seemed to prefer the taste of the swamp milkweed flowers.

Silver-spotted Skipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There are some subjects that I will try to photograph every single time that I see them. Bald Eagles are high on that list, as are Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus), like this beauty that I spotted last Monday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Both of these subjects have “stopping power” for me.

Seven years ago I read a blog posting entitled “Stopping power” by fellow wildlife photographer Lyle Krahn that introduced me to this concept. In Lyle’s own words, “I think every beautiful scene has stopping power. That’s my term for the ability of a scene to make a person stop hiking or driving in order to pull out a camera and make images. Did you ever wonder what makes you stop? Do you ever hear the music?” That idea really took root in me and I still think about it quite often and vividly recall that initial posting.

What is your threshold for putting your camera to you eye and taking photos? Would you stop to photograph a squirrel or a Canada Goose or a mallard duck? Does a subject have to be new or exotic for you to stop? Are you so focused on a single subject that the rest of the world is invisible to you or simply doesn’t matter? Lyle described an encounter with a bear watcher in Grand Tetons National who said that he would not stop to photograph a moose. Yikes! It is hard to imagine not stopping to photograph a moose.

Most of you know that my personal threshold is really low—I will stop to take photos of almost anything that catches my eye. Every now and then I will end a posting with the words “beauty is everywhere” and I truly believe that. Of course, there is an opportunity cost for spending time on one subject and you might miss out on another potential subject. I am ok with that and rarely fall prey to the sense of anxiety that is popularly called FOMO (fear of missing out).

Even if you are not someone who takes pleasure in taking photos, I encourage you to stop more often during the day, to pause to feel the wind or listen to a bird or smell the flowers. I believe that in doing so you can lower the threshold for “stopping power” and experience our wonderful world more deeply.

Monarch Butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Blue Dashers are one of our most common dragonflies where I live and it is easy to pass them by and take them for granted. When I stop and look closely at them, however, I am reminded of their beauty. I spotted this striking male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge.

There is a lot of detail in this image—like the little amber patch on the wings and a tiny orange simple eye (ocellus) in the middle of the “face” adjacent to the larger compound eyes—and I recommend that you double-click on the image to get a closer view. (If you want to learn more about dragonfly eyes, check out this fascinating article entitled “Dragonflies: eyes and a face” at benkolstad.net.)

Beauty is everywhere.

Blue Dasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I love the distinctive coloration of Orange Bluet damselflies (Enallagma signatum), whose name always causes me to smile at the apparent oxymoron. I spotted this couple in tandem earlier in August at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Many damselflies remain in this position after they have completed mating, with the male at the top attached to the female as she deposits her eggs.

As the name “bluet” suggests, most of the 35 members of the genus American Bluet (Enallagma), the largest damselfly genus in North America, are blue. However, certain species come in other colors including red, orange, and green and the Rainbow Bluet combines red, yellow, and green.

 

Orange Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This week I made three visits to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and I was excited to spot a male Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus plagiatus) during two of those trips. Some of you may recall that I spotted a female Russet-tipped Clubtail earlier this month, which I documented in a posting entitled “Russet-tipped Clubtail in August,” but my sightings this week were the first males that I have seen this season.

Some species of dragonflies are so widespread that I will see dozens or even hundreds of members of that species in a single day. Other species, like the Russet-tipped Clubtail, have such a low population density that I can walk about for several hours and consider myself lucky to spot a single one, even when I know that I am in an area where they can be found.

Russet-tipped Clubtails belong to the genus Stylurus, a group often referred to as “hanging clubtails” from their tendency to hang nearly vertically when they perch, as in the second photo below that I captured on Tuesday during a photowalk with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. On rare occasions you can find one perched horizontally atop a leaf, as in the first image below that I captured yesterday.

If you compare these photos of the male Russet-tipped clubtails with those of the female in the previous posting, you will see many physical similarities, including the long, thin abdomen and the stunning green eyes. The most notable differences between the two genders are the much larger “clubtail” on the male and the different-shaped terminal appendages at the tip of the abdomen.

Many summer dragonfly species are still hanging on and several more late-summer/early autumn species should be emerging soon, so I hope to continue to include a healthy dose of dragonflies in my postings, along with more of the beautiful butterflies that seem to have had a summer resurgence.

 

Russet-tipped Clubtail

Russet-tipped Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Some dragonflies seems to seek the highest possible perch and I love photographing them with the sky and the clouds as the simple backdrop.  I spotted this female Needham’s Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula needhami) last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I was thrilled that I was able to maneuver myself into a shooting position almost directly below the dragonfly and shoot upwards at a sharp angle. I was also happy to capture the beautiful golden markings near the leading edges of the wings, one of the most distinctive characteristics of this species that is quite common where I live.

 

Needham's Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the stunning eyes of this handsome male Blue-fronted Dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) that I spotted yesterday during a visit to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge with fellow odonata enthusiast Walter Sanford. Normally these little guys perch on or near the ground, but I was fortunate when this damselfly chose to perch on some vegetation at almost eye level, which made it a lot easier to get a clear shot of its amazing eyes.

Blue-fronted Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Male dragonflies are often territorial and spend a lot of their time chasing off intruders, like these rival male Eastern Amberwing dragonflies (Perithemis tenera) that I spotted earlier this month at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Although Eastern Amberwing dragonflies are quite small (one inch (25 mm) or less in length), they tend to hover a bit when they are flying, which makes them a little easier to photograph in flight than most other dragonfly species.

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love butterflies and am thrilled that I am finally beginning to see them more regularly after a slow start to this season. I spotted this beautiful female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) last week at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge perched high in a patch of what looks like Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum).

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was happy last Monday to finally get a shot of a female Swift Setwing dragonfly (Dythemis velox) at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge—all of my previous photos this year have been of males. With some dragonfly species, like Common Whitetails, I generally see an equal number of males and females, but with other species, like the Swift Setwing, the females tend to hang out in different places than the males and are rarely seen. The female visits the location where they males are found—in this case, the pond—only when she decides that she is ready for mating.

The first image shows the typical wings-forward pose of Swift Setwings, which allows us to see the beautiful markings on the upper part of the abdomen of this female. In the second image, she has raised her wings into a position much like that of other dragonflies, which lets us get a better view of her face. As I recall, a breeze was blowing in the face of the dragonfly when I took the second shot and she may have raised her wings to reduce her profile and wind resistance.


Swift Setwing

Swift Setwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some of the dragonfly species that I search for are around for only a few weeks, while other species have a flight season of multiple months. Calico Pennants (Celithemis elisa) are in the latter category. I photographed some Calico Pennants in the middle of June and spotted this colorful immature male this past Tuesday—I am happy to see that they are still around.

Calico Pennants are so small—about 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length—that many viewers have probably never seen one. I love their bright colors and multi-colored wing markings. Adult males are red while females and immature males, like this one, are yellow. I can tell that this one is a male because of the distinctive appendages at the tip of the abdomen.

If you want to see photos of a female Calico Pennant and an adult male, be sure to check out the earlier posting entitled “Calico Pennant dragonflies in June.”

 

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It has obviously been a rough summer for this female Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina). Her tattered wings are testaments to her struggle to survive. We can only speculate about what caused all of that damage, for only she truly knows what experiences led to those ragged edges. Somehow it seems appropriate that the perch that she chose is equally full of rough and jagged edges.

This summer has been difficult for many of us too and I suspect that a lot of us feel as frazzled and beat-up as this beautiful little dragonfly, even though we may not show it on the outside. Be gentle with yourself and with others that you encounter. You never know how fragile they may be or what struggles they are going though—we all have ragged edges.

Halloween Pennant

 

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you photograph the same subjects over and over again? I know that I do, hoping that each new opportunity might provide something different—perhaps a new pose, an unusual angle of view, or different lighting conditions.

That is why I was chasing after this male Eastern Amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) last week at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Usually I find the males of this common species buzzing around at water’s edge or perched on vegetation overhanging or growing out of the water. This individual, however, was flying over a grassy patch adjacent to the pond, periodically pausing to perch only a few inches above the ground.

I took this shot from almost directly above the little dragonfly—Eastern Amberwings are less than an inch (25 mm) in length—and that angle helped me to capture the entire body in relatively sharp focus. Sharpness, though is only one of the factors that I use in evaluating my photos and often it is not the most important one. In this case, I really like the angled pose of the dragonfly and I the dominant colors in the image. I absolutely love the way that the beautiful warm brown colors of the dragonfly contrast with the cool greens in the background.

Sometimes we grow so comfortable with our familiar surroundings that we take them for granted. I strive to look at the world with optimism and fresh eyes each day, confident that I will discover beauty almost anywhere that I find myself.

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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In a recent posting featuring my first Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of the year, I lamented the scarcity of Monarchs this summer. A few days later, I was delighted to spot several more Monarchs during a visit to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. The Monarchs moved about quite a bit and I ended up sweaty and out of breath after chasing them all over, but I was more than happy with the results.

The Monarchs concentrated most of their efforts on several patches of swamp milkweed at the edge of a small pond. I moved quickly as I tried to compose shots with both a good background and a photogenic wing position, which often was easier said than done.

In the first shot you get a view of some of the vegetation growing in the pond and the lighting from that angle really made the colors pop. The second shot gives you a wide view of the largest patch of swamp milkweed that the Monarch was sharing with some much smaller Pearl Crescent butterflies. I captured the final image in an adjacent field. The dominant green of the vegetation and the vertical lines of the stalks of the vegetation give this image a much different feel that the other two images. I think the three images work well together as a little collection.

I continue to remain hopeful that I will continue to see more Monarchs (and other butterflies too) as we move deeper into summer.

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I have observed animals, birds, and animals, I have noticed that sometimes the male is larger than the female and sometimes the opposite is the case. Quite often the size difference is so slight that you have to rely on other characteristics to try to determine the gender of a subject.

When it comes to spiders, though, the size difference is shockingly large—the male is often one quarter the size of the female or even smaller. On Monday I spotted my first black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) of the season. I have long been fascinated with these large spiders and the distinctive zigzag pattern that they weave into their webs.

When I looked at my images on my computer, I was surprised to see that there was a second, smaller spider just to the left and behind the main subject. Could this possibly be a male garden spider? According to Wikipedia, males range in size from .2-.35 inches (5-9 mm) and females range in size from .75 to 1.1 inches (18 to 28 mm), so the size differential seems about right. Additional the smaller spider looks like photos I was able to find of male garden spiders.

Spider mating can hazardous for male spiders. In some species, if the male is rejected by the female, she eats him. I thought that might be the case for these garden spiders, but came across a fascinating article at newscientist.com with the sensationalist title “Spider sex causes spontaneous death” that suggests something stranger than cannibalism.

According to a study conducted at Concordia University and the University of California, “Researchers found that for male orb-weaving spiders of the species Argiope aurantia completing copulation leads to certain death. The deceased suitor’s corpse is then trapped in the female genitalia. This may be a strategy to prevent other males from subsequently mating with the female, say the scientists.” The scientists determined that the female did nothing to kill the males who died spontaneously and concluded, “The females do sometimes remove and devour their dead mates. But the researchers do not think the death program evolved to give her a post-sex snack, as the males are too tiny to provide much nutrition.”

Nature can be wild, weird, and wonderful and endlessly fascinating. I guess that is what prompted the scientists to carefully study 100 pairs of spiders mating. 🙂


Argiope aurantia

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It is not yet the end of summer, but already it seems like the numbers of dragonflies of some species are diminishing. Many of the survivors show signs of wear and tear, with damage to their wings and scratches on their bodies. However, there are some dragonfly species that do not appear on the scene until late in the summer or even in the autumn, so those of us who enthusiastically chase after dragonflies still have plenty to keep us occupied—in my area certain dragonflies are around until December and even occasionally into early January.

Yesterday I was excited to spot one of those late-summer dragonflies at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, a female Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus plagiatus). When I first spotted her, she was clinging to some vegetation, as you can see in the second photo. I was so entranced by her beautiful green eyes, though, that I decided to lead this posting with a close-up shot shot of those spectacular eyes that remind me a little of malachite.

In the final two photos, you can clearly see the distinguishing features of the “tail” that are responsible for the common name of the species. As is often the case with clubtail dragonflies, the “club” is much more prominent with the male Russet-tipped Clubtail than with the female. If you would like to see some cool shots of a male for comparison, check out my blog posting from September 2016 entitled “Russet-tipped Clubtail dragonfly.”

Russet-tipped Clubtail

Russet-tipped Clubtail

 

Russet-tipped Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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Having recently photographic some hummingbirds in flight, I couldn’t help but think of them when I first spotted several Snowberry Clearwing Moths (Hemaris diffinis) last week at Occoquan Regional Park. The fight characteristics are quite similar as they hover in mid-air and extract nectar from flowers. Unlike hummingbirds that have a skinny bill and a tongue, clearwing moths use a long proboscis to reach into the flowers.

In our area we have two similar species of clearwing moths, the Snowberry Clearwing and the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hermaris thysbe). They are similar in appearance and behavior, but generally the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth is redder in appearance, so I believe these are all Snowberrys.

The clearwing moths seem to be very attracted to several small patches of swamp milkweed. Other insects had a similar attraction and if you look in the center of the milkweed in the second photo, you will note an orange insect that I can’t see well enough to identify.

 

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When it comes to damselflies, you often have to look closely for identifying marks, because so many of them are colored with variations of blue and black. I really could not identify the species of this little damselfly when I took this photo on Wednesday while exploring a creek in Prince William County. I decided that if he was willing to pose for me on a leaf, I was more than willing to take his picture.

When I pulled up the image on my computer, I immediately noticed some distinctive blue markings near the tip of the abdomen. Those markings helped me to  identify it as a male Dusky Dancer (Argia translata), a species that I had never before photographed.

We are still in a kind of summer doldrums period, where the summer dragonflies have been buzzing around for quite some time, and it is too early for the autumn species to appear. It is therefore pretty exciting for me to photograph a new species—I might have seen a Dusky Dancer in the past, but I am pretty sure that I was not able to capture an image, so in my mind it did not “count.”

Be sure to click on the image if you want to get a closer view of the distinctive markings and beautiful eyes of this cool-looking Dusky Dancer damselfly.

Dusky Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What do you think of when you hear the word “common?” Although this term can refer simply to the frequency with which something is seen or experienced, it often has a derogatory connotation of inferiority. For that reason, I am often uncomfortable with the use of the word “common” in the name of many species.

I could easily argue, for example, that this Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) that I spotted on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge is uncommonly beautiful. The orange markings and wonderfully-colored eyespots make this a stunning butterfly. Yes, I see this species quite often, but its distinctive beauty never fails to take my breath away.

Common Buckeye

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Do you like hidden surprises? It is often hard to spot Question Mark butterflies (Polygonia interrogationis), because the drab texture and color of their external wings makes them look like dead leaves, helping them to blend in well with their surroundings.

When I spotted this butterfly last Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, it was perched with its wings closed. Gradually the butterfly began to open them wide and I was treated to the spectacular display of its inner wings that seemed to glow in the sunlight. The beauty that was hidden was now revealed in its full glory.

It makes me wonder how much hidden beauty I miss every day, deceived by external appearances and rushed by the hectic pace of daily life. Who knows what beauty awaits if I am alert and patient? Maybe those are the question marks to which I should be paying more attention.

 

Question Mark butterfly

Question Mark butterfly

Question Mark butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Do you chase wildlife or do you wait for it to come to you? I tend to be in the former group and will sometimes walk for hours and hours in search of suitable subjects.

On Wednesday, however, the action came to me. I was returning from a walk along a stream hunting for dragonflies and was shocked as I approached my car to see a pair of Red-footed Cannibalflies (Promachus rufipes) mating on my car. I watched in fascination as they moved from one part of the car’s exterior to another, locked in the peculiar tail-to-tail position that robber flies use for mating. (Even before this incident, I knew that I needed to wash my car, as you can readily see in the second photo.)

I must confess that I have long had a fascination with this insect species—there is something really cool and slightly horrifying about the macabre moniker ‘Red-footed Cannibalfly.’ They are fierce predators who reported have been able to take down a hummingbird. They inject their victims with a toxin that paralyzes them and liquifies their insides so that the cannibalfly can more easily ingest their innards. If you are not totally creeped out by now, you might agree that cannibalflies are cool insects.

I have written over 3500 blog postings over the past eight years and my most-viewed regular posting is one that I published in August 2013 with the simple title of “Red-footed Cannibalfly,” with 2595 views. Yes, a lot of people seem to be interested in this insect and somehow find their way to that blog posting each year. It is a good posting, I think, but neither the prose nor the photos are great, but sometimes that doesn’t matter for popularity in this digital world. (You can judge for yourself by clicking on the title of the posting that I linked to the original posting.)

Some of you may have noted that I used the term “regular posting” in describing my posting on the red-footed cannibalfly. In November 2014 I was fortunate to be at a local nature park during the rescue of an injured bald eagle by the animal control officers of the local police department and documented it in a blog posting entitled “Rescue of an injured Bald Eagle.”

Several news outlets picked up the story including the Washington Post , some local radio and television stations, including WTOP, and the Fairfax County Police Department News. A number of them included a link to my blog posting, which had over 3000 views in a couple of days, but has had relatively few views since that time. I had authorized the Police Department to use my posting and photos and as a result of that exposure I was contacted by a number of media organizations asking permission to use my photos, which I agreed to, requesting that they give attribution and, if possible, a link to my blog.

A small number of media organizations, including the Washington Post, used my photos without asking for permission, though the Washington Post did at least give attribution. When I contacted the reporter, he said that he had “assumed” it was ok, because he had obtained the photos through the Police Department site. I have not had to deal with the media since, but know now to be a bit careful in doing so.

Red-footed Cannibalfly

Red-footed Cannibalfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There were so many butterflies concentrated in a small patch of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) that they looked like a bouquet of orange flowers when I first spotted them on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I believe that they are all Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos), though there is also a chance that they might be the similar-looking Silvery Checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne nycteis).

pearl crescent

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some of our smallest butterflies are among our prettiest, like this tiny Banded Hairstreak butterfly (Satyrium calanus) that I spotted on Tuesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I always check out a patch of wildflowers in one corner of this small refuge and once again it paid dividends.

I was able to photograph this butterfly as it nectared on one of the many black-eyed susans that are now in bloom. Actually I am not entirely certain if these flowers are black-eyed susans, but they are the same shape and color and may be part of the larger rudbeckia flower family.

UPDATE: A friend of mine on Facebook who is more experienced than I am with butterflies tells me that this is probably a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus), not a Banded Hairstreak. The difference is so subtle that I am not sure I can see it and certainly cannot explain it. At least the beauty is undeniable.

Banded Hairstreak

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was really happy yesterday morning when I spotted a female Tiger Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster erronea) while exploring a small stream in Prince William County, Virginia and absolutely thrilled when she started ovipositing, giving me a chance to capture these images. For several years I have been trying to photograph this elusive species. In the past I have gotten a glimpse of a Tiger Spiketail on several occasions, but never managed to get a shot of one.

Why have I had such problems? Kevin Munroe, who developed the wonderfully informative website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, described the species in these words:

“This secretive and seldom seen forest dweller has an almost elven quality. It lives deep in mature woodlands and spends most of its life around tiny, almost invisible spring-fed seepage streams. When startled, it disappears into the leafy canopy, which is also where pairs fly to mate, often hidden for hours. Their larvae live in such small, food-scarce streams that they take several years to mature. Tigers live in smaller streams than any other Northern Virginia spiketail. Their numbers are relatively low, and it’s unusual to see more than one or two together. There’s a certain thrill to finding a Tiger Spiketail at its stream—you know you’ve stumbled upon a clean, quiet and special corner of whatever park you’re exploring.”

Tiger Spiketails fly patrols low above the water of these tiny forest streams. If you find the right kind of stream, you stand and wait, hoping that a Tiger Spiketail will fly by. If one appears, you might have a second or two to get off a shot of the flying dragonfly before it disappears from sight. You repeat the cycle and if all goes well, the dragonfly may come back again within fifteen to thirty minutes or you may never see it again.

I was really lucky yesterday. Earlier in the morning I had had several sightings of a Tiger Spiketail, but had gotten only a single very blurry shot. When a Tiger Spiketail flew into view, I immediately started tracking the dragonfly visually and I was shocked when she began to dip the tip of her abdomen in the water to deposit an egg, a process known as ovipositing. What this meant was that she would hang around in a spot for several seconds and then move upstream a bit and repeat the process.

Although I had the Tiger Spiketail in sight, getting a decent shot was a challenge. In addition to her lateral movements, she was also moving up and down as she deposited her eggs. Much of the stream was in the shade or the light was heavily filtered, so it was hard to get enough light to capture a moving subject. I managed to get a few reasonably sharp action shots of the Tiger Spiketail. If you double-click on the first image, you can actually see the dragonfly’s “spiketail” and other details including its beautiful markings and striking green eyes. The second shot gives you a better view of the environment in which I found this dragonfly, which is considered rare in the area in which I live.

Whenever I manage to capture of a new species, I am so excited that I do not worry much about the quality of the images. Before long, though, the excitement dies down and I will hit the trails again, determined and hopeful that I will be able to get some better shots. That crazy, quixotic vision is what drives most of us nature and wildlife photographers to go out repeatedly, always in search of the next best photo.

Tiger Spiketail

Tiger Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What do you do to cope on a hot sunny day? Most of us stay indoors in an air-conditioned space, possibly with a cold beverage. Dragonflies do not have those options, so many of them assume a pose, often known as the obelisk posture, in an attempt to regulate their temperature by reducing exposure to the direct sunlight.

You may seen dragonflies in a handstand-like pose, looking like gymnasts in training—that is the obelisk posture. The dragonfly lifts its abdomen until its tip points to the sun, thereby minimizing the amount of surface area exposed to solar radiation. At noontime, the vertical position of the dragonfly’s body suggest an obelisk, which in my area immediately brings to mind the Washington Monument. According to Wikipedia, scientists have tested this phenomenon in a laboratory by heating Blue Dasher dragonflies with a lamp, which caused them to raise their abdomens and has been shown to be effective in stopping or slowly the rise in their body temperature.

While visiting Green Spring Gardens last week on a hot humid day, I observed obelisking behavior in a male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) and a male Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera). I have always been intrigued by this pose and would love to try it out to see if it works for thermoregulation in humans too. Alas, I lack both the upper-body strength and the lower body flexibility to make a go of it, so I’ll continue to be merely a spectator of these beautiful little acrobats.

Blue Dasher

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Most folks who live in the Eastern part of the United States can probably identify an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) when they see one. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are large and have a distinctive pattern of bright yellow and black on their wings. However, not all Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are yellow—females come in two distinctly different variants, black and yellow.

The yellow morph looks a lot like a male, but with a conspicuous band of blue spots along the hindwings that the males do not have. The dark morph female has similar markings, but most of its body color is black, like the one below that I spotted last week at Green Spring Gardens. The perfect condition of its wings this late in the season suggests to me that this is a newly emerged butterfly.

So why do the females come in two colors? I read an interesting on-line article about this subject entitled “Why are you that color? The strange case of the dark phase tiger swallowtail.” The author speculates that the dark morph is an evolutionary attempt to mimic a similar-looking Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly that predators know is toxic, a practice known as Batesian mimicry. So, in theory the dark morph would have a better chance of survival. For unknown reasons, however, the males do not seem to be as attracted to the dark morph females, “These guys are apparently traditionalists and prefer the good ol’ yellow and black that their species is known for.” So the genes that might benefit species survival are not always passed on.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last week when I was exploring Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, I spotted this very strange looking caterpillar in one of the trees. It was quite small and was in motion, so getting a photo was somewhat of a challenge. As I was doing research, I was a little shocked to discover that this is actual the larval stage of a Dogwood Sawfly (Macremphytus tarsatus), a wasp-like insect. The larvae go through a number of different phases of development and this looks to middle-instar stage.

No matter how many times I return to a location, there always seems to be something new and different to see, as long as I take the time to look slowly and carefully.

 

Dogwood Sawfly larva

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This butterfly had its choice of flowers as I chased after it last week at Green Spring Gardens, but it chose instead to grab some nectar from a lowly clover plant. Still, I can’t complain—it was my first sighting of a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) this season.

Monarch Butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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