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Archive for the ‘wildlife’ Category

Some dragonfly species are special to me because of their beauty; some—because of their rarity; and some—because of the specific circumstance under which I found them. Swift Setwings are in the latter category.

Four years ago I photographed a strange-looking dragonfly at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge and could not identify it. I was a little shocked when experts told me it was a male Swift Setwing dragonfly (Dythemis velox), a primarily southern species that had never before been spotted as far north in Virginia as Fairfax County where I live.

Every year since that first encounter, I make a pilgrimage to the spot of my first sighting to check on “my” dragonflies, which now seem to have a well-established breeding population. Alerted by a Facebook posting by a fellow photographer, I visited the refuge this past Tuesday and was thrilled to spot several male Swift Setwing dragonflies.

As you can see from the two photos below, Swift Setwings have a distinctive posture—they typically perch on the tip of branches with their wings angled down and forward and their abdomen slightly raised. Apparently the stance reminded some scientist of a sprinter at a track meet on the blocks in the “ready, set, go” position” and that is supposed to be the source of the somewhat unusual name for the species.

Usually the vegetation on which a Swift Setwing is perched hangs over the water and the dragonfly faces the water. As a result, I too often have to hang over the water to get a decent angle for a shot. So far, I have managed to keep from falling into the pond, though I must admit that I have come close to doing so a few times.

Swift Setwing

Swift Setwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Where can you find dragonflies? You can find them almost anywhere where there is some kind of water nearby, but different species have preferred habitats. Some dragonflies can be found at lakes or ponds or streams or in sunlit meadows or in the margins of the forest.

Some of my favorites, including the Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi) are creatures of the seeps, those mucky forest areas where skunk cabbages are likely to grow. Most of the photos that I have published of Gray Petaltails have shown them perching vertically on sunlit trees near those seeps. That is where they are found most often, although they will sometimes perch on people with gray shirts, perhaps mistaking them for trees. I have had it happen to me on multiple occasions and, even though I love dragonflies, it is a little disconcerting when one of these large dragonflies flies by your head with an audible whir and lands on you.

As I was exploring a seepy area in Occoquan Regional Park on Wednesday, I was thrilled to be able to capture a shot of a Gray Petaltail perched horizontally on some skunk cabbage. What was he doing there? My first thought was that maybe he had just emerged and was waiting for his wings to harden. Unlike many other dragonfly larvae that live in the water, Gray Petaltail larvae live in the moist leaves in and around the seeps, so that is were they undergo their amazing metamorphosis from larvae into dragonflies.

When the dragonfly flew to a nearby tree, as shown in the second shot, it appeared to be a full-grown adult. I am still at a loss to explain why he was previously perched on skunk cabbage. Who knows? However, I do like the way that way that the background of this image is diagonally broken up into a kind of yin-yang pattern, a wonderful backdrop for this dragonfly’s muted colors.

The final photo is a quick shot to give you a visual impression some of the elements in a sun-lit forest seep, the preferred habitat for a Gray Petaltail dragonfly. This seep is on the side of a hill, so the water is not stagnant, but instead slowly oozes its way into a stream. If you want to find a Gray Petaltail on your own, this is the kind of place where you need to search.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

seep

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was happy on Tuesday to spot this male Lancet Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus exilis) perched in the vegetation overhanging the small pond at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I would like to have gotten a closer shot, but the bank was steep and the water in the pond appears to be deep at that spot. Staying dry, I was content to capture this environmental portrait of the handsome little dragonfly with such striking blue eyes.

lancet clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Eight years ago yesterday my dear friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer sat me down and told me that I was going to start a blog. She is a professional photographer and graphic designer and already had a well-established blog. I had gone shooting with her multiple times and we had spent countless hours together reviewing my photos to improve my skills in capturing images and processing them. She had decided it was time to broaden my audience beyond that of Facebook.

Cindy showed me the basics of WordPress editing and navigation and helped me to set up my initial pages. I do not think that either of us anticipated the degree to which I would grow to love the process of blogging, a process that has allowed me daily to express myself creatively in both words and images.

WordPress data show that I have published 3628 posts, which probably includes the occasional re-blog of a post written by someone else, and have had almost 249 thousand views. Those posts have included over 580 thousand words (about 160 words per posting) and well over 4000 photos.

Although I look at the numbers from time to time, they are not that important to me. It is personally more important to me that the blog has helped me to develop relationships with a lot of different viewers, to share with so many of you my sometimes faltering  steps on my meandering journey into photography.

Thanks to all of you for helping me along the way and sharing your comments, suggestions, and recommendations. I especially owe a debt of gratitude to Cindy Dyer for motivating me throughout this entire period, for pushing me at times when I was hesitant, and for serving as my muse. Many of you probably feel that you already know Cindy, given that I have featured flowers from her garden repeatedly during this year as I have been forced to stay close to home. Thanks, Cindy.

To celebrate this anniversary, I thought I would reprise two of my favorite photos. These are not necessarily my most popular images or my “best” images, but they are ones that are particularly memorable to me. I am also including links to the original postings so you can read the accompanying text and additional commentary about the circumstances under which they were captured. Links to original postings: Visible Song (8 March 2016) and Fox on a frozen pond (31 January 2016).

But wait, there’s more. As a bonus, I am including an image that I captured last week of a spectacular male Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina). Most of you know that I am somewhat obsessed with dragonflies and they have been an almost constant focus of my photography during the warm months over the last eight years. In fact, my very first blog posting featured a dragonfly. So, I feel it is only appropriate to include a dragonfly as I look back at where I have been.

Thanks again for all of your support and encouragement over these past eight years. The journey continues onward. I hope to continue to walk side-by-side with so many of you as we support and encourage one another. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.” (Gal. 6:10)

Visible song

fox on frozen pond

Halloween Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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If you are lucky and persistent, it is not hard to photograph a perched dragonfly. Some of them are amazingly tolerant of the presence of a human and will let you get really close to them. Even when they do fly away, many of them will return to the very same perch.

If you want to really challenge your skills as a photographer and perhaps even your sanity, you attempt to photograph members of dragonfly species that fly almost constantly and rarely perch, like this male Prince Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca princeps) that I spotted late in June at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. This dragonfly was flying irregular patrols low over the waters of a small pond at the refuge—sometimes he would fly relatively close to the shore, but often his flight path was unpredictable.

So how do I do it? I generally use the same 180mm macro lens that I use for close-up shots of dragonflies. However, I know that the lens tends to focus slowly and autofocus simply can’t acquire the subject, because it fills such a small part of the frame, so I switch to manual focus. I pre-focus on a general area and then as I track the dragonfly, I adjust the focus on the fly as he zooms by and fire away in burst mode. As dragonflies go, a Prince Baskettail is relatively large, almost 3 inches in length (75 mm), but it is really tough to get an in focus shot of one while he is flying.

On a second occasion when I was visiting the same refuge, I got a chance to try a variation of the technique. The dragonflies were patrolling  high overhead as I stood in a grassy area at one end of the pond. The second shot was the best that I could manage—the wing pattern suggests that it is also a Prince Baskettail, but the eye coloration and the terminal appendages at the tip of the abdomen make me wonder if this one is a female. What I discovered is that it is actually a lot harder to focus on a dragonfly when I am looking straight up than when looking down at the water and my arms get tired a lot quicker when holding my camera up hight for an extended period of time.

Prince Baskettail

Prince Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I spotted this mating pair of Halloween Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis eponina) last Thursday during a brief visit to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia with my dear friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer. The wing patterns and coloration of Halloween Pennants have always attracted me, making them one of my favorites. As most of you know, however, I tend to have lots of favorites when it comes to dragonflies.

I was in stealth mode as I slowly moved closer to this couple and attempted to frame the image in a way that was interesting and creative, while trying not to feel too much like a voyeur. Yes, I will boldly assert that this is art, and not insect porn.

Halloween Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Perhaps it was a territorial dispute, but whatever the reason, a male Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) came screaming in determined to dislodge a perched male Banded Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis fasciata) on Thursday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens and achieved his goal. A few moments earlier I had spotted the two dragonflies perched in a moment of peaceful co-existence (with appropriate social distancing), but that moment of tranquility did not last very long.

Can’t we all just get along and live in harmony with one another?

Halloween Pennant and Banded Pennant

Halloween Pennant and Banded Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris rapae) are so small and plain that many people mistakenly believe they are moths. I find real elegance in their simplicity, especially when I am able to see their striking speckled green eyes. I spotted this little beauty during a brief visit yesterday to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia with my friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer.

Cabbage Whites are always hyperactive, in constant motion as they flit about from flower to flower, stopping only momentarily for a short sip. Consequently they are hard to track and you have to be quick on the trigger to have a chance of getting a shot. In the first photo I was lucky enough to capture a “bonus bug,” a hoverfly that was in action below the much larger butterfly. Cindy coined the term “bonus bug” to refer to insects that are in the frame that you never even noticed when you were taking the shot.

Be sure to double-click on each image to get a more detailed view of this beautiful butterfly, including its mesmerizing eyes.

Cabbage White

Cabbage White

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Most dragonflies are slender and acrobatic, prompting one of my friends recently to call them “dainty.” There is absolutely nothing dainty, however, about Dragonhunter dragonflies (Hagenius brevistylus)—with their massive upper bodies and powerful legs, they remind me of powerlifters. Dragonhunters, unlike some other large dragonflies, do not fly patrols overhead in their search for food. Instead, they are patient hunters who perch, waiting for passing prey, and then use their powerful back legs to snag their victims, which are often other dragonflies.

One thing that always strikes me when I spot perched Dragonhunters is that they seem uncomfortable. Their back legs are so long and ungainly that Dragonhunters’ poses look awkward, bringing to mind gawky teenage males who have undergone recent growth spurts and have not yet gotten used to their longer limbs.

I was thrilled to spot this Dragonhunter last week while exploring a stream in Fairfax County with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. It was a hot, humid day and we did not have any success in finding Eastern Least Clubtails, our main focus for the day. In fact, during the day we did not see many dragonflies at all. Walter had been at this location repeatedly and at the start of the day had commented to me that he had often seen Dragonhunters perched on branches overhanging the stream. In fact, we spotted Dragonhunters several times during the day, but did not manage to get good shots of them.

As the skies began to darken, signaling an approaching rainstorm, I knew our time was drawing to an end. I decided to return to a fallen tree where we had seen a Dragonhunter earlier in the day and was pleasantly surprised to see a Dragonhunter holding on to the very tip of a branch. I waded into the stream and moved a little closer to the dragonfly, slowly making my way across the slick, uneven rocks. I called out loudly to Walter, who was a good distance downstream from me, and eventually I heard his response.

I became the patient hunter now as I stood in the calf-high waters of the stream, trying to minimize my movements as I struggled to get a decent shot without disturbing the dragonfly, waiting for the arrival of my friend and hoping that the dragonfly would stay in place. Well, Walter arrived and we both managed to get some shots. I then felt free to move a bit more and crouched low to get a better angle for a shot. Lost in the moment, I did not initially notice that my backside was getting wetter and wetter as I squatted lower and lower. Fortunately I had moved my wallet and keys to my backpack which remained dry.

Eventually the Dragonhunter flew away from its initial perch, but the flights were short and relatively direct and we were able to track the dragonfly to its subsequent positions. The Dragonhunter looked a bit more comfortable at its new perches, but I was not. The rocks underfoot were getting bigger and more uneven and navigation through the water was increasingly difficult. At one moment I encountered an unexpected small drop (maybe 6 inches or so) and I slipped and momentarily lost my balance, but somehow managed to stay dry.

I was tired and wet when we began the uphill trudge back to the parking area, but I was feeling happy about our encounter with this Dragonhunter, one of the powerful giants of the dragonfly world. If you would like to see Walter’s photos and commentary on our Dragonhunter adventure, be sure to check out his blog posting today entitled “Dragonhunter dragonfly (male).” While you are there, be sure to poke around on his site—he has lots of cool images and fascinating information on all kinds of dragonflies and other creatures too.

Dragonhunter

Dragonhunter

Dragonhunter

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some folks are a bit shocked when I post photos of mating insects, so here is a more discreet look at a damselfly couple in tandem that I encountered last week at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. Somehow I can’t help but think of the old doo wop song “Silhouettes,” which recounts the story of a man who sees two silhouettes on a shade. He thinks his girlfriend is kissing another guy, only to find out that he is at the wrong house.

I may have heard the original version by The Rays that came out in 1957, but suspect I actually recall the cover version done by Herman’s Hermits that came out in 1965. In case you have never heard the song or are simply feeling nostalgic, here is a link to YouTube for the original version and a link to the cover by Herman’s Hermits.

damselflies

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some of the dragonflies that I feature in my postings are uncommon species in my area. They are found in very small numbers, have a short flight period, and require very specific habitats. My good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford did an extensive amount of research two years ago and re-discovered the Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Stenogomphurus rogersi), a species that is considered to be rare in Northern Virginia. Several of us were able to capture numerous images of this beautiful species during the 2018 dragonfly season.

Since that time, however, the habitat at that location has deteriorated significantly. As a result of some imprudent dumping of dirt and the resulting runoff, the stream habitat has been compromised by increased silt and higher levels of vegetation. Last year, as far as we know, there was only a single sighting of Sable Clubtails at this spot.

Had the population of Sable Clubtails been wiped out? During May and June this year, I made repeated trips to this location and on 12 June I captured the second shot below. When I took the shot, I was not sure if it was a Sable Clubtail, so my excitement was somewhat muted while I was in the field.  However, when Walter confirmed that it was in fact a male Sable Clubtail, I was really happy. In many ways, though, my excitement was no match for Walter’s the next day, when we returned to that location and, after much searching, had several encounters with Sable Clubtails, including the one shown in the first image.

For more background on the saga of the Sable Clubtails, be sure to check out Walter’s posting from last Friday entitled “Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Male No. 1).” The posting includes Walter’s photos, range maps for the species, and fascinating details on the backstory. Walter has a background in science and his systematic and analytical approach allows him to view things from a different perspective than I do with my background in languages, literature, and political science. Our approaches are quite different, but are definitely complementary.

 

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How much does the  background matter in a wildlife photograph? Is it merely a potentially distracting element or should it help convey a sense of the environment? Like many photographers, I often obsess over the background when I compose my images, trying to frame the shot and to adjust the camera settings to produce a certain effect. I suspect that my mindset is frequently more like that of a portrait photographer, who wants to draw your attention to the main subject, than that of a landscape photographer, who wants everything in the viewfinder to be in focus.

During the month of June I have been blessed to spot Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) on multiple occasions at several locations. I have taken lots of photos of them and the majority of those photos show the dragonfly perched vertically on the trunk of a tree—that is what petaltails do most of the time. My personal challenge has been to capture some images of Gray Petaltails doing something a bit different.

In the first image, the Gray Petaltail was perched horizontally, a position that I have rarely seen. The background in this shot is completely blurred—you don’t know for sure what is behind the dragonfly, though the colors suggest that it is vegetation. The blurred background forces you to focus on the main subject and to a limited extent on its perch. It is the type of portrait image that I strive to capture most often, though rarely am I this successful in doing so.

The second image uses a different approach. I visually separated the dragonfly from its perch by shooting from the side so that the details of its body are not lost in the shadows of the tree. The background is slightly blurred, but it lets you know that the dragonfly was perched in a sea of interrupted ferns. I like the way that you can see the patterns and color of those ferns. I took the shot from a lot farther away than I did with the first image, so the dragonfly occupies a much smaller part of the frame. As a result, the details of the perch grow in importance and in many ways the tree shares the spotlight with the dragonfly. This is the kind of environmental portrait that I really like, but often forget to take. Too often I am so driven to fill the frame with my subject that I forget to try different approaches.

The final shot is a kind of compromise shot, taken from a medium distance with a background that is more suggestive of the environment than in the first image, but not as detailed as in the second one. The perch has some details, but is intended to play a supporting role, rather than be the co-star as in the the second image. The dragonfly fills less of the frame than in the first image, but more than in the second.

In the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, she repeatedly tried two extremes, before setting on one that was “just right.” Is that the moral of the story here? Au contraire, mes amis. You can come to your own conclusions as you look at these three images, but for me it is clear that there is no single solution to the question of backgrounds. Blurry backgrounds can be good, but not always. Close-up shots are great, but may come with a cost. Showing some details in the background can enhance an image, except when it doesn’t.

What is best? Some folks may be unhappy with the lack of clarity, but the best answer seems to be, “it depends.” With backgrounds, as with so much in photography, we are left in an ambiguous situation in which “rules” are at best general guidelines, intended to be broken as the situation dictates or as the photographer decides. That gives me unlimited possibilities and a maximum amount of freedom to create more cool images.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The shape of the silhouette is familiar and if the lighting is bad, you might be able to convince yourself that a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is standing in the corner of a small pond at Green Spring Gardens. I have visited the pond dozens of times, so I know that the heron is not real, but it still makes for a fun subject to photograph.

I love the heron’s distorted reflection in the first photo and the touches of green provided by a small tree to the side and the duckweed floating on the surface of the water. I was equally thrilled when a male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) perched on the heron’s head after I had moved in closer. I doubt that a real heron would have been quite as accommodating in permitting the dragonfly to perch and seem to recall having seen a Great Blue Heron attempt to snatch a dragonfly out of the air as it flew by.

Great Blue Heron

Blue Dasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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In some of the locations that I visit, Blue Dasher dragonflies (Pachydiplax longipennis) are the most common species that I encounter. They are pretty easy to photograph, because they hunt by perching and waiting for suitable prey to come within range. When it does, they dart from their position to catch it and often return to the same perch.

Over the years, I am sure that I have taken hundreds of photos of Blue Dashers, but I still enjoy trying to capture new and potentially better images of these beautiful little dragonflies. Blue Dashers have a special place in my heart in part because my very first posting on this blog almost eight years ago featured a photo of one. My gear has changed over those eight years, but my approach has remained pretty consistent. If you are curious about the kind of images I was capturing way back then, check out the posting that was entitle simply “Blue Dasher dragonfly.”

One thing that has changed, though, is that I now have a greater appreciation for female dragonflies, which are generally less colorful than their male counterparts. Some might see the females as drab and uninteresting, but I often find a special beauty in them that is more subtle and refined than the garish males.

The images below are shots of female Blue Dashers that I have taken during the month of June. The final photo shows a younger female with brighter colors and a more distinct pattern on her abdomen. The first two images feature a more mature female—both sexes of Blues Dashers develop a waxy, frosted color with age, a phenomenon known as “pruinescence.” One of the coolest features of these females is their two-toned eyes, with a prominent red color on the top half of the large compound eyes.

 

Blue Dasher

Blue Dasher

Blue Dasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When I was photographing bees on Monday at Green Spring Gardens, I had no idea that it was the start of Pollinator Week (22-28 June 2020), “an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles,” according to the pollinator.org website. All I knew was that I love bees and enjoy trying to photograph them.

I was reminded of this week’s celebration yesterday in an e-mail from Benjamin, a knowledgeable budding naturalist who is almost certainly the youngest reader of my blog, and his grandmother Ellen (Gem). The two of them were busily making special honey treats to celebrate the week.

A honeybee came buzzing by me as I was attempting to photograph a poppy on Monday. Although the poppy was quite beautiful, I quickly abandoned it and decided that it was more fun to focus on the bee. The bee seemed to have been quite successful in gathering pollen and, as you can see in the first two photos, one of its pollen sacs seemed to be filled to its maximum capacity.

The final photo shows a honeybee at work in a Stokes’ Aster flower (Stokesia laevis) that I spotted in another part of the gardens. If you double-click on the image, you will see little white grains of pollen covering different many parts of the bee’s body.

 

honeybee

honeybee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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Can dragonflies smile? It sure looked like this male Great Blue Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans) was flashing me a toothy grin when I spotted him last Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps it was just my imagination, running away with me.

smiling dragonfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Out of the more than 3500 species of skipper butterflies worldwide, there is only one that I can reliably identify, the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). I spotted this little beauty on Monday during a brief visit to Green Spring Gardens with my friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer.

Silver-spotted Skipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During a brief visit to Green Spring Gardens on Monday with fellow photographer Cindy Dyer, I was thrilled when this Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) landed close to me on an evergreen tree and I was able to capture this shot with my macro lens. I was focusing primarily on flowers and bugs, as one tends to do when visiting a garden, and simply reacted when this unexpected opportunity presented itself.

One of my goals in spending so much time in the field is to become so familiar with my camera gear that I can instinctively capture an image like this without having to think consciously about my camera. It is hard to explain, but it was one of those magical moments when I felt at one with my camera. Yeah, that sounds a little weird, but it is hard to put into words.

 

Northern Mockingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) are quite small, about 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length, they pack a lot of color into their tiny bodies and wings. Adult females have bright yellow markings, as shown in the first photo, and wonderful designs on their wings that appear to be outlined in gold when the sun hits them from the right angle. Adult males have bright red markings that look almost like little hearts and have similarly detailed patches on their wings, although the pattern and colors are different from those of the females.

What about the dragonfly in the third photo? Its coloration is similar to that of the adult female, but it is in fact a juvenile male that will eventually turn red. How can I tell it is a male? If you look closely at the tips of the abdomen (the “tail”) in all three images, you will note that the terminal appendages are similar in the final two photos and are different from those in the first photo. Normally I will try to rely on those anatomical features when trying to tell the gender of a subject, because in quite a large number of dragonfly species, juvenile males and females have the same coloration.

I spotted all three of these Calico Pennant dragonflies during a visit last Friday to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, one of my favorite places to spend time with my camera. This refuge was one of the few facilities in our area to remain open during the stay-home period and got a bit too crowded for my taste. Now that other parks have reopened, the number of visitors has dropped to much lower levels and I am able to enjoy the solitude of nature once again.

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Ebony Jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata) are everywhere in some of the forest streams I like to explore at this time of the year. Still, I love when I can get a good angle on these beautiful damselflies when they are in wheel position and forming a sidewards heart, as was the case with this pair that I spotted last Thursday in Fairfax County.

Yes, as some of you already know, the damselflies are in the process of mating, with the male on the right and the female on the left.

 

Ebony Jewelwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Do you believe in unicorns? I am always happy when I manage to spot a Unicorn Clubtail (Arigomphus villosipes), a beautiful dragonfly species in which both sexes have a small hornlike projection between their eyes that gives rise to their common name. I recently spotted the dragonflies in this posting while exploring a small pond in Fairfax County, where I live.

This is the only clubtail species in our area that prefers ponds and marshes over streams and rivers, according to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website. It is fairly easy to identify this species, because of the rusty-edged club at the bottom portion of the dragonfly’s abdomen and the very visible bright tip. Male Unicorn Clubtails tend to fly short patrols and perch quite often on low vegetation, so it is not hard for me to spot them if I am in the appropriate environment.  The third photo below shows a male in a typical perching pose.

Female Unicorn Clubtails, on the other hand, are hard to find—I do not know where they hang out, but it seems that they come to the water only when they are ready to mate. The only two times that I have ever seen a female Unicorn Clubtail dragonfly was when when she was ovipositing, like this one in the first two photos that I spotted this past Thursday. I captured these shots as she hovered momentarily in the air, getting ready to tap the water again with the tip of her abdomen to release more eggs.

Chasing unicorns? Yes, that is how I enjoy spending my time in the wild.

 

Unicorn Clubtail

Unicorn Clubtail

Unicorn Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was really happy that I was able to track this Swamp Darner dragonfly (Epiaeschna heros) after it zoomed by me yesterday afternoon at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. When I finally caught up to it, the large dragonfly was hanging vertically, high in a tree among the leaves, leisurely munching on its bee lunch in the shade.

Yes, I recognize that bees play an important role as pollinators and highlighted that in yesterday’s posting. Bees, however, also serve as a food source for other creatures higher up on the food chain—they are all part of the circle of life.

Swamp Darners are among the largest dragonflies in our area, about 3.4 inches (86 mm) in length. I really like the description that Kevin Munroe provided of Swamp Darners on the wonderful Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website. “I often tell people on dragonfly walks that if they see a rhino with wings, it’s a swamp darner. Slight exaggeration, perhaps, but they are pretty impressive. June is their month and the best time to see them, as they cruise, slow and purposefully, over shallow, swampy pools, or hunt high over nearby meadows.”

 

Swamp Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It has been a month since I visited the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where I spotted an eaglet on 19 May and wrote a posting entitled “One little eaglet.” Yesterday I traveled to the refuge to check on the baby eagle and was a little surprised to find that the authorities had removed the barriers that had blocked access to the nesting area, which is adjacent to a trail. Did this mean that the eaglet had fledged and the family had left the nest?

I was happy to discover that the eaglet was still there, has grown considerably in size over the past month, and was sitting tall at one edge of the nest. The leaf coverage has also grown, making it pretty tough to get an unobstructed view of the little eagle. The vegetation also hid the presence of one of the parent eagles that flew away to a nearby grove of trees when I approached.

It is somehow reassuring to see that the cycle of life has continued undisturbed as our lives have been turned upside down by the global pandemic. I celebrate the new life of this young eagle and all of the other creatures who have begun their lives this spring and wish them success as they learn to navigate the challenges of their lives.

 

Bald Eagle eaglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes I take photographs when I am standing upright, but quite often I am crouching, kneeling, bending, or leaning as I try to compose my images. I occasionally  remark that I am happy that nobody is filming me as I contort my body for the sake of my craft—a kind of photography yoga. Sometimes, though, my friends will take photos of me as I am am taking photos.

Several readers wondered how close I was to the Gray Petaltail dragonfly when I captured some macro images of its eyes that I featured in a posting earlier this week. My friend Walter Sanford, with whom I frequently go on photographic forays for dragonflies, captured the first image below of me in action and graciously agreed to let me use it in this posting. You may need to double-click on the photo to see it, but the Gray Petaltail dragonfly is perched on the left fork of the branch just after the split. The dragonfly was so cooperative that I remained in that crouch for an extended period of time, periodically flexing forward to get a tiny bit closer.

My friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer has also captured me in action. She recently came across the second photo below, which I think dates back to 2013, and posted it in Facebook. I am not sure what I was looking at so intently through my viewfinder, but it seems likely that I had spotted something more interesting than the Canada Geese right in front of me. As I often do, I was crouching in the brush, with all kinds of vegetation threatening to poke me in the ear and eyes.

When a crouch will not get me low enough, I am often willing to sprawl on the ground, as in the third photo below that was also taken by Cindy Dyer. You may notice that I was carrying a tripod with me in a case on my back. Cindy is a big fan of using a tripod whenever possible for macro shots and I remember well when she told me that one of the keys to success was for me to get as low as possible and spread my legs. I blushed initially until I realized that she was referring to my tripod.

It is probably not mandatory for all photographers, but I have found that it helps to be fit and flexible. One of my personal challenges will be to maintain that level of fitness and energy as I get older, so that I can continue my “style” of photography.

Gray Petaltail

kingstowne pond

shooting position

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In an ideal world, I would be able to photograph a dragonfly up close and from multiple angles. My close-up shots of a Gray Petaltail dragonfly in yesterday’s posting were the result of almost perfect circumstances. Real life, alas, is rarely that perfect. My entire life, it seems, I have heard the words of the Rolling Stones, reminding me that “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”

Last week I spent almost an entire day with fellow dragonfly enthusiast and blogger Walter Sanford searching for dragonflies in a variety of habitats. It was a long, grueling effort, conducted often in the hot direct sunlight and sometime involving wading through waist-high vegetation. Walter and I have worked together often enough over the years that we have developed some routines. Most of the time we try to stay in sight of each other, so if one of us spooks a dragonfly, the other has a chance of being able to track it to its next perch.

Towards the end of day, we had wandered a little farther apart than usual when I heard Walter tell me emphatically to stop—he had spotted a dragonfly. I was in an awkward position when I stopped and I could barely see the dragonfly through the lens of the camera. It was hanging vertically from a thin stalk of vegetation that was swaying vigorously back and forth in a breeze that had suddenly kicked up. My heart started to beat a bit faster when Walter told me that it looked to be a male Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster obliqua), an uncommon species that I have seen only a few times.

So there I was, frozen in place far from my subject, trying desperately to focus manually on my moving subject that I knew might take off at any moment. I tried to pay attention to the background as I composed my shots, bending my body and flexing my knees to get some minor variations in my angle of view. What you see below are three of those variations. I like the way that they captured the Arrowhead Spiketail in the environment in which we found it—I may not have gotten what I wanted, but perhaps I got what I needed, i.e. I got some decent shots of my subject.

Walter observed this dragonfly from an entirely different angle of view and, as always, approaches things from a different perspective. I encourage you to check out his blog posting today “Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly (male)” to see his photos and to read about his reactions to seeing this uncommon dragonfly in an environment that was not “according to the book.”

Arrowhead Spiketail

Arrowhead Spiketail

Arrowhead Spiketail

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Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) are one of the friendliest and tamest dragonfly species that I have encountered. If you hang around with them often enough, they are almost certain to land on you, particularly if you are wearing gray clothing that somehow reminds them of a tree. It is a little hard not to flinch when one of these relatively large dragonflies (3 inches (75 mm) in length) perches on your head or shoulder.

Gray Petaltails will also let you get pretty close to them when they are perched on trees. Quite frequently, though, they are perched above eye level, so being that close does not allow you to capture close-up images. This past Saturday when I was hunting for dragonflies with my friend Walter Sanford, we spotted a Gray Petaltail perched on a fallen branch that was at knee level. After we had both taken some shots, Walter challenged me to see how close I could get to the dragonfly to capture images with my macro lens.

The first shot shows one of my attempts to get a head-on shot. It is very cool to look another creature straight in the eyes, but it is rare that one will permit you to do so, especially at such close range. It seemed clear to me that the dragonfly was quite aware of my presence, but did not consider me to be a threat.

I took the second shot from the side as I moved even closer to my subject. I was trying my best to capture some of the details of the dragonfly’s eye that was nearest to me and was not concerned that most of the rest of its head was out of focus. If you double-click on the image, you can see some of the ommatidia, the individual optical units that make up a dragonfly’s amazing multi-faceted compound eyes.

If you want to learn more about dragonfly eyes, check out a wonderful article at medium.com entitled  “30,000 Facets Give Dragonflies A Different Perspective: The Big Compound Eye In The Sky“. Scientists, for example, know that the thousands of ommatidia produce a mosaic of “pictures,” but how exactly this visual mosaic is integrated in the insect brain is still not known.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

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Yesterday I posted a photo of a male Common Whitetail dragonfly that was hovering in the air to fight off rivals and protect the female with which he had mated as she deposited her eggs in the water, a practice know as hover guarding. In some dragonfly species, the male will remain attached to the female throughout the entire process of oviposition, a process known as contact guarding. In other dragonfly species, the female is entirely on her own to deposit the eggs.

Black Saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea lacerata) use a different technique for guarding that I like to call “release and catch.” After mating is completed, the male and female Black Saddlebags fly together over the water in a tandem position, with the male in the front. At certain moments, for reasons that I cannot determine, the male releases the female and she drops down to the water and taps it to release one or more eggs. As she rises up out of the water, the male catches the female and reattaches the tip of his abdomen to the back of her head. They continue to fly in tandem and repeat this cycle multiple times.

On Saturday I was fortunate to be able to capture this sequence of shots that documents the entire process. Most of the time these dragonflies chose spots that were too far away for me to photograph them, but in this case they flew a bit closer to the edge of the pond where I was standing. As you probably suspect, I had to crop in a good amount to highlight the action for you, given that I was shooting with my trusty 180mm macro lens, which has a more limited reach than the lens that I use when photographing birds.

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

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When you are walking near the edge of the water, it is good to look down from time to time. Sharp-eyed Walter Sanford, a fellow dragonfly fanatic, spotted this Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) as we were searching for dragonflies in Fairfax County, Virginia last Monday. This is a non-poisonous snake, but I have read that it will bite and the wound may bleed a lot, because its saliva contains a mild anticoagulant.

Three years ago I had an encounter with a similar snake and watched it capture and devour a catfish. If you missed that posting, click on this link and check outSnake captures catfish—if you are like me, you will be fascinated and slightly horrified by the encounter and may avoid wading in the water at the edge of rivers for a time.

Northern Water Snake

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What is the most common dragonfly where you live? Over the last few weeks I have noticed more and more dragonflies at the ponds and marshes that I visit, an indication that many of the summer dragonfly species have emerged. Here in Northern Virginia, the most common dragonfly is probably the appropriately named Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia). This species is one of the first to appear in the spring and one of the last to disappear in the fall. They are easy to identify and are such habitat generalists that they can be found almost anywhere.

Many of you know that I will often spend lots of time looking for rare dragonfly species, but I try not to take for granted the more common ones that many people (and photographers) ignore. The first image shows a male Common Whitetail that was hovering for a moment as he kept watch over a female as she deposited eggs in the water.

The second image is a portrait of a male Common Whitetail as he perched on some vegetation overhanging the water. If you look at the angle at which I took the shot, you can probably guess that I was at risk of falling into the water when I took the shot. The final shot is a portrait of a beautiful female Common Whitetail. When they are young, males have a similar coloration on their bodies as the females, but the wing patterns are different. You can also tell the genders apart by looking at the tip of the abdomen (the “tail”) where the terminal appendages are sexually differentiated.

As is often the case for species saddled with the name “common,” Common Whitetail dragonflies are uncommonly beautiful.

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

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Most of the time Red-eared Slider turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans) slide into the water as soon as they detect my presence. Yesterday, however, this turtle seemed to be in such a deep meditative state that it remained in place when I approached it at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. The turtle was even impassive to repeated buzzings by several Eastern Amberwing dragonflies, some of which flew within inches of its face.

I was hoping to get some a shot of a dragonfly landing on the turtle’s shell, but was content to capture this image with both the turtle and a passing dragonfly.

Red-eared Turtle

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The genus Argia, commonly known as dancers, is a large New World group of damselflies. Although the genus name Argia, αργία in Ancient Greek, is translated as “idleness,” dancers are quite active and alert damselflies, according to Wikipedia. Why are they called “dancers?” They are known as dancers “because of the distinctive jerky form of flight they use which contrasts with the straightforward direct flight of bluets, forktails, and other pond damselflies.” I wonder if I am part damselfly, because “distinctive” and “jerky” are definitely adjectives that could be used to describe my attempts at dancing.

This past week, I have seen three different species of dancers. The first one, the Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea) has perhaps the most strikingly beautiful color of any of the dragonflies and damselflies that I have seen—I love that shade of violet. Some of my longtime readers may have noted that a photo of a Variable Dancer has been the banner image for this blog for many years.

The damselfly in the second image is a Blue-fronted Dancer (Argia apicalis). The thorax of the males of this species are almost completely blue, with only hairline stripes in the middle of their backs and shoulders.

The final damselfly is a Powdered Dancer (Argia moesta), our only mostly white damselfly. As you can see in the photo, members of this species often like to perch on stones at the edge of the water. I chose to leave this image mostly uncropped, because of the way that it shows the water moving around the stone and the submerged stones on the stream bottom in the background.

All of this talk of dancers brings to mind a country music song that I really like by Lee Ann Womack called “I Hope You Dance.” I am really touched by the basic message of the song—when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.

Here is the first verse of the song, just in case you have never heard it:

“I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance.”
(I Hope You Dance lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group, Songtrust Ave)

Variable Dancer

Blue-fronted Dancer

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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