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Archive for the ‘wildlife’ Category

I was thrilled last week to stumble upon some Brown Spiketail dragonflies (Cordulegaster bilineata) while I was exploring a stream in Prince William County. When I spotted them, they were patrolling really low, moving in and out of the stalks of the grass and other plants only inches above the ground. I was able to track several of them and capture multiple shots, including an in-flight shot when one of the Brown Spiketails decided to hover momentarily right in front of me.

According to the wonderful website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, Brown Spiketails are considered “rare” in our area. Their preferred habitat is “clean, small sunlit, forest streams and seepages, ” an almost perfect match for the location where I spotted these dragonflies. The flight season lasts only about six weeks and peaks in mid-May.

Sometimes “my” Brown Spiketails would perch high enough above the ground that I could isolate the dragonfly from the background, as I did in the second image. Most of the time, though, they would perch low on grasses and shrubs, which meant that I too had to get low too to capture images like the third one. The background in that image is somewhat cluttered, but I think that it gives you a good sense of the habitat and the challenge of finding and focusing on such a narrow target.

Brown Spiketail

Brown Spiketail

brown spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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When I saw an osprey couple trying to build a nest earlier this spring on a channel marker in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the building site seemed way too small. Amazingly the ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) found a way to add an overhanging extension that seems to defy gravity. The couple seemed comfortable in the nest, which appear to be capable of easily holding their weight.

A neighboring osprey couple had the opposite problem—they had too much space. The ospreys used only half of the space for their nest and could easily have shared the other half with another couple, but I think that ospreys like to keep their neighbors at arm’s length, or maybe it would be better to say “at wing’s length.”

osprey nest

osprey nest

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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The newspapers in our area are full of apocalyptic stories about Brood X periodical cicadas (Magicicada septendecim) that are starting to emerge in my neighborhood and in other parts of the United States after a seventeen-year stint underground. I have not seen many live cicadas, but there are dozens of discarded exoskeletons on my backyard fence and in my front yard tree, a few of which you can see in the second and third photos. I am not paranoid, but it does feel like they are surrounding me.

On Tuesday I photographed one cicada that was in the process of emerging. If you look closely at the first photo you will note that the cicada’s wings are not yet fully formed. They will eventually lengthen and become transparent. So far the cicadas have remained silent, but before long I expect to hear their deafening chorus, as the males compete to attract females by belting out their mating calls.

Yesterday the Washington Post had a story with the sensationalist title A fungus could turn some cicadas into sex-crazed ‘salt shakers of death.’  According to the authors of this article, “Yellow-white fungus grows inside the cicadas, filling their insides and pushing out against their abdomens. One by one, the rings that compose the back halves of their bodies slough off and fall to the ground. Driven by a chemical compound in the fungus — and now lacking butts and genitals — the bugs try to mate like crazy. Some researchers call these infected cicadas “flying salt shakers of death.” And they’re lurking among Brood X.” There is even a warning in the article, “Despite the amphetamine’s ability to control cicadas, no one should expect to feel a high from eating a fungus-infected insect.”

Yes, things are a little crazy here as we await the full-scale onslaught of the cicadas. I will try do an update posting in the upcoming weeks with more photos of these brooding, red-eyed insect invaders.

 

cicada

cicada

cicada

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was delighted to spot these beautiful Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The one with the yellow markings is a female and the one with the red markings is a male.

The combination of bright colors and intricate wing patterns makes Calico Pennants one of the most stunning dragonflies species that I am blessed to see and photograph. They sure do pack a lot of beauty into their tiny bodies that are only 1.3 inches (33 mm) in length.

Calico Pennant

 

calico pennant

calico pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As some of you know, I have been monitoring two Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nests this spring at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This past month I have devoted most of my photography time to dragonflies, so yesterday I grabbed my long lens and headed off to the refuge, hoping to see some baby eagles. One of the nests is huge and has high walls, so it is hard to know what, if anything, is going on inside it.

I waited and waited and finally the head of an eaglet popped up over the edge of the nest. As I reviewed the first photo, I noticed that there is another eaglet on the other side of the tree trunk, just a little lower. (You may need to click on the image to spot the second eaglet.) Both of the baby birds were facing the tree trunk and I soon learned why.

It turns out that one of there was an adult eagle behind the tree trunk. In the second image, it looks like the adult eagle, whose only visible part was its beak, was giving a bite of food to one eaglet while its sibling looked out from the other side of the tree trunk and did not seem very happy about the situation.

In the final shot, you get a better look at the adult eagle and a partial view of one of the eaglets. I now know for sure that there are at least two eaglets in that nest—some years there have been three eaglets. As the eaglets get older, I hope they will be more active and curious and that will allow me to get some better shots of them.

eaglet

eaglet

bald eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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The shell of the Eastern Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) must have looked as big as the deck of an aircraft carrier to the Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia) that was circling around the pond, looking for a place to land yesterday at Occoquan Regional Park. I am pretty sure that the turtle, who was semi-submerged in the shallow water, basking in the sun, did not notice the temporary additional weight of the dragonfly.

When I first noticed the motionless snapping turtle in the water, I wondered if it was still alive. I kept a healthy distance from the turtle, because, as their name suggests, snapping turtles may snap with their powerful jaws when they feel threatened. I continued to observe the turtle and noticed the ever-changing pool of bubbles around its mouth that suggested that to me it was alive and breathing.

A number of Common Whitetail dragonflies were patrolling over the pond and I mused to myself that it would be really cool if one of them landed on the turtle. I was shocked when that scene unfolded in front of me just as I had imagined. Fortunately, I was not so shocked that I forgot to capture the moment with my camera.

Common Whitetail

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I spotted this beautiful little Silver-spotted Skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) while I was wandering about at Occoquan Regional Park. There are more than 3500 species of skippers worldwide, but fortunately this one is pretty easy to identify. Many of the other skippers in our area are similar in appearance, with only slight differences in the patterns on their wings.

When I was doing a little research on this species, I came across this curious comment on the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, “The Silver-spotted Skipper almost never visits yellow flowers but favors blue, red, pink, purple, and sometimes white and cream-colored ones.” I am not sure whether the fact that this butterfly species has a color preference surprises me more or the fact that some scientist obviously studied and catalogued its behavior.

Silver-spotted Skipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Earlier today I did a posting that discussed perching behavior and featured shots of two male Ashy Clubtail dragonflies (Phanogomphus lividus) that I had photographed last Thursday on a rocky area along a stream in Prince William County, Virginia. As I was going through my shots from this past Saturday, I came upon this image of a female Ashy Clubtail that serves as a nice complement to the photos in the earlier posting.

The most obvious differences is that this female dragonfly chose to perch on this interrupted fern that was much higher off of the ground. Note, however, that like her male counterpart, she is perching horizontally and not grasping onto a stalk or a branch, as some other dragonflies are prone to do. This image gives you a partial view of the terminal appendages at the tip of her abdomen (the “tail”) that make it clear that this is a female. If you compare those appendage with the same area of the males, you may be able to tell that they are different.

There are other ways to tell the gender of dragonflies, but I will save those explanations for a later posting, or leave them to my dragonfly-hunting friend Walter Sanford, who is much more of an expert on this topic than I am.

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Where do dragonflies like to perch? Different species perch in different ways and in different places (and some species spend most of their time flying and rarely seem to perch). Some dragonflies perch horizontally or at an angle, while others hang vertically. Some species perch on trees or in vegetation, while others perch on the bare ground or on the sand. When I am out hunting for dragonflies, their perching behavior is often my first clue to their identities.

When I spotted these two dragonflies perched in the rocks and sand at the edge of a stream in Prince William County that I was exploring with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford last Thursday, I guessed immediately that they were Ashy Clubtails. When I got a little closer, I was able to confirm that they both are male Ashy Clubtails. Ashy Clubtail dragonflies (Phanogomphus lividus) are an early-spring species that generally perch flat on bare-soil, fallen logs, rocks, or leaf litter. Sometimes I have even found them perching right in the middle of a sunlit hiking trail.

When dragonflies are perched higher, I like to try to get eye-level shots of them, but that is almost impossible to do when they are flat on the ground. I suppose that I could have tried the limbo approach—how low can you go? However, in this case, I stood as directly over them as I could and shot downwards in an attempt to get as sharp a shot as possible of their entire bodies.

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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More dragonfly species are beginning to reappear as we move deeper in spring. On Thursday as I was exploring in Prince William County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, Walter spotted this female Spangled Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula cyanea) perched low in the vegetation, the first member of this species that either of us had seen this season.

There are several different species in which the females and immature males are yellow and brown in color like this dragonfly. Once we got a good look, however, we knew immediately that this was a Spangled Skimmer. How did we know? Spangled Skimmers are the only dragonflies in our area that have a small white patch, known as a stigma, beside a black patch on the outer leading edge of each of its wings. With most other dragonflies, the stigmas are a single color if they are present.

Female Spangled Skimmers retain this yellow and brown coloration throughout their lives, while immature males eventually transition to a blue color, which is presumably why the Latin name for the species is Libellula cyanea.

I expect that I will soon photograph a mature male this season, but if you would like a sneak preview of what one looks like, check out my posting from last year called Spangled Skimmer in June. If you want to search for a Spangled Skimmer dragonfly yourself, they tend to be found in shallow, vegetated, marshy areas.

Spangled Skimmer

Spangled Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Beauty can often be found in small things in ordinary situations. On Thursday I captured this image of a beautiful Pearl Crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos) feeding on a dandelion while I was exploring in Prince William County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. Although we were focused on searching for dragonflies, most of you know that I am an opportunistic photographer and will take a photo of almost anything that catches my eye.

I am not completely certain about the identification of this butterfly—I have trouble distinguishing between a Silvery Checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne nycteis) and a Pearl Crescent butterfly. In fact, I am not really sure if this is a dandelion or one of a number of small flowers that are similar in appearance.

The funny thing is, though, that I am totally unconcerned about the accuracy of my identification in this case. This image is more about art than it is about science. It is about light and color and patterns and details. I encourage you to click on the image and immerse yourself in the enlarged image. You will be amazed to see the speckles in the butterfly’s eyes and the flecks of pollen on its extended proboscis.

Beauty can often be found in small things in ordinary situations.

Pearl Crescent

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Tuesday I was excited to spot this pretty Red-banded Hairstreak butterfly (Calycopis cecrops) while visiting Occoquan Regional Park. These tiny butterflies are only about an inch (25mm) in length, so I had to get pretty close to photograph one. Fortunately this butterfly seemed preoccupied with feeding, so it tolerated my presence pretty well.

My macro lens allowed me to capture an image that reveals many of the butterfly’s wonderful colors and patterns. It is also nice to be able to see the little “tails” protruding from the hind wings that are responsible for the name “hairstreak” and the pattern of colors on the antennae.

Red-banded Hairstreak

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I am intently searching for dragonflies, my eyes are drawn to anything that is moving through the air. Once I detect movement, I will try to track the subject until I am able to identify it. Early in the season, things were a bit easier, because there were not many insects around, but as the weather has warmed out, it has gotten tougher and the air now seems filled with grasshoppers, bees, and other flying creatures as I move about in the fields and forests.

As I was wandering about last Thursday in Prince William County, I detected a black and yellow insect and tracked it until it landed on some vegetation. Ten years ago, I might have simply called it a “bee”—my knowledge of insects was so limited that I would have divided insects into broad categories like bees and butterflies. If pushed for more specificity, I might have called this a “small bee.”

My identification skills and my knowledge of insects has grown exponentially over the years. As soon as I saw the way that the insect was flying, I could tell that it was a hover fly, a member of a group of flies that you may know as flower flies, because of where they can be found most often. I was immediately attracted to the beautiful, elaborate patterns on the insect’s body and recalled that I had seen a similar one last year in the garden of my friend Cindy Dyer.

I believe that this cool-looking hover fly belongs to a species known as the Eastern Calligrapher Fly (Toxomerus geminatus), though there are over six thousand hover fly species worldwide, so it could also be a related species. Nevertheless, I love the thought of someone hand drawing the delicately etched pattern with pen and ink, creating a miniature work of art.

As I was composing a shot, I grew fascinated with the details of the leaf on which the hover fly was perched—it is easy for me to lose myself when looking at the world through a macro lens. It appears that some other insect had been chewing on the leaf before the Calligrapher Fly arrived and I like the way that I was able to capture the holes in the gnawed-on leaf.

Eastern Calligrapher Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Whenever I can, I like to give a sense of the environment in which I find a dragonfly by including natural elements in the image. For example, I really like the fern in this photo of a female Painted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula semifasciata) that I spotted last Thursday while wandering about in Prince William County.

Many of you know that I enjoy taking photos at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a grassland and wetland habitat at the confluence of the Potomac and Occoquan Rivers where I am able to find an amazing assortment of birds, animals, and insects. This past month, however, I have been spending a lot of time in a different habitat.

I have traded the coastal plains for a hilly, forested area in Prince William County and replaced the broad river expanses with small mountain creeks and streams. Why? Many of the early spring dragonflies are found only in very specific habitats and the area that I have been exploring meets the requirements of several of those species.

It is difficult to describe these “new” areas, so I have included a couple of photos to give you a few indications of what I see and feel there. The second photo shows a relatively flat area adjacent to a stream. The forest floor is covered completely in ferns and dragonflies can sometimes be found perching in that vegetation, as you can see in the first photo.

The final photo shows one of the streams that I love to explore. Sometimes there will be dragonflies flying over the water or perching on the banks. I don’t want to give you the false impression, though, that there are lots of dragonflies here. My sightings are infrequent, but it is easy for me to spend hours on end in places like this—any photos that I manage to take are a bonus.

Last Saturday, for example, I explored for little over six hours and covered 10.8 miles (17 km) on a day when I knew the weather was too cool and cloudy to find many dragonflies. Yeah, I am a bit of a fanatic sometimes.

Painted Skimmer

forest ferns

creek

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Can a dragonfly smile? I seemed to detect a cocky little smile when I moved in close for this shot of a handsome male Stream Cruiser (Didymops transversa) last Thursday in Prince William County. The macro view also allowed me to appreciate the beauty of his two-toned eyes and to note the curious-looking “chin strap.”

The second shot shows the entire body of the Stream Cruiser, a medium-sized dragonfly that is about 2.2 inches (56 mm) in length. The image also gives you a sense of the environment in which I spotted him—a large expanse of interrupted ferns adjacent to a stream.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Almost a month ago, fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford spotted a Selys’s Sundragon dragonfly (Helocordulia selysii), the first time that one had been spotted in Prince William County, Virginia where we were searching for dragonflies. This is an early spring dragonfly that is quite uncommon and we were both happy to get shots of it, though as I noted in my blog posting about the encounter, we did not realize until after the fact that this was a new discovery—we thought that it was a Uhler’s Sundraagon, a closely related species that I had previously seen at that location.

Whenever I encounter a brand new species in a location, I wonder if it is a one-off sighting, a vagrant who has wandered out of its normal territory, or if perhaps there is an established population. I may have gotten a partial answer to that question on Thursday when I spotted several Selys’s Sundragons a couple of miles upstream on the same creek where Walter made his initial discovery.

I managed to photograph two of these beautiful dragonflies while they perched on interrupted ferns that were growing in abundance in the area, including the dragonfly featured in the first two photos. The markings on the dragonfly’s body were quite distinctive and unfamiliar to me, given that this was the first time that I had seen this species at close range. Whenever I am out in the field, I tend not to worry about identification of my subjects and instead focus on getting the best shots that I can—I can sort things out when I get home and pull up the images on my computer screen.

A short time later, I also was able to capture some in-flight images of a Selys’s Sundragon when he cooperated for me by hovering a bit over the water. That made things marginally easier, but it is still a challenge to focus on a moving subject that is only 1.6 inches (40 mm) in length. Perhaps it is my imagination, but the dragonfly in the final photo seems to be glancing up at me, as though he was wondering if we were done yet with the photo shoot.

So, it looks like we may have at least a small established population of Selys’s Sundragons in this county. What is the flight season for the species? Walter and I were recently joking about that—as Walter pointed out, we are the baseline. We know that the season for this species in our area lasts at least from 13 April, when Walter had his initial sighting, to 6 May, when I took these photos. According to available information, the flight season for this species in our home state of Virginia lasts from 17 March to 23 May.

I hope to be able to make a return trip to this location to add another data point (and hopefully some new photos) to our information about this species or maybe some additional dragonflies are waiting to be discovered.

Selys's Sundragon

Selys's Sundragon

Selys's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spent a lot of time tracking this Common Green Darner (Anax junius) as it patrolled over a field of vegetation yesterday in Prince William County and was thrilled when it finally perched for a moment. Like most darners, this one was hanging vertically and as I got closer, I was immediately struck by the muted color of its abdomen.

I could tell from its terminal appendages that it was a female and I suddenly realized that most of the Common Green Darners I have photographed in the past have been males that often have bright blue abdomens. It had never really struck me that female Common Green Darners have tan-colored abdomens. It is not that surprising, though, because, as is the case in much of the animal kingdom, female dragonflies generally tend to have more subdued colors than their more ostentatious male counterparts.

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is still relatively early in the dragonfly season, but already I am running across dragonflies with tattered wings, like this Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina) dragonfly that I spotted yesterday at Occoquan Regional Par. Despite the extensive damage to all of its wings, the dragonfly did not appear to have any problems flying. In fact, I tracked it for a lengthy period of time as it patrolled over a small pond, waiting and hoping that it would finally land.

When the dragonfly decided to take a break, it perched on several pieces of vegetation that were covered with old spider webs. The vegetation was about as tall as I am, so I was able to shoot at a slight upwards angle that let me capture the wing patches that reminded someone of “saddlebags” when they were naming the species.

I was shooting almost directly into the sun, which gave a nice effect by illuminating the dragonfly’s wings from behind, but I kept having to adjust my camera to keep the body from appearing as a silhouette. I experimented with a number of different techniques, including using my pop-up flash for the final photo, which gives the image an almost studio-like appearance.

Carolina Saddlebags

Carolina Saddlebags

Carolina Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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On a recent visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I stumbled upon a Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura) at the edge of a pond that was in the final stages of the process of emergence. The first photo shows the dragonfly only seconds after it popped open its wings for the first time—note how shiny and clear the fragile wings are at this stage. The second photo shows the dragonfly a few minutes earlier, when its wings were still closed and its markings were just beginning to appear.

The dragonfly remained in place for a few minutes as its wings began to harden. It then made a short fluttering flight to some nearby vegetation, a safer and less exposed location to rest and complete its amazing metamorphosis.

 

 

Common Baskettail

 

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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If you want a fun photographic challenge, try to photograph a dragonfly in flight. It is definitely a test of your skill and patience to track and photograph a subject this small (about 1.6 inches (41 mm) in this case) while it is flying past you. I captured this image of a male Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura) last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I will try to photograph dragonflies in flight at least several times every season. Some dragonfly species, like this one, will hover a little at times, which gives me a slightly better chance of getting a shot that is in focus. My camera does not focus quickly and accurately enough for me to use autofocus, so I end up focusing manually most of the time.

This shot is unusual in that I managed to freeze all of the motion of the wings—most of the time the wings are blurry. If you click on the image to see it in higher resolution, you will also note the way that the Common Baskettail (and many other species) folds its legs up under its “chest” (technically it is called the “thorax”) while flying to minimize wind resistance.

For those of you who might be curious, I ended up cropping the original image significantly, because I took the photograph with “only” my 180 mm macro lens and the dragonfly was flying over the water—I would have to have been in the water to get any closer.

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been having a really successful spring season in photographing dragonflies. Shaking off some of the winter doldrums, I have spent endless hours this month tramping about in a variety of habitats searching for these magical little creatures. I feel like I am now sprinting to the finish of a marathon on this final day of April

I was amazed to spot Stream Cruisers (Didymops transversa) on Monday at Occoquan Regional Park. I have seen Stream Cruiser dragonflies before, but never at this location. I was able to get shots of both a male (in the first photo) and a female (in the second photo). You can easily see the difference, I think, between the two genders, especially at the ends of their abdomens (the “tail”). Both of them, though, have the same long legs that always make their perching positions seem. a little awkward.

Earlier this spring, I spotted a large exuvia, the discarded exoskeleton of a dragonfly that has emerged, that my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford was able to identify as being from a Stream Cruiser. I have included a photo of that exuvia as a final photo to give you a sense of the shape of the final stage of the water-dwelling nymph before it crawled onto dry land and began its metamorphosis to a new and exciting stage of its life as a dragonfly.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser exuvia

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled to spot this beautiful male Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifasciata) on Monday, at Occoquan Regional Park, the first dragonfly of this species for me this season. I just love the way that the distinctive markings on the wings really make this dragonfly “pop” with a golden glow.

Painted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I got a definite “Don’t mess with me” vibe when I encountered this Northern Black Racer snake (Coluber constrictor constrictor) last week at Occoquan Regional Park and moved on quickly after capturing these images. Most snakes slither away when they first detect my presence, but this one reared up a bit and started to feverish flick its forked tongue at me.

Black Racers are somewhat similar in appearance to the Eastern Rat Snake that I featured last week (See the posting Ready to shed?), but are a bit smaller in size and have shinier, smoother skins. Several of my Facebook friends noted that Black Racers also tend to be more aggressive and reported having been chased by one.


Black Racer

Black Racer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Life can be rough when you have fragile wings. I spotted this Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) last Friday at Occoquan Regional Park and could not help but notice the significant damage to its wings. The damage might have actually happened last fall, given that this species overwinters with us as adults, awakens in the spring, and has a lifespan of 11-12 months, one of the longest lifespans for any butterfly.

As I poked about on the internet, I was intrigued to learn that this species is known as the Camberwell Beauty in the United Kingdom. I do not see Mourning Cloak butterflies very often—most of the time it is only when I am in a wooded area, rather than in a marsh or open field. When I do spot one, it is usually hyperactive and I rarely have the chance to capture an image.

The second photo below is the only other photo that I have managed to take of one this spring, and I took it from quite a distance away. Still, I like the way that it shows some of the butterfly’s habitat. I always have to remind myself of the value of these kind of environmental portraits—my normal tendency is to get close with either a macro or a telephoto lens and isolate the subject from its background.

Mourning Cloak

Mourning Cloak

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have been seeing Common Green Darner dragonflies (Anax junius) in the air for several weeks now, but only this past Monday did I finally catch one taking a break from patrolling while I was tracking it at Occoquan Regional Park. It is quite common to see Common Green Darners patrolling high overhead in a wide variety of habitats, darting to and fro, feeding on the fly.

These large colorful dragonflies—about three inches (75 mm) in length—are among the first to be spotted in the early spring and among the last to disappear late in the autumn. How is such a long flight season possible? The simple answer is that Common Green Darners are a migratory dragonfly species. Kevin Munroe described the migratory cycle on his wonderful Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website in these words:

“Common Greens seen in our area in early spring are in fact migrants from points south. They emerge in the Southeast and fly north, arriving here late March thru May. After their long flight, they mate, lay eggs and die. Their young emerge in July and August. Congregating in large swarms, this second generation begins flying south in September. They lay eggs that fall, after arriving in their southern destinations, and die. When their young hatch in March, they fly back to Northern Virginia and it starts again— a two generation migration.”

I love the bright and cheery colors of the Common Green Darner, colors that reminded one of my Facebook viewers of a tropical parrot. I also really like the bullseye pattern on the dragonfly’s “nose,” just below its large compound eyes. Be sure to click on the image if you want to see these details better.

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Have you ever watched a dragonfly-to-be break out of its exoskeleton and undergo a remarkable metamorphosis from a water-breathing nymph to an amazing aerial acrobat? It is an amazing and fascinating process that rivals (or maybe even surpasses) the more familiar transformation of a butterfly that many of us studied in school.

On a recent excursion to look for dragonflies in Prince William County, my good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford excitedly called out to me that he had spotted a dragonfly that was midway through the process of emergence. We had not had much success up to that point in the day, so Walter’s news was especially welcome.

When dragonflies are in the process of emergence, they are very vulnerable. Their bodies are undergoing some incredible changes and they do not yet have the ability to fly. If you look at the first photo and compare the size of the exoskeleton (often referred to as an exuvia) to that of the dragonfly, you can get a sense of the magnitude of the changes that were occurring.

I moved a little closer for the second shot, being careful not to disturb the dragonfly, in order to capture some additional details. The exoskeleton shows, for example, little wing pads that are tiny when you compare them to the wings that are still closed over the dragonfly’s body. A little later in the process, the dragonfly will unfold the wings and will be be able to fly, albeit weakly at first.

At this stage, we could tell that the dragonfly was a female, because of the shape of the terminal appendages, but we could not determine its species, because its colors and markings were still really pale. Depending on the species, this transformation process can take as long as several hours and it can sometimes take a few days for the colors and markings to darken. (If you are interested in this whole process, I witnessed the it from start to finish several years ago and took a series of photos that documented the process in a blog posting called Metamorphosis of a dragonfly.)

Walter was eventually able to determine that this was a female Uhler’s Sundragon (Helocordulia uhleri). My final photo shows an adult female Uhler’s Sundragon that I photographed later that same day, so you can easily see that the dragonfly was not yet done with her transformation when we photographed her. 

How did Walter do it? For the answer to that mystery, check out Walter’s blog posting today called Uhler’s Sundragon dragonfly (emergent female) for the fascinating story of his detective work and additional photos and details of our encounter with this emerging dragonfly.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragonfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I was excited on Friday to capture this image of a colorful male Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis) as I was wandering about at Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton, Virginia. I love the color combination of the light green thorax and the turquoise accents near the tip of the abdomen.

Generally when I see these little damselflies they are perched flat on the ground or on vegetation close to the ground—this slightly elevated perch made it a bit easier for me to get a good shot of its entire body. In case you are curious about the size of this damselfly, Eastern Forktails are only 0.8-1.3 inches (20-33 mm) in length, so you have to look really carefully to spot one.

Eastern Forktail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was thrilled yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to spot my first Blue Corporal dragonfly (Ladona deplanata) of the season. This little dragonfly—about 1.4 inches (36 mm) in length—is one of the earliest dragonflies to reappear each spring in my area and was one of my target species for the day.

If you look carefully at the upper part of the thorax (the “shoulders”) you can see the two light-colored stripes, the traditional military insignia for a corporal, that are responsible for the name of this species. Blue Corporals most often perch flat on the ground, which can make them really hard to spot when they land. In this case, the ground was so cluttered with dried reeds that I could barely detect the dragonfly’s wings. (You can see the wings more easily if you click on the image to enlarge it.)

Blue Corporal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled yesterday to spot this Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) as I was wandering about in Occoquan Regional Park. This fascinating insect looks a lot like a bumblebee, but acts a lot like a hummingbird and hovers when it is feeding. Unlike a hummingbird that has a long pointed beak, members of this species have a long proboscis that they curl up when it is not in use, as you can see in the first photo.

The active little moth was very focused on the tiny violets and did not seem bothered by my presence, so I was able to move in quite close for these shots. However, the moth did not linger long on any flower, so I had to move quickly. I do not know how fast the moth was moving its wings, but the shutter speed for these photos was as high as 1/2000 of a second and there was still some wing blur. In case you are curious, Snowberry Clearwing Moths are about 1.25-2.0 inches (32–51 mm) in length.

 

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I spent most of my time looking for birds during a trip last week to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and I managed to capture the images of the bald eagles that I featured yesterday. The day had started off cool and overcast, more suitable for birds than for dragonflies, but when the sun finally broke through in the late afternoon, I decided to swing by a small pond on my walk back to the parking lot on the off chance that I might find a dragonfly.

My hunch paid off when I spotted this female Ashy Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus lividus) perched low to the ground. At that moment I had my Tamron 150-600mm lens attached to my camera and that presented a challenge, because its minimum focusing distance is 8.9 feet (2.70 meters), so I had to back up. At that distance it is hard to locate and focus on a subject that is only 2 inches (50 mm) in length. Fortunately I have been in this situation before and I steadied myself, focused manually, and captured the first image before the dragonfly flew away.

Having established that there there was at least one dragonfly in the area, I switched to my Tamron 180mm macro lens, my preferred lens for dragonflies, and continued my search. A few minutes later I spotted another female Ashy Clubtail when it flew up into some low hanging vegetation and I captured the second image. There is a good chance that this was the same individual that I photographed earlier—both of them are pale in color, suggesting that they had only recently emerged from their larval state.

As I moved a little closer for the final shot, the dragonfly closed its wings overhead, reverting briefly to an earlier stage when it was in the process of emerging. I have seen this happen before when a newly emerged dragonfly, sometimes referred to as a teneral, flew for the first time and its wings were still in a very fragile state. At this point, I decided to stop shooting, fearful that I might spook this newly emerged dragonfly into flying at a time when she clearly needed to rest.

If you are unfamiliar with the amazing process that a dragonfly goes through in transforming itself from a water-dwelling nymph to an aerial acrobat, check out my blog posting called Metamorphosis of a dragonfly that documents the entire process in a series of photos.

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Perhaps these Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were singing or maybe they were trying to scare off incoming osprey, but most importantly they were doing it together as a couple on a shared perch when I spotted them on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge at a moment when the skies were completely overcast.

Bald Eagles

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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