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Archive for the ‘wildlife’ Category

Last week I spotted my first Eastern Amberwing dragonflies (Perithemis tenera) of the season at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. These distinctively colored dragonflies are a frequent sight throughout the summer as they buzz about over the waters of ponds. Eastern Amberwings are small, even by dragonfly standards, with a total length of less than an inch (25 mm) and are considered to be a wasp mimic. According to Wikipedia, “The Eastern Amberwing dragonfly is one of the only types of dragonfly that actively mimics a wasp. The yellow and brown stripes on its abdomen encourage predators to stay away. When perched, they will wiggle their abdomen and wings in a wasp-like fashion to deter other animals from eating it.”

My second and third shots are portraits of perched male Eastern Amberwing dragonflies that were carefully composed and sharp, but my favorite image of the day is the dynamic shot of two dragonflies in flight. It may not be obvious what is going on in the photo, so let me explain. After mating, the female in the upper left corner is getting ready to deposit her eggs in the water, while the male in the lower right corner hovers in the air, ready to keep any rivals from interfering with the process.

Eastern Amberwing

Eastern Amberwing

Eastern Amberwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Dragonflies have been around for a long time, with fossils showing dragonfly-like creatures that date back to the Jurassic period, more than 150 million years ago. It is generally believed that dragonflies of the Petaluridae family, including the Gray Petaltail (Tachopteryx thoreyi) most closely resemble those ancient species.

I was thrilled to find several Gray Petaltails this past Monday at Occoquan Regional Park, about 20 miles (32 km) from where I live. Most of the time Gray Petaltails perch vertically, flat against tree trunks at eye level or higher. The first photo is a little deceptive, because it makes it look like it is easy to spot these rather large dragonflies (three inches (76 mm) in length). However, in my experience it is rare to see a Gray Petaltail on a smooth-barked tree. When they perch on trees with coarser bark, these dragonflies almost melt into the trees. You get a hint of how this camouflage works in the second image below.

The final image shows a more typical scenario. From a distance, I saw a Gray Petaltail land on a tree. When I snapped the photo, though, I could not see the dragonfly, even though I knew exactly where it was. Can you see the Gray Petaltail in the final photo? I think that my post processing may have made it a little easier to spot, but the dull color and pattern of the dragonfly help it to blend in with the light and shadows on the tree trunk.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled on Monday to see lots of butterflies as I was exploring Occoquan Regional Park. Many of them were small skippers that skittishly flew away whenever I approached them. Only a few were large and colorful, like the Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) in the first photo. When it first landed on the plant, its wings were closed, but I waited and eventually the butterfly opened its wings. The damage to one of those wings this early in the season really emphasizes the fragility of these beautiful little creatures.

I also saw some brown woodland butterflies and I chased after several of them. I was out of breath but finally managed to catch up to one. Identification of this type of butterfly is always problematic, because there are quite a few similarly-colored species that vary only in the number and placement of the the eyespots. I think that the butterfly in the second shot is a Little Wood Satyr butterfly (Megisto cymela). I contemplated cropping closer, but decided I liked the little plant on the right side of the image and kept it. With this framing, I am able to create the illusion that the butterfly is staring at the plant.

Red-spotted Purple

Little Wood Satyr

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of you know that I love to photograph dragonflies. In a recent posting, I thought I was featuring photos of a Cobra Clubtail dragonfly, but it turns out that it was a Splendid Clubtail dragonfly. Here is Walter Sanford’s behind the scenes account of the initial misidentification of the dragonfly, with photos showing the differences between the two species, and how experts determined that we had made an error. His posting provides some fascinating insights into the complications sometimes associated with making an identification of a species (and why it is important to photograph subjects from multiple angles, if possible).

Be sure to click on the “View original post link” if you are using the WordPress Reader to read Walter’s complete posting on his blog or go directly to his posting by using this link.

walter sanford's photoblog

A Splendid Clubtail dragonfly (Gomphurus lineatifrons) was spotted during a photowalk with Michael Powell at an undisclosed location in Fairfax County, Virginia USA. Easy for me to say now. As it turns out, my initial identification was incorrect.

The first photo I took of the dragonfly — the record shot — is shown below. Notice the pattern of yellow lateral marks/spots on its abdomen. Also notice the yellow blotch on the side of abdominal segment eight (S8) extends onto the club flange, as shown in the full-size version of the image. (Thanks to Michael Boatwright, founder and administrator of the Virginia Odonata Facebook group, for sharing these key field marks for Splendid.)

26 MAY 2020 | Fairfax County, VA | Splendid Clubtail (female)

In contrast, the pattern of yellow lateral marks/spots on the abdomen of a female Cobra Clubtail (Gomphurus vastus), shown below, looks…

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On Tuesday I spotted this handsome male Spangled Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula cyanea) at Occoquan Regional Park. This species is fairly easy to identify because of the “spangles,” the little white patches on the leading edges of the wings, often referred to as stigmata or pterostigmata. Most other species have darker colored stigmata or none at all.

If you use the meteorological calendar, summer started on the first of June. For most of us, though, who use the astronomical calendar, we have a few weeks to wait until the summer begins on the 20th of June. No matter how you calculate summer, I have noticed a lot more of the summer dragonfly species during my most recent outings. If things work out well, June could be a great month for dragonfly hunting, with the possibility of seeing some of the remaining spring species, plus the new summer ones.

spangled skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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UPDATE: Some experts have looked at the photos that Walter took of and it appears that the dragonfly in the first photo (and possibly all of the ones in this posting) is a Splendid Clubtail (Gomphurus lineatifrons), a new species for me. The differences between the two species are subtle enough that I am definitely relying on the expertise of others in making this identification.

I spent most of this past Tuesday exploring wild areas in Fairfax County, Virginia, hunting for dragonflies with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. It is still a little early for many species, so we had to work really hard for each one that we were able to find.  I was really excited when we spotted several Cobra Clubtail dragonflies (Gomphorus vastus) during the day, all of which turned out to be females.

As you can see from these photos, the Cobra Clubtails were hanging vertically with their abdomens pointing downwards, which made them hard to spot when they landed in the abundant green vegetation. In one nearby location, there is an annual mass emergence of Cobra Clubtails, with dozens emerging at the same time. We made a brief stop there, hoping to see more Cobra Clubtails, but learned from employees there that the Cobra Clubtails have not yet arrived this year—we may make another try sometime fairly soon.

If you would like to see Walter’s posting on our adventures with the Cobra Clubtails, click on this link to his blog.

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This is the time of the year when warblers are moving through the area in which I live and bird photographers have been congregating at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a local hotspot for warblers and other birds that, unlike many other parks, has been open during this shutdown. Not wanting to risk contact with so many people, I have been avoiding this refuge for the most part, even though it is my favorite place to take photos.

Last week, though, I made a trip to the wildlife refuge on a weekday morning when the weather was less than optimal. As I had hoped, the weather kept most of the other photographers away and I was able to visit some of my favorite spots. I checked out several osprey nests, hoping to see some baby ospreys. The ospreys were no longer sitting on any of the nests, but I could not tell if there were baby ospreys in them or not.

Peering through the branches near one nest, I spotted this perched Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with a fish in its talons. The osprey was at the stage of consumption when quite often it will take the remaining portion to its mate. I never did see its mate, but was happy to capture this shot before the osprey flew away.

Osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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From a distance I did not notice the large snake coiled up in the grass near the bank of the river—I spotted it only when I was a footstep or two away from stepping on it. My first thought was that it was probably a non-poisonous Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon). After my encounter with an Eastern Copperhead snake last year, though, I have been a little more anxious to get a good look at any snake that I see, especially its head, in order to assess my relative risk—the copperhead has a large angular head and its eyes have a vertical pupil.

So my eyes began to trace the coils of the snake, trying to find its head. This image gives you a pretty good idea of the view that I had as I bent over slightly to look at the snake. In the photo, it is easy to be distracted by the beautiful colors and pattern of its scales and by the sinuous curves of its body. I was a bit relieved when my eyes finally found the round pupils of the eye of this snake which, believe it or not, is visible in this image. Can you find it?

In case you are curious, I took this photo this past Tuesday when I was exploring in the wilds of Fairfax County, Virginia, hunting for dragonflies with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. Although our primary target was dragonflies, my eyes were always scanning surrounding areas for other interesting creatures. (If you still have not found the snake’s eye in the image, here is a clue—look near the extreme left in the photo towards the middle.)

Northern Water Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Tuesday morning I was thrilled to spot this female Umber Shadowdragon dragonfly (Neurocordulia obsoleta) while exploring in Fairfax County, Virginia with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. We were searching for perched dragonflies in a sunlight field with vegetation that was often waist-high and occasionally as tall as I am. One of my aspirational goals is to be able to photograph a dragonfly covered with drops of morning dew.

I was attracted to a stalk of vegetation when I spotted a cicada perched at eye-level. As I was looking into the cicada’s bright red eyes, I noticed that there was an exuvia, the discarded exoskeleton from which a cicada had recently emerged, a bit lower on the plant.  I looked downward and was shocked to see a dragonfly hanging from the underside of the broad leafy stalk of the vegetation, using it like an umbrella to shade itself from the sun.

I did not know what kind of dragonfly it was, but suspecting that it might be something unusual, I stopped dead in my tracks and called out to my friend Walter. I bent a little bit from the knees and captured a few shots, but was afraid to move any more than that for fear of spooking the dragonfly—the wings are clipped in the photo because I was using my macro lens, which does not zoom, which meant I would have had to back up to capture a shot of the entire dragonfly. Unfortunately, as Walter was approaching, the dragonfly took off, spooked perhaps by my efforts to point out its location, and Walter was not able to get a shot of it.

When I got home, I was able to identify the dragonfly as an Umber Shadowdragon, a species that I had never seen before and about which I knew very little. Kevin Munroe, who created the wonderful website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, described this species in almost poetic language: “The name alone creates images of a shadowy creature, mysterious and unique. It also sent me to a dictionary to look up “umber”. It turns out to be a clay pigment containing iron oxides that have an attractive red to golden brown coloring, originally found in the hills of Umbria, Italy. Even better, “umber” comes from the Latin word umbra, which means shadow. So the name means, Shadow Shadowdragon. This species certainly lives up to its enigmatic name – it does in fact only show itself among shadows, waiting to leave its high, leafy haunts until after 8:00 PM (2000 hours) on summer evenings. It can even be as late as 8:30 before they start their river patrols. Listen for that brief period when the day-singing cicada and nighttime katydids are both calling; the changing of the guard between light and dark. That’s when shadowdragons make their appearance and will often fly into early night, cruising fast and low, just above the river’s surface.”

I feel like I was really, really lucky to spot this dragonfly in broad daylight. The nocturnal habits of this species are such that most sources indicate that it is not even known if this species is rare or if it is common. If you are interested in learning more fascinating information about this species, be sure to check out this page of the website referenced above. I also highly recommend that you double click on the image to get a better look at the amazing details of this beautiful dragonfly, including the rows of little golden dots on the leading edges of its wings.

Umber Shadowdragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last Tuesday I spotted these rather scruffy-looking non-breeding male Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. One viewer in a birding forum on Facebook commented, “He won’t get a date looking like that.”

I sort of expected all male Indigo Buntings to have a color that rivals or surpasses that of a male Eastern Bluebird—I had never before encountered the mottled coloration of a non-breeding male. For the sake of comparison, I have included as a final photograph an image that I captured in August 2017 of a breeding male Indigo Bunting on a sunflower. Click this link if you would like to see the final photo in the context of the original posting in which it was one of the featured images.

 

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first spotted this insect last Thursday at Occoquan Regional Park, it looked like a large bumblebee. I tracked it visually as it buzzed about and when it landed, I could see from its distinctive wings that it was definitely not a bee. In our area we have two species of clear wing moths that are similar in appearance and behavior, the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) and the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe). Identification guides warn that both species are variable in color, which complicates identification, but the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth has light-colored legs, so I am pretty confident that this one is a Snowberry Clearwing Moth.

Most of the time when I see clearwing moths they are beating their wings rapidly and hovering in the air as they collect nectar from a variety of flowers, which causes some people to think they are hummingbirds. I do not know why this one was perched in the low vegetation—perhaps it was taking a break—but its static position allowed me to get a detailed look at its wings and the rest of its body.

Snowberry Clearwing moth

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Generally when I spot a Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), it is flying. The distinctive dark blotches, which some scientist decided look like saddlebags, are visible even when the dragonfly is in the air. Some dragonflies spend most of their time perching, while others spend most of their time flying—the Black Saddlebags is in the latter category. I was therefore quite excited when I saw this one land in the low vegetation last Thursday at Occoquan Regional Park.

When a subject is this close to the ground, the background is almost inevitably going to be cluttered. In an effort to soften the potential distraction, I opened up the aperture to f/6.3 and tried to shoot almost directly down on the subject. I like the resulting image that has most of the dragonfly in sharp focus and most of the background a bit blurry.

 

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Tuesday I spotted this beautiful female Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  I always love to see the wonderfully patterned wings of this dragonfly species and the first shot provides a good view of the wing details, especially if you click on the image to enlarge it.

In the second image, I focused primarily on the dragonfly’s head and body and the wings are mostly out of focus. I love the way that you can see the dragonfly’s tiny feet and the tenuous grasp they have on the fuzzy plant stem from which the dragonfly is hanging.

Calico Pennant

calico pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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No matter how many times that I see an Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum), I am always shocked by the disproportionately large size of its head. When I spotted this one on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I remember wondering if it was physically possible for the turtle to withdraw its head into its shell. The turtle was standing in the middle of a wide trail, apparently in the process of crossing the trail. Although the mud turtle seemed to be fully aware of my presence, it appeared to be totally unfazed and merely gave me a sidewards glance as it waited for me to pass.

Given the circumstances in which we now live, I think we all could use some of the patience and imperturbability of this little creature.

 

 

Eastern Mud Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at a prominent nesting site at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge were late this year in nesting and I feared that they might not have any babies. I was therefore thrilled yesterday to discover that there is now an eaglet in the nest when I returned to that part of the refuge for the first time in a couple of months.

Authorities at the refuge set up barriers to keep the nesting eagles from being disturbed, so I had to observe the nest from a long way off. When I first arrived at the barrier yesterday, I could not tell if there were any eaglets. However, I noted that one of the parent eagles was perched on a limb above and to the right of the nest. In the past, I learned that when eaglets start to grow, there is no longer any room for a parent in the nest, so having one parent keeping guard near the nest was a positive sign.

I waited and waited and eventually the other parent eagle flew in and perched on a limb above and to the left of the nest. I was peering though my fully-extended telephoto zoom lens and noticed a dark shape pop up in the middle of the nest shortly after the second parent arrived. When I looked at my shots afterwards, I confirmed that there was an eaglet in the nest.

In the first shot, it looks like the eaglet was calling to its parent, although I did not hear a sound, or maybe was indicating it was hungry. I pulled back my zoom lens to its widest setting for the second shot, in which you can see both eagle parents and the eaglet in the nest in the center (you may want to click on the image to see more details).

I think that there is only one eaglet this year, though I can’t be absolutely certain. In past years there have been either one of two eaglets in this nest. Now that I know that there is a new little eaglet, I will probably try to return to the site to monitor its progress over the upcoming weeks and months.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I wasn’t sure if Uhler’s Sundragon dragonflies (Helocordulia uhleri) would still be around when I set out exploring in Prince William County earlier this month. This species of dragonfly is one of the first to appear in the spring and generally is flying for only a month or so. I had spotted several females on the third of April—see my posting Female Uhler’s Sundragons for details and photos—so I knew that the clock was ticking.

I scoured all of the locations where I had seen them in the past and was about to give up hope when some movement low in the vegetation caught my eye. I was excited to see that it was a Uhler’s Sundragon, my target species. As I tried to control my racing heart and slow down my breathing, I maneuvered into position and was able to capture this image of a handsome male Uhler’s Sundragon. As it turned out,  this dragonfly was the only one of its species that I would see that day and I have not seen one since. In this case, though, one was more than enough.

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I posted a photograph last week of a skink with a bright blue tail, I noted that a skink can shed its tail if a predator grabs onto it. I never suspected that two days later I would encounter a skink with a missing tail. When I first spotted it, I was so drawn to the detailed scallop pattern on its body that I did not even notice its really short tail. (Click on the image to get a closer view of that wonderful texture.) The coloration suggests to me that this is a Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps), not the more common Five-lined Skink that I featured last week.

I was also drawn to the orange coloration of the head. According to the Virginia Herpetological website, the head in male Broad-headed Skinks becomes bright orange and enlarged in the temporal region during the spring mating season. Perhaps the skink lost its tail during a fight with a rival—the website cited above notes that adult males are particularly aggressive to other males during the mating season.

In case you need a reminder about how long a skink’s tail should be, check out the posting from last week Young skink in May. Some of you may have read my bad joke about skinks in the comment section of that posting, but it seems so appropriate that I can’t help but repeat it here. “Do you know what skinks do when they lose their tails? They go to a retail store.” Sorry. 🙂

 

Broad-headed Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Friday, temperatures in my area soared to 84 degrees (29 degrees C), which I thought might trigger the emergence of new dragonflies. However, when I arrived at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, a nearby park with a small pond, the only dragonflies that I could find were a half-dozen Common Baskettail dragonflies (Epitheca cynosura) patrolling over various parts of the pond.

I walked around the perimeter of the pond multiple times, searching in vain in the undergrowth and in the vegetation at water’s edge. Periodically I stopped and attempted to photograph the dragonflies in flight. Their flight paths were somewhat predictable, which gave me hope, but the dragonflies varied their distances from the shore and changed their altitude unexpectedly.

Here are a few of my favorite shots from the photo excursion. As a frame of reference, Common Baskettail dragonflies are about 1.6 inches (41 mm) in length, so I think you can appreciate the challenge of photographing one on the fly.

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Many beetles are dark-colored and go about their business in the underbrush, unseen by human eyes. Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata), on the other hand, are hard to miss—their metallic-green bodies sparkle as they perch in the middle of the sun-lit forest trails on which I have been hiking in recent weeks.

The beetle’s common name refer to the six small white spots on the beetle’s metallic-green elytra (the beetle’s hardened wing cases), although the number of spots is somewhat variable—I think I count eight spots on this individual. As I was doing a bit of research, I stumbled upon the fact that elytra is the plural form of elytron—I think that I have almost always seen the word used in the plural form and the spell-check highlights elytron as an unknown word.

It is often hard to get a shot of one of these beetles, because they are skittish and often fly away as I bend down to photograph them. For this photo, I was fortunate that the beetle chose to perch on a trunk of a tree at eye-level and no contortions were therefore required on my part.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During a recent dragonfly hunting trip with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, I was thrilled when we stumbled upon several Springtime Darner dragonflies (Basiaeschna janata). As their name suggests, they are in flight early in the dragonfly season and are gone well before many of the summer dragonfly species arrive.

I first spotted one flying low over the vegetation in an overgrown field. It dropped down into the vegetation, but I was fortunately to be able to find where it was perched. As you can see in the first photo, Springtime Darners perch vertically, making it hard to see them amid all of the nearby stalks and stems. The female in the first photo was relatively cooperative and I was able to position myself well enough to have most of her body in focus. I encourage you to click on the image to see all of the wonderful details and colors of this beautiful dragonfly.

Although we had several more encounters with Springtimes Darners, all of those individuals were very skittish and it was tough to get any good shots. I included the second shot below because it shows really well the body of a male Springtime Darner, although the head is a bit out of focus because of the way he was perched.

Walter also did a blog posting on our encounter with these beautiful dragonflies. Be sure to check it out at this link and you will find more information about this dragonfly species and his photos and “take” on our dragonfly adventure.

 

Springtime Darner

Springtime Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I really love the look of young Common Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus), when their tails are bright blue, like this one that I spotted last Thursday while exploring in Prince William County. The blue color gradually fades as the skinks mature and as a result it becomes a bit harder to spot the adults in the wild.

We do not have very many lizards where I live, so I am always happy to see one of these skinks. They are generally about 5 to 8.5 inches in length (13 to 21 cm), including their tails, and tend to be very skittish. I have read that a skink can shed its tail if a predator grabs onto it and then regenerate somewhat imperfectly the lost portion of the tail, but I have never knowingly seen a skink with a regrown tail.

Common Five-lined Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was probably my imagination, but the Wolf Spiders (Tigrosa georgicola) that I spotted last weekend while exploring in Fairfax County seemed huge. In the first image, the shadow makes the spider look even larger and gives it a somewhat menacing appearance. I am not sure why the spider in the second shot was out in the open, but its exposed condition allowed me to examine it closely—even relatively large spiders spark my curiosity.

wolf spider

wolf spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Thursday I was excited to spot these two Stream Cruiser dragonflies (Didymops transversa), one female and one male, in a sunny area adjacent to a creek that I was exploring in Prince William County, Virginia. Authorities have closed the park that I was visiting to vehicular traffic, so I had to hike in to reach my target area, which took over an hour and a half each way.

It was the end of a long and tiring day and I had already begun the trek back to my car. By 4:00 in the afternoon, much of the trail along the creek was in the shade. Periodically, though, I would pass patches of sunlit vegetation and I stopped to explore them, knowing that many dragonflies like to bask in the sunlight. I was searching one such spot when my eyes detected a dragonfly in flight. I was able to track the dragonfly in the air and to see it land. The male Stream Cruiser (shown in the second photo below) perched at an odd angle on some low-hanging vegetation, but I managed to get a shot of it before it took off again.

I decided to stay in that spot and wait and after a while another dragonfly flew by, landing this time much higher in the vegetation. Initially I thought that it might be the same dragonfly that I had already photographed, but when I got closer, I could see that the second one (shown in the first photo below) was a female. The female Stream Cruiser chose to perch about chest-high, so I was able to get a much better angle for this shot than for the first one and compose the image more carefully.

This experience is a good reminder for me to stay alert at all times when I have my camera in my hands until I am actually back to my car. I had not even been thinking of Stream Cruisers, a species that I have seen only a couple of times previously, when I decided to make this trip. However, I was ready when this opportunity unexpectedly presented itself to me.

I cringe a little sometimes when well-meaning folks see my photos and say, “You are so lucky.” Yes, I have more than my share of good fortune, but it often takes hours and hours of effort for a decisive moment to arrive and even then I have to be quick enough and skillful enough to get a shot. Rather than going to the trouble to explain all of that, though, I will usually nod my head and agree that I was lucky to get my shots.

 

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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How close can you get to a dragonfly when trying to photograph it? As with most things in life, the vexing answer is that  “it depends.” In my experience, some dragonfly species tend to be more skittish than others and will fly away for good at the first indication of your presence. Other species will fly away, but return to the same perch a short time later. Occasionally I will encounter a dragonfly that remains in place and permits me to get as close as I want, although I still have to pay close attention to where I place my feet, so that I do not disturb its perch, and to the location of the sun, so that I do not cast my shadow on the dragonfly.

Last Saturday I went hunting for dragonflies with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford at a remote location in Fairfax County, Virginia, the county in which we live. Under normal circumstances, we probably would have made multiple excursions together by this time of the year, but this was our first trip of the season.

The first dragonfly that we encountered was a female Ashy Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus lividus) and she proved to be remarkably cooperative. Why? I think that the dragonfly was a little distracted because she was in the process of consuming a cranefly. In some of my photos I could see remnants of the legs, wings, and other body parts of the victim.

The three photos show in inverse chronological order how I started out photographing the entire body of the dragonfly and them moved in closer and closer. Each of shows some pretty remarkable details of the dragonfly’s anatomy and it is definitely worth clicking on them to get a better look. For example, the third photo shows the beautiful coloration of the body; the second shot shows the spines on the legs and the hook-like tips of the feet; and the first image draws your attention to the dragonfly’s amazing compound eyes.

I took all of the photos below handheld with my Canon 50D DSLR and Tamron 180mm macro lens. My partner in this adventure used totally different gear and his approach to capturing images was definitely not the same as mine. In the past Walter and I have done companion postings on our respective blogs when we have taken photos together and we decided to continue the tradition.

Walter and I have different backgrounds, writing styles, and shooting styles and it has always been fascinating to contrast our “takes.” Even though we were shooting the same subject under the same conditions, I can almost guarantee that the images we post will be quite different. Be sure to check out Walter’s blog at waltersanford.wordpress.com for all kinds of wonderful postings, mostly about dragonflies.

I will include a link to his posting on our encounter with this Ashy Clubtail dragonfly after I publish this posting—I have not yet seen how he described our adventures.

UPDATE: Here, as promised, is a link to Walter’s posting about our encounter with this female Ashy Clubtail dragonfly.

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Have you ever stopped to look closely at grasshoppers? They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I spotted this elongated one with fluted, unicorn-like antennae this past week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I knew that I had seen one like this before, but could not recall its name. After some research, I rediscovered that it is the colorfully-named Cattail Toothpick Grasshopper (Leptysma marginicollis).

If you try chasing grasshoppers, you will discover that they often stay in place after the first hop, giving you a chance to examine them for a moment before they hop away.

So whether you are in your backyard or in a park, be sure to check out the grasshoppers. You might be surprised by what you discover.

Cattail Toothpick Grasshopper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am not sure what kind of insect this male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) had caught, but he seemed pretty proud of himself yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. When I first spotted him, the bluebird was perched on the roof of a nesting box. I suspect that there may be a female and possibly babies inside the nesting box and the male was serving as a deliveryman. 

As I moved slightly to try to get a better angle, the bluebird flew to a nearby tree, still holding the worm/caterpillar in its mouth. I quickly realized that he did not like me being around , so I took a quick shot of him in the tree and left him in peace to complete his delivery.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first got interested in photographing birds, Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) were one of my favorites. They were large, easy to find, and cooperative subjects. Rather than fly away when they sensed my presence, they would often remain in place. That tendency, I learned, was both a blessing and a curse. It is easier to photograph a bird when it is stationary, but eventually I wanted to capture action and Great Blue Herons, I learned, have endless patience—they can stay motionless for a really long time before they strike, often longer than I was willing to wait.

I still love to see Great Blue Herons and spotted this one earlier this month during a trip to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The heron seemed restless and was slowly slogging its way through the vegetation. Perhaps it was hunting or maybe it was just relocating to another spot. In any case, it was wonderful to see and photograph one of my old familiar favorites.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This insect is fuzzy like a bee and acts as a pollinator as it sips nectar, but it is not a bee, it is a fly, a Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major). Are you confused yet? Unlike bees, bee flies have only two wings instead of four, large eyes, skinny long legs and very short antennae. Bee flies also seem hyperactive, hovering in midair rather than landing as they suck up the nectar with a really long proboscis and thereby avoiding potential predators like crab spiders.

When I did a little research, though, I learned that bee flies have a dark side. According to an article entitled “A Pollinator With a Bad Reputation” by Beatriz Moisset, “The reason why it diligently hovers over bare ground early in the spring is that it is looking for bee nests, probably the same ones with which they compete for nectar. The bees dig tunnels and lay their eggs at their bottoms after collecting enough pollen to feed the larvae. This requires numerous trips, thus the bee fly takes advantage of the mother’s absence and lays its eggs in such nests. Making use of its flying prowess, it does not even need to land but it flicks its abdomen while hovering over the open burrow, letting one egg fall in or near it. The fly larva finds its way to the chamber where the mother bee has laid the provisions and the egg and proceeds to feed on the stored pollen. Afterwards it devours the bee larvae; when it is fully grown, it pupates and stays inside the nest until next spring.”

I was inspired to post this image by a recent posting by Pete Hillman entitled “Dark-edged Bee Fly” that featured a similar bee fly. In my zeal to post photos of all of the ephemeral wildflowers I had seen this spring, like the Virginia Spring Beauties in this photo, I had forgotten about this bee fly.

You may notice that the bee fly’s wings are blurred in this— image and assume that I was shooting with a slow shutter speed. I checked the EXIF data for the shot and found that the shutter speed was 1/2500 second—I think that it had consumed as much coffee as I had that late March morning. I recommend that you click on this image to see all of the amazing details of this fascinating insect, the Greater Bee Fly.


Greater Bee Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was searching in a small field of eye-height vegetation for dragonflies last Wednesday at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, my eyes detected a flash of blue and white and I realized that a bird had joined me in the field. I was shocked to see that it was a male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). During my previous encounters with a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, the bird has always been moving about in the foliage high in a tree.

I sprung into action and managed to get some decent shots of this tiny bird, despite the fact that I was shooting with my 180mm macro lens, the one that I generally use for the macro shots of insects that you see on this blog. The coolest image, I think, is the first one and it was mostly a matter of luck. I had just taken the second shot below when the gnatcatcher took off and I instinctively pressed the shutter release and captured a fun action shot.

So what was the gnatcatcher doing at ground level? As I was was processing my images I noticed that there were old spider webs in most of them. It is most obvious in the final photo, but if you click on the other images, you will see webs to the left of the bird in the penultimate shot (and in its mouth, I think), and also to the right of the bird and a little lower in the second shot (and possibly in the corner of its mouth).

Why would they be messing with spider webs? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher pairs use spiderwebs and lichens to build small, neat nests on top of tree branches and may build up to seven nests in a breeding season.  The website also notes that breeding males have a black V above their foreheads extending above their eyes, which you can see quite clearly in the second shot. I wonder if breeding season is begining

I have not spotted any gnatcatcher nests yet this year, but two years ago in late May I took some shots of a nest at the same refuge that show the amazing construction abilities of these little birds. Check out the posting called Baby gnatcatchers? by clicking on the title of the posting or clicking here. The nests are fascinating to examine.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first saw some tiny little flies buzzing around in the garden of my neighbor and photography mentor Cindy Dyer, I knew that they were not bees. I could tell that they were hover flies, because of the way they acted, or perhaps you know them as flower flies, because of where they can be found most often.

As I observed the flies, I was attracted to the beautiful, elaborate patterns on their bodies and realized that this was a different species of hover fly than I was used to seeing. Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia, there are over six thousand hover fly species worldwide. How could I possibly identify this species?

I was shocked, amazed, and delighted when a Facebook viewer informed me that this species is known as the Eastern Calligraphy Fly (Toxomerus geminatus). I love the though of someone hand drawing the delicately etched pattern with pen and ink, creating a miniature work of art.

If you want to learn more fun facts about this cool little fly, check out an article from riveredgenaturecenter.org entitled “Bug o’the Week–Eastern Calligrapher Fly” by clicking on the name of the article.

Eastern Calligrapher Fly

Eastern Calligrapher Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I finally photographed my first damselflies of the spring on Wednesday during during a brief visit to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge. I spotted the female Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis) in the first image as she perched on a log in a mini-wetland area adjacent to a small pond. In addition to capturing the damselfly itself, I am really happy with the way that the texture of the bark and the interplay of the light and shadows turned out in the shot.

The second shot shows a male Fragile Forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita), one of the few damselflies that I am able to identify with a relatively high degree of confidence. On males of this species (and most females too), the shoulder stripe is interrupted and looks like an exclamation point. I like the way that the muted colors of the dried-out vegetation on which this damselfly was perched  help to make its colors stand out and draw a viewer’s eyes to the main subject.

I will almost certainly get more and better shots of damselflies in the upcoming months, but there is something special about stopping for a moment to celebrate images of my first damselflies each year.

Eastern Forktail

Fragile Forktail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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