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Archive for the ‘Winter’ Category

Most damselflies fold their wings above their bodies when they are perched. There is, however, a small group of fairly large damselflies, known as spreadwings, that hold their wings partially open when perching.

I do not see spreadwing damselflies very often, so I was excited to spot this one on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I managed to capture shots from a couple of angles before it flew away, but did not get a shot that showed the thorax markings, which can help a lot with identification. I can tell for sure that the damselfly is female, but it is difficult to determine with certainty its species.

I posted the photos in a Facebook dragonfly forum and even the experts were not certain—females tend to lack the distinctive markings of the males and generally are harder to identify. They narrowed it down to a few possibilities and if I had to guess, I’d say this is a female Slender Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes rectangularis).

Slender Spreadwing

Slender Spreadwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Bright, saturated colors can be wonderful, but in large doses they can overwhelm the senses and confuse a viewer’s eyes. I am often drawn to simple scenes with a limited palette of colors, scenes in which light and shadows and shapes and textures play a more prominent role than colors.

Those were my thoughts when I started to review my images of this male Powdered Dancer damselfly (Argia moesta) that I spotted on Thursday while exploring a stream in Fairfax County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. The Powdered Dancer is the closest that we come to having a monochromatic dragonfly or damselfly—the thorax and tip of the abdomen of males becomes increasingly white as they age.

I love the way that the coolness of the white on the body contrasts with the brownish-red warmth of the branch, the leaves, and the out-of-focus rocks in the background of the initial image. I like too the texture in the images, particularly in the bark in the first photo and in the rock in the second one. Shadows help to add some additional visual interest to both of these images, drawing a viewer’s attention to the damselfly’s head in the first image and to the details of its entire body in the second.

Powdered Dancer

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I featured an actual mud turtle, but today’s muddy turtles  are actually Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) that appear to have been painted with a coating of mud. The last few months we have had a lot of unusually cool weather, and I think the turtles have been spending a lot of time in the mud at the bottom of the ponds. Last week the weather improve  and there were turtles in all kinds of places at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge trying to absorb the warmth of the sun.

The pose of the first two turtles brings to mind a well-known scene from the movie Titanic in which Jack and Rose (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) were standing at the railing at the prow of the ship. I must confess that I spent 4+ hours watching the movie on television last Sunday night, which may be why the scene is so fresh in my mind. Yeah, I’m a bit of a romantic.

I encountered the second Painted Turtle as it was slowly making its way across a trail at the wildlife refuge. In addition to noting the large amount of fresh mud still on its shell, I was delighted by the way the two little leaf fragments on its shell matched the yellow markings on its neck.
Painted Turtle

Painted Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Friday I spotted this small turtle as it was crossing one of the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It is not a species that I see very often, but I think it is an Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) Appropriately enough its back half appears to be covered in mud.

I generally think of turtles as being slow-moving, but this one was scrambling so quickly across the trail that it was a challenge to keep in within the camera’s viewfinder after I had zoomed in all the way with my telephoto lens. In case you are curious, Eastern Mud Turtles are only about four inches in length (10 cm).

 

Eastern Mud Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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There are at least two Bald Eagle nests (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the location where I take many of my wildlife photos. One of them is located adjacent to a popular trail and most years the authorities close nearby trails during eagle nesting season. There has been a lot of construction at the refuge over the past few months and, although I saw an eagle couple at that nesting site on several occasions, it looks like they may not have occupied that nest this year (and the trails have not been closed).

The second nest, pictured below, is in a more remote location—it is visible through the trees from one of the trails, but is surrounded by dense vegetation, so the eagles are more insulated from human activity. On a recent visit to the refuge, I was pleased to spot both members of an eagle couple in the nest. I am pretty sure that the eagle on the left is the male, because male eagles tend to be considerably smaller than their female counterparts.

With a bit of luck I hope to be able to spot some eaglets here in the upcoming months, although I noted last year that it is a real challenge to do so, because the wall of this large nest appear to be quite high and effectively hide the eagles from view.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Although the old proverb asserts that “birds of a feather flock together,” I have learned the value of examining groups of floating birds, because they often include multiple species. I was examining one such group last week in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when I spotted an obvious outlier, a duck that was larger and more brightly colored than the rest. I am pretty sure that this is a male Canvasback duck (Aythya valisineria), a species that I do not see very often and still have not seen at close range.

Canvasback duck

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A strong wind was blowing last Thursday as I was exploring Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the birds that I usually observe were absent from view, probably using common sense to take shelter from the blustery wind. As I was returning almost empty-handed to my car, I spotted several Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) perched low on the roof of a covered picnic area.

Generally I try to avoid including manmade structures in my wildlife photos, but sometimes you just have to take what you can get. I really like the way that I was able to capture some of the feather details of this male Eastern Bluebird. If you look closely, you can see the bird’s windblown feathers, a look that is cultivated by some stylish humans, who often rely on “product” to achieve the effect rather than on the actual wind.

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I do not know much about fashion, but I am pretty sure that I could not pull off wearing an outfit that combined stripes and dots. Somehow, though, the combination works well for this male Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) that I spotted yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  This Northern Flicker goes even further by adding a bright red crescent across the back of his head.

Unlike most other woodpeckers that are content to wear black and white and maybe a little bit of red, this Northern Flicker comes across as a bold, colorful, and stylish. I wonder why we don’t have similarly-colored penguins.

 

Northern Flicker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I feel lucky when I am able to capture an unobstructed shot of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). I feel doubly fortunate when I manage to get a shot of the tiny red “crown” that is responsible for the bird’s name. Last week I spotted this Ruby-crowned Kinglet at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “the male’s brilliant ruby crown patch usually stays hidden—your best chance to see it is to find an excited male singing in spring or summer.” I have seen some photos of Ruby-crowned Kinglets with their red feathers standing on end like a Mohawk hairstyle, but I have not yet seen that phenomenon in person. Spring is almost here, though, and I will keep my eyes open to see if I can spot an excited male singing kinglet. (I recommend that you repeat the words “singing kinglet” several times and you will almost certainly end up with a smile on your face.)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Where I live in Northern Virginia, American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay with us throughout most of the year, but I am always happy to see them because they evoke memories of my childhood, when robins were viewed as a harbinger of spring. This robin was part of a small flock that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Robins also bring a smile to my face, because they invariably bring to mind the song “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)” that includes these catchy lyrics (as found on lyrics.com):

“When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob Bobbin’ Along
When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin’ along, along
There’ll be no more sobbin’ when he starts throbbin’ his old sweet song
Wake up, wake up you sleepy head
Get up, get out of your bed
Cheer up, cheer up the sun is red
Live, love, laugh and be happy
What if I were blue,
Now I’m walking through
Fields of flowers
Rain may glisten but still I listen for hours and hours
I’m just a kid again doing what I did again, singing a song
When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin’ along.”
If you are unfamiliar with this song, check out this link to Youtube to hear a wonderful version by Bing Crosby.

Readers from the United States may have noted that I initially called this bird an American Robin, rather than simply a Robin. Thanks to my occasional trips to Europe, I have been introduced to the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), an equally beautiful but completely different bird. Here’s a link to a posting about a European Robin that I spotted in Paris last November.

 

American Robin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Getting an unobstructed shot of small birds is frequently impossible, so I often have to twist, turn, and bend in order to get a clear shot of at least the bird’s head. That certainly was the case with this focused male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

If you look closely at the web of branches that surround and frame this woodpecker, you may notice that they are at varying degrees of sharpness, with some of them closer to the bird and some closer to me. My task was to find a visual tunnel through the branches that would somehow make them as undistracting as possible, even when they run right across the body of the main subject. Of course, the challenge is even greater with a subject like a Down Woodpecker that is hyperactive and in almost constant motion.

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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The wind was blowing strongly last Friday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, giving this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) a bad case of “bed head.” I think that the wind may also have distracted the eagle a little, which allowed me to move closer to the eagle that I might otherwise have been able to do.

bald eagle

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During a frosty early morning February foray into Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I spotted this handsome male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) with fluffed-up feathers. Undeterred by the wind and the cold, he was feverishly moving up and around this tree trunk, pecking along the way in search of a tasty tidbit for breakfast.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) had its eye on the prize, with the prize being a cluster of wizened poison ivy berries, yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. These tiny songbirds rely on seeds and fruits to make it through the winter.  I won’t be long, though, before they revert to a diet of primarily insects—I like to think of them as seasonal vegetarians.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was sunny this morning, as forecast, but it was also windy and cold when I set out at 7 o’clock, about 25 degrees (minus 4 degrees C), according to the thermometer in my car. Most of the birds at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge seemed to have decided to sleep late, but eventually I started to see some of them, including this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) that was wading out into the shallow waters of a low tide.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On some winter days it is tough to find birds to photograph—all of the birds that I do manage to see are either far away or hidden. On one of those kind of days last week, I was thrilled to spot this cute little Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) that was only half-hidden in a distant tree. My efforts were aided by the fact that Carolina Wrens are loud singers, especially considering their diminutive size, which allowed me to hear this bird well before I actually saw it.

Carolina Wren

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I went searching through my archives yesterday for a photo from March 2016 that I wanted to have printed. I won’t dwell on my storage practices, but suffice it to say that I am not very well organized. The image in question, one of my all-time favorite shots, shows a Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) whose breath was visible in the cold morning air. I have posted the image a few times and have had some really positive response, but somehow I had never gotten around to having it printed.

I had forgotten that I had captured multiple shots that day and as I was going through them yesterday I came across the first shot below that I have never posted. I love the way that the image shows how the blackbird puts his whole body into producing his “visible song”—I remember my choir leaders instructing us on the importance of breathing from the diaphragm for better sound projection.

The second and third shots give you a better view of the bird’s breath as it was being expelled. I was playing around with image formats and decided to do a square crop that I think works pretty well with these images. One of the photo companies has a sale today on canvas prints and I may one or more of these shots printed to see how they look. A friend has also suggested that I consider having a metal print made of one of them.

The temperature, humidity, and lighting all have be perfect to be able to see this phenomenon shown here. I have not been lucky enough to see it again since that day almost four years ago, though others have taken similar shots at the same location in recent years.

If you are curious to read my blog posting about the initial encounter, check out my 8 March 2016 blog posting entitled “Visible Song.”

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last Wednesday I spotted this little sparrow at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I thought it was a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), but decided to check with some birding experts on Facebook who were able to confirm my initial suspicions. It did take me a little while longer to get a response than usual, however, because my proposed identification was correct. I tend to get quicker responses when I am wrong—folks will often jump in really quickly to correct me.

Although Song Sparrows are one of the most common sparrow species where I live, I love trying to get shots of them whenever I can.  In this case, I was happy with the simple composition and minimalist color palette that I was able to capture in this image—all of the different shades of brown give the image a harmonious feel that I find pleasing.

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the time I try to take detailed shots of the birds that I photograph, but somethings that simply is not possible. This past week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the ducks all stayed in the deep water, far from the shore on which I was standing. As I gazed to my right and to my left searching for closer ducks, I became increasingly fascinated by the bare branches of the trees overhanging the water.

Even though I was shooting with a long telephoto lens, I decided to try to capture the landscape that was drawing me in. If you look closely at the two images below, you will see that I have included some distant ducks, but clearly they were not the focus of the photos. A wider lens might have capture the environment better, but would have risked drawing the viewers’ eyes away from the tree shapes. I don’t take landscape-style photos very often, but sometimes that is what the situation seems to call for and/or permits.

distant ducks

distant ducks

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How do Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) show affection? I am not sure exactly what these two eagles were doing when I spotted them on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Were they singing to each other? Maybe they doing some version of eagle French kissing? Whatever the case, the eagles definitely seemed to be enjoying spending the time close together, beak-to-beak, showing love in their own ways.

Happy Valentine’s Day as you show love in your own way. Although this holiday traditionally is focused on couples, I think that singles like me should also celebrate love today—I love flowers and am planning to get some later today. It is more than ok to love yourself, so go ahead and treat yourself today—you are worth it.

Bald Eagle

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Do male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) know that they are bright red in color? When I spooked one of them yesterday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, he flew to a nearby field and perched in the midst of a mass of vegetation.

Did he think that he was hidden from me? Obviously he was not—his red coloration makes it almost impossible for him to blend in. I couldn’t help but think of a quotation that is attributed to Dr. Seuss, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” That’s probably a good question for all of us—as you can probably guess, I am somewhat of a non-conformist.

 

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Deer hunting is conducted from early September to late February in many of the county-run parks where I take photographs. Our area is over-populated with White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and hunting is one element of a comprehensive deer management program. I am personally not a hunter, but I understand the need to try to keep the population in check to limit the likelihood of collisions with cars or of deer dying from starvation during the winter months.

No areas of these parks are closed during this hunting season, which might sound dangerous, but there are strict requirements that the hunters must follow. Most notably they have to be trained and certified archers and must shoot from tree stands. Most people never see the tree stands because they are in remote areas of the parks, but those are precisely the areas that I like to visit.

During recent trips to Occoquan Regional Park, I spotted the tree stand shown in the first photo below. No archers were sitting in the stand, though in the past I have spotted occupied tree stands a couple of times. The second image shows one of several trail cameras that I have seen at this park this year. The cameras that I have spotted in the past were more primitive—they recorded to a memory card that had to be retrieved and reviewed. The markings on the camera shown indicated that it could transmit on a cell phone signal. The manufacturer’s website notes that images can be sent in real-time or transmitted in a batch at periodic intervals during the day.

How does all of this affect me? I am not deterred from visiting these locations, but I am extra alert and cautious when I know there are tree stands nearby. I also make sure that I smile whenever I spot a trail camera—I never know when someone is watching me.

tree stand

trail camera

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was thrilled Saturday when the sunlight illuminated the beautiful colors of this male Bufflehead duck (Bucephala albeola) as he was drying his wing feathers at the pond at Ben Brenman Park in Alexandria, Virginia. In the past I had gotten glimpses of the brilliant purple and green colors on the head of a bufflehead, but this is the first time that I have been able to capture them so well.

In most of my previous shots of a male bufflehead, those colors all blend together into a nondescript dark color. I was definitely helped by the way that the way the bufflehead had lifted himself partially out of the water in order to flap his wings, giving me a clearer view of its head..

bufflehead

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The past few weeks I have been searching for patches of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). What exactly is skunk cabbage? The Gardening Know How website describes the plant in these words, “Skunk cabbage is a perennial wildflower that grows in swampy, wet areas of forest lands. This unusual plant sprouts very early in the spring, and has an odd chemistry that creates its own heat, often melting the snow around itself as it first sprouts in the spring.” In case you are curious, the plant gets its name from the fact that its leaves gives off a smell of skunk or rotting meat when they are crushed or bruised—I can’t personally vouch for that fact, but am willing to accept it at face-value.

So why am I looking for this curious plant that has already begun to sprout in my area? Several types of dragonflies, including the Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster obliqua) that I featured last week, and the Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi) can be found in the kind of forest seeps where skunk cabbage grows. The purpose of my recent trips to several parks has been to conduct advance reconnaissance of locations to explore when dragonfly season finally arrives.

For more information about skunk cabbage and how dragonflies are associated with this plant, check out this recent posting by Walter Sanford, my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast, with whom I have conducted some of these scouting expeditions.

 

skunk cabbage

skunk cabbage

skunk cabbage

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are with us throughout the winter and I will usually attempt to photograph them during my winter forays into the wild. I tend to think of White-throated Sparrows as the “dandies” of the sparrow world—they have the same general coloration as other sparrows, but have a distinctive appearance with their white chin beards and bright yellow eyestripes. It is a real bonus when the lighting is good and the perch is photogenic, as was the case last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

White-throated Sparrow

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Kinglets are tiny birds, about 4 inches (10 cm) in length, and always seem to be in constant motion in heavily vegetated areas. As a result, they tend to be really hard to photograph. Last week at Occoquan Bay National Refuge I was thrilled to be able to capture images of both kinglet species in our area—the Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula).

It is not hard to guess that the bird in the first shot is a Golden-crowned Kinglet. I was never able to get close to the kinglet, but it did give me a clear view of its beauty when it perched momentarily on a small branch. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the second image has a more typical pose, surrounded by vines and branches. I shot over a dozen images of this little bird and this is the only one in which its head is up and visible.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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With the weather so warm recently in my area, it is hard to remember that the puddles were iced over last Thursday when I captured this early morning shot of one of them at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Winter in my area has been exceptionally mild—we have had almost no snow and only occasional periods of below-freezing temperatures. I have always been fascinated by the abstract patterns that form as water freezes, but this was the first time this season that I was able to capture a shot like this.

I am even more in awe of the amazing photos that I occasionally come across of individual snowflakes—capturing a shot like that is on my list of aspirational goals in photography.

ice

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I didn’t realize that this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was eating its breakfast when I inadvertently spooked it last Thursday morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There was no way the eagle was going to leave the fish behind, however, so it decided to take its fish “to go” when it took to the air.

When I first looked at this image, I was not sure if I liked it—it is pretty obvious that I was shooting through some branches and parts of the eagle are blurred out by them. When I examined the shot more closely, though, the positioning of the fish in the eagle’s mouth and the awesome details of the talons and tail made me decide that it was worth posting.

bald eagle

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All female Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) have traces of red feathers, but this one that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge seemed to have bolder markings than most. Before I took her portrait, I could help noticing that she had seed remnants on her bill. I also can be a bit of a messy eater at times, so I am reluctant to allow anyone to photograph me while I am eating.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Even though I arrived at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge last Thursday morning as the electric gate was opening at 7 o’clock, I was a little too late to photograph the the sun rising over the water. However, I did manage to capture some shots of the early morning color through the trees.

It is always tough for me to take landscape-type shots, especially when there is not an obvious subject. In this case, I was content to capture the colors and the patterns in images that feel almost abstract to me.

winter sunrise

winter sunrise

winter sunrise

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Why do eagles scream? Most of the times when I hear a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) screaming, the eagle is by itself and appears to be signaling its location to its mate. This past Monday, though, I spotted a Bald Eagle couple perched together on an osprey nesting site not far from their nesting location. The eagles seem to enjoy hanging out at this location that gives them a clear view of the tree in which the nest is located.

I am posting this little sequence of photos out of order, because the first image best tells a story, although it is not completely clear what that story is. The female eagle, the larger of the two, is on the lower level and seems to be screaming at her mate who is perched higher on the pole. A moment earlier they were both on the lower level and both eagles appeared to be calm, as you can see in the second image. Then the male hopped to the higher level and the female began to scream.

In the final shot, the female has turned away and the male is now screaming. Was he responding to his mate or was he screaming at something else? I guess you can connect the dots of this story in any way that you like.

As I was doing a little research on screaming eagles I came across a fascinating National Public Radio (NPR) article entitled “Bald Eagle: A Mighty Symbol, With A Not-So-Mighty Voice.” The article posits that most people have an incorrect idea of what an eagle scream sounds like and blames Hollywood. According to bird expert Connie Stanger, “Unfortunately for the bald eagle, it has like a little cackling type of a laugh that’s not really very impressive for the bird” and in most movies the sound of the eagle is actually dubbed by a Red-tailed Hawk. (I imagine a hawk in a sound booth with headphones dubbing over the eagle’s calls.)

If you click on the link above and then click the button on the website called “57 Second Listen,” you can hear a short clip of the NPR broadcast that includes both the call of the eagle and that of the Red-tailed Hawk. As for the question in the posting’s title, I personally like to think that it was a conversation, but acknowledge the distinct possibility that they were individually responding to a commonly-perceived threat. I think that my interpretation allows for more creative possibilities as I try to imagine the domestic conversations of a Bald Eagle couple. 🙂

bald eagles

bald eagles

bald eagles

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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