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Archive for the ‘Winter’ Category

Despite my benign neglect, my Christmas cactus surprised me by pushing out a single bloom just in time for Christmas. Some words of the beloved carol “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” come to mind when I contemplate its beauty—”It came, a flow’ret bright, amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night.”

Merry Christmas to all of my friends and family who are celebrating this blessed holy day.

Christmas cactus

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This is the first year that I have really noticed how many different birds work to extract the seeds from the spiky seedpods of the sweetgum tree. In the past month I have done postings featuring chickadees and goldfinches. Today I am spotlighting a beautiful House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) that I spotted on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The brilliant red color on the finch’s head and shoulders seems so perfect for the season as many of us prepare to celebrate Christmas. I initially thought that the bird’s large conical beak was buried in the the seed ball, but was happy to see that it is visible. The finch uses that powerful beak to crack open all kinds of seeds as it engages in nature’s own nutcracker suite.

Merry Christmas to those celebrating Christmas and happy holidays and best wishes to all in this joyous season. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

House Finch

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is quite a challenge to get a clear shot of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). Why? Ruby-crowned Kinglets are one of the smallest birds in my area, about 4 inches (10 cm) in length and 0.2-0.3 ounces (5 to 10 g) in weight. Additionally they are almost constantly moving. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology described them as, “restless, acrobatic birds that move quickly through foliage, typically at lower and middle levels. They flick their wings almost constantly as they go.”

I have spotted these tiny birds multiple times this season but only recently did I manage to get some reasonably clear images of them during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This images show pretty well their prominent white eye-rings and the beautiful pattern on their wings. Unfortunately I did not get a glimpse of the the “ruby crown” of a male kinglet, a characteristic that is only occasionally visible.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A common bird in a simple setting—that is all of the prompting that I need to capture an image. Nature photography for does not require exotic subjects or locations.

This past Saturday I spotted this Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) perched in a young tree. The position did not look very comfortable, so I suspected the bird would not stay in it for long. I focused quickly and was really happy with the result—a nice little portrait with a very limited palette of subdued colors.

Northern Mockingbird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Although we had only about an inch of snow last week, it has hung around on cars and in shady areas. Despite the continuing cold and overcast weather, I decided yesterday that I needed to get outdoors with my camera. I had several places in mind, but my plans were thwarted when I ran into a traffic jam on the interstate. I took the first exit and decided to visit instead a small suburban pond not far from where I live.

Several species of ducks overwinter at this pond and I spotted Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks in the center of the pond, out of range of my telephoto zoom lens. As I continued circling the pond on a walking trail, I was thrilled to spot several Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) standing in the shallow water not far from the shore. Some bushes separated me from the cormorants, so I had to bend and twist a bit to get a clear shot, but I managed to capture this image of one of them before they turned their backs to me and swam away.

The bright orange color of the cormorants’ bills always captures my attention, but it is the beauty of their brilliantly blue eyes that keeps me transfixed. Wow! Be sure to double-click on the photo to get a closer look at that amazing blue color.

As it turned out, I did not need to travel far to find beauty—figuratively speaking it was in my back yard. It would be cool to have an actual pond in my back yard, but it would have to be a tiny one and my townhouse homeowners’ association would certainly complain about it.

Double-crested Cormorant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Smaller birds seem to enjoy foraging for Sweet Gum seeds while the seed pods are still hanging on the trees, like this Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) that I spotted last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Many of you may recall a somewhat similar posting last month featuring goldfinches. If you have not yet seen it, check it out at Goldfinch and Sweetgum.

Although I enjoy photographing raptors, like the Bald Eagle that I showcased yesterday, I derive an equal amount of pleasure observing and attempting to photograph tiny birds like this chickadee. Beauty is everywhere.

Carolina Chickadee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I first spotted this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) last Saturday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, it was mostly hidden from view, perched rather low on a broken-off tree and surrounded by a thick tangle of vegetation. When I finally maneuvered around to a position where I had a relatively clear line of sight to the eagle through the bushes, I realized that I had another problem—the light was shining brightly from the side, causing the white head of the eagle to be overexposed on one side with a resultant loss of details.

I moved a little from side to side to improve the lighting situation and waited for the eagle to move its head too. As I reviewed my shots afterwards, I was delighted to see that the side lighting had helped to reveal the beautiful layers of feathers on the eagle’s body. The eagle seemed to be giving me a disapproving look in the second shot, but amazingly it remained in place. As I was moving away I looked back at the eagle and silently thanked the majestic bird for our shared moments together.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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She never approached the shore for the close-up that I was craving, but I was happy to capture this image of a pretty little female Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Later in the winter I am likely to spot small flocks of Buffleheads in the deep waters, but on this day this one was all by itself.

Bufflehead

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am often fooled by Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). Whenever I see a flash of rusty brown feathers on a dark bird, I assume that it is an American Robin. If a towhee stays still long enough, it is easy to tell that it is not a robin—the color pattern and the bill shape are completely different from those of a robin. The problem is that towhees are often in constant motion, foraging about in the undergrowth, so it is hard to get a good look at one.

I was fortunate last week when an Eastern Towhee popped out of the brush at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and perched for a moment on the branch of a small tree, allowing me to capture a shot of this very colorful sparrow.

Eastern Towhee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During nesting season ospreys build a nest atop this tall platform at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but at other times of the year Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) like to use it as a resting spot. On a recent day when the weather was cold and windy, I spotted this eagle couple resting together. I suspect that the larger eagle on the lower level is the female and the one keeping watch is the male, although the sharp upward angle at which I was shooting makes it a little difficult to judge their relative sizes.

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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If I wander the trails of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge for a long enough period of time, I am quite likely to encounter some Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). I have seen them in almost all parts of the refuge and suspect that there are several flocks that reside there.

Last Monday I encountered a small flock that appeared to include a half-dozen or so turkeys. They were scratching about at the edge of one of the trails and did not seem to notice me as I slowly made my way forward. All of the sudden, one of the turkeys flapped its wings a little as if to sound an alarm, as you can see in the second image below. All of the turkeys started to move and slowly disappeared into the underbrush. I was thrilled to capture the first image as they were striding away.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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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

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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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

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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