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Eagle nest

It won’t be long before it is nesting season at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge for Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I know of two nests that have been used the past few years. One of them is close to a trail that the refuge authorities block off when nesting is taking place. The other, pictured below, is high in a tree that is visible in the distance from a trail but is inaccessible to human traffic.

You can’t help but notice how large this nest is, especially when you compare it with the size of the bald eagle that I managed to photograph early one morning last week. Every year the eagles add on to the nest and now it is so deep that I am unable to see the eagles when they are sitting in the nest.

I will be keeping an eye on the eagle nest in the upcoming months and will be sure to give a progress report if/when I see additional activity.

eagle nest

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

“I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” These are some of the words of one of my parents’ favorite hymns and I think of them whenever I see one of those little birds, like this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) that I spotted last Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I love the background of this photo so much that there was no way that I was going to crop in closely. The plants form an almost grid-like pattern that find really appealing and the muted browns are a good complement to the earthy tones of the sparrow. Even the light was cooperative, highlighting the subject without blowing out the lightest areas.

What do you think?

Song Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

December sunrise

The electric gates at my favorite wildlife refuge slide open at seven o’clock in the morning and sometimes I will be sitting in my car waiting for the parting of the gates to maximize my chances of seeing the sun rise. Traffic was a little heavier than I had anticipated last Tuesday and the gates were already open when I drove into Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge a few minutes after seven.

Dark clouds were covering much of the sky and although some color was starting to appear in the few open patches, it was clear that I was not going to see the sun itself rise. I rushed down the trail toward the water as it grew lighter and lighter, racing against the rising sun. I never did see much of the sun itself, but the reflected light was amazingly beautiful. At times it seemed like the skies were aflame with an orange flow and a few minutes later the skies were tinged with a softer pink.

Forecasters can tell me at what time the sun will rise, but they cannot predict the look and feel of any sunrise. For that, I have to be there in person, waiting expectantly with my heart full of hope. It is a wonderful way to start a new day.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1)

 

winter sunrise

winter sunrise

winter sunrise

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

Hidden in plain sight

Can you spot the bird in this photo? Its white underparts help to give away its position, but otherwise the Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) is pretty well camouflaged. I rarely see these little birds (about 5 inches (13 cm) long) because they blend in so well and are constantly in motion, poking and probing as they spiral their way to the top of the trees.

I really like the way that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes these small birds—”Brown Creepers are tiny woodland birds with an affinity for the biggest trees they can find. Look for these little, long-tailed scraps of brown and white spiraling up stout trunks and main branches, sometimes passing downward-facing nuthatches along the way. They probe into crevices and pick at loose bark with their slender, downcurved bills, and build their hammock-shaped nests behind peeling flakes of bark. Their piercing calls can make it much easier to find this hard-to-see but common species.”

I spotted the Brown Creeper this past Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge early in the morning when the light had a golden tinge that made everything look particularly beautiful. I tried to track the bird as it made its way up the tree and took quite a few photos. This is one of the few in which I got a relatively clear view of the entire bird, including its stiff tail that it uses for support.

Brown Creeper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Not gone away

I love all kinds of Christmas songs whether they be traditional carols, secular songs, or contemporary hits. One of my favorites is Winter Wonderland, though I must confess that it sometimes leaves me confused. The second verse says, “Gone away is the bluebird, here to stay is a new bird. He sings a love song as we go along, walking in a winter wonderland.” The bluebirds have not in fact gone away—I saw Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) multiple times this past Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I love these cheerful, colorful little birds and hope that they are here to stay as I walk about in my own winter wonderland.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

A single Christmas bloom

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.

House Finch and Sweetgum

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.

Uncertain focus

I am not sure what caught the attention of this Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), but the heron was intensely focused on something on the shore for quite some time recently at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps it was thinking back to warmer days, when it might have been able to snag a frog or even a dragonfly, but, alas, the weather has turned cold and those creatures are no longer stirring.

Eventually the heron gave up on that spot on the shore and re-focused on fishing, hoping for better luck.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets

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.

Mockingbird in December

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.

 

Local cormorant

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.

Chickadee and Sweetgum

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.

Side-lit eagle

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.

 

Female Bufflehead

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.

Towhee in December

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.

Resting eagles

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.

 

Turkeys in December

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.

Flicker in December

I love the colors and patterns of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus), like this one that I spotted on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In the United States there are two variants of this colorful bird, an Eastern one and a Western one. The Eastern males, like the one in the image below, have a red nape, black “whiskers,” and yellow shafts on their flight and tail feathers. Western males, which I have not yet seen, do not have a nape crescent and have red “whiskers” and red-shafted tail feathers.

Northern Flicker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Layers of clouds

The skies over the water were full of clouds one afternoon last week as I visited Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I was utterly fascinated by the horizontal layers of cloud that seemed to be stacked up, reminding me of a stone wall of stacked stones.

Many of you know that I rarely take landscape photos, but sometimes I feel compelled to do so. To be fair, though, I should probably characterize this image as a “cloudscape,” rather than as a “landscape,” since the land plays only a minor role in it.

clouds

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Splash of red

As the days become colder and the landscape turns monochromatic, I am always happy to spot the bright red plumage of a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), like this one that I photographed on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Northern Cardinal

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Pileated Woodpecker

Yesterday I featured a Downy Woodpecker, the smallest woodpecker in our area. Today I want to present a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), which is by far the largest woodpecker in this region, with a length of 16 to 19 inches (41 to 48 cm) and a weight of 9 to 12 ounces (155 to 340 grams). I doubt that I will ever spot one of these woodpeckers hanging from a seedpod, like yesterday’s Downy.

Quite often I hear the drumming sound of a Pileated Woodpecker long before I see, a sound that sometimes seems as loud as a jackhammer. When I heard that sound on Monday I scanned the trees and finally caught a glimpse of this female Pileated Woodpecker pecking away at a distant tree. I was happy to capture this profile shot that provides a pretty good look at her face and her bright red crest.

 

Pileated Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Woodpecker and seedpods

I was delighted to spot this male Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it acrobatically pecked away at some seedpods hanging high in the trees. Fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford commented on a Facebook posting that that the seed pods look like trumpet vine (Campsis radicans). Check out his 2011 blog posting entitled Trumpet vine fruit and seeds for more details on this plant.

Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest woodpeckers in our area, about 6 inches long (15 cm), and the lightest, about one ounce (28 g). Still, it was a bit surprising the way that the woodpecker was hanging on the seedpod as it hammered away at it.

During warmer weather Downy Woodpeckers eat mostly insects, but it looked to me like this one was trying to extract seeds from the pods. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “About a quarter of their diet consists of plant material, particularly berries, acorns, and grains.” Whatever the case, this woodpecker appeared to be determined and focused on his task.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

December dragonfly

It was cold and windy yesterday when I set out for Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, about 44 degrees (7 degrees C), but I thought that there might be a chance that I could find a dragonfly, because the sun was shining brightly. This late in the season, there is only one dragonfly species still present in my area, the Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), and its days are almost certainly numbered. I was heartened by the fact that a fellow photographer had spotted an Autumn Meadowhawk this past weekend and the knowledge that fellow dragonfly enthusiast spotted one on 3 January 2016—a new late-date for a dragonfly in Virginia. (Check out his posting for more details.)

I spent most of my time looking for birds, but I would slow down and look closely at the ground whenever I came to a sun-lit patch of ground. Autumn Meadowhawks often perch flat on the ground and love to bask in the sun. I was nearing the end of my normal loop when I finally spotted an Autumn Meadowhawk, the only one that I would see all day.

I had my 150-600mm zoom lens on my camera and it has a minimum focusing distance of almost nine feet (2.7 meters), so I had to back us a bit to get the dragonfly in focus. Autumn Meadowhawks, are pretty small, about 1.3 inches in length (33 mm), so it was a challenge finding the dragonfly in my camera’s viewfinder—fortunately the bright red color of its body helped me to locate the dragonfly. I managed to snap off two shots before the dragonfly flew away.

I am amazed and delighted by the hardiness of these little dragonflies and will search for them again whenever I am out with my camera this month. I decided to include a photo of an Autumn Meadowhawk that I photographed on 16 November, because it really shows off really well the autumn habitat of this species. For the last three weeks, I have put off posting that image, hoping that it would not be my last dragonfly sighting of 2020.

The season for dragonflies is not yet over!

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Hungry heron

I love watching Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) catch fish. Often they will stand still for long periods of time and then strike suddenly and violently. Catching a fish, though, is only half of the battle for the heron. The heron must then maneuver the fish into position so that it can be swallowed head-first.

During a trip last month to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I observed the whole process and was able to capture a series of images, including these three. It looks like the heron speared the fish initially, leaving it either stunned or possibly dead. I admire the boldness and skill of the heron as it flipped the fish into the air, as you can see in the middle photo, as part of the positioning process. Eventually the fish was correctly positioned, as shown in the final photo, and a split second later, the heron tilted back its head and the fish disappeared down its throat.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Abstract beauty

Often I am mesmerized by light and shadows and reflections. It doesn’t take much to capture and hold my attention, like these pieces of wood that I spotted in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

reflection

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Song Sparrows

Sparrows seem so ordinary to most people and I enjoy the challenge of trying to capture images of them in ways that make this drab little birds stand out. On a recent trip to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I observed some Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) foraging in the middle of a large, heavily vegetated field. Occasionally one of them would perch on the top of the vegetation and I managed to get some shots.

I like the way that these two images, which are quite different, work together as a pair. In the first one, a viewer’s eyes are immediately drawn to the colorful autumn leaves and only afterwards do they move up to the perched sparrow—there is a sense of energy because of the bright colors. In the second image, the solitary sparrow is the sole subject and the plain background and simple perch create an almost austere feeling—there is a feeling of serenity and simplicity.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrows

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Kinglet in December

Although they are barely larger than the hummingbirds that migrate south when the weather turns cold, Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) spend their winters in my home area of Northern Virginia. In addition to being tiny, Golden-crowned Kinglets often forage high in the trees, which makes them really tough to photograph.

I was really happy to capture this image of a Golden-crowned Kinglet on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it was feeding on a cluster of poison ivy berries. Looking through the branches you can see the bird’s lemon-yellow “crown” and the the beautiful pattern on its wings.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Bluebird in December

The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees and the weather is now overcast most of the time, it seems. If you use the meteorological calendar, winter has already arrived—if you use the astronomical calendar, you have a few more weeks to wait until the December solstice.

During this somewhat bleak period of the year, I particularly cherish those moments when I stumble upon some bright colors in nature, like those of this male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) that I spotted on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The brilliant blue and orange colors of this little bird never fail to bring a smile to my face.

My encounter with this little bird was unfortunately brief. The second shot shows my initial view of the bluebird and the background is a bit too cluttered for my taste. The first photo shows how a small change in my shooting position helped me to get a somewhat clearer view of my subject.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Startled heron

As I was watching a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) in the shallow waters of low tide on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the heron seemed startled when it sensed my presence and took to the air without warning. I had the presence of mind to react almost as quickly and captured a short series of shots that I have presented here in reverse chronological order.

When I first spotted the heron it was looking off into the distance with its neck fully outstretched—I was amazed at how far its neck extended, as you can see in the final photo. I watched the heron as it walked along slowly scanning the water as it searched for fish. It was quite windy and the water seemed really choppy, which probably made things more difficult for the heron.

I captured the middle shot just after the heron had taken off and you can see water drops coming off of the heron’s feet if you zoom in on the image. I was most shocked that I managed to capture the image of the heron with outstretched wings—the heron got really wide really quickly and I was almost zoomed in too closely. I actually cut it even closer than it appears and I added a bit of additional water to the left and upper image edges of the shot to create the image that you see.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

Happy warbler

This Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) seemed to be celebrating the fact that it had snagged one of the few remaining poison ivy berries when I spotted him in mid-November at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I decided not to crop this image too closely because I like the way that the autumn leaves and the gumtree seedpods provide a real sense of the environment in which I found this beautiful little bird.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Hidden sparrow

Although my eyes are sometimes drawn to patterns when scanning vegetation for birds, generally I require some movement to detect their presence. I spotted this beautiful little White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) while it was hopping in and out of some heavy vegetation at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

I tracked the bird for a while, hoping to get an obstructed shot, and was thrilled to capture this image. Much of the bird’s body was in the shadows, but rays of sunshine spotlighted its head and highlighted its beautiful facial markings, including the distinctive yellow stripe between the base of its bill and its eye, an area known as the “lore.” Be sure to click on the image to get an enlarged view of these wonderful features.

White-throated Sparrow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.