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Posts Tagged ‘Fairfax County Virginia’

I am catching up on some photos and thought I’d post this image that I captured in mid-July of a cool-looking fishing spider that Walter Sanford spotted while we were hunting for dragonflies at a creek in Fairfax County. I am not sure of the specific species of the spider, but I am pretty confident that it is of the genus Dolomedes. Most of the times in the past when I have spotted similar spiders, they have actually been in the water, but this one seemed to be hunting from a crevice in the rocks at the edge of the water.

I love the texture of the rocks and especially the lichen that add a lot of visual interest to this image. If you would like to see Walter’s take on our encounter with this spider, check out his post ‘Fishing spider Friday.’ Walter noted that he sees “a mean monkey face on the front half of the spider and a baboon face on the back half.” Be sure to click on the image to see the spider more closely, if you dare and let me know what you think.

 

fishing spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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When dragonflies and damselflies complete the metamorphosis from water-dwelling nymphs to air-breathing aerial acrobats, initially their wings are clear and shiny, their bodies are pale and colorless, and they are very vulnerable. At this stage of development, it is often difficult to identify the species to which they belong. Over time, their wings harden, their bodies take on the markings and coloration of their species, and identification becomes easier.

During a dragonfly-hunting trip earlier this month with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, I spotted several damselflies that had recently emerged, a stage often referred to as “teneral.” The first one was perched on a rock in the creek that we were exploring and the second was perched in some vegetation alongside the creek.

If you click on the images to get a more close-up view of the damselflies, you will note some indication of stripes on the thorax and thin rings around some of the segments of the abdomen. During the day, we saw adults of at least three different damselfly species, so we can infer that these tenerals belong to that small group of species, but there is not enough information to make a call. I’m happy that I was able to capture some cool images of the damselflies.

If you would like to read Walter’s discussion of the first damselfly and to view his photos, check out his blog posting that he titled “Acceptable uncertainty.”

teneral damselfly

teneral damselfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Many of the species that I photograph have names that do not match up that well with their physical appearances. While I was exploring a creek this week with my friend Walter Sanford, it was wonderful, therefore, to spot a dark damselfly with blue at the end of its abdomen that is appropriately called the Blue-tipped Dancer (Argia tibialis). If you click on the images, you will note that this male damselfly has beautiful purple stripes on its thorax (upper body) in addition to that blue tip.

When photographing damselflies like this one that perch on the ground, I try to get as low as I can in order to see eye-to-eye and simplify the background. I managed to do that in the first image and I really like the soft glow in the background from the waters of the creek.

I did not get as close for the second shot, in part because the damselfly was a bit skittish. However, I do like the way that I was able to capture the colors and textures of the rocky environment along the edge of the stream, giving the viewer a better idea of this damselfly’s habitat.

Like most damselflies, Blue-tipped Dancers are tiny, no more than 1.5 inches (38 mm) in length, so it is always a challenge to get detailed shots of them. The largest damselflies that I have ever photographed were the appropriately named Great Spreadwings, that are as much as 2.4 inches (61 mm) in length. If you want to see what one of those beautiful “giants” looks like, check out this posting from October 2015 entitled “Great Spreadwing damselfly (male).”

blue-tipped dancer

blue-tipped dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As I was exploring the banks of a creek yesterday hunting for dragonflies with my friend, Walter Sanford, I stumbled upon a really cool-looking caterpillar. I love fuzzy white caterpillars and apparently I am not the only one—an August 2013 posting that I entitled “Fuzzy White Caterpillar” is my third most-viewed posting ever, with over 1820 views. The photos in that posting are definitely not among my best ever, but somehow people find their way to that posting when doing Google searches.

I was immediately struck by the bright red head and the “horns” and the front and back end of the caterpillar. Those characteristics made it easy to identify the caterpillar as a Sycamore Tussock Moth caterpillar (Halysidota harrisii). I do not know trees very well, so I cannot tell if the fallen log that the caterpillar was exploring was a sycamore, but perhaps one of my viewers can identify it for me.

Be sure to double-click on the images if your would like to get a closer view at the wonderful details of this unusual-looking caterpillar.

Sycamore Tussock caterpillar

Sycamore Tussock caterpillar

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Most dragonflies are slender and acrobatic, prompting one of my friends recently to call them “dainty.” There is absolutely nothing dainty, however, about Dragonhunter dragonflies (Hagenius brevistylus)—with their massive upper bodies and powerful legs, they remind me of powerlifters. Dragonhunters, unlike some other large dragonflies, do not fly patrols overhead in their search for food. Instead, they are patient hunters who perch, waiting for passing prey, and then use their powerful back legs to snag their victims, which are often other dragonflies.

One thing that always strikes me when I spot perched Dragonhunters is that they seem uncomfortable. Their back legs are so long and ungainly that Dragonhunters’ poses look awkward, bringing to mind gawky teenage males who have undergone recent growth spurts and have not yet gotten used to their longer limbs.

I was thrilled to spot this Dragonhunter last week while exploring a stream in Fairfax County with my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. It was a hot, humid day and we did not have any success in finding Eastern Least Clubtails, our main focus for the day. In fact, during the day we did not see many dragonflies at all. Walter had been at this location repeatedly and at the start of the day had commented to me that he had often seen Dragonhunters perched on branches overhanging the stream. In fact, we spotted Dragonhunters several times during the day, but did not manage to get good shots of them.

As the skies began to darken, signaling an approaching rainstorm, I knew our time was drawing to an end. I decided to return to a fallen tree where we had seen a Dragonhunter earlier in the day and was pleasantly surprised to see a Dragonhunter holding on to the very tip of a branch. I waded into the stream and moved a little closer to the dragonfly, slowly making my way across the slick, uneven rocks. I called out loudly to Walter, who was a good distance downstream from me, and eventually I heard his response.

I became the patient hunter now as I stood in the calf-high waters of the stream, trying to minimize my movements as I struggled to get a decent shot without disturbing the dragonfly, waiting for the arrival of my friend and hoping that the dragonfly would stay in place. Well, Walter arrived and we both managed to get some shots. I then felt free to move a bit more and crouched low to get a better angle for a shot. Lost in the moment, I did not initially notice that my backside was getting wetter and wetter as I squatted lower and lower. Fortunately I had moved my wallet and keys to my backpack which remained dry.

Eventually the Dragonhunter flew away from its initial perch, but the flights were short and relatively direct and we were able to track the dragonfly to its subsequent positions. The Dragonhunter looked a bit more comfortable at its new perches, but I was not. The rocks underfoot were getting bigger and more uneven and navigation through the water was increasingly difficult. At one moment I encountered an unexpected small drop (maybe 6 inches or so) and I slipped and momentarily lost my balance, but somehow managed to stay dry.

I was tired and wet when we began the uphill trudge back to the parking area, but I was feeling happy about our encounter with this Dragonhunter, one of the powerful giants of the dragonfly world. If you would like to see Walter’s photos and commentary on our Dragonhunter adventure, be sure to check out his blog posting today entitled “Dragonhunter dragonfly (male).” While you are there, be sure to poke around on his site—he has lots of cool images and fascinating information on all kinds of dragonflies and other creatures too.

Dragonhunter

Dragonhunter

Dragonhunter

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some of the dragonflies that I feature in my postings are uncommon species in my area. They are found in very small numbers, have a short flight period, and require very specific habitats. My good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford did an extensive amount of research two years ago and re-discovered the Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Stenogomphurus rogersi), a species that is considered to be rare in Northern Virginia. Several of us were able to capture numerous images of this beautiful species during the 2018 dragonfly season.

Since that time, however, the habitat at that location has deteriorated significantly. As a result of some imprudent dumping of dirt and the resulting runoff, the stream habitat has been compromised by increased silt and higher levels of vegetation. Last year, as far as we know, there was only a single sighting of Sable Clubtails at this spot.

Had the population of Sable Clubtails been wiped out? During May and June this year, I made repeated trips to this location and on 12 June I captured the second shot below. When I took the shot, I was not sure if it was a Sable Clubtail, so my excitement was somewhat muted while I was in the field.  However, when Walter confirmed that it was in fact a male Sable Clubtail, I was really happy. In many ways, though, my excitement was no match for Walter’s the next day, when we returned to that location and, after much searching, had several encounters with Sable Clubtails, including the one shown in the first image.

For more background on the saga of the Sable Clubtails, be sure to check out Walter’s posting from last Friday entitled “Sable Clubtail dragonfly (Male No. 1).” The posting includes Walter’s photos, range maps for the species, and fascinating details on the backstory. Walter has a background in science and his systematic and analytical approach allows him to view things from a different perspective than I do with my background in languages, literature, and political science. Our approaches are quite different, but are definitely complementary.

 

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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How much does the  background matter in a wildlife photograph? Is it merely a potentially distracting element or should it help convey a sense of the environment? Like many photographers, I often obsess over the background when I compose my images, trying to frame the shot and to adjust the camera settings to produce a certain effect. I suspect that my mindset is frequently more like that of a portrait photographer, who wants to draw your attention to the main subject, than that of a landscape photographer, who wants everything in the viewfinder to be in focus.

During the month of June I have been blessed to spot Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) on multiple occasions at several locations. I have taken lots of photos of them and the majority of those photos show the dragonfly perched vertically on the trunk of a tree—that is what petaltails do most of the time. My personal challenge has been to capture some images of Gray Petaltails doing something a bit different.

In the first image, the Gray Petaltail was perched horizontally, a position that I have rarely seen. The background in this shot is completely blurred—you don’t know for sure what is behind the dragonfly, though the colors suggest that it is vegetation. The blurred background forces you to focus on the main subject and to a limited extent on its perch. It is the type of portrait image that I strive to capture most often, though rarely am I this successful in doing so.

The second image uses a different approach. I visually separated the dragonfly from its perch by shooting from the side so that the details of its body are not lost in the shadows of the tree. The background is slightly blurred, but it lets you know that the dragonfly was perched in a sea of interrupted ferns. I like the way that you can see the patterns and color of those ferns. I took the shot from a lot farther away than I did with the first image, so the dragonfly occupies a much smaller part of the frame. As a result, the details of the perch grow in importance and in many ways the tree shares the spotlight with the dragonfly. This is the kind of environmental portrait that I really like, but often forget to take. Too often I am so driven to fill the frame with my subject that I forget to try different approaches.

The final shot is a kind of compromise shot, taken from a medium distance with a background that is more suggestive of the environment than in the first image, but not as detailed as in the second one. The perch has some details, but is intended to play a supporting role, rather than be the co-star as in the the second image. The dragonfly fills less of the frame than in the first image, but more than in the second.

In the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, she repeatedly tried two extremes, before setting on one that was “just right.” Is that the moral of the story here? Au contraire, mes amis. You can come to your own conclusions as you look at these three images, but for me it is clear that there is no single solution to the question of backgrounds. Blurry backgrounds can be good, but not always. Close-up shots are great, but may come with a cost. Showing some details in the background can enhance an image, except when it doesn’t.

What is best? Some folks may be unhappy with the lack of clarity, but the best answer seems to be, “it depends.” With backgrounds, as with so much in photography, we are left in an ambiguous situation in which “rules” are at best general guidelines, intended to be broken as the situation dictates or as the photographer decides. That gives me unlimited possibilities and a maximum amount of freedom to create more cool images.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© 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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Ebony Jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata) are everywhere in some of the forest streams I like to explore at this time of the year. Still, I love when I can get a good angle on these beautiful damselflies when they are in wheel position and forming a sidewards heart, as was the case with this pair that I spotted last Thursday in Fairfax County.

Yes, as some of you already know, the damselflies are in the process of mating, with the male on the right and the female on the left.

 

Ebony Jewelwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Do you believe in unicorns? I am always happy when I manage to spot a Unicorn Clubtail (Arigomphus villosipes), a beautiful dragonfly species in which both sexes have a small hornlike projection between their eyes that gives rise to their common name. I recently spotted the dragonflies in this posting while exploring a small pond in Fairfax County, where I live.

This is the only clubtail species in our area that prefers ponds and marshes over streams and rivers, according to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website. It is fairly easy to identify this species, because of the rusty-edged club at the bottom portion of the dragonfly’s abdomen and the very visible bright tip. Male Unicorn Clubtails tend to fly short patrols and perch quite often on low vegetation, so it is not hard for me to spot them if I am in the appropriate environment.  The third photo below shows a male in a typical perching pose.

Female Unicorn Clubtails, on the other hand, are hard to find—I do not know where they hang out, but it seems that they come to the water only when they are ready to mate. The only two times that I have ever seen a female Unicorn Clubtail dragonfly was when when she was ovipositing, like this one in the first two photos that I spotted this past Thursday. I captured these shots as she hovered momentarily in the air, getting ready to tap the water again with the tip of her abdomen to release more eggs.

Chasing unicorns? Yes, that is how I enjoy spending my time in the wild.

 

Unicorn Clubtail

Unicorn Clubtail

Unicorn Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes I take photographs when I am standing upright, but quite often I am crouching, kneeling, bending, or leaning as I try to compose my images. I occasionally  remark that I am happy that nobody is filming me as I contort my body for the sake of my craft—a kind of photography yoga. Sometimes, though, my friends will take photos of me as I am am taking photos.

Several readers wondered how close I was to the Gray Petaltail dragonfly when I captured some macro images of its eyes that I featured in a posting earlier this week. My friend Walter Sanford, with whom I frequently go on photographic forays for dragonflies, captured the first image below of me in action and graciously agreed to let me use it in this posting. You may need to double-click on the photo to see it, but the Gray Petaltail dragonfly is perched on the left fork of the branch just after the split. The dragonfly was so cooperative that I remained in that crouch for an extended period of time, periodically flexing forward to get a tiny bit closer.

My friend and photography mentor Cindy Dyer has also captured me in action. She recently came across the second photo below, which I think dates back to 2013, and posted it in Facebook. I am not sure what I was looking at so intently through my viewfinder, but it seems likely that I had spotted something more interesting than the Canada Geese right in front of me. As I often do, I was crouching in the brush, with all kinds of vegetation threatening to poke me in the ear and eyes.

When a crouch will not get me low enough, I am often willing to sprawl on the ground, as in the third photo below that was also taken by Cindy Dyer. You may notice that I was carrying a tripod with me in a case on my back. Cindy is a big fan of using a tripod whenever possible for macro shots and I remember well when she told me that one of the keys to success was for me to get as low as possible and spread my legs. I blushed initially until I realized that she was referring to my tripod.

It is probably not mandatory for all photographers, but I have found that it helps to be fit and flexible. One of my personal challenges will be to maintain that level of fitness and energy as I get older, so that I can continue my “style” of photography.

Gray Petaltail

kingstowne pond

shooting position

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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In an ideal world, I would be able to photograph a dragonfly up close and from multiple angles. My close-up shots of a Gray Petaltail dragonfly in yesterday’s posting were the result of almost perfect circumstances. Real life, alas, is rarely that perfect. My entire life, it seems, I have heard the words of the Rolling Stones, reminding me that “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”

Last week I spent almost an entire day with fellow dragonfly enthusiast and blogger Walter Sanford searching for dragonflies in a variety of habitats. It was a long, grueling effort, conducted often in the hot direct sunlight and sometime involving wading through waist-high vegetation. Walter and I have worked together often enough over the years that we have developed some routines. Most of the time we try to stay in sight of each other, so if one of us spooks a dragonfly, the other has a chance of being able to track it to its next perch.

Towards the end of day, we had wandered a little farther apart than usual when I heard Walter tell me emphatically to stop—he had spotted a dragonfly. I was in an awkward position when I stopped and I could barely see the dragonfly through the lens of the camera. It was hanging vertically from a thin stalk of vegetation that was swaying vigorously back and forth in a breeze that had suddenly kicked up. My heart started to beat a bit faster when Walter told me that it looked to be a male Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster obliqua), an uncommon species that I have seen only a few times.

So there I was, frozen in place far from my subject, trying desperately to focus manually on my moving subject that I knew might take off at any moment. I tried to pay attention to the background as I composed my shots, bending my body and flexing my knees to get some minor variations in my angle of view. What you see below are three of those variations. I like the way that they captured the Arrowhead Spiketail in the environment in which we found it—I may not have gotten what I wanted, but perhaps I got what I needed, i.e. I got some decent shots of my subject.

Walter observed this dragonfly from an entirely different angle of view and, as always, approaches things from a different perspective. I encourage you to check out his blog posting today “Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly (male)” to see his photos and to read about his reactions to seeing this uncommon dragonfly in an environment that was not “according to the book.”

Arrowhead Spiketail

Arrowhead Spiketail

Arrowhead Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) are one of the friendliest and tamest dragonfly species that I have encountered. If you hang around with them often enough, they are almost certain to land on you, particularly if you are wearing gray clothing that somehow reminds them of a tree. It is a little hard not to flinch when one of these relatively large dragonflies (3 inches (75 mm) in length) perches on your head or shoulder.

Gray Petaltails will also let you get pretty close to them when they are perched on trees. Quite frequently, though, they are perched above eye level, so being that close does not allow you to capture close-up images. This past Saturday when I was hunting for dragonflies with my friend Walter Sanford, we spotted a Gray Petaltail perched on a fallen branch that was at knee level. After we had both taken some shots, Walter challenged me to see how close I could get to the dragonfly to capture images with my macro lens.

The first shot shows one of my attempts to get a head-on shot. It is very cool to look another creature straight in the eyes, but it is rare that one will permit you to do so, especially at such close range. It seemed clear to me that the dragonfly was quite aware of my presence, but did not consider me to be a threat.

I took the second shot from the side as I moved even closer to my subject. I was trying my best to capture some of the details of the dragonfly’s eye that was nearest to me and was not concerned that most of the rest of its head was out of focus. If you double-click on the image, you can see some of the ommatidia, the individual optical units that make up a dragonfly’s amazing multi-faceted compound eyes.

If you want to learn more about dragonfly eyes, check out a wonderful article at medium.com entitled  “30,000 Facets Give Dragonflies A Different Perspective: The Big Compound Eye In The Sky“. Scientists, for example, know that the thousands of ommatidia produce a mosaic of “pictures,” but how exactly this visual mosaic is integrated in the insect brain is still not known.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I posted a photo of a male Common Whitetail dragonfly that was hovering in the air to fight off rivals and protect the female with which he had mated as she deposited her eggs in the water, a practice know as hover guarding. In some dragonfly species, the male will remain attached to the female throughout the entire process of oviposition, a process known as contact guarding. In other dragonfly species, the female is entirely on her own to deposit the eggs.

Black Saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea lacerata) use a different technique for guarding that I like to call “release and catch.” After mating is completed, the male and female Black Saddlebags fly together over the water in a tandem position, with the male in the front. At certain moments, for reasons that I cannot determine, the male releases the female and she drops down to the water and taps it to release one or more eggs. As she rises up out of the water, the male catches the female and reattaches the tip of his abdomen to the back of her head. They continue to fly in tandem and repeat this cycle multiple times.

On Saturday I was fortunate to be able to capture this sequence of shots that documents the entire process. Most of the time these dragonflies chose spots that were too far away for me to photograph them, but in this case they flew a bit closer to the edge of the pond where I was standing. As you probably suspect, I had to crop in a good amount to highlight the action for you, given that I was shooting with my trusty 180mm macro lens, which has a more limited reach than the lens that I use when photographing birds.

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When you are walking near the edge of the water, it is good to look down from time to time. Sharp-eyed Walter Sanford, a fellow dragonfly fanatic, spotted this Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) as we were searching for dragonflies in Fairfax County, Virginia last Monday. This is a non-poisonous snake, but I have read that it will bite and the wound may bleed a lot, because its saliva contains a mild anticoagulant.

Three years ago I had an encounter with a similar snake and watched it capture and devour a catfish. If you missed that posting, click on this link and check outSnake captures catfish—if you are like me, you will be fascinated and slightly horrified by the encounter and may avoid wading in the water at the edge of rivers for a time.

Northern Water Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What is the most common dragonfly where you live? Over the last few weeks I have noticed more and more dragonflies at the ponds and marshes that I visit, an indication that many of the summer dragonfly species have emerged. Here in Northern Virginia, the most common dragonfly is probably the appropriately named Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia). This species is one of the first to appear in the spring and one of the last to disappear in the fall. They are easy to identify and are such habitat generalists that they can be found almost anywhere.

Many of you know that I will often spend lots of time looking for rare dragonfly species, but I try not to take for granted the more common ones that many people (and photographers) ignore. The first image shows a male Common Whitetail that was hovering for a moment as he kept watch over a female as she deposited eggs in the water.

The second image is a portrait of a male Common Whitetail as he perched on some vegetation overhanging the water. If you look at the angle at which I took the shot, you can probably guess that I was at risk of falling into the water when I took the shot. The final shot is a portrait of a beautiful female Common Whitetail. When they are young, males have a similar coloration on their bodies as the females, but the wing patterns are different. You can also tell the genders apart by looking at the tip of the abdomen (the “tail”) where the terminal appendages are sexually differentiated.

As is often the case for species saddled with the name “common,” Common Whitetail dragonflies are uncommonly beautiful.

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was really excited to spot this male American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana) on Monday while exploring in Fairfax County, Virginia with my good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. I have seen this species only a few times before, but had no trouble identifying it, thanks to the distinctive “rubyspot” on its wings.

The first image gives you the best view of this gorgeous little damselfly, but the second shot is my favorite. I love to look straight into the eyes of dragonflies and damselflies—they have an almost hypnotic effect on me. Whenever I get the chance, I try to get a close-up shot of the eyes of these acrobatic insects that fascinate and delight me endlessly.

American Rubyspot

American Rubyspot

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last Tuesday I spotted this cute little toad—I think it may be a Fowler’s Toad (Anaxyrus fowleri)—while exploring the wilds of Fairfax County. The toad was just chilling (or more accurately may have been warming itself) on a rock ledge with a bumpy texture and mottled coloration that matched those of the toad pretty well.

It is hard to know what the frog was thinking, but it appeared to be in deep contemplation. “I think, therefore I am.”

Fowler's Toad

© 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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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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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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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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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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I tend to think of pollen as yellow, but it comes in other colors too. This past weekend I captured this shot of a bee covered in bright red pollen from the Purple Deadnettle flowers (Lamium purpureum) on which it was feeding. Earlier this spring I did a posting with a somewhat similar shot, but misidentified the plant as the closely-related Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule).

Purple Deadnettle is in the mint family and seems to be everywhere at this time of year. I was in a fairly remote area when I took this shot, but I have seen large patches of it in gardens, where it is considered to be a weed. According to an article entitled “Foraging for Purple Dead Nettle: an edible backyard weed,” the plant is not only a wild edible green, but a highly nutritious superfood. The leaves are edible, with the purple tops being even a little sweet. It can also be used in combination with other “weeds” like chickweed and dandelion greens to make pesto and can also be added to soups, salads, or blended into smoothies.

But wait, there is more. Purple Dead Nettle also has purported medicinal benefits. It is known in the herbal world as being astringent, diuretic, diaphoretic and purgative. It’s also anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal and can be used to make salve, poultices, and teas.

As an interesting aside, in Great Britain this plant is apparently known as Red Deadnettle. Why is there a difference in names? I do not know why, but it is not all that surprising considering the number of different words the British use for common objects and the different spellings for common words.

bee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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What do you see first when you look at this image? Do you see the beautiful colors, textures, and shapes of the rock that makes up both the foreground and the background? Are you drawn to the lines and somber coloration of the Powdered Dancer damselfly (Argia moesta) and its shadow? Do you focus on the damselfly’s brightly shining gray eye?

I spotted this little damselfly this past week while exploring a creek in Fairfax County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. There is a simplicity to this image that I find really appealing. I especially like the limited color palette and the sense of harmony in the way that the colors work together.

What do you think?

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Really, an image of a horsefly? That sentence fragment was part of an internal dialogue that I had with myself when considering whether to post this image. I know that most people find flies to be fairly disgusting.  However, I was really taken with the details that I managed to capture when this enormous horsefly—it looked to be about 2 inches (50 mm) in length—perched in front of me earlier this week as I was resting alongside a rocky creek.

The fly’s eyes seem to have multiple colors and its body has several wonderful patterns. It is not all beauty, though, and I find those sharp points protruding from the face to be menacing, an impression enhanced by the enlarged shadow that cast by the fly.

I have to admit that I was fascinated by this giant horsefly and that fascination prompted me to post the photo despite my initial inhibitions. What do you think?

horsefly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday I was thrilled to spot this spectacular female American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana) while exploring a creek in Fairfax County, Virginia with my good friend and fellow  dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford.  This species is found along streams and rivers and this in only the second time that I have ever seen American Rubyspots. The green and brown colors on the thorax (the “chest”) of this damselfly are incredible and I highly recommend you click on the images to get an even better look at the amazing details.

Signs are starting to appear that we are approaching the end of summer. Already I have noted that the number of dragonflies is dropping, though there still seem to be plenty of butterflies. It was therefore particularly gratifying to see this unfamiliar damselfly yesterday. The dragonfly season, though is far from over—there are some autumn dragonfly species that I have not yet seen.  Birds are starting to migrate through this area, so some may appear in this blog soon, but there should still be dragonfly photos for the next few months at least.

American Rubyspot

American Rubyspot

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Monday I was thrilled to get a shot of one of my favorite damselflies at Occoquan Regional Park, the beautifully colored Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea), a subspecies of the Variable Dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis). I love the color combination of this tiny beauty, a spectacular shade of violet on its body and the wonderful blue accents. Sharp-eyed viewers may have noted that a photo of this same type of damselfly has been my banner image for quite some time.

Violet Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This shot from Monday is for Cindy Dyer, my photography mentor, who used to refer to me as her “grasshopper” and taught me some important lessons when I was just starting to get serious about my photography six years ago.

Folks of a certain age may recall that “grasshopper” was the nickname used by Master Po for his young student Kwai Chang Caine in the western martial arts television series Kung Fu in the 1970’s. The name is a reference to a wonderful scene in the pilot episode for the series in which the blind teacher helps to teach his new student that “seeing” requires more than the simple use of your eyes.

Here, from Wikipedia, is a snippet of dialogue with some of the wisdom of Master Po:

Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Caine: No.
Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?

In case you have never heard of the Kung Fu television series or want to relive a moment from your past, here is a link to a short YouTube video of the above-referenced scene.

As a nature photographer, I think a lot about “seeing” as I seek a closer connection with the natural world and so many of its inhabitants. My observations have caused me to conclude that the pace of the natural world is different from that of my everyday life and that I consequently have to slow down in order to be in synch with it.

grasshopper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you like to go off in pursuit of rare and exotic species to photograph? Most of the time I am content to travel again and again to familiar places, searching for both old and new species to photograph.

Yet I guess that I have a bit of an adventurous streak too, for my interest sparked when fellow blogger and dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford informed me that he had spotted one of the rarest dragonfly species in our area, the Sable Clubtail (Stenogomphurus rogersi). What makes this dragonfly so rare is that it is found only in a very specific type of habitat and it only for a very short period of time each year.

I was still a bit jet-lagged this past Saturday morning, having returned the previous afternoon from my week-long trip to Brussels, but decided to see if I could find this elusive dragonfly. Walter and I had searched for dragonflies in this area before, so I more or less understood where he had seen the Sable Clubtail dragonflies when he described the location to me.

In retrospect, though, I probably should have done a little more homework, because I suddenly realized as I began my search that I didn’t know very well the distinguishing characteristics of a Sable Clubtail. I knew that the tip of its “tail” (actually its abdomen) was somewhat enlarged, because it was part of the “clubtail” family and I remembered from a photo that extreme end of the “tail” was curved. Beyond that, I was somewhat clueless and I was a little disappointed later in the day when I thought that I had not seen a Sable Clubtail dragonfly, but only some Unicorn Clubtail dragonflies.

I am happy to say that I was wrong in my identification of the species that I had photographed—in my ignorance, I had missed some diagnostic clues that should have told me immediately that I was shooting a Sable Clubtail. Of course, if you never have seen a species before, it’s easy to categorize it as something that you have seen.

Here are a few images from my encounter with a Sable Clubtail. The different angles any varying perches help to highlight the beautiful markings of this dragonfly and its very striking eyes.

I am not quite ready to quit my job and travel the world in search for rare dragonflies, but it was exciting to play the role of an adventurer for a day—a tiny bit of Indiana Jones—and gratifying that I was able to find the treasure that I was seeking, the Sable Clubtail dragonfly.

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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