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Posts Tagged ‘Lorton VA’

When it comes to photography, how do you balance its creative and technical components, how do you mix art and science? In the uncontrolled natural environment in which I take my photographs, I often have to be content with merely capturing an image, any image, of my subject before it disappears.

Sometimes, though, I can make minor adjustments on the fly that have a major impact on the final shot. Last week I was at Occoquan Regional Park, observing dragonflies as they zigged and zagged over the surface of the water. Most of them were common, readily identifiable species. Suddenly I spotted one that was different. I suspected, and later confirmed, that it was a female Unicorn Clubtail (Arigomphus villosipes) and knew that it was pretty rare to spot the female of this species.

The dragonfly began to dip the tip of her abdomen down in the water to deposit eggs and I sprung into action. She was not far from the shore and I snapped off a few shots looking down at her. Those images simply did not have any impact. Instinctively I dropped to my knees, which brought me closer to my subject. More importantly, it gave me a new perspective. I was closer to being at eye level with my subject and I was able to capture a more interesting background with the ripples in the water created by her actions.

This image, for me, is close to being an optimal mix of the technical and creative components of photography. It was challenging to shoot and simultaneously allowed me to express myself artistically. It is my response to the occasional naysayers who assert that photography is merely about capturing reality.

 

Unicorn Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week at Occoquan Regional Park, I spotted a pair of Carolina Saddlebags dragonflies (Tramea carolina) flying in tandem.  I managed to capture this sequence of shots as the male released the female so she could deposit eggs in the water (ovipositing). Once she was done, he grabbed her again and they went on to the next spot.

After mating, male dragonflies and damselflies are concerned about protecting their reproductive efforts, lest a rival intervene and dislodge their sperm. Some males will circle overhead to fight off potential rivals while the female oviposits; some will hang onto her during the entire process; and a few will use the “catch and release” method illustrated in these images.

If you are interested in additional information about dragonflies and mating, I recommend an article on ThoughtCo.com entitled “How Dragonflies Mate–A Rough-and-Tumble Affair.” Some of you may be worried that this is some kind of scientific treatise, but it is not. To allay your fears and entice you to read the article, here is the opening paragraph of the article.

“Dragonfly sex is a rough-and-tumble affair. If you’ve ever seen a pair of mating dragonflies in the act, you know that their sexual coupling requires the flexibility and acrobatic skill of a “Cirque de Soleil” performer. Females get bitten, males get scratched, and sperm winds up everywhere. These strange mating habits have survived millions of years of evolution, so the dragonflies must know what they’re doing, right? Let’s take a closer look at how dragonflies mate.”

Carolina Saddlebags

Carolina Saddlebags

Carolina Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Most dragonflies have clear wings, so I am happy when I see one with dark patches on its wings. It is even more exciting to see one with both brown and white patches, like this male Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) that I spotted on Saturday at Occoquan Regional Park in nearby Lorton, Virginia.

When it comes to identifying dragonfly species, I have learned to focus not only on the colors of the wing patterns, but also on the number of such patches and their shapes. In the case of the Widow Skimmer, for example, both the males and females have the brown patches on the portion of the wings nearest the body.

Why are they called “Widow Skimmers?” Someone apparently thought the dark patches looked like the mourning crepe that historically widows wore. Even the Latin name “luctuosa” means “sorrowful.”

I used to be confused by the use of a female-associated word like “widow” with males, but I have gotten used to it. In fact, I no longer give a second thought to the idea of male damselflies, though I don’t have a clue about how that label affects their self-image.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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As I was exploring Mason Neck West Park in nearby Lorton, Virginia last Saturday, fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford pointed to a dragonfly perched at the top of a tree and said it would make a good “artsy” shot. He was right. Although some details are lost in the shadows, the simplified silhouetted view lets you focus on the essence of the dragonfly.

The patches on the inner wings indicate that it is one of the saddlebags dragonflies. I think it might be a Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina), but there is also a chance that it could be a Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata).

Carolina Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday was a wonderful day for searching for dragonflies at Occoquan Regional Park and among my finds was this beautiful female Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifasciata). This is the first one of the season for this species, which is relatively common compared to most of the early spring species. The patterns on the wing make this species stand out and definitely help in identifying.

I love the way that the different colors on this dragonfly work so well together and give this dragonfly a refined and rather sophisticated look. It is an additional bonus that those colors are mirrored by the background colors in this image.

Painted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Are you ever fully satisfied when you meet a goal? I think that many of us drawn to wildlife photograph are restless in our pursuit of newer and better images. We can celebrate our successes, but we tend to be self-critical. We are convinced that we can always improve our skills and our photos, that we need to keep pushing and pushing in a never ending quest for more interesting subjects or better conditions or sharper images .

In many ways, that was the case for me this past Monday, when fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford and I scoured an area of Occoquan Regional Park for spiketail dragonflies. In a blog posting earlier this week I chronicled our long and ultimately successful search for the elusive Twin-spotted Spiketail. I was feeling a bit tired by the time we saw that dragonfly, but Walter had told me that an additional dragonfly species had been spotted in that same area, the Brown Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster bilineata).

So we kept going and went looking again in an area that we had searched earlier in the day. Some say that the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting different results. If that’s true, I guess that I qualify as being more than a little crazy. It turned out that we were lucky, really lucky and had multiple chances that afternoon to photograph several male Brown Spiketails. Unlike the Twin-spotted Spiketails from earlier in the day that flew away and never returned, the Brown Spiketails would fly only a short distance away when spooked and it was relatively easy to track them visually to their new perches. Eventually we reached a point of satiation where we would not even take a shot of a dragonfly if it was even partially obscured by vegetation or was facing in the wrong direction. We hoped we would see a female of the species, but it turns out that all of the spiketails we saw that day were males.

The Brown Spiketail dragonflies seem to have a lighter-colored bodies than the Twin-spotted Spiketails (brown vs black) and has paler spots, but to my inexperienced eye they otherwise look pretty similar. I was happy to capture some relatively sharp images that you can see in even greater resolution by clicking on them. For even more detailed photos, check out Walter’s excellent images of our adventures in his blog posting today. He has mastered some techniques that allow him to capture an amazing amount of detail in his dragonfly shots.

Brown Spiketail

Brown Spiketail

Brown Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When you go out to take photos, do you have specific goals in mind? I consider myself to be an opportunistic shooter—I like to walk around in the wild and photograph whatever happens to catch my eye.

This past Monday, though, I joined fellow dragonfly enthusiast and photographer Walter Sanford on a very targeted mission. We were going to search for some relatively uncommon dragonfly species called spiketails in a location where they had been recently seen. These species can be found only during a limited period of the spring and only at small forest streams or spring-fed seepages.

We were particularly interested in the Twin-spotted Spiketail (Cordulegaster maculata), a dragonfly that is less than 3 inches in length (76 mm) and usually hangs vertically or at an angle in vegetation close to the ground. As you can probably tell from my description, these dragonflies are tough to find. Walter and I have hunted together for dragonflies in the past and have found that it helps to work in pairs, so that if one flushes a dragonfly, the other person can sometimes track it to its new location.

We searched and searched for what seemed like hours and came up empty-handed. Just when it seemed like we might be getting ready to concede defeat, I spotted what I think was a Twin-spotted Spiketail. I called out to Walter and put my camera to my eye. Alas, the dragonfly flew away before I could get a shot. Previously he and I had a conversation about whether it was better to have seen none or to have seen one and not gotten a shot. I was now faced with the second case.

We figured that our odds were about one in a million of spotting another Twin-spotted Spiketail, but having seen one, we had a glimmer of hope and kept searching. Without intending to do so, we drifted apart, out of sight of each other. Suddenly I heard Walter’s voice calling to me, saying that he had spotted one. The basic problem was that I did not know where he was. I wrongly assumed that he was near a small stream, so I rushed downhill through the muck and the thorns, but didn’t see him. He called out again even more insistently and I realized that he was uphill from me. Apparently I am not good at determining directions on the basis of sounds.

I scrambled up the bank to him and he motioned to me to move around him on the left. About that time, the dragonfly that he was photographing took off and headed down the trail. Walter was about ready to give chase when I told him to stop—I had spotted what turned out to be a male Twin-spotted Spiketail at ankle-height just a few feet from where he was standing. Our patience and persistence ended up being rewarded and I was thrilled to be able to get some shots of this beautiful dragonfly, a species that I had never before encountered.

Long-time readers may recall that Walter and I are very different in our approaches to many things. Our photography gear is different; my background and education is in liberal arts and his is in science; and our personalities are quite dissimilar. Not surprisingly, our writing styles vary too. Several times in the past we have done companion blog postings after our adventures. Check out Walter’s blog post today for his perspective on our hunt for this elusive dragonfly and for his wonderful images.

As it turned out, our day of dragonfly hunting was not yet over, but that will the subject of a future blog posting.

Twin-spotted Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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