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Posts Tagged ‘Northern Virginia’

Yesterday while I was exploring a stream in Northern Virginia looking for dragonflies, I came across an interesting little bird perched in a tree at the edge of the stream. I could not identify it on the spot and when I returned home and looked at my identification guide, I was still uncertain. Some experienced birders in a Facebook forum identified it as a Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla).

I think I bypassed that entry in my guide, assuming incorrectly that I was in the wrong geographic area. Strangely enough, the Louisiana Waterthrush is not even in the thrush section of the guide, where you find birds like American Robins—it is a warbler.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I sometimes complain about the names given to species and how little they correspond to what I actually see in the field. That certainly was not the case yesterday when I spotted a Twin-spotted Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster maculata) along a creek in Northern Virginia. If you look closely at the image, ideally by double-clicking it, you will see the double row of spots on the dragonfly’s abdomen (the “tail”) and the long pointed ovipositor extending well beyond the end of the abdomen, the “spiketail.”

As I post photos of dragonflies, I realize that it is hard for readers to get a feel of the relative size of these beautiful creatures. The Uhler’s Sundragons that I have featured recently are about 1.7 inches in length (44 mm). A Twin-spotted Spiketail, by contrast, is much larger, about 2.8 inches in length (69 mm).

Both of these species are uncommon to rare in our area, primarily because of their specific habitat requirements—they require clean forest streams, which are not common in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and they have an early and short flight season of only a few weeks.

Twin-spotted Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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You know you are pretty close to a dragonfly when you can see individual grains of pollen on its head and body. I photographed this Uhler’s Sundragon dragonfly (Helocordulia uhleri) on 12 April alongside a creek in Northern Virginia. Ideally it would be best to stabilize macro shots taken at this close a range by placing the camera on a tripod, but in a field situation with a live subject, that is rarely possible.

If you click on the individual images, you will see some wonderful details, like the ommatidia, the individual optical units that make up the amazing compound eyes of these dragonflies.

Uhler's Sundragon

uhler's sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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One of the hazards of exploring creeks and streams at this time of the year is that snakes may be sunning themselves at water’s edge. Last week I was startled when I suddenly realized that there was a snake right in front of me, precisely in the direction in which I had been moving.

I managed to get a shot of the sunning snake, which I believe to be a Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon), just before it set off swimming down the creek. Although the first shot may make it look like I was really close to the snake, I was actually a good distance away—generally I prefer to use long telephoto lenses with snakes.

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Wednesday I finally photographed my first dragonflies of the season, some Uhler’s Sundragons (Helocordulia uhleri) that I spotted while exploring a creek in Northern Virginia. This was my first time seeing this species and I was particularly excited, because it is considered to be rare in my area. According to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, this species is a “scarce and seldom seen member of the emerald family” and is a “habitat specialist with a brief and early flight period.”

Initially I took some medium distance shots with my 180mm macro lens and them moved in closer to get the first shot. In order for me to get such a close-up shot, the dragonfly has to be cooperative and this female Uhler’s Sundragon was quite accommodating.

As you probably notice in the first photo, only a limited amount of details are in focus when shooting a subject this close.  One of the biggest challenges is to ensure that the most important features are the sharpest. Following the usual rule for photographing live subjects, I attempted to focus on the eyes.

For me, dragonfly season is now open and I anticipate that I will be featuring different species of these beautiful aerial acrobats quite regularly in the upcoming months.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” and that is certainly the case with dragonflies. Some dragonfly species are with us for the entire summer, but other species can be seen for only days or weeks and then their season is over. Short flight seasons and specific habitat requirements combine to make some dragonfly species uncommon or even rare.

This past Monday I was happy to capture some more photos of one of those uncommon species, the Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi). Earlier this month I observed several of these gray and black beauties for the first time and I was thrilled to be able to take photos to document my sighting. That was the start of a familiar cycle for me—my momentary joy at documenting a new species was replaced by a desire to capture better images, ones that appeal to me artistically.

This may well be my last Gray Petaltail dragonfly sighting of the season, and that makes me a little sad, but other dragonflies will soon be coming onto the scene. So I’ll keep moving forward in search of my next subject, content to photograph familiar ones, but with eyes wide open as I scan my surroundings for new ones too—to everything there is a season.

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Perhaps you are conservative in your style and find most dragonflies to be too flashy and colorful for you. If that’s the case, I have a dragonfly for you, the Gray Petaltail (Tachopteryx thoreyi). This large dragonfly is almost monochromatic—its eyes and body are colored in shades of gray and black. When it is perched vertically against the bark of a tree, this dragonfly almost disappears.

This species seems to like to perch on people, especially those wearing gray clothes. It happened to me a few times, but, alas, I was not able to get a shot to document it. I am pretty flexible, but I couldn’t figure out a way to take a photo when Gray Petaltails landed on my shoulder and on my chest.

The Gray Petaltail is so unusual and distinctive that it has its own genus. The Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website described the species in these words: “Our oldest and most primitive dragonfly, species almost identical to petaltails flew alongside dinosaurs during the Jurassic period.” Wow!

Gray Petaltails are uncommon, in part because they are found only in very specific habitats. In order to locate them, you need to find a small, shallow, sun-lit forest seep that is clean and flowing. It’s not likely that you will just stumble upon one of these cool dragonflies. It helps to have a friend who knows where they can be found. In my case, that was fellow blogger and dragonfly fanatic Walter Sanford. Check out his blog for wonderful images and information on Gray Petaltails and lots of other dragonflies.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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