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Posts Tagged ‘Prince William County VA’

Compared to the brightly-colored male damselflies, females damselflies often seem dull-colored and less striking in appearance. This female Powdered Dancer damselfly (Argia moesta) that I spotted in early August alongside a stream in Prince William County is a notable exception to that general rule.

If you click on the photo, you will note the elegant shades of brown on her body that glisten in the sunlight. Her beautiful two-toned eyes are amazing and seem to draw in the viewer. It is hard to be sure, but she almost seems to be smiling or maybe even winking at me.

It takes some effort to see and to photograph such tiny insects, but it is definitely worth it for me to be able to share the beauty of nature with all of you.

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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You may be revealing your age if you answer this question, but how many of you remember the 1980’s television series Solid Gold that featured pop music and the Solid Gold Dancers? Somehow my mind made that connection to my distant past when I saw the water shimmering with a metallic glow in the background of these Dusky Dancer damselflies (Argia translata) that I spotted last Thursday as I was exploring a stream in Prince William County, Virginia.

What were they doing? The pair of Dusky Dancer damselflies was in tandem, with the male holding on to the female as she deposited eggs on the side of a stone in the stream. In some dragonfly and damselfly species, the male hangs on like this to ensure that no rival male prevents the female from ensuring that his genes are passed on. With some species of dragonflies, the male instead hovers overhead as the female dips the tip of her abdomen into the water to release eggs.

This was a somewhat challenging shot for me to take, because I had to get really low and position myself carefully to get both damselflies in focus. Dusky Dancers are only about an inch and a half (38 mm) in length, so I had to get relatively close to the couple, though my 180mm macro lens gave me a bit of stand-off distance so I did not feel too much like a voyeur.

If you have not heard of Solid Gold, here is a link to a You Tube version of the episode that aired on March 14, 1981. So many of the songs and other performances brought back sweet memories of the 1980’s. You may not want to listen to the entire episode as I did, but if you can, I recommend that you jump ahead to 31:57 of the You Tube video and listen to the live version of Dionne Warwick, the original host of the TV series, singing “What the World Need Now is Love.”

I still believe in the power of those words, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love, no, not just for some, but for everyone.” Those words for me are solid gold.

Dusky Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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At first glance you might think that the insect in this photo is a dragonfly, especially if you know how much I like dragonflies. If you look a little more closely, you will see that the wings are completely different from those of a dragonfly. This is actually a Red-footed Cannibalfly (Promachus rufipes), one of the coolest and creepiest insects that you can encounter in the wild.

Red-footed Cannibalflies, a type of robber fly, usually feed on other insects, but they reportedly are capable of taking down a hummingbird. Thankfully I have never seen that happen, since I really like hummingbirds, but several years ago I did photograph a Red-footed Cannibalfly with a large Hummingbird Moth that it had captured (see my 2017 posting Demise of a hummingbird moth).

I have a special relationship with this insect with the macabre moniker. In August 2013 I did a posting with the fairly basic title of Red-footed Cannibalfly. The posting was a modest success and had 61 views in 2013. Since that time, though, the posting has generated a lot of interest, primarily as a result of internet searches,  and the total number of views has risen to 2,842, which makes it the second most viewed posting of my more than four thousand postings to date. Yikes!

I spotted this Red-footed Cannibalfly last Thursday as I was exploring a small pond in Prince William County, Virginia. I am always amazed at the relative bulkiness of this insect compared to the average dragonfly and thought that it might have captured a prey. A closer examination of the Red-footed Cannibalfly showed that it was empty-handed or maybe I should more properly say empty-footed.

In the back of my mind I hear the words of the Wikipedia description of a robber fly attack that I included in the 2013 posting, “The fly attacks its prey by stabbing it with its short, strong proboscis  injecting the victim with saliva containing neurotoxic and proteolytic enzymes which very rapidly paralyze the victim and soon digest the insides; the fly then sucks the liquefied material through the proboscis.” It is enough to give a person nightmares.

Red-footed Cannibalfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most of the time frogs hop away as soon as they sense my approaching footsteps. This male Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans), however, stayed in his sunny spot in the shallow waters at the edge of the pond, patiently posing for his portrait on Thursday. With a little encouragement, he even smiled a bit.

When I posted this photo on Facebook, one of my friends commented, “I’ve kissed a few of those.” Her words brought back memories of the role that I played in a theater production of The Frog Prince more than 35 years ago when I was in the military. A cast of adults put on several plays for children, which was a lot of fun, because over-the-top acting was encouraged to keep the kids in the audience engaged—I must admit that I am a bit of a ham when in the spotlight.

Wearing a mask, flippers, green tights, and a leotard, I played the role of the frog, agilely hopping about on the stage. When I was kissed and magically transformed into the handsome prince, a younger, cute blond actor continued in the role—there is only so much you can do with stage make-up.

Be bold today and go out and kiss a friendly frog or at least do something that takes you out of your normal comfort zone.

Green Frog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Sometimes I manage to take capture shots of wild creatures in really unusual locations. I spotted this jumping spider yesterday on the roof of my car when I was reaching inside the car to grab my camera and begin a search for dragonflies. This was a case when I happened to have the right tool in my hand at the right moment—my macro lens helped me to capture some wonderful close-up shots.

The spider was tiny—I’d estimate that it was less than half in inch (12 mm) as I faced it. My body position was awkward as I stood in the door opening and tried to balance my elbows on the roof of the car and look through the viewfinder. Fortunately I was able to place the lens on the roof, which helped me to keep it stable.

The spider did not appear to be at all frightened by my presence and in fact seemed quite curious. These three shots show some of the spider’s poses as we conducted an impromptu portrait session that highlighted the spider’s engaging personality. If you click on the images, you can see reflections of the sky in many of the spider’s eyes and the reflection of the entire spider on the car was a nice bonus.

The spiky tufts on the spider’s head helped me in trying to identify the spider and I am relatively sure that it is a Putnam’s Jumping Spider (Phidippus putnami). However, there are a huge number of species of jumping spiders, so I defer to others who have more expertise with spiders.

Jumping spiders are amazing. They do not use webs but instead rely on their speed and agility—they can reportedly jump over 50 times their own body length. A number of years ago I shot a series of photos of a Bold Jumping Spider that had captured a much larger dragonfly. I encourage you to check out that 2014 posting called Spider captures dragonfly—the story to see some images that are both startling and fascinating and to learn more details of that encounter.

In case you are curious, I drive a coppery-colored KIA Soul that is technically “Ignition Orange.” This distinctive color made a wonderful background for this beautiful spider. Apparently, spiders like my car. As I researched my own blog, I came across a posting from March 2014 entitled Spider on my car that also featured a jumping spider and one from September 2017 entitled Tiny Hitchhiker that featured a small crab spider.

Putnam's Jumping Spider

Putnam's Jumping Spider

Putnam's Jumping Spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have encountered Black-shouldered Spinyleg dragonflies (Dromogomphus spinosus) several times in two different locations over the past week. As you can tell by looking at the enlarged end of their abdomens, these rather large dragonflies (about 2.5 inches (65 mm) in length) are part of the Clubtail family. I spotted the dragonflies in the first and third photos in the vegetation adjacent to a river and the one in the middle photo on a rocky ledge that jutted into a mountain stream.

I must confess that most of the time I have difficulties seeing the “black shoulders” of this species, but the spiny legs can be quite visible. If you click on the final image and look closely at the dragonfly’s back legs, you can’t help but notice the sharp spines that look to be as large and pointed as the thorns in the vegetation that frequently tear at my trousers. The large leg spines of the Black-shouldered Spinyleg help the dragonfly to capture and to hold on to prey.

Balck-shouldered Spinyleg

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was exploring a stream in Prince William County on Tuesday, I spotted a fallen tree at the edge of a rocky beach. I am not very good at identifying trees, but could not help but notice that this one had a lot of nuts on it. Someone or some creature had gathered a small pile of these green-skinned nuts at the edge of the water for unknown reasons. I think that these may be some kind of hickory nuts, judging from photos that I have seen on the internet, but I am really uncertain about that identification.

As I was examining that little pile of hickory nuts, a male Powdered Dancer damselfly (Argia moesta) flew by and landed on one of the nuts. I am always interested in photographing interesting perches for my dragonflies and damselflies and this perch is definitely out of the ordinary.

I love the graphic shape and color of the nuts and the way the image is bisected on an angle into distinct halves, each with its own distinctive colors and textures. The powdery coloration of the Powdered Dancer helps it to stand out and the damselfly helps to unify the two halves of the photo. My main subject takes up a comparatively small part of this image compared to most of my other shots, but I think the composition really works. I encourage you to click on the image to see the beautiful coloration of this little damselfly that is approximately 1.5 to 1.7 inches (38 to 43 mm) in length.

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Our weather recently has been hazy, hot, and humid and we have even had some smog that prompted an air quality alert yesterday as a result of fires in the western part of the United States. From a dragonfly perspective, we are in a kind of summer doldrums period, where the summer dragonflies have been buzzing around for quite some time, and it is too early for the autumn species to appear.

On Tuesday I went exploring in Prince William County and was delighted to spot this handsome Dusky Dancer damselfly (Argia translata) alongside a small stream. I think that this is only the second time that I have managed to photograph this species. Although many damselflies have touches of blue, the dark body and the distinctive markings near the tip of the abdomen (the “tail”) make this pretty easy to identify as a Dusky Dancer.

The rock on which the damselfly was perching is not a great background, but at least it draws the viewer’s eyes to the damselfly and is not at all distracting. Be sure to click on the image to see the wonderful details of the damselfly, including the blue markings on its body and its entrancing eyes.

Dusky Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Quite a few dragonfly species in my area are blue in color, so I have to pay a lot of attention to other details to identify them, such as the patterns on the thorax (the “chest”) and on the wings. I was thrilled to photograph the male Yellow-sided Skimmer (Libellula flavida) in the second photo in mid-June while I was exploring a small pond in Prince William County, my first sighting ever of the male of this species.

I had previously been alerted to the presence of this relatively uncommon species there by a fellow photographer, who happened to show up while I was searching. When a dragonfly perched on a distant fallen tree in the water, my friend pulled out his binoculars, looked at it, and said it was a Yellow-sided Skimmer. I remarked to him that I had photographed a dragonfly on that very same perch earlier in the day.

He told me the critical thing to look for was the yellow on the leading edges of the wings. When I returned home and checked my photos, I saw the yellow on the wings and was a little embarrassed t0 realize that I had photographed my first male Yellow-sided Skimmer without knowing it at the moment I had taken the shot.

Two days later I returned to the same pond with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford and we spotted male and female Yellow-sided Skimmers, including the handsome male that is featured in the first photo. If you want more details of my adventures that day, including a shot of a female Yellow-sided Skimmer, check out my recent posting Yellow-sided Skimmer (female).

Yellow-sided Skimmer

Yellow-sided Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was happy to spot these handsome Powdered Dancer damselflies (Argia moesta) in mid-June as I was exploring a rocky stream in Prince William County. Most of time when I see a damselfly it is at a pond or marshy area, but this large, distinctive damselfly seems to prefer rivers and streams. Although I occasionally spot them perched in vegetation, as in the second photo, Powdered Dancers quite often perch on bare ground or on flat stones.

 

Powdered Dancer

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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On 17 June I was really happy to photograph some Yellow-sided Skimmers (Libellula flavida) while exploring a pond in Prince William County with fellow blogger and dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. This is a fairly uncommon species where I live and I have knowingly seen it only a couple of times previously. Yellow-sided Skimmers at certain stages of development look a lot like Needham’s Skimmers, a species that I encounter much more frequently, and I sometimes have trouble telling them apart.

As several readers have noted in commenting on the portraits of me that I have recently posted, the eyes and the smile are critical in capturing the personality of a subject. I think that is equally true for this stunning female Yellow-sided Skimmer. Her beautiful eyes and toothy grin convey a sense of warmth and friendliness—it was like she was happy to be posing for me.

If you would like to see Walter’s take on our encounter with the Yellow-sided Skimmers, check out his blog posting entitled Yellow-sided Skimmer (female, male). Walter included photos of both genders of this species along with additional information about its preferred habitat and its geographic range.

Yellow-sided Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I spotted a female Ebony Jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) as she was depositing eggs in vegetation at the edge of a small stream in Prince William County, Virginia. Some dragonflies lay their eggs directly in the water by tapping, but damselflies (and some dragonflies) use their ovipositors, the tubular, sharply-pointed appendages at the tips of their abdomens, to make slits and insert eggs into the tissues of the plants.

If you look really closely at the second photo, you can actually see the damselfly’s tiny ovipositor that is shaped a bit like a thorn. The damselfly appeared to arch her entire abdomen, insert the ovipositor into the vegetation, and then forcefully push down on her abdomen to insert the eggs more deeply, as you can see in the first photo. Sometimes she would flap her wings a few times, either for stability, I assume, or possibly for additional leverage.

I noticed that vegetation in which the damselfly is depositing her eggs has an unusual pattern, a broken line that looks like a seam made by a sewing machine. I wonder if that line is the result of the damselfly’s meticulous efforts to deposit her eggs.

 

Ebony Jewelwing

Ebony Jewelwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was really happy to be able to photograph this Zebra Swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus) last week in Prince William County as I was exploring a small pond with fellow photographer and blogger Walter Sanford. Quite often when I see one of these butterflies, it flits about and refuses to perch, but this one was quite cooperative.

Out of all of the different swallowtail butterflies in our area, the Zebra Swallowtails probably have the longest “tails.” Although this butterfly is in almost perfect condition, I couldn’t help but notice that one of its tails is already damaged and is shorter than the other one.

What is the purpose of these tails? According to the website bugunderglass.com, the tails are an “evolutionary feature. Birds love to eat butterflies and when they attack butterflies they go for the neck or body, which would be a clear-cut kill instead of a piece of wing. In response to this, swallowtails have evolved tail extensions that resemble their necks and body. Therefore, a bird will see these extensions as a “body or neck” and be directed away from the butterfly’s vital organs and fly away with a piece of wing, leaving the butterfly with its life.”

 

Zebra Swallowtail

Zebra Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was not sure what kind of dragonfly this was when I photographed it last Thursday while exploring a stream in Prince William County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, but Walter was able to immediately identify it for me as a Black-shouldered Spinyleg dragonfly (Dromogomphus spinosus). Unfortunately the dragonfly flew away before Walter was able to get a shot of it himself.

As I look at the photo now, I am pretty confident that I would have eventually come up with the correct identification. If you look carefully at the upper portion of the long back legs, you can’t help but notice the distinctive leg spines that are responsible the common name for this species and that help him to snag and hold onto prey. As for his “shoulders,” the wide shoulder stripe looks a little more brown than black in this photo, but may darken with age.

Many of you know that when I am out in the field, I do not worry too much about making definitive identifications of my subjects. I am amused whenever I see birders pulling out identification guides or checking their favorites apps when they are out in the field. I am content to worry about identification after I have returned home and I tend to follow what I like to call the “law of the Old West”—shoot first and ask questions later.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I had a really close encounter with this male Bar-winged Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula axilena) last Thursday while exploring a small pond in Prince William County, Virginia with fellow dragonfly enthusiast and blogger Walter Sanford. It is a challenge to handhold a macro shot when I am that close to a live subject, but the dragonfly was pretty cooperative and stayed put while I composed the shot. The colorful vegetation on which he was perched added some additional visual interest to the image without drawing attention away from the primary subject.

Bar-winged Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Eye contact and posture are often key factors when trying to assess the attitude of another person we encounter. Is the same true for dragonflies? I am certainly guilty of anthropomorphism when I attribute human emotions and other traits to my little flying friends, but I often cannot help but do so—it is fun to let my imagination run free.

I grew up watching cowboy movies and one of the traditions of these movies was a showdown, often at high noon, at which two gunfighters face off for a climactic formal duel. I spotted the first male Lancet Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus exilis) on Tuesday in the rocks on the banks of a stream in Prince William County. The small dragonfly did not seem to be afraid of me at all and in fact his whole attitude and direct stare seemed almost confrontational, like he was challenging me to a gunfight.

The male Lancet Clubtail in the nearby vegetation, by contrast, seemed shy and demure, glancing at me only out of the corner of his eyes. Perhaps he was hoping that I would simply go away, but he did not want to push the issue and definitely seemed to be avoiding a direct confrontation.

Who knows what goes on in the minds of dragonflies and other wild creatures? Whenever I look at the massive compound eyes of a dragonfly, I am acutely aware that they perceive the world in a way that is radically different from the way that I do. My mind threatens to explode when I try to imagine what it would be like have that kind of sensory input. Sometimes I try to interpret their behavior in human terms, but most often I simply gaze at them with awe and wonder, marveling at their beauty and extraordinary capabilities.

Lancet Clubtail

Lancet Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Like many other nature photographers who take pictures of birds and dragonflies, I am always looking for subjects that have chosen photogenic perches or are engaged in some interesting activity. Some photographers even look derisively at commonplace photos of “a bird on a stick.” Yes, it is always nice when I can capture images like yesterday’s shots of a Prince Baskettail dragonfly in flight, but the reality is that most birds and dragonflies spend a lot of time perched in a single spot and I do my best to capture their beauty as well as I can.

I was thrilled on Tuesday to see quite a few Bar-winged Skimmers (Libellula axilena) as I explored a small pond in Prince William County. I do not see Bar-winged Skimmers very often and the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website notes that they are “uncommon” in our area. Superficially they look a bit like the Great Blue Skimmers and Slaty Skimmers that I see quite often. Great Blue Skimmers, however, have bright white faces and male Slaty Skimmers tend to have more uniformly dark bodies.

I was particularly excited when one of the Bar-winged Skimmers that I was tracking perched on a bent-over stalk of vegetation, giving me a great view of both its abdomen and its face. The second shot is a bit more of an ordinary view, but it shows the wing markings really well that are responsible for the common name of this species. In both images, I was thrilled as well with the beautiful green background.

Bar-winged Skimmer

Bar-winged Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was thrilled to encounter Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) multiple times on 27 May as I explored a stream in Prince William County, Virginia. There are no other dragonfly species in our area that look like Gray Petaltails, so they are easy to identify if you can spot them. It is a real challenge, though, to see them because they often perch vertically on the trunks of trees where they blend in with the bark of the tree. On several occasions last Thursday, my first indication that there was a Gray Petaltail on a tree right in front of me was when it flew away.

Many of the Gray Petaltails were quite skittish and I had to settle for long-distance shots, but in the case of the first image below, the dragonfly was accommodating and let me get close enough to look deeply into its stunning gray eyes. Often I would attempt to maneuver myself around for a side shot, like the second image below, to try to get a little separation of the dragonfly from the tree and allow the viewer to see its body better.

In the final photo, the Gray Petaltail was perching almost horizontally on a fallen tree. I like the way that both the lichen in the foreground and the out-of-focus ferns in the background give you an idea of the moistness of the area that I was exploring. I was often trudging through a sea of ferns that came almost up to my knees at time as I followed the path of the stream. Gray Petaltails usually originate in seepy area and I will usually scan the sunny side of trees when I am in such areas.

Gray Petaltails are unusual in a lot of different ways. I really like the list that Kevin Munroe composed for the Gray Petaltail page of the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website:

“This wonderfully odd dragonfly stands out in several ways: 1) Their eyes, unlike most dragonflies, are widely spaced and don’t touch. Only clubtail dragonflies share this trait. 2) This is our only dragonfly with no bright colors that uses camouflage as a daily defense. 3) They spend most of their lives perched on, or vertically exploring, tree trunks. 4) Seemingly quite tame, petaltails often perch on people—perhaps they mistake us for trees. 5) They establish territories at tiny forest seeps, and their larvae can live out of water, among wet leaves on the forest floor in and around their seeps.”

I did not have a Gray Petaltail perch on me last week, but expect that it will happen sometime later this season, especially if I keep wearing gray shirts, which the Gray Petaltails seem to prefer. It was a little disconcerting the first few times that it happened, because these dragonflies are quite large, about three inches (76 mm), in length and sometimes they will perch on my head and shoulders. Now I am used to it and quite enjoy it when a dragonfly chooses to use me as a perch. In case you are curious, here is a link to a re-blog of a posting by my friend Walter Sanford entitled You look like a tree to me! with photos of a Gray Petaltail on my chest and on my shoulder.

 

gray petaltail

Gray Petaltail

gray petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this beautiful female Turquoise Bluet damselfly (Enallagma divagans) on 27 May as I was exploring the edge of the woods adjacent to a small pond in Prince William County, Virginia. While I was out in the field, I recognized that it was a bluet, but could not determine its species. Even when I returned home and consulted resources in print and on-line, I quick became confused as I assesed the relative size of the eyespots on the the top of the damselfly’s head, the width of the occipital bars (the band that joins the eyespots), and the placement and size of the blue areas on the abdomen (the “tail”).

Fortunately I am a member of several Facebook groups focused on dragonflies and damselflies and the experts in those groups came to my rescue and identified this as a female Turquoise Bluet, a species that I had never before encountered. I was happy that I was able to capture a lot of detail in my photo and encourage you to click on it to see those details. For reference, Turquoise Bluets are 1-1.4 inches (25-36 mm) in length.

Turquoise Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Whenever I go out searching for dragonflies in the early morning or after a rainstorm, I am hoping to photograph a dragonfly covered with drops of water. It has not happened yet, but it remains as one of my aspirational goals.

There were plenty of raindrops on the vegetation on Thursday morning when I began my adventures in Prince William County. I was happy to spot this tiny male Fragile Forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita) peering over the edge of the water-spattered leaf on which he was perched. I really like the simplicity of the image that I captured, with its limited number of shapes, colors, and patterns.

Photography does not have to be complicated to be effective—minimalistic images are often the most powerful.

Fragile Forktail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I can’t help myself—whenever I see a dragonfly moving through the air, I feel compelled to try to capture an image of the dragonfly in flight. It is an almost impossible challenge and success is often dependent as much on luck as it is on skill. Last Thursday as I was exploring in Prince William County, I was feeling particularly patient and repeatedly spotted dragonflies flying.

Early in the day at a small pond, I spotted a Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina) and a Common Green Darner (Anax junius) that were patrolling over the water. In situations like this when the dragonflies are flying at a constant height, it is marginally easier to get shots, because there is one fewer variable than when the dragonfly is moving up and down.The Carolina Saddlebags was flying a little closer to the shore, but I had to contend with all of the vegetation that wanted to grab my camera’s focus, so I focused manually (first photo). The Common Green Darner was flying over the open water that presented a less obstructed background, but it filled such a small part of the frame that again I was forced to focus manually—my camera’s auto-focus had trouble focusing quickly on the moving dragonfly (second photo).

My greatest challenge, however, came later in the day. If I were to assign a degree of difficulty to my photos, the final photo would be near the top of the list. When I moved to a new location and got out of my car, I immediately spotted a group of large dragonflies frenetically flying through the air, feasting on insects as they flew. The dragonflies were moving in unpredictable ways, constantly changing their flight altitude and speed. Unlike some dragonflies that hover a bit when patrolling, these dragonflies were in constant high-speed motion.

I did my best to track the dragonflies visually, but it was tough to even get one in my viewfinder. I was ecstatic when I finally managed to capture a more or less in-focus image of one of the Swamp Darners (Epiaeschna heros) as it zoomed past me relatively low to the ground, as you can see in the final photo.

When it comes to wildlife photography, some shots are easy and straightforward—I see something and take the shot and that is it. At other times, I have to work really hard and take a lot of shots before I can get a potentially good one. Last Thursday definitely fell in the latter category more than in the former one. Was all that effort worth it? I think so, but I must confess that at times I felt like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

If you want to get a more detailed look at the details of the three flying dragonflies, be sure to click on the images.

 

Carolina Saddlebags

 

Common Green Darner

Swamp Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have always been fascinated by the intricate patterns of spider webs and I love to attempt to photograph them. Of course, the first challenge is to spot them. In the past I have had some success in early morning hours when the webs were covered in dew—see, for example, my posting from September 2012 called More spider art. In more recent years, though, I have most frequently encountered spider webs when I have run into them stretched head-high across trails.

I was pretty excited therefore when I spotted this backlit spider in its web last Thursday as I was exploring a forested area in Prince William County. I loved the way that the light was shining through the body of what I recognized to be an Orchard Orbweaver spider (Leucauge venusta). I toyed around with ideas on how to compose the image and decided to include only the upper half of the web—I wanted to make sure that the viewer’s eyes would be drawn to the spider.

Orchard Orbweaver spiders are quite common in my area and I encountered another one later that same day and captured the close-up image below that shows some of the spider’s beautiful coloration. I know that some people find spiders to be creepy and threatening, but hopefully these spider shots can help to convince at least a few of those viewers that spiders can also be quite beautiful.

Orchard Orbweaver

Orchard Orbweaver

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last week I photographed my first Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) of the season, a stunning female that I spotted while exploring in Prince William County. I really like all of the different shades of green in this image and the linear stalks of grass that provide a perfect perching place for the pondhawk.

Before long Eastern Pondhawks will become a frequent sight in my area, but it is always special for me to greet the first member of a species each year.

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This past Saturday I spotted this unusual insect—an Eastern Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus)—while I was exploring in Prince William County. The large eye spots on its thorax are a kind of defensive adaption designed to confuse or frighten potential predators into thinking the beetle is much larger than it really. In addition to the distinctive eye spots, the beetle has some really cool looking antennae that you can see more clearly if you click on the image to enlarge it.

Eastern Eyed Click Beetle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled last week to stumble upon some Brown Spiketail dragonflies (Cordulegaster bilineata) while I was exploring a stream in Prince William County. When I spotted them, they were patrolling really low, moving in and out of the stalks of the grass and other plants only inches above the ground. I was able to track several of them and capture multiple shots, including an in-flight shot when one of the Brown Spiketails decided to hover momentarily right in front of me.

According to the wonderful website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, Brown Spiketails are considered “rare” in our area. Their preferred habitat is “clean, small sunlit, forest streams and seepages, ” an almost perfect match for the location where I spotted these dragonflies. The flight season lasts only about six weeks and peaks in mid-May.

Sometimes “my” Brown Spiketails would perch high enough above the ground that I could isolate the dragonfly from the background, as I did in the second image. Most of the time, though, they would perch low on grasses and shrubs, which meant that I too had to get low too to capture images like the third one. The background in that image is somewhat cluttered, but I think that it gives you a good sense of the habitat and the challenge of finding and focusing on such a narrow target.

Brown Spiketail

Brown Spiketail

brown spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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Earlier today I did a posting that discussed perching behavior and featured shots of two male Ashy Clubtail dragonflies (Phanogomphus lividus) that I had photographed last Thursday on a rocky area along a stream in Prince William County, Virginia. As I was going through my shots from this past Saturday, I came upon this image of a female Ashy Clubtail that serves as a nice complement to the photos in the earlier posting.

The most obvious differences is that this female dragonfly chose to perch on this interrupted fern that was much higher off of the ground. Note, however, that like her male counterpart, she is perching horizontally and not grasping onto a stalk or a branch, as some other dragonflies are prone to do. This image gives you a partial view of the terminal appendages at the tip of her abdomen (the “tail”) that make it clear that this is a female. If you compare those appendage with the same area of the males, you may be able to tell that they are different.

There are other ways to tell the gender of dragonflies, but I will save those explanations for a later posting, or leave them to my dragonfly-hunting friend Walter Sanford, who is much more of an expert on this topic than I am.

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Where do dragonflies like to perch? Different species perch in different ways and in different places (and some species spend most of their time flying and rarely seem to perch). Some dragonflies perch horizontally or at an angle, while others hang vertically. Some species perch on trees or in vegetation, while others perch on the bare ground or on the sand. When I am out hunting for dragonflies, their perching behavior is often my first clue to their identities.

When I spotted these two dragonflies perched in the rocks and sand at the edge of a stream in Prince William County that I was exploring with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford last Thursday, I guessed immediately that they were Ashy Clubtails. When I got a little closer, I was able to confirm that they both are male Ashy Clubtails. Ashy Clubtail dragonflies (Phanogomphus lividus) are an early-spring species that generally perch flat on bare-soil, fallen logs, rocks, or leaf litter. Sometimes I have even found them perching right in the middle of a sunlit hiking trail.

When dragonflies are perched higher, I like to try to get eye-level shots of them, but that is almost impossible to do when they are flat on the ground. I suppose that I could have tried the limbo approach—how low can you go? However, in this case, I stood as directly over them as I could and shot downwards in an attempt to get as sharp a shot as possible of their entire bodies.

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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More dragonfly species are beginning to reappear as we move deeper in spring. On Thursday as I was exploring in Prince William County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, Walter spotted this female Spangled Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula cyanea) perched low in the vegetation, the first member of this species that either of us had seen this season.

There are several different species in which the females and immature males are yellow and brown in color like this dragonfly. Once we got a good look, however, we knew immediately that this was a Spangled Skimmer. How did we know? Spangled Skimmers are the only dragonflies in our area that have a small white patch, known as a stigma, beside a black patch on the outer leading edge of each of its wings. With most other dragonflies, the stigmas are a single color if they are present.

Female Spangled Skimmers retain this yellow and brown coloration throughout their lives, while immature males eventually transition to a blue color, which is presumably why the Latin name for the species is Libellula cyanea.

I expect that I will soon photograph a mature male this season, but if you would like a sneak preview of what one looks like, check out my posting from last year called Spangled Skimmer in June. If you want to search for a Spangled Skimmer dragonfly yourself, they tend to be found in shallow, vegetated, marshy areas.

Spangled Skimmer

Spangled Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Beauty can often be found in small things in ordinary situations. On Thursday I captured this image of a beautiful Pearl Crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos) feeding on a dandelion while I was exploring in Prince William County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford. Although we were focused on searching for dragonflies, most of you know that I am an opportunistic photographer and will take a photo of almost anything that catches my eye.

I am not completely certain about the identification of this butterfly—I have trouble distinguishing between a Silvery Checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne nycteis) and a Pearl Crescent butterfly. In fact, I am not really sure if this is a dandelion or one of a number of small flowers that are similar in appearance.

The funny thing is, though, that I am totally unconcerned about the accuracy of my identification in this case. This image is more about art than it is about science. It is about light and color and patterns and details. I encourage you to click on the image and immerse yourself in the enlarged image. You will be amazed to see the speckles in the butterfly’s eyes and the flecks of pollen on its extended proboscis.

Beauty can often be found in small things in ordinary situations.

Pearl Crescent

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I am intently searching for dragonflies, my eyes are drawn to anything that is moving through the air. Once I detect movement, I will try to track the subject until I am able to identify it. Early in the season, things were a bit easier, because there were not many insects around, but as the weather has warmed out, it has gotten tougher and the air now seems filled with grasshoppers, bees, and other flying creatures as I move about in the fields and forests.

As I was wandering about last Thursday in Prince William County, I detected a black and yellow insect and tracked it until it landed on some vegetation. Ten years ago, I might have simply called it a “bee”—my knowledge of insects was so limited that I would have divided insects into broad categories like bees and butterflies. If pushed for more specificity, I might have called this a “small bee.”

My identification skills and my knowledge of insects has grown exponentially over the years. As soon as I saw the way that the insect was flying, I could tell that it was a hover fly, a member of a group of flies that you may know as flower flies, because of where they can be found most often. I was immediately attracted to the beautiful, elaborate patterns on the insect’s body and recalled that I had seen a similar one last year in the garden of my friend Cindy Dyer.

I believe that this cool-looking hover fly belongs to a species known as the Eastern Calligrapher Fly (Toxomerus geminatus), though there are over six thousand hover fly species worldwide, so it could also be a related species. Nevertheless, I love the thought of someone hand drawing the delicately etched pattern with pen and ink, creating a miniature work of art.

As I was composing a shot, I grew fascinated with the details of the leaf on which the hover fly was perched—it is easy for me to lose myself when looking at the world through a macro lens. It appears that some other insect had been chewing on the leaf before the Calligrapher Fly arrived and I like the way that I was able to capture the holes in the gnawed-on leaf.

Eastern Calligrapher Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was wandering about last Saturday in Prince William County, I was thrilled to spot my first flower on a Mountain Laurel shrub (Kalmia latifolia). I had been noticing lots of buds during recent trips, but this was the first one that I spotted that was open. I think there may be cultivated versions of mountain laurel, but it is naturally found on rocky slopes and in mountain forest areas, which was exactly the environment that I was exploring.

I simply love the shape, colors, and pattern of the gorgeous flowers of this plant. After I published this post, I decided to add a second photo, one that shows the unopened buds of a mountain laurel, their additional beauty waiting to be revealed.

mountain laurel

mountain laurel

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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