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Posts Tagged ‘Prince William County VA’

Can a dragonfly smile? I seemed to detect a cocky little smile when I moved in close for this shot of a handsome male Stream Cruiser (Didymops transversa) last Thursday in Prince William County. The macro view also allowed me to appreciate the beauty of his two-toned eyes and to note the curious-looking “chin strap.”

The second shot shows the entire body of the Stream Cruiser, a medium-sized dragonfly that is about 2.2 inches (56 mm) in length. The image also gives you a sense of the environment in which I spotted him—a large expanse of interrupted ferns adjacent to a stream.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Almost a month ago, fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford spotted a Selys’s Sundragon dragonfly (Helocordulia selysii), the first time that one had been spotted in Prince William County, Virginia where we were searching for dragonflies. This is an early spring dragonfly that is quite uncommon and we were both happy to get shots of it, though as I noted in my blog posting about the encounter, we did not realize until after the fact that this was a new discovery—we thought that it was a Uhler’s Sundraagon, a closely related species that I had previously seen at that location.

Whenever I encounter a brand new species in a location, I wonder if it is a one-off sighting, a vagrant who has wandered out of its normal territory, or if perhaps there is an established population. I may have gotten a partial answer to that question on Thursday when I spotted several Selys’s Sundragons a couple of miles upstream on the same creek where Walter made his initial discovery.

I managed to photograph two of these beautiful dragonflies while they perched on interrupted ferns that were growing in abundance in the area, including the dragonfly featured in the first two photos. The markings on the dragonfly’s body were quite distinctive and unfamiliar to me, given that this was the first time that I had seen this species at close range. Whenever I am out in the field, I tend not to worry about identification of my subjects and instead focus on getting the best shots that I can—I can sort things out when I get home and pull up the images on my computer screen.

A short time later, I also was able to capture some in-flight images of a Selys’s Sundragon when he cooperated for me by hovering a bit over the water. That made things marginally easier, but it is still a challenge to focus on a moving subject that is only 1.6 inches (40 mm) in length. Perhaps it is my imagination, but the dragonfly in the final photo seems to be glancing up at me, as though he was wondering if we were done yet with the photo shoot.

So, it looks like we may have at least a small established population of Selys’s Sundragons in this county. What is the flight season for the species? Walter and I were recently joking about that—as Walter pointed out, we are the baseline. We know that the season for this species in our area lasts at least from 13 April, when Walter had his initial sighting, to 6 May, when I took these photos. According to available information, the flight season for this species in our home state of Virginia lasts from 17 March to 23 May.

I hope to be able to make a return trip to this location to add another data point (and hopefully some new photos) to our information about this species or maybe some additional dragonflies are waiting to be discovered.

Selys's Sundragon

Selys's Sundragon

Selys's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spent a lot of time tracking this Common Green Darner (Anax junius) as it patrolled over a field of vegetation yesterday in Prince William County and was thrilled when it finally perched for a moment. Like most darners, this one was hanging vertically and as I got closer, I was immediately struck by the muted color of its abdomen.

I could tell from its terminal appendages that it was a female and I suddenly realized that most of the Common Green Darners I have photographed in the past have been males that often have bright blue abdomens. It had never really struck me that female Common Green Darners have tan-colored abdomens. It is not that surprising, though, because, as is the case in much of the animal kingdom, female dragonflies generally tend to have more subdued colors than their more ostentatious male counterparts.

Common Green Darner

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I was delighted to spot several more Stream Cruiser dragonflies (Didymops transversa) while wandering about in Prince William County. This handsome male Stream Cruiser  looked like he could have starred in the well-known “got milk?” publicity campaign in the United States that featured photos of celebrities with milk mustaches and was designed to make milk more interesting and to emphasize its wholesomeness.

The print campaign with the the milk mustaches was started by the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) as a follow-on to a very popular series of television commercials in which people went to extraordinary lengths to make sure they did not run out of milk, according to this Fast Company article about the history of the Got milk? campaign.

Celebrities almost literally lined up to participate in this campaign and famous photographer Annie Leibovitz photographed more than 180 of the advertisements, according to the aforementioned article. One of the few requirements for participation in the campaign was that the celebrities had be milk-drinkers—I think they might have waived that requirement for Kermit the Frog—which was a problem for Whoopi Goldberg, who is lactose-intolerant. However, she was featured when the campaign ran an advertisement for lactose-free milk.

I don’t drink very much milk these days, but have fond memories of growing up with milk in my cereal bowl each morning. Got milk?

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was pretty cool to spot this male Aurora Damsel damselfly (Chromagrion conditum) on Friday while I was exploring in Prince William County. I love the accents of brilliant yellow on the sides of its upper body that make this damselfly stand out from many others that are also black and blue.

I also managed to get a shot of an Aurora Damsel couple in what is known as the “tandem” position. The female of this species, the lower damselfly in the second photo, also has the yellow accents, although her body coloration is more subdued, as is often the case with damselflies and dragonflies.

When they are mating, damselflies join together in a heart-shaped position, known as the “wheel position,” and afterwards the male will often remain attached to the female, including while flying, as she lays her eggs. He does this by retaining his grip on the front part of the female’s thorax, as you can see in the second photo, using claspers located at the tip of his abdomen.

If you have never seen the distinctive sidewards-heart that damselflies make when mating, check out a posting that I did last year entitled Sidewards heart that shows a pair of Ebony Jewelwing damselflies forming the aforementioned heart.

aurora damselfly

aurora damselfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was really excited yesterday to spot some Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), a type of native orchid, while exploring in Prince William County. Last year I saw some for the first time in the wild and managed to find the same spot again this year. When I posted the first photo in Facebook a number of people noted that it brought back memories of their childhoods.

Happy May Day. There are a lot of different types of celebrations on this day throughout the world, many devoted to celebrating spring.  Best wishes to you all however you choose to celebrate this day, perhaps with a walk in the woods to discover or re-discover hidden treasures like these little orchids.

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Have you ever watched a dragonfly-to-be break out of its exoskeleton and undergo a remarkable metamorphosis from a water-breathing nymph to an amazing aerial acrobat? It is an amazing and fascinating process that rivals (or maybe even surpasses) the more familiar transformation of a butterfly that many of us studied in school.

On a recent excursion to look for dragonflies in Prince William County, my good friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford excitedly called out to me that he had spotted a dragonfly that was midway through the process of emergence. We had not had much success up to that point in the day, so Walter’s news was especially welcome.

When dragonflies are in the process of emergence, they are very vulnerable. Their bodies are undergoing some incredible changes and they do not yet have the ability to fly. If you look at the first photo and compare the size of the exoskeleton (often referred to as an exuvia) to that of the dragonfly, you can get a sense of the magnitude of the changes that were occurring.

I moved a little closer for the second shot, being careful not to disturb the dragonfly, in order to capture some additional details. The exoskeleton shows, for example, little wing pads that are tiny when you compare them to the wings that are still closed over the dragonfly’s body. A little later in the process, the dragonfly will unfold the wings and will be be able to fly, albeit weakly at first.

At this stage, we could tell that the dragonfly was a female, because of the shape of the terminal appendages, but we could not determine its species, because its colors and markings were still really pale. Depending on the species, this transformation process can take as long as several hours and it can sometimes take a few days for the colors and markings to darken. (If you are interested in this whole process, I witnessed the it from start to finish several years ago and took a series of photos that documented the process in a blog posting called Metamorphosis of a dragonfly.)

Walter was eventually able to determine that this was a female Uhler’s Sundragon (Helocordulia uhleri). My final photo shows an adult female Uhler’s Sundragon that I photographed later that same day, so you can easily see that the dragonfly was not yet done with her transformation when we photographed her. 

How did Walter do it? For the answer to that mystery, check out Walter’s blog posting today called Uhler’s Sundragon dragonfly (emergent female) for the fascinating story of his detective work and additional photos and details of our encounter with this emerging dragonfly.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragonfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Normally when I photograph a new species of dragonfly I am immediately ecstatic, but that was not the case on Tuesday. After a long day of searching for Uhler’s Sundragons (Helocordulia uhleri) in Prince William County with fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford, we were excited when we finally spotted a few of them. It had been an overcast day and it was only when the sun came out after noon that the dragonflies began to appear. Walter was thrilled, but my excitement was a little more muted, because I had photographed this species the previous week—check out my posting First dragonflies of the season for details and photos of my adventures that day.

After a while, Walter noted to me that all of the Uhler’s Sundragons that he had seen so far were female and that he hoped he would see a male. This may sound a little strange, but with some species of dragonflies, the females hang out in a separate area from the males until they are ready to mate, so you do not always see the genders intermixed.

I was wandering around the area a bit, as I am prone to do, when Walter called out to me that he had found a male. I rushed over and managed to get some shots of the specimen, including the first two images below. As it turns out, that was the only male that we saw all day.

The following day, Walter sent me an excited Facebook message informing me that the male dragonfly that we had both photographed was not a Uhler’s Sundragon, but was a Selys’s Sundragon (Helocordulia selysii), a similar species that neither of us had ever seen before. Walter did a records search and it looks the species had never before been documented in Prince William County. Finally I was ecstatic.

How did we not notice immediately that this was a different species? One of the primary differences between the species is that Uhler’s Sundragons have amber-colored markings mixed with dark ones at the base of their wings, while Selys’s Sundragons have only the dark markings. Given the small size of these dragonflies, these differences are hard to spot in the field, but are much easier to see when reviewing images afterwards.

For comparison purposes, I have included a photo of a male Uhler’s Sundragon that I photographed last week. If you look carefully, you can see the amber-colored markings in the final photo that are absent in the first two photos.

You may also notice that there is a spider on the branch in the final photo that appears to be reaching down and tapping the dragonfly on the “shoulder.” In this scenario, I am not sure which species would be the predator and which would be the prey. I have documented several cases in which dragonflies have been caught in spiderwebs and also a case when a jumping spider took down a much larger dragonfly (see my 2014 posting Spider captures dragonfly—the story for a fascinating series of images).

If you would like to see Walter’s account of our encounter with the Selys’s Sundragon, check out his blog posting today entitled Selsy’s Sundragon dragonfly (male).

Sely's Sundragon

Sely’s Sundragon, 13 April 2021

Sely's Sundragon

Sely’s Sundragon, 13 April 2021

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler’s Sundragon, 8 April 2021

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am always attracted to the beautiful forms of a fiddlehead as it gradually unfurls from a tightly coiled spiral into a full-fledged fern frond. I have no idea if the process takes days or weeks, but but it was amazing to see the various stages of development of the fiddleheads that I have spotted during recent forays into a forest in Prince William County, Virginia.

The first two photos make it pretty obvious that the fiddlehead resembles the curled ornamentation (technically called a “scroll”) on the end of a stringed instrument, such as a violin that are traditionally carved in the shape of a volute (a rolled-up spiral). As I was poking about on the internet, I also learned that the fiddlehead stage of a fern is sometimes known as a crozier, the term used for the hooked staff carried by a bishop as a symbol of pastoral office.

 

fiddlehead

fiddlehead

fiddlehead

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is nearly impossible to miss the ostentatious displays of brilliant color as a succession of flowers and trees burst onto the springtime scene. Sometimes, though, they overwhelm my senses and I find myself more drawn to the delicate beauty of the tiny wildflowers that pop up in fields and forests.

Yesterday I was happy to photograph a skittish Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) as it moved about in a small patch of Spring Beauty wildflowers (Claytonia virginica) in a forested area of Prince William County. With my macro lens, I was able to capture the distinctive “tail” and orange chevrons that help in identifying this tiny butterfly that has a wingspan of only ¾ – 1¾ inches (22 – 29 mm). I also managed to capture the beautiful pink markings of the spring beauties, including the anthers at the tips of the stamens.

It is easy to lose myself in this magical tiny world or perhaps it might be more correct to say that I find myself there.

Eastern-tailed Blue

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Most snakes tend to lie horizontally, but the Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) that I spotted last week felt inclined to slither its way up a protruding tree branch and bask in the sun at a rather sharp angle. I was exploring the edge of a stream in Prince William County and was somewhat shocked to stumble upon this snake—I had been keeping an eye on the vegetated areas, knowing there was a chance there might be a snake there, but did not really expect to see one out in the open.

Most of the Northern Watersnakes that I have seen in the past have been darker and duller in color than this one, which has a distinctive colorful pattern. Given the brightness of the colors and the snake’s relatively small size, I wonder if this might be a juvenile snake.

The snake seemed comfortable on its perch and did not react when I took these photos, though I must admit that I kept a respectful distance away. When I continued on, the snake stayed put, enjoying the warmth of the springtime sun.

Northern Watersnake

Northern Watersnake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Thursday I finally photographed my first dragonflies of the season. I had previously spotted Common Green Darners several time, but they don’t really “count” because I was not able to capture images of them. I initially checked out several locations at a stream in Prince William County, Virginia, where I had seen Uhler’s Sundragon dragonflies (Helocordulia uhleri) in recent years and came up empty-handed.

However, I was thrilled when later in the day I spotted Uhler’s Sundragons at several locations further upstream from my previous locations. Uhler’s Sundragons have a brief and very early flight period and are considered rare in our area. They also are habitat specialists and “they need clean, small to medium, rocky forest streams with gravelly and/or sandy substrate, and a decent flow,” according to the wonderful Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website.

These three photos are indicative of the types of photos that I often try to capture of dragonflies. I love to try to get as close as I can and take extreme close-up shots, like the first one. You can easily see the spines on the legs of the dragonfly and even some of the ommatidia, the optical units that make up the amazing compound eyes of the dragonfly.

The second shot of a female Uhler’s Sundragon is a good illustration of the way that I try to separate my subjects from the background. The final shot of a male Uhler’s Sundragon shows more of the habitat in which I found the dragonfly. The background is a little busy, but I like the way that the image shows the transparency of the dragonfly’s wings.

In case you are curious about how I can tell the gender of these dragonflies, one of the primary keys is to look at the tips of the abdomens (the “tail”)—you will probably note the different anatomical shapes if you compare the second and third images.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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When it comes to damselflies, you often have to look closely for identifying marks, because so many of them are colored with variations of blue and black. I really could not identify the species of this little damselfly when I took this photo on Wednesday while exploring a creek in Prince William County. I decided that if he was willing to pose for me on a leaf, I was more than willing to take his picture.

When I pulled up the image on my computer, I immediately noticed some distinctive blue markings near the tip of the abdomen. Those markings helped me to  identify it as a male Dusky Dancer (Argia translata), a species that I had never before photographed.

We are still 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. It is therefore pretty exciting for me to photograph a new species—I might have seen a Dusky Dancer in the past, but I am pretty sure that I was not able to capture an image, so in my mind it did not “count.”

Be sure to click on the image if you want to get a closer view of the distinctive markings and beautiful eyes of this cool-looking Dusky Dancer damselfly.

Dusky Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you chase wildlife or do you wait for it to come to you? I tend to be in the former group and will sometimes walk for hours and hours in search of suitable subjects.

On Wednesday, however, the action came to me. I was returning from a walk along a stream hunting for dragonflies and was shocked as I approached my car to see a pair of Red-footed Cannibalflies (Promachus rufipes) mating on my car. I watched in fascination as they moved from one part of the car’s exterior to another, locked in the peculiar tail-to-tail position that robber flies use for mating. (Even before this incident, I knew that I needed to wash my car, as you can readily see in the second photo.)

I must confess that I have long had a fascination with this insect species—there is something really cool and slightly horrifying about the macabre moniker ‘Red-footed Cannibalfly.’ They are fierce predators who reported have been able to take down a hummingbird. They inject their victims with a toxin that paralyzes them and liquifies their insides so that the cannibalfly can more easily ingest their innards. If you are not totally creeped out by now, you might agree that cannibalflies are cool insects.

I have written over 3500 blog postings over the past eight years and my most-viewed regular posting is one that I published in August 2013 with the simple title of “Red-footed Cannibalfly,” with 2595 views. Yes, a lot of people seem to be interested in this insect and somehow find their way to that blog posting each year. It is a good posting, I think, but neither the prose nor the photos are great, but sometimes that doesn’t matter for popularity in this digital world. (You can judge for yourself by clicking on the title of the posting that I linked to the original posting.)

Some of you may have noted that I used the term “regular posting” in describing my posting on the red-footed cannibalfly. In November 2014 I was fortunate to be at a local nature park during the rescue of an injured bald eagle by the animal control officers of the local police department and documented it in a blog posting entitled “Rescue of an injured Bald Eagle.”

Several news outlets picked up the story including the Washington Post , some local radio and television stations, including WTOP, and the Fairfax County Police Department News. A number of them included a link to my blog posting, which had over 3000 views in a couple of days, but has had relatively few views since that time. I had authorized the Police Department to use my posting and photos and as a result of that exposure I was contacted by a number of media organizations asking permission to use my photos, which I agreed to, requesting that they give attribution and, if possible, a link to my blog.

A small number of media organizations, including the Washington Post, used my photos without asking for permission, though the Washington Post did at least give attribution. When I contacted the reporter, he said that he had “assumed” it was ok, because he had obtained the photos through the Police Department site. I have not had to deal with the media since, but know now to be a bit careful in doing so.

Red-footed Cannibalfly

Red-footed Cannibalfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was really happy yesterday morning when I spotted a female Tiger Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster erronea) while exploring a small stream in Prince William County, Virginia and absolutely thrilled when she started ovipositing, giving me a chance to capture these images. For several years I have been trying to photograph this elusive species. In the past I have gotten a glimpse of a Tiger Spiketail on several occasions, but never managed to get a shot of one.

Why have I had such problems? Kevin Munroe, who developed the wonderfully informative website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia, described the species in these words:

“This secretive and seldom seen forest dweller has an almost elven quality. It lives deep in mature woodlands and spends most of its life around tiny, almost invisible spring-fed seepage streams. When startled, it disappears into the leafy canopy, which is also where pairs fly to mate, often hidden for hours. Their larvae live in such small, food-scarce streams that they take several years to mature. Tigers live in smaller streams than any other Northern Virginia spiketail. Their numbers are relatively low, and it’s unusual to see more than one or two together. There’s a certain thrill to finding a Tiger Spiketail at its stream—you know you’ve stumbled upon a clean, quiet and special corner of whatever park you’re exploring.”

Tiger Spiketails fly patrols low above the water of these tiny forest streams. If you find the right kind of stream, you stand and wait, hoping that a Tiger Spiketail will fly by. If one appears, you might have a second or two to get off a shot of the flying dragonfly before it disappears from sight. You repeat the cycle and if all goes well, the dragonfly may come back again within fifteen to thirty minutes or you may never see it again.

I was really lucky yesterday. Earlier in the morning I had had several sightings of a Tiger Spiketail, but had gotten only a single very blurry shot. When a Tiger Spiketail flew into view, I immediately started tracking the dragonfly visually and I was shocked when she began to dip the tip of her abdomen in the water to deposit an egg, a process known as ovipositing. What this meant was that she would hang around in a spot for several seconds and then move upstream a bit and repeat the process.

Although I had the Tiger Spiketail in sight, getting a decent shot was a challenge. In addition to her lateral movements, she was also moving up and down as she deposited her eggs. Much of the stream was in the shade or the light was heavily filtered, so it was hard to get enough light to capture a moving subject. I managed to get a few reasonably sharp action shots of the Tiger Spiketail. If you double-click on the first image, you can actually see the dragonfly’s “spiketail” and other details including its beautiful markings and striking green eyes. The second shot gives you a better view of the environment in which I found this dragonfly, which is considered rare in the area in which I live.

Whenever I manage to capture of a new species, I am so excited that I do not worry much about the quality of the images. Before long, though, the excitement dies down and I will hit the trails again, determined and hopeful that I will be able to get some better shots. That crazy, quixotic vision is what drives most of us nature and wildlife photographers to go out repeatedly, always in search of the next best photo.

Tiger Spiketail

Tiger Spiketail

© 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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I wasn’t sure if Uhler’s Sundragon dragonflies (Helocordulia uhleri) would still be around when I set out exploring in Prince William County earlier this month. This species of dragonfly is one of the first to appear in the spring and generally is flying for only a month or so. I had spotted several females on the third of April—see my posting Female Uhler’s Sundragons for details and photos—so I knew that the clock was ticking.

I scoured all of the locations where I had seen them in the past and was about to give up hope when some movement low in the vegetation caught my eye. I was excited to see that it was a Uhler’s Sundragon, my target species. As I tried to control my racing heart and slow down my breathing, I maneuvered into position and was able to capture this image of a handsome male Uhler’s Sundragon. As it turned out,  this dragonfly was the only one of its species that I would see that day and I have not seen one since. In this case, though, one was more than enough.

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I posted a photograph last week of a skink with a bright blue tail, I noted that a skink can shed its tail if a predator grabs onto it. I never suspected that two days later I would encounter a skink with a missing tail. When I first spotted it, I was so drawn to the detailed scallop pattern on its body that I did not even notice its really short tail. (Click on the image to get a closer view of that wonderful texture.) The coloration suggests to me that this is a Broad-headed Skink (Plestiodon laticeps), not the more common Five-lined Skink that I featured last week.

I was also drawn to the orange coloration of the head. According to the Virginia Herpetological website, the head in male Broad-headed Skinks becomes bright orange and enlarged in the temporal region during the spring mating season. Perhaps the skink lost its tail during a fight with a rival—the website cited above notes that adult males are particularly aggressive to other males during the mating season.

In case you need a reminder about how long a skink’s tail should be, check out the posting from last week Young skink in May. Some of you may have read my bad joke about skinks in the comment section of that posting, but it seems so appropriate that I can’t help but repeat it here. “Do you know what skinks do when they lose their tails? They go to a retail store.” Sorry. 🙂

 

Broad-headed Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Many beetles are dark-colored and go about their business in the underbrush, unseen by human eyes. Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata), on the other hand, are hard to miss—their metallic-green bodies sparkle as they perch in the middle of the sun-lit forest trails on which I have been hiking in recent weeks.

The beetle’s common name refer to the six small white spots on the beetle’s metallic-green elytra (the beetle’s hardened wing cases), although the number of spots is somewhat variable—I think I count eight spots on this individual. As I was doing a bit of research, I stumbled upon the fact that elytra is the plural form of elytron—I think that I have almost always seen the word used in the plural form and the spell-check highlights elytron as an unknown word.

It is often hard to get a shot of one of these beetles, because they are skittish and often fly away as I bend down to photograph them. For this photo, I was fortunate that the beetle chose to perch on a trunk of a tree at eye-level and no contortions were therefore required on my part.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I really love the look of young Common Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus), when their tails are bright blue, like this one that I spotted last Thursday while exploring in Prince William County. The blue color gradually fades as the skinks mature and as a result it becomes a bit harder to spot the adults in the wild.

We do not have very many lizards where I live, so I am always happy to see one of these skinks. They are generally about 5 to 8.5 inches in length (13 to 21 cm), including their tails, and tend to be very skittish. I have read that a skink can shed its tail if a predator grabs onto it and then regenerate somewhat imperfectly the lost portion of the tail, but I have never knowingly seen a skink with a regrown tail.

Common Five-lined Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Thursday I was excited to spot these two Stream Cruiser dragonflies (Didymops transversa), one female and one male, in a sunny area adjacent to a creek that I was exploring in Prince William County, Virginia. Authorities have closed the park that I was visiting to vehicular traffic, so I had to hike in to reach my target area, which took over an hour and a half each way.

It was the end of a long and tiring day and I had already begun the trek back to my car. By 4:00 in the afternoon, much of the trail along the creek was in the shade. Periodically, though, I would pass patches of sunlit vegetation and I stopped to explore them, knowing that many dragonflies like to bask in the sunlight. I was searching one such spot when my eyes detected a dragonfly in flight. I was able to track the dragonfly in the air and to see it land. The male Stream Cruiser (shown in the second photo below) perched at an odd angle on some low-hanging vegetation, but I managed to get a shot of it before it took off again.

I decided to stay in that spot and wait and after a while another dragonfly flew by, landing this time much higher in the vegetation. Initially I thought that it might be the same dragonfly that I had already photographed, but when I got closer, I could see that the second one (shown in the first photo below) was a female. The female Stream Cruiser chose to perch about chest-high, so I was able to get a much better angle for this shot than for the first one and compose the image more carefully.

This experience is a good reminder for me to stay alert at all times when I have my camera in my hands until I am actually back to my car. I had not even been thinking of Stream Cruisers, a species that I have seen only a couple of times previously, when I decided to make this trip. However, I was ready when this opportunity unexpectedly presented itself to me.

I cringe a little sometimes when well-meaning folks see my photos and say, “You are so lucky.” Yes, I have more than my share of good fortune, but it often takes hours and hours of effort for a decisive moment to arrive and even then I have to be quick enough and skillful enough to get a shot. Rather than going to the trouble to explain all of that, though, I will usually nod my head and agree that I was lucky to get my shots.

 

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was really excited yesterday to spot some Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), a type of wild orchid, while exploring in Prince William County, Virginia. I was hunting for dragonflies adjacent to a hiking trail when two young ladies with a large dog came walking in my direction. I moved further back into the vegetation to increase our distance. One of the young ladies, noticing my camera, asked me if I was interested in photographing some “rare kind of orchids” and gave me some rather general directions for a place a couple of miles down the trail.

I have been to orchid shows before, so I had a general idea that the hikers were talking about lady’s slippers when they described the flowers, but I did not really know what they looked like in the wild. So I set off down the trail and eventually found three small clusters of Pink Lady’s Slippers. The midday sunlight was harsh, but I managed to find some angles from which the light was mostly diffused. I included the final shot to give you an idea of what the whole flower looks like when it is growing.

After doing some research, I learned that the Pink Lady’s Slippers, also known as “moccasin flowers,” are actually not “rare.” This flower is found in many places in the eastern third of the United States and in all Canadian provinces except for British Columbia. Whether the lady’s slipper is rare or not, I was happy to have the chance to see and photograph this fascinating flower, which somehow reminds me of a human heart.

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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This insect is fuzzy like a bee and acts as a pollinator as it sips nectar, but it is not a bee, it is a fly, a Greater Bee Fly (Bombylius major). Are you confused yet? Unlike bees, bee flies have only two wings instead of four, large eyes, skinny long legs and very short antennae. Bee flies also seem hyperactive, hovering in midair rather than landing as they suck up the nectar with a really long proboscis and thereby avoiding potential predators like crab spiders.

When I did a little research, though, I learned that bee flies have a dark side. According to an article entitled “A Pollinator With a Bad Reputation” by Beatriz Moisset, “The reason why it diligently hovers over bare ground early in the spring is that it is looking for bee nests, probably the same ones with which they compete for nectar. The bees dig tunnels and lay their eggs at their bottoms after collecting enough pollen to feed the larvae. This requires numerous trips, thus the bee fly takes advantage of the mother’s absence and lays its eggs in such nests. Making use of its flying prowess, it does not even need to land but it flicks its abdomen while hovering over the open burrow, letting one egg fall in or near it. The fly larva finds its way to the chamber where the mother bee has laid the provisions and the egg and proceeds to feed on the stored pollen. Afterwards it devours the bee larvae; when it is fully grown, it pupates and stays inside the nest until next spring.”

I was inspired to post this image by a recent posting by Pete Hillman entitled “Dark-edged Bee Fly” that featured a similar bee fly. In my zeal to post photos of all of the ephemeral wildflowers I had seen this spring, like the Virginia Spring Beauties in this photo, I had forgotten about this bee fly.

You may notice that the bee fly’s wings are blurred in this— image and assume that I was shooting with a slow shutter speed. I checked the EXIF data for the shot and found that the shutter speed was 1/2500 second—I think that it had consumed as much coffee as I had that late March morning. I recommend that you click on this image to see all of the amazing details of this fascinating insect, the Greater Bee Fly.


Greater Bee Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I saw this insect sipping nectar from a Spring Beauty wildflower on Tuesday, I was sure that it was some kind of wasp or hornet. Bees, I thought, do not have such narrow waists. I was wrong. Some of the experts at bugguide.net identified my insect as a male Nomad Bee (genus Nomada).

Nomad Bees are the largest genus of kleptoparasitic “cuckoo bees,” according to Wikipedia. “Kleptoparasitic bees are so named because they enter the nests of a host and lay eggs there, stealing resources that the host has already collected.” Nomad bees do sip nectar like other bees, as you can see in my photos, but do not collect pollen to feed their offspring.

I remember being shocked the first time that I read about cuckoos and cowbirds deliberating laying their eggs in the nests of other birds to avoid having to build their own nests and raise their own babies. I guess I can add nomad bees to the list of deliberately delinquent parents.

 

nomad bee

nomad bee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the beautiful curves a fiddlehead forms as it gradually unfurls into a full-fledged fern frond. I have no idea how long this entire process takes, but it was amazing to see the various stages of development of the many fiddleheads that I spotted on Tuesday while exploring in Prince William County.

The clouds in the sky and the unseasonably cold temperatures seemed to have prompted all of the dragonflies to remain in secluded spots and I did not spot a single one that day.

fiddlehead fern

fiddlehead fern

fiddlehead fern

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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So many of the creatures that I encounter blend in so well with their environments, that I detect them only when they move. That was the case with this Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) last week that I spotted while I was exploring in Prince William County, Virginia.

I was a bit startled when the leaves started to rustle almost directly beneath my feet and my eyes detected the form of a large black snake slowly slithering away from me. The snake apparently had been sunning itself before I inadvertently disturbed it.

After the snake had moved some distance up the side of a small hill covered with fallen leaves and vegetation, it paused and turned to the side, allowing me to capture the first shot below. As those of you who know me might suspect, I too had been making my way up the hill parallel to the snake, waiting for such an opportunity to arise to get a shot of the snake’s head, which explains why I was able to take the shot from relatively close range.

Eastern Ratsnake

Eastern Ratsnake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The frog in the photo does have a few spots, but the spots on the leaves are what really draw my attention to this image—they provide an almost visually perfect background for the main subject. I spotted this little frog earlier this week while hunting for dragonflies in Prince William County, Virginia.

I believe that this is an Eastern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans crepitans), but was a little confused when I saw repeated references to a Northern Cricket Frog.  I think I finally sorted it out in my mind and if I understand it correctly the Eastern Cricket Frog is one of the subspecies of the Northern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans). Logically it seems odd that east would be a subset of north, but that seems to be the case here.

Eastern Cricket Frog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I featured some tiny white forest wildflowers in a recent posting. Here now as a companion to that posting are a few images of colorful forest wildflowers that I have seen when exploring recently in Prince William County.

The first shot is a small wildflower known simply as a Bluet (Houstonia caerulea). The flower in the second image is the appropriately named Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), known also as the Eastern Spring Beauty, because there is also a similar Western Spring Beauty (Claytonia lanceolata). I do not know for sure the name of third flower, but I believe that it is some kind of wild violet.

As always, I welcome assistance in identifying my subjects, particularly if I have misidentified one. Thanks.

bluet

spring beauty

wild violet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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For a short time each spring, tiny wildflowers spring up from the forest floor, giving the forest a magical feel. Many of the forest flowers are white and at first glance they all look the same. When I looked more closely, though, I discovered a wide variety of petal shapes and patterns.

Within this group of three flowers, I can identify only the middle one, which I am pretty sure is a Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera). If you happen to recognize the others, I would appreciate your help in identifying them. Thanks.

UPDATE:  Steve Gingold has identified the first flower as Bloodroot and the third one as Wood Anemone. Thanks, Steve.

forest flower

forest flower

forest flower

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I felt like I had hit the jackpot last Friday when I finally spotted several Uhler’s Sundragon dragonflies (Helocordulia uhleri) while exploring a stream in Prince William County, Virginia. Uhler’s Sundragons are a scarce and seldom seen dragonfly species with a brief and early flight period. There is a very active Virginia dragonfly group in Facebook that posts sightings and photos and it appears that my sightings of this species were the first in our state for 2020.

Last year I was able to do some reconnaissance of an area where this species had been spotted in previous years using information shared with me by fellow dragonfly fanatic and blogger Walter Sanford. Eventually I found and photographed some Uhler’s Sanddragons and he and I were able to spot them again several times.

This species generally is found in a specific type of habitat—”Clean, sandy or gravely forest streams with a mix of riffles and pools,” according to the excellent Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website. So Friday I scoured the locations where had spotted them last year and it was in one such location that I spotted the Ashy Clubtail and Common Green Darner that I featured recently in my posting First dragonflies of the season. I looked for Uhler’s Sundragons there but came up empty-handed.

It was at a second spot that I finally spotted one as it flew through the air and landed on a piece of vegetation. There is not much flying this early in the season and I could tell from the way that it perched that it was probably my target species. I think I was shaking a little bit and certainly my heart rate had accelerated, but I managed to get a shot of that one (the middle shot below), before it flew away. A few minutes later, I had another spotting and captured the last shot below—it might have been the same dragonfly or a different one.

Part of my long walk back took me along another stretch of the same stream and I was absolutely thrilled when I spotted yet another Uhler’s Sundragon and captured my favorite shot of the day, the first one below. It turns out that all of the Uhler’s Sundragons that I photographed were females. I am not sure if the males were all out patrolling or were simply in other locations.

Many of the locations where I might normally search for dragonflies are closed and some of the others are potentially crowded, do I am not willing to go there. As you can see from my recent postings, I am staying really close to home most of the time, with trips like this one to remote locations being a rare exception.

 

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What do you call a group of butterflies? I have always been fascinated by the collective nouns that we use in English for groups of creatures. I was delighted to learn that one of the collective nouns used for butterflies is a kaleidoscope.

“A kaleidoscope of butterflies” seems to be the perfect descriptor for this group of beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) that I spotted yesterday. They appeared to be engaged in a behavior known as “puddling,” during which the butterflies, most often the males, gather minerals and other nutrients from the soil or other organic material.

 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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