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Posts Tagged ‘Prince William County VA’

It is getting late in the season for Uhler’s Sundragon dragonflies (Helocordulia uhleri), so I was particularly happy when I spotted several of them last week while I was exploring a creek in Prince William County. Uhler’s Sundragons appear in early April and their flight period lasts for only a month or so, so it is always a challenge to find them and photograph them for the season.

Both of the dragonflies in the photos are males, judging by the appendages at the tips of their abdomens and their indented hind wings. I think that they are two separate individuals, but cannot be sure, since I spotted them in the same general area.

Some of you may have noticed that I did not do postings on Saturday and Sunday. I try to do a posting every day and during the past year “missed” only four days. I spent this past weekend in the mountains of Virginia at a church retreat and disconnected myself from the internet during that time. I had a wonderful time and feel uplifted emotionally and spiritually. After all of the covid-related travel limitations of the past two years, it felt good to get away and break out of my normal routine.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Every year I challenge myself by attempting to capture images of dragonflies in flight. Some dragonfly species help out by flying in somewhat predictable patterns or by hovering a bit, but it is still pretty tough to capture a tiny moving subject like a dragonfly.

This week I managed to photograph Common Baskettail dragonflies (Epitheca cynosura) in flight on two consecutive days at different locations using different lenses and techniques. Male Common Baskettails often patrol around the edges of small ponds in fairly limited areas. If you observe them long enough, you can get a general sense of the track that they are following.

For the first photo, I extended my Tamron 150-600mm lens to its maximum length and pre-focused on an open area that appeared to be part of the patrol route at a small pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. My camera was on a monopod and when the dragonfly entered the target area, I would attempt to track it and focus the lens manually. It sounds pretty straightforward, but the hand-to-eye coordination required makes this approach quite daunting. However, as you can see in the first photo, it is possible to get a decent shot. If you click on the image, you can see lots of cool details, including the way that the dragonfly has folded up its legs under its thorax.

The next day I was exploring a small pond in Prince William County when I spotted a patrolling dragonfly—it was another male Common Baskettail. I had my Tamron 180mm macro lens on my camera and was not using a monopod. I was able to track the dragonfly a bit more freely with this lighter lens, which proved to be beneficial when the dragonfly deviated from its flight path. Once again I focused manually and was thrilled with the results I got in the second and third images below. I particularly like the way that I was able to capture some of the pond environment in the second shot, while managing to get the dragonfly in sharp focus.

Why do I use manual focus? My Canon 50D is a long in the tooth and has a relatively primitive focusing system with only nine focus points, which means that my camera can’t focus fast enough or accurately enough to shoot a dragonfly in mid-air. More modern camera have much faster and more sophisticated focusing systems and theoretically can produce better results. I saw a video recently, for example, in which a photographer was able to use animal eye focus on a moving dragonfly. Yikes! You pay a real premium, though, for that advanced technology, with camera bodies costing up to $5,000 and lenses up to $12,000.

I am not all that impressed by fancy camera gear and would rather focus on mastering the more modest gear that I have and spending as much time as I can out in the wild. In my mind, that recipe sets me up best to take advantage of the opportunities that arise as I wander about in nature.

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Orchids are rare and beautiful and it is amazing to find them growing in the wild. Last Thursday I went on a hike in a hilly forested area of Prince William County in Virginia. It was cool and overcast, less than idea circumstances for finding the dragonflies that I was seeking. After coming up empty-handed at my favorite dragonfly spots, I decided to switch to Plan B.

I vaguely remembered where in previous years I had seen some Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), a beautiful wild orchid that is native to North America, and decided to go off on a quest to find these treasures. I noticed that a lot of trees had fallen over the past year. Although workers at this national park had cleared the trails themselves, the limbs from the fallen trees obstructed my view in my target areas.

Orchids are pretty fragile and require specific habitats and I was worried that those habitats might have been damaged or destroyed. I walked very slowly, scanning the forest floor for hints of red or pink, wondering if I had come too early or too late. Eventually I found one small patch and then a second one a bit later (as shown in the final photo).

Pink Lady’s Slippers are sometimes called “moccasin flowers.” According to the New England Today website, “Native American folklore tells the story of a young maiden who ran barefoot in the snow in search of medicine to save her tribe, but was found collapsed on the way back from her mission with swollen, frozen feet. As a result, beautiful lady slipper flowers then grew where her feet had been as a reminder of her bravery.”

As I did a bit more research I learned more about this delightful flowers, including the specific requirements for them to grow that include a particular type of fungus. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “In order to survive and reproduce, pink lady’s slipper interacts with a fungus in the soil from the Rhizoctonia genus. Generally, orchid seeds do not have food supplies inside them like most other kinds of seeds. Pink lady’s slipper seeds require threads of the fungus to break open the seed and attach them to it. The fungus will pass on food and nutrients to the pink lady’s slipper seed. When the lady’s slipper plant is older and producing most of its own nutrients, the fungus will extract nutrients from the orchid roots. This mutually beneficial relationship between the orchid and the fungus is known as “symbiosis” and is typical of almost all orchid species.”

In a recent posting about Bleeding Hearts, I commented that I really liked heart-shaped flowers. At that time I was referring to the stylized shape that we associate with love. In the case of these Lady’s Slippers, I have always found that they look like actual human hearts, at least as I have seen them in movies that included open-heart surgery. Wow!

Depending on your angle of view, I also find that Pink Lady’s Slippers look like angels. I have tried to show you what I mean in the second photo, in which I have focused on a single flower. Do you see the hovering angel?

The final photo is one that I snapped with my iPhone. It gives you a sense of the habitat in which I found these beautiful little flowers. I feel blessed to have found them again this year and hope to see them again in future springs. According to the U.S. Forest Service article cited above, Pink’s Lady Slippers can live to be twenty years old or more.

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When the dragonfly season first starts, I am content to get a record shot of each species, which is to say that I am looking primarily to document the species and am not all that concerned about the quality of the initial images or their artistic merits. After the first excitement dies down, I try to get better and better images and one of the things that I often try to do is to photograph males and females of each species.

How do you tell the gender of a dragonfly? In some dragonfly species, the mature males and females have different colors and are easy to tell apart. However, quite often immature males have the same coloration as the females, so color alone is rarely a reliable marker. I have found that the best way to determine the gender is to look at the tips of the abdomen (the “tail”)—I won’t go into the details of dragonfly anatomy, but suffice it to say that the males and females have different shapes in this area so they can fit together for mating.

Over the last two weeks I have had several encounters with Uhler’s Sundragon dragonflies (Helocordulia uhleri) and was able to get shots of both a male and a female. The dragonfly in the first image is a female. I can tell its gender by the shape of the “terminal appendages” and also by the curved shape of the hind wings where they join the body.

If you look closely at the second image, which is a shot of a male, you can see that the lower portion of the abdomen is slightly enlarged—the abdomen is more uniformly shaped with a female—and the shape of the tip of the abdomen is different. You might also notice that the shape of the hind wings is “indented” where they meet the body, unlike the smooth curves of the female.

With some species, you can find the males and the females in the same area, so it is not hard to get shots of both genders. However, with other species, the females hang out in separate areas and do not mingle with the males until the females decide it is time for mating, which forces me to search a much wider area to photograph males and females.

I apologize if I got a little “geeky” in this posting. I am a little obsessed with dragonflies and am endlessly fascinated by them, so it is easy for me to get a little lost in the details.

female Uhler's Sundragon

male Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was wandering about on Friday in Prince William County, a dragonfly zoomed by me and perched on some nearby vegetation. At the time I took the shots, I had no idea what it was because of the poor lighting. I was able to capture a few images and when I opened them on my computer I was delighted to discover that I had photographed a beautiful female Stream Cruiser dragonfly (Didymops transversa).

This was the first live Stream Cruiser dragonfly that I have photographed this spring. A week earlier I stumbled upon a Stream Cruiser that had had some unspecified problem in emerging and was dead, as shown in the second photo. Dragonflies are extremely vulnerable when they are emerging and unfavorable weather conditions and predators  almost certainly lower their survival rate. Given the magnitude of their remarkable metamorphosis, it seems remarkable to me that any of them can survive.

My experience with the Stream Cruiser in the first photo reminds me of the importance of being constantly vigilant. I was walking down a hill, headed towards a stream, when I glanced to the side and saw the flying dragonfly. I made a quick 180 degree turn and tracked the dragonfly as it landed. I took two steps forward and and had time to snap off only a few photos and that was it.

Fortunately I had my camera settings were somewhat appropriate and I was able to react quickly. As is often the case with wildlife photography, those two factors were key to capturing a shot. If the circumstances had been different, I might have been able to get a better image, but I am pretty happy with the image I captured. Needless to say, success is not guaranteed—I have plenty of stories from that day of the ones that got away.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Ashy Clubtail dragonflies (Phanogomphus lividus) like to perch on the ground, which makes them really difficult to spot. Fortunately I saw these two dragonflies land last Friday during separate encounters in Prince William County and was able to get close enough and low enough to photograph them. If I had not seen them move, I probably would not have been able to detect them.

Both dragonflies had really shiny wings, an indication that they had emerged fairly recently. Initially the wings are fragile when a dragonfly emerges and they are folded above its head. The dragonfly gradually pumps fluid through the veins of the wings and they progressively harden and pop open into the normal outstretched resting position. Sometimes, as you can see in the final photo, a dragonfly will temporarily hold its wings closed over its head in their former position.

Dragonfly metamorphosis is a fascinating phenomenon, a remarkable transformation of a water-dwelling larva into an incredible aerial acrobat. Several years ago I managed to witness the entire process with a Common Sanddragon dragonfly and documented the thirty-minute process in a blog posting entitled Metamorphosis of a dragonfly. Be sure to check out that posting to see photos of the different stages of the amazing transformation.

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Recently I did a posting that featured Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus)—see Swallowtails in the forest.  None of those butterflies seemed to be involved in searching for nectar and seemed content to take in minerals and water.

Last Friday I returned to that same location in Prince William County, Virginia and discovered that the butterflies were taking advantage of the few small flowers that were blooming. In the first photo, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was nectaring on the small bluets (Houstonia caerulea) that are sometimes referred to as Quaker Ladies. The butterfly was so low to the ground that it looked like it was dragging its “tails.”

The butterfly in the second image is a dark morph Eastern Tiger Swallowtail female. Females of this species are dimorphic—there is a yellow variant that looks like the one in the first photo and a dark variant that looks like the one in the second image. The dark morph female was almost flat on the ground as she gathered nectar from a very short dandelion.

As more flowers begin to bloom, I am sure these butterflies will have a better selection of sources of nourishment, but the early arrivers have to make do with a really limited menu of choices.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Have you ever taken a close-up look at a dragonfly’s amazing compound eyes? Dragonflies have the largest compound eyes of any insect; each containing up to 30,000 facets, and the eyes cover most of the insect’s head, resembling a motorcycle helmet. According to a wonderful article by GrrlScientist, “each facet within the compound eye points in a slightly different direction and perceives light emanating from only one particular direction in space, creating a mosaic of partially overlapping images.”

How exactly does that work? Scientists are still not sure how this visual mosaic is integrated in the dragonfly’s brain. If you can get close enough for a shot, you can actually see the individual facets, technically known as ommatidia. The first image below is a cropped image of an unusually cooperative Uhler’s Sundragon (Helocordulia uhleri) that I encountered last Friday while exploring a stream in Prince William County. If you click on the image, you can see the pattern of facets in the eyes.

The second image is an uncropped version of the first photo. I like the way that I as able to capture so many details of the dragonfly as it perched, like the spiky hairs on its legs and the stubble on its face as well as the pollen on its body.

The dragonfly in the third shot is another Uhler’s Sundragon that I spotted later in the day. From this angle, you can see the dragonfly’s tiny feet as it grasps the dried stalk of vegetation.

I love close-up images and will often try to capture them after I have taken some initial shots. When I am at close range, the angle of view is particularly important, because the depth of field is so shallow—some legs of the dragonfly, for example, will inevitably be out of focus, so I have to choose carefully what I want to be in focus.

Hand-holding and breathing techniques are also really important, because any movement will cause the fine details to be blurred. This is a bit of a challenge with the 180mm macro lens that I use because it does not have any built-in image stabilization.

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

Uhler's Sundragon

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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On Monday I saw a surprisingly large number of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) as I explored a stream in Prince William County, Virginia. I used to associate these butterflies with gardens, because that is where I had previously seen them most of the time. Over the past years, though, as I have searched for early spring dragonflies, I have gotten used to seeing these colorful butterflies alongside the streams, often congregating in groups to drink and extract minerals from puddles (see my blog post from last year called A kaleidoscope of butterflies for more information and a photo of this phenomenon).

These swallowtails seemed content to fly about continuously, searching and exploring, but rarely perching. When they did come to the ground, they often landed in patches of fallen leaves, as you can see in the second and third images. I was happy when one of the butterflies opted to perch on a fern, which made it a little easier for me to photograph it.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There are not very many insects that could be mistaken for a dragonfly, but the color and pattern on the abdomen of this crane fly made me do a double take when I spotted it from a distance on Monday in Prince William County. At that time I had not yet seen my first dragonfly of the year and was anxious to see one. An expert in a Facebook group identified this as a Crane Fly (Tipula noveboracensis).

The first image is a cropped version of the photo that allows you to focus on the wonderful patterns on the wings and the body. If you click on the image, you can see that the crane fly has antennae. The second shot is much less cropped and gives you an idea of the length of the extremely long legs of this insect.

When I am out in the winter looking for birds, I sometimes end up taking photos of odd branches or clumps of leaves, because their shapes make me think that they might be birds. I have the same “problem” with dragonflies—I am likely to photograph anything that remotely resembles a dragonfly, knowing that later I will be able to sort the images and remove the oddball results. Sometimes, as was the case here, my strange results are worth posting.

Crane Fly

Crane Fly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I finally found my first dragonfly of the season yesterday—a female Uhler’s Sundragon—while I was exploring a stream in Prince William County. Uhler’s Sundragons (Helocordulia uhleri) are considered to be rare in our area. This species requires a very specific type of habitat and has an early and very brief flight period.

So where would you find one? According to the wonderful Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, “Uhler’s need clean, small to medium, rocky forest streams with gravelly and/or sandy substrate, and a decent flow. They can be found in sunny clearings and forest edges near their streams.”

Fortunately I have found this species at a particular stream the last several years, so that is where I headed yesterday. I searched the spots where I had found Uhler’s Sundragons in the past, but came up empty-handed. I walked along extended lengths of the stream and eventually found the one in the photograph below—it was the only dragonfly that I spotted all day.

My hike yesterday lasted 4 hours and 42 minutes and covered 7.18 miles (11.55 km), according to my GPS app. My pace was pretty slow, partly because I was scanning for dragonflies, but also because the terrain was full of ups and downs. I pasted in a chart from the GPS readout to give you an idea of the type of terrain that I covered. According to my iPhone, I walked up the equivalent of 21 floors, which explains why my legs are a little sore this morning.

As many of you know, dragonflies are my favorite subjects during the warm months—there is something almost magical about these beautiful aerial acrobats. I am therefore super excited that the 2022 dragonfly season has officially started for me.

Uhler's Sundragon

Hike 11 April 2022

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The ground in the forest is covered with fallen leaves at this time of the year, making it really easy to spot a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata). The metallic green of their bodies shines so brightly that it is almost impossible to miss them as they scurry in and out of the underbrush.

I spotted this little beauty on Monday as I searched for dragonflies in Prince William County, Virginia. After months of photographing birds, often at a great distance, my eyes are gradually readjusting to searching for small subjects at close range. In the springtime I switch to using a macro lens most of the time rather than the long telephoto zoom lens that has been my constant companion throughout the cold, dark days of winter.

I also tend to slow down my pace as I search for tiny insects, scanning for changes in colors and patterns and, most importantly, for movement. In this style of photography, I cannot afford to be in a hurry and often my patience are persistence are rewarded.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

 

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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For a brief period each spring, tiny wildflowers spring up from the forest floor, giving the forest a magical feel. Some are colorful and some are pure white, but the wildflowers are all beautiful.

I spotted these little flowers on Monday as I was searching for dragonflies in Prince William County, Virginia. I came up empty-handed that day and am still searching for my first dragonfly of the season. However, I had an enjoyable day, covering almost six miles (9.6 km) on hilly trails through the forest.

The first photo shows a bluet (Houstonia caerulea), a species that is sometimes referred to as a “Quaker Lady,” because its shape is reportedly similar to that of the hats once worn regularly by women of the Quaker faith. The flower in the second shot is a Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera), I believe. The flower in the final photo is probably a wild violet (Viola sororia).

As you can readily see, I got really close to the flowers and used a macro lens. I love the detailed views of their shapes, patterns, and colors and encourage you to click on each image to immerse yourself more deeply in their beauty. In these troubled times, nature continues to serve as a balm to my soul.

bluet

star chickweed

wild violet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Now that it is spring, it is time for the crawling critters to reappear, like this little spider that I spotted last week while exploring in Prince William County. Some spiders overwinter as adults, so this spider may have just awoken from a long winter’s sleep. If so, the spider may have decided to go back to bed, because temperatures have dropped the last couple of days and it is currently about 25 degrees outside (minus 4 C)—it was 70 degrees (21 degrees C) when I photographed the spider last week.

UPDATE:  Initial indications from an expert at bugguide.net suggest that this is a wolf spider.

spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I note the transition to spring in small ways, quite often in the reappearance of familiar species of plants, insects, and other living creatures. I was delighted on Monday to discover that tiny Virginia Spring Beauty wildflowers (Claytonia virginica) have already started to push their way up from the forest floor in Prince William County. According to Wikipedia, the individual flowers bloom for three days, although the five stamens on each flower are only active for a single day.

On the same day, I spotted an Eastern Comma butterfly (Polygonia comma), the first full-sized butterfly that I have been able to photograph this year. I was not able to get very close to the butterfly, but you can see the beautiful orange pattern of its inner wings in the middle shot below.

The final image shows a Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) that I spotted last week. This species seems to be found only in shallow marshy areas and I rarely encounter one, so it was exciting to be able to photograph it.

We all celebrate different signs of spring at this time of the year (or of autumn if you live in the Southern Hemisphere). What indications do you look for that signal the change of the season?

Spring Beauty

Eastern Comma

spotted turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was happy on Monday to photograph my first butterfly of the year, which appears to be the appropriately named Spring Azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon). Earlier this season I have spotted several Mourning Cloak butterflies, but was not able to get a shot of any of them.

The Spring Azure butterfly is only about an inch (25 mm) in size, but has some wonderful details that I was able to capture. It is fairly nondescript in color until it opens its wings and reveals a beautiful shade of blue—you get a small glimpse of that wonderful blue in the second image.

I had to pursue this butterfly for quite a while before it finally landed. An outside observer might have have wondered what it the world I was doing, but chasing butterflies always makes me feel like a child again.

It won’t be long before I see much bigger and more colorful butterflies, but this one is special to me as the first butterfly of the spring that I was able to photograph.

Spring Azure

Spring Azure

Spring Azure

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It was sunny and warm on Monday, so I went off in search of dragonflies. There has already been at least one sighting of a dragonfly this month in Virginia, but it realistically is still a bit early for any to appear in the northern part of the state where I live. I searched diligently at a pond and at several small streams in Prince William County, but did not find any dragonflies or damselflies.

I was happy, however, to spot several Eastern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans crepitans). These frogs are tiny, with a length of about 5/8 to 1-3/8 inches (16-35 mm). One of the most distinctive things about this species is the male mating call that resembles the sound of two stones being hit together or perhaps is similar to the sound of a cricket.

According to the Virginia Herpetological Society, “This species prefers grassy margins of ponds, ditches and wetlands. Permanent bodies of water with emergent or shoreline vegetation and exposure to the sun are preferred habitat,” a perfect description of the locations where I spotted these frogs.

Each year I am confused when researching this species, because I see references to Eastern Cricket Frogs and Northern Cricket Frogs used almost interchangeably. If I understand it correctly Northern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans) is the species name and Eastern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans crepitans) is one of the subspecies.

As you can see from these images, cricket frogs blend in really well with their surroundings. If I had not seen these frogs jump to their new locations, I am pretty sure that I would not have seen them. I walked around all day with my 180mm macro lens attached to my camera and it served me well to capture some of the details on the bodies of the little frogs. I attempted to get as low as I could and to shoot from the side in order to get as much of the frog in focus as I could, so muddy knees were inevitably one of the “benefits” of getting these shots.

cricket frog

cricket frog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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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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