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Posts Tagged ‘Riverbend Park’

What is the best way to photograph a dragonfly that perches low to the ground? How can you create an image in which the dragonfly is not lost amidst the clutter of the vegetation? That was the challenge that fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford and I faced last Monday when we journeyed to Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Virginia  in search of Eastern Ringtail dragonflies (Erpetogomphus designatus).

Walter has a lot of experience with dragonflies and knew where to find Eastern Ringtails in the park. He knew, for example, that they like to perch on a section of concrete aggregate and indeed we spotted one not long after we arrived. Walter likes to maximize the chance of getting the entire dragonfly in focus by shooting downwards, ideally from as close to overhead as possible. For him, the concrete background is uncluttered and allows him to capture all of details of the dragonfly.

Although I prefer to photograph dragonflies on natural vice manmade surfaces, I took some photos, including the third one below, while the dragonfly was on the concrete—you have to shoot when the opportunity arises and I was not confident that I could wait for the dragonfly to choose a better perch. Rather than shooting from above when the dragonfly is on the ground, I usually choose to get down with the dragonfly.

Eventually I was able to get some shots of Eastern Ringtails perched in the grass. The middle image shows the dragonfly tilting its head to look towards me as I photographed it. I like the pose, but I was not fully satisfied. Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know that I like to get as close to a dragonfly as it will let me. The initial photo of this posting was one of my final shots of my session with the Eastern Ringtails and it is probably my favorite.

I began this post with a question and feel like I owe you a response. In reality, there is no “best” way to photograph a dragonfly on the ground, but my preferred option is to get low to the ground and close to the subject so that I am able to focus on part of the dragonfly, hopefully the eyes, and blur out the background because of the shallow depth of field when shooting that close. If you would like to see Walter’s wonderful photos of Eastern Ringtails from the same trip, I encourage you to check out his blog postings Eastern Ringtail reunion, continued and  Reconnecting with Eastern Ringtail. Those postings provide his visual response to the question that I posed.

Eastern Ringtail

 

 

Eastern Ringtail

Eastern Ringtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) were definitely enjoying this patch of Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) when I spotted them last Saturday at Riverbend Park. The butterfly in the foreground is a dark morph female and I believe the one in the background is a male. One of the cool things about Eastern Tiger Swallowtails is that females come in two varieties, one with coloration close to that of the male and one with the dark colors that you see in the image below.

This image is a a pretty straightforward presentation of a fairly common subject, but there is something about the composition that I really like. Maybe it’s the contrasting colors or the overlapping shapes. Who knows? So often I like what I like without being able to articulate the precise reasons why.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last Saturday I spotted this Blue-fronted Dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) couple while exploring Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Virginia. I like this shot because it gives a good sense of the differences in coloration between the male and the female of this species. Most of the time when the damselflies are coupled, they are in contorted positions and most of the body of one or the other damselfly is out of focus in my photos. In this case, the damselflies are in the tandem position, but appear to be resting.

Blue-fronted Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday as I was exploring Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Virginia, I encountered several damselflies that were new to me. When you spend as much time as I do  searching for insects to photograph, you develop a sense of what is “normal” and I am able to decide almost immediately whether a subject is a familiar one or not. Those of you who know my work are aware that familiarity with a subject is not a criterion for photographing it—I am just as likely to take a shot of a common subject as a rare one.

As I looked though my reference books and material on line, I was able to determine that I had captured images of both the male and the female American Rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana). One of the experts in a Facebook dragonfly forum pointed out the dragonfly in the first photo below is an immature male, which helps to explain why the red spot for which the species is named is not yet prominent.

I won’t go into the details of damselfly anatomy, but if you compare the dragonflies in the two photos, you can see some of the gender differences that often help in identification. The very tip of the abdomen, the part of the body that many folks refer to as the “tail,” is quite different for the male and the female. There is also some color differentiation. Alas, these are general rules that don’t apply in all cases, so I am often confounded when trying to identify the species of a given subject.

It is really cool that I continue to encounter new species. Part of the reason for that, I suspect, is that I am exploring some new locations. More importantly, though, my observational skills have improved dramatically over time and I am seeing things that I might not have noticed several years ago.

American Rubyspot

American Rubyspot

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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What a difference the background makes when photographing a damselfly. This past Friday I saw lots of damselflies as I was exploring Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Virginia. My eyes were repeatedly drawn to one species that a dark abdomen (the “tail” part) and speckled green eyes and I was able to photograph these damselflies in a number of different settings. I usually have problems in identifying damselflies, so I posted the third image below to a Facebook forum and one of the experts there identified it as an immature male Powdered Dancer damselfly (Argia moesta).

Normally I prefer to photograph dragonflies and damselflies in a natural environment, but the first photo is definitely an exception. I love the juxtaposition of the rust and corrosion of the curved man-made metal with the lines and color of the damselfly (and the cool shadow was a real bonus). In the second shot, the damselfly is perched on the ground and the unevenness of the surface makes for an intriguing shadow. The setting in the final shot is the most “natural” and the image gives viewers the best overall view of this damselfly species, but it doesn’t grab me as much as the first image.

Powdered DancerPowdered Dancer

Powdered Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Anyone who has ever gone fishing has a story of “the one that got away.” This Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) wanted to make sure that it did not have such a story to tell and dragged its prey onto dry land. Then the snake faced the challenge of figuring out how to swallow the large fish. The snake twisted and turned and contorted its body and head as it gradually ingested the fish. When the fish was part way down its throat, the snake appeared to push up against a log for additional leverage.

I captured a sequence of shots that speak for themselves, so I will not bother to explain each of them. Like me, you will probably feel a kind of macabre mixture of horror and fascination as you view them.

snake versus fish

snake versus fish

snake versus fish

snake versus fish

 

snake versus fish

snake versus fish

snake versus fish

snake versus fish

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As I was exploring the edge of the Potomac River yesterday at Riverbend Park, I flushed a fairly large dragonfly. Rather than fly away, it perched in a nearby tree, just above eye level. I suspected that I had interrupted a meal and that it wanted to enjoy its prey in peace.

The dragonfly was in the shade and the light was filtering in from in front of me, so the shadows made it hard to tell exactly what was going on. I fired away anyways, hoping that I would be able to salvage the images afterwards.

It turns out that the dragonfly is a Black-shouldered Spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus). You definitely can see the large spines on the dragonfly’s back legs, which help in capturing and holding prey, and you can sort of see the black shoulders. As I suspected, there was a prey–the dragonfly had captured some kind of damselfly.

I decided to try a couple of different techniques to try to capture a usable image. In the first shot, I used software to adjust the exposure levels and remove some of the shadows, which had the side effect of brightening the entire image and blowing out some of the detail in the background. As a result, the leaves also look a little washed out. In the second shot, I used my camera’s pop-up flash to help eliminate some of the shadows. The resulting image retains a bit more of the full range of tonal values, but may still be a little too dark. Neither image is perfect, but wildlife photography is so often about making compromises.

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

Black-shouldered Spinyleg

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It is easy to be so dazzled by the beauty and the aerial skills of dragonflies that you forget that they are also fearsome predators. I had a stark reminder of this grim reality on Friday when I encountered a Cobra Clubtail dragonfly (Gomphurus vastus) that had captured a Hackberry Emperor butterfly (Asterocampa celtis) at Riverbend Park. The dragonfly was starting to consume the butterfly and in the photo below almost appears to be suspended in mid-air.

In the past I have observed dragonflies with small butterflies, but this was the first time to see one with a larger butterfly. I really like butterflies and so I felt a mixture of horror and fascination when I stumbled upon this scene. Life in the wild can be brutal and today’s predators can become tomorrow’s prey—a fellow photographer posted a photo yesterday of a bird that had captured a dragonfly.

All in all, this moment served as a sober reminder to me of the fragility of life and of beauty. Somehow it brings to mind a country music song that I really like by Tim McGraw, a song that recommends that you live like you were dying. If you have not familiar with the song or simply want to hear it again, check out the official music video here on YouTube.

Cobra Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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On Friday I kept encountering dragonflies that were clearly different from any I had seen before. There is a family of dragonflies known as “clubtails” in which the ends of their abdomens (the “tail”) are enlarged. I have seen a number of different members of this family, but none of them had as large a “club” as the ones that I spotted repeatedly as I explored Riverbend Park along the Potomac River.

I suspected and eventually was able to confirm that these are Cobra Clubtails (Gomphurus vastus). Isn’t that a cool name for a dragonfly—someone obviously thought that the “clubtail” looked like a cobra’s hood.

The Cobra Clubtails perched on the rocks and in the vegetation along the water’s edge and I was able to capture images of several of them. I am leading with a photo that provides a good look at the “clubtail,” though I tend to be drawn more to photos like final one in which you get to look into the eyes of the dragonfly.

This is probably the closest I want to be to staring into the eyes of a cobra.

 

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtail

Cobra Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I was exploring Riverbend Park yesterday, I looked out into the Potomac River and spotted a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) standing on a small, rocky island in the middle of the river. Although I see Great Blue Herons pretty regularly, I invariably stop to observe them. This heron seemed to be particularly cheerful and appeared to have a smile of its face or maybe it was singing to greet the new day.

Great Blue Heron

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As I was walking along the Potomac River one day last month, I came upon this large toad, which I think might be a Fowler’s Toad (Anaxyrus fowleri). I was really struck by the way that the light and shadows helped to emphasize the very bumpy texture of the toad’s skin.

Fowler's Toad

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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As I walked along a trail paralleling the Potomac River one morning last week, I noticed some movement near the water’s edge. Moving closer, I spotted some tiny frogs—they seemed to be only about an inch or so in size (25 mm). Many of them hopped away as I continued my approach, but one of them jumped onto a rock and posed for me.

I was able to capture a lot of details of this frog, but am having trouble identifying its species. I have a lot more experience identifying birds and insects—I am not a frogman. Despite my ineptitude at identification, I really like the photo and the way that the background seems to mirror the colors, patterns, and texture of this tiny frog.

frog

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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This past week I was excited to see several Eastern Ringtail dragonflies (Erpetogomphus designatus) while exploring Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Virginia. This species is relatively uncommon in our area and I had only encountered one once before at a location in Maryland. Fellow dragonfly enthusiast and photographer Walter Sanford had alerted me to the presence of these dragonflies at the park and their location, so I was fairly confident that I would be able to find some of them. (With wildlife photography there are few guarantees—you can never be sure how long a species will remain at a given location, particularly when it comes to insects like dragonflies that have a limited season.)

Well, I managed to find some Eastern Ringtails and was faced with the challenge of how to photograph them. The bad news was that this species likes to perch on the ground, but the good news was that the ground on which they chose to perch was uncluttered—it was a boat ramp made of some kind of aggregate concrete. The background of these shots is not natural, but it does allow you to see some of the beautiful details of this stunning dragonfly, especially their spectacular blue eyes.

Eastern Ringtail

Eastern Ringtail

Eastern Ringtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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When the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) that I was chasing at Riverbend Park flew into some vegetation, I thought that I had lost it. Suddenly and almost magically the butterfly’s shadow was revealed on a large leaf as it moved about. I was thrilled to be able to capture the swallowtail shadow as well as a small portion of the butterfly itself.

It’s usually best to shoot with the sun at your back, but it worked out well in this case for me to violate that “rule.”

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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It may appear to be the Loch Ness monster, but I am pretty sure that it is “only” a Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon). I stumbled upon it yesterday while exploring Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Virginia just after it had caught a pretty good-sized catfish. It took a while to subdue the fish, but the snake eventually was able to swallow it.

I have seen snakes like this catch small fish before, but I was shocked to see the size of its catch this time. How does a snake subdue and immobilize a fish that big? Northern Water Snakes are not poisonous, though I have been told that their bite can be quite painful and that the snake injects an anti-coagulant into your system, so that you will bleed a lot. The snake swam around with the fish for quite some time, periodically rearing its head and part of its body out of the water. The snake’s mouth seemed to have a literal death grip on the fish.

I watched the action with a mixture of horror and fascination, frozen in place to avoid spooking the snake. The snake seemed to be adjusting the position of the fish, as I had seen herons do, and I wondered how it could possibly swallow the fish. Suddenly there was a lot of movement in the water, the snake’s body started to writhe, and the fish simply disappeared, except for a small piece of the tail still sticking out of the fish’s mouth.

I still don’t know exactly how the snake ingested the fish—one minute it was then and then in a blink of an eye it wasn’t. It seemed like some kind of magical legerdemain (which is probably the wrong term for a limbless creature), though I suspect that the snake has powerful muscles that enabled it to pull in the fish all at once.

There are signs in Riverbend Park warning folks not to swim in the Potomac River, probably because of the current. I think that I have found another reason to stay out of the water.

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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