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Posts Tagged ‘Tachopteryx thoreyi’

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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Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) are one of the friendliest and tamest dragonfly species that I have encountered. If you hang around with them often enough, they are almost certain to land on you, particularly if you are wearing gray clothing that somehow reminds them of a tree. It is a little hard not to flinch when one of these relatively large dragonflies (3 inches (75 mm) in length) perches on your head or shoulder.

Gray Petaltails will also let you get pretty close to them when they are perched on trees. Quite frequently, though, they are perched above eye level, so being that close does not allow you to capture close-up images. This past Saturday when I was hunting for dragonflies with my friend Walter Sanford, we spotted a Gray Petaltail perched on a fallen branch that was at knee level. After we had both taken some shots, Walter challenged me to see how close I could get to the dragonfly to capture images with my macro lens.

The first shot shows one of my attempts to get a head-on shot. It is very cool to look another creature straight in the eyes, but it is rare that one will permit you to do so, especially at such close range. It seemed clear to me that the dragonfly was quite aware of my presence, but did not consider me to be a threat.

I took the second shot from the side as I moved even closer to my subject. I was trying my best to capture some of the details of the dragonfly’s eye that was nearest to me and was not concerned that most of the rest of its head was out of focus. If you double-click on the image, you can see some of the ommatidia, the individual optical units that make up a dragonfly’s amazing multi-faceted compound eyes.

If you want to learn more about dragonfly eyes, check out a wonderful article at medium.com entitled  “30,000 Facets Give Dragonflies A Different Perspective: The Big Compound Eye In The Sky“. Scientists, for example, know that the thousands of ommatidia produce a mosaic of “pictures,” but how exactly this visual mosaic is integrated in the insect brain is still not known.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Dragonflies have been around for a long time, with fossils showing dragonfly-like creatures that date back to the Jurassic period, more than 150 million years ago. It is generally believed that dragonflies of the Petaluridae family, including the Gray Petaltail (Tachopteryx thoreyi) most closely resemble those ancient species.

I was thrilled to find several Gray Petaltails this past Monday at Occoquan Regional Park, about 20 miles (32 km) from where I live. Most of the time Gray Petaltails perch vertically, flat against tree trunks at eye level or higher. The first photo is a little deceptive, because it makes it look like it is easy to spot these rather large dragonflies (three inches (76 mm) in length). However, in my experience it is rare to see a Gray Petaltail on a smooth-barked tree. When they perch on trees with coarser bark, these dragonflies almost melt into the trees. You get a hint of how this camouflage works in the second image below.

The final image shows a more typical scenario. From a distance, I saw a Gray Petaltail land on a tree. When I snapped the photo, though, I could not see the dragonfly, even though I knew exactly where it was. Can you see the Gray Petaltail in the final photo? I think that my post processing may have made it a little easier to spot, but the dull color and pattern of the dragonfly help it to blend in with the light and shadows on the tree trunk.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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The past few weeks I have been searching for patches of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). What exactly is skunk cabbage? The Gardening Know How website describes the plant in these words, “Skunk cabbage is a perennial wildflower that grows in swampy, wet areas of forest lands. This unusual plant sprouts very early in the spring, and has an odd chemistry that creates its own heat, often melting the snow around itself as it first sprouts in the spring.” In case you are curious, the plant gets its name from the fact that its leaves gives off a smell of skunk or rotting meat when they are crushed or bruised—I can’t personally vouch for that fact, but am willing to accept it at face-value.

So why am I looking for this curious plant that has already begun to sprout in my area? Several types of dragonflies, including the Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster obliqua) that I featured last week, and the Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi) can be found in the kind of forest seeps where skunk cabbage grows. The purpose of my recent trips to several parks has been to conduct advance reconnaissance of locations to explore when dragonfly season finally arrives.

For more information about skunk cabbage and how dragonflies are associated with this plant, check out this recent posting by Walter Sanford, my friend and fellow dragonfly enthusiast, with whom I have conducted some of these scouting expeditions.

 

skunk cabbage

skunk cabbage

skunk cabbage

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Although we still have quite a lot of summer remaining, some of my favorite dragonfly species have already disappeared for the season. I have been fortunate this year to see Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) on multiple occasions in several different locations. A little over a week ago I spotted this one at Occoquan Regional Park on the date that the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website lists as the tail end of the season for this species. It is quite possible that I will have to wait until next year to see another one.

Gray Petaltails are remarkable dragonflies. They will sometime perch on you, which can be a bit disconcerting because they are so large and you can hear them when they fly by your head. Additionally, many scientists view this species as an ancient one. According to the website cited above, Gray Petaltails are “our oldest and most primitive dragonfly; species almost identical to petaltails flew alongside dinosaurs during the Jurassic period. Imagine petaltails and a herd of Brontosaurus sharing the same giant, fern-filled forests.”

It is hard to know exactly how long dragonflies have been around, but according to Wikipedia, fossils of very large dragonfly ancestors with wingspans of 30 inches (750 mm) have been found that are 325 million old. Given the ferocity of most dragonflies as predators, I am happy that modern day dragonflies are quite a bit smaller in size.

 

Gray Petaltail

 

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Should I present a subject in landscape mode or portrait mode? That is a question I face frequently when I am composing photos initially and later when I am processing the images. Some subjects or scenes lend themselves naturally to one of the modes, but often it is not clear which one will be more effective. I remember reading somewhere that it is best to take shots from multiple angles, at varying distances, and using multiple modes and I try to follow that advice whenever I can.

This past week I encountered a large dragonfly as I was exploring a small creek in Prince William County, Virginia. The creek was mostly in the shadows and I was unable to identify the species of the dragonfly until it perched on a sun-lit tree. Then it was easy to determine that it was a Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi).

The dragonfly was pretty cooperative and I was able to take multiple shots, two of which I have included in this posting. From an artistic perspective I particularly like the first image, which gives equal weight to the dragonfly and to the environmental elements. The second image draws your attention more to the details of the dragonfly and give greater emphasis to the texture of the tree.

Are you drawn more to one of the two images? If so, why? I know how I react to my own images and am always curious to hear what you think and/or feel about them.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This past Wednesday I encountered a really cooperative Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi) as I explored nearby Prince William County and was able to capture this tight head shot. I simply love this dragonfly’s beautiful gray eyes, which are a perfect for the monochromatic palette of the rest of its body and give this dragonfly a more sophisticated look than many of its more gaudily-clad brethren. (The coloration also helps this dragonfly to almost disappear from view when it is perched on a tree like this one.)

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Before we went out last week to hunt for Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi), fellow blogger and dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford reminded me to wear gray-colored clothing, because Gray Petaltails are known to perch on people dressed this way, presumably because they resemble trees. Walter’s words proved to be prophetic and Gray Petaltails perched on me repeatedly that day.  Walter memorialized one such encounter in his posting last week You look like a tree to me! that included shots of one perched on my shoulder and one on my stomach.

It is generally pretty cool to have a dragonfly perch on you. It can be a little disconcerting, however, when a large dragonfly like a Gray Petaltail, which can be over three inches in length (75 mm), buzzes around your head. I couldn’t avoid flinching a couple of times that day when a dragonfly landed on me. Sometimes dragonflies are so incredibly cooperative that I am able to coax them to perch on my finger, as shown in a 2013 blog posting that I called Dragonfly Whisperer.

As the day wore on, Walter seemed disappointed that the dragonflies were not landing on him. As we were making some final checks before our departure, a Gray Petaltail finally made his wish come true and perched on him. Unlike the ones that landed on my front side, this one decided to land on his back side, on the untucked tail of his shirt. I am hoping that nobody was watching, because it would probably have looked a little strange for me to be pointing the long macro lens of my camera at that part of his anatomy.

Walter and I are good enough friends that he will laugh at my puns and attempts at humor, even when he is occasionally the butt of the joke. In fact, this is actually not the most embarrassing photo that I have taken of a dragonfly perching on Walter. In October 2013 I did a posting entitled Dragonflies mating on a calf that featured a dragonfly couple mating on his bare lower leg.

If you are really young, you may not remember Fred Astaire’s version of the song “Cheek to Cheek” that was the number one hit song of 1935, according to Wikipedia. Here is link to a YouTube clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing and dancing to that song.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Survival in the wild is challenging even when you are able-bodied. The difficulties are multiplied when you have a major deformity, like this Gray Petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi) that I spotted on Friday at Occoquan Regional Park.

I not sure what caused the sharp bend in the abdominal region of this dragonfly, but I observed that it was able to fly and to perch. Perhaps it is able to capture prey, but mating seems out of the question. I admire that the fact that it appears to be fighting for its survival.

For the sake of contrast, I am including a photo of another Gray Petaltail dragonfly that I observed the same day at the park.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I like dragonflies a lot, as most of you know, so it is only natural that they like me too. Two Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) showed their affection yesterday by perching on me.

Thanks to my good friend Walter Sanford for taking these shots. Check out his blog for lots of photos and information on dragonflies and other nature topics.

walter sanford's photoblog

Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi) have a well-known preference for perching on gray or tan colored surfaces, including gray or tan colored clothing. Dressed appropriately, Mike Powell and I visited a hotspot for Gray Petaltail where we hoped to shoot some photographs of T. thoreyi perched on each other.

The first individual is a female, perched on the front of Mike Powell’s gray sweatshirt.

21 MAY 2018 | Northern Virginia | Gray Petaltail (female)

The last individual is a male, perched on Mike Powell’s left shoulder.

21 MAY 2018 | Northern Virginia | Gray Petaltail (male)

I’m guessing the dragonflies were thinking, “Hey Mike, you look like a tree to me!” No offense intended, buddy. In fact, I think you should be flattered that these spectacular specimens befriended you!

Copyright © 2019 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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