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Posts Tagged ‘Tamron 180mm’

We have had rain and clouds the last few days and I feel the need for a pop of color today. This blanket flower (g. Gaillardia) provided a wonderfully colorful backdrop for a little bee that I spotted during a recent trip to Green Spring Gardens. I think that it may be some kind of sweat bee, but I did not get a close enough look at it to be able identify it.

bee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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It is a simple law of nature that all creatures have to eat and many of my subjects are carnivores. The question of whether a creature is predator or prey is often a relative one—today’s predator can easily become tomorrow’s prey.

I try not to get emotionally involved when I witness one creature feeding on another, but that is not always possible. For me it is somewhat jarring when I see one dragonfly eating another—it feels like cannibalism.

For some reason, most such encounters that I have witnessed have involved Eastern Pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis). This species is not at that large or powerful, but seems particularly fierce. Some other dragonflies catch their prey and eat while they are flying, their version of “fast food,” so that may be why I don’t see dragonflies consuming other dragonflies very often.

In the first photo, a female Eastern Pondhawk was feasting on a male Calico Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) that it had just caught. As you can see, the dragonfly holds its prey in its long legs and begins by eating the head.

In the second photo, taken at a different location, another female Eastern Pondhawk was munching on an unidentifiable damselfly. Readers sometimes ask me about the differences between dragonflies and damselflies and this photo gives you a general idea of the relative size and shape of their bodies.

According to a fascinating posting called “What do Dragonflies Eat?” on The Infinite Spider website, “All adult dragonflies are insectivores, which means they eat insects they catch with their spiny hairy legs.  The insects are then held in a basket-like device while flying. They particularly delight in mosquitoes (30-100+ per day per dragonfly!) as well as other pesky flight bugs  such as flies, butterflies, bees, and even other dragonflies.”

Check out the posting that I referenced in the previous paragraph, if you dare, for details about how dragonflies actually eat. Here is a sneak preview, “The main thing to notice is that they have jaws that work side to side and that are shaped like wicked meat hooks, mandibles that go up and down and maxillae that act like a lower lip and hold food.” Yikes!

Eastern Pondhawk

 

Eastern Pondhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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There was only one water lily in bloom last week at Green Spring Gardens—it did not have to share the spotlight with any other floating flowers. In some ways, its uniqueness made it even even more special. I love water lilies, but it may be a bit early for them to be blooming, at least at this pond.

As I was looking through my camera’s viewfinder, trying to think of an interesting way to photograph the single water lily, I spotted a tiny hover fly making a beeline for the center of the water lily. I reacted quickly and frantically clicked away. In most of my shots, the hover fly was out of focus, but my luck and timing allowed me to capture the first image below, in which the little insect is in relatively sharp focus—click on the image to get a closer look at the patterns on the hover fly’s body.

I realize that some viewers may prefer to enjoy the beauty of a flower without having to see insects, so I have added a second shot of the water lily that I took from a slightly different angle. No matter which image you prefer, I am confident that you will agree that the water lily is stunning—I love the way that the center of the flower seems to glow.

Water lily

water lily

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I never know what will catch my eye when my camera is in my hand. On Monday, for example, I spotted these tiny, colorful flowers while hunting for dragonflies at Occoquan Regional Park. The blue one is a type of blue-eyed grass (g. Sisyrinchium), but I can’t identify the pretty pink one.

I am not a gardener, so I never learned to differentiate between flowers and weeds—they are all flowers to me. I find the names of plant species to be confusing at times. Blue-eyed grass, for example, is not actually a grass, but a perennial related to the iris, and it comes in multiple colors. Yikes!

The good news is that my lack of knowledge about plants does not keep me from enjoying fully the beauty of these tiny flowers. To borrow a line from Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

If you recognize the pink flower and can identify it, please let me know what it is. Ten years ago I could not identify a single dragonfly, but over time I have learned a lot about them. There is hope, therefore, that I will similarly expand my knowledge of flowers as I encounter and photograph them.

UPDATE: Thanks to Steve Gingold, I now know that the pink flower is a Deptford Pink (Dianthus armeria), a plant species native to Europe that is naturalized in much of North America. Be sure to check out Steve’s blog for lots of wonderful nature images and a wealth of information about plants, insects, and other aspects of nature, especially in Western New England, where he lives.


pink flower

blue-eyed grass

pink flower

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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As I was visiting a small pond at Green Spring Gardens last week, checking to see if the lotus flowers and water lilies were in bloom, I detected some movement at the edge of the water. It took me a moment to spot some tiny Eastern Forktail damselflies (Ischnura verticalis) that were buzzing around the vegetation sticking out of the water. Eastern Forktails are quite small, about 0.8-1.3 inches (20-33 mm) in length.

I got down as low as I could and captured several images of a beautiful female Eastern Forktail. In the first shot, she perched and posed for me, so I had the luxury of carefully composing my shot. Click on the photo to see the wonderful details of this damselfly, including her stunning two-toned eyes. Eastern Forktails are quite small, about 0.8-1.3 inches (20-33 mm) in length.)

In the second shot, she was perching on the edge of a lily pad with the tip of her abdomen in the water. She was in the process of depositing eggs into the bottom of the lily pad or possibly into the stem of the plant.

As it turned out, it is still too early for the lotus flowers to bloom, though the plants were producing lots of leaves. There was one white water lily that was blooming, so the scene at the pond does not yet remind me of a Monet painting.

Eastern Forktail

Eastern Forktail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Recently I did a posting featuring a beautiful Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea), the uniquely purple damselfly that is featured in the banner of my blog. Today I thought that I would give equal time to several of the other dancers in my life. Damselflies in the genus Argia are known by the whimsical name of dancers, because of the distinctive jerky form of flight they use which contrasts with the straightforward direct flight of bluets, forktails, and other pond damselflies.

The damselfly in the first photo is a male Powdered Dancer (Argia moesta) that I spotted perched on a rock in the water while I was exploring a stream in Prince William County. I can tell that this is a rather young male, because he still has a lot of color on his thorax. Mature males turn whitish in color—you can see the powdery coating beginning at the tip of its abdomen.

The next two photos show a male Blue-fronted Dancer (Argia tibialis) that I found in the vegetation next to a small pond at Jackson Miles Abbot Wetland Refuge. This species is quite distinctive because the thorax is almost completely blue, with only hairline black stripes on its shoulders and the middle of its back.

One of the things that I particularly enjoy about photographing nature is the incredible diversity that I encounter. Even within a single species, I can spot unique beauty in each individual that I encounter, especially when I slow down and look closely. The same thing is true about people—we should celebrate and respect our diversity and engage with people who may look or act or think differently. As the Lee Ann Womack country music song says, if you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.

 

Powdered Dancer

Blue-fronted Dancer

Blue-fronted Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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There has been a recent explosion of dragonflies in my area. Yesterday was a hot, humid day and I encountered hundreds of dragonflies as I walked along the trails of one of my favorite wildlife park. They were almost all relatively common species, including Common Whitetails, Needham’s Skimmers, Eastern Pondhawks, and Great Blue Skimmers. These dragonflies thrive in a variety of habitats, are numerous, and are easy to see.

Some of the rarest dragonflies in our area, however, are quite muted in their appearance, like these male Sable Clubtail dragonflies (Stenogomphurus rogersi). Sable Clubtails are generally found only in very small numbers, have a short flight period, and require very specific habitats,—this species prefers small, clean forest streams. This past two weeks I have spent hours exploring a stream in Fairfax County in Virginia, the county in which I live, and spotted a grand total of two Sable Clubtails.

As you can see from the first photo, my most recent sighting, Sable Clubtails like to perch flat on leafy vegetation, just above the level of the stream. They are often in shadowy areas and are incredibly skittish, so it is tough to get a good shot of a Sable Clubtail.

The dragonfly in the second and third photo was initially spotted by a fellow dragonfly enthusiast a little over a week ago. I was upstream from him (and had not noticed that he was there) when he called out to me and informed me that he had spotted a Sable Clubtail. I hurried over in the direction of his voice and photographed the dragonfly in the middle photo. I was able to capture the markings of the Sable Clubtail by shooting almost directly downwards, but the sunlight produced harsh specular highlights.

As I crouched to get a better angle, I spooked the dragonfly.  Fortunately it flew only a few feet away and perched higher on a leaf in a slightly shaded area, which let me capture the third shot before it flew away.

I don’t know if I will see another Sable Clubtail this season, but it was gratifying to be able to have two encounters with this uncommon species. Habitats are fragile and changeable, so I never know from year to year if one of these low-density species will reappear or not. At this location, I have been blessed to photograph a Sable Clubtail for three of the last four years. I’ll probably check it out at least another couple of times before I call it quits for this species for the season.

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

Sable Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I was thrilled to spot this cool-looking Six-spotted Fishing Spider (Dolomedes triton) yesterday at Green Spring Gardens, a county-run historic garden in Alexandria, Virginia, not far from where I live. These spiders usually keep several of their legs on the surface of the water and detect the vibrations of potential prey and them scamper across the water to capture their targets.

Initially the spider had its legs anchored on the edge of a colorful lily pad a short distance from the edge of a small pond, as shown in the first photo. When I got a little too close, the spider moved a short distance away, as shown in the second photo, but eventually it returned to its original spot.

Fishing spiders like this one are quite large—a female can grow to be about 2.4 inches (60 mm) in length, including her legs, while the male is somewhat smaller. According to Wikipedia, Six-spotted Fishing Spiders hunt during the day and can wait can wait patiently for hours until stimulated by prey. Potential prey include both aquatic insects and terrestrial insects that have fallen into the water, tadpoles, frogs, and small fish. Amazingly, these spiders are capable of capturing fish up to five times their body size, using venom to immobilize and kill the prey.

Six-spotted Fishing Spider

Six-spotted Fishing Spider

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last week I was excited to capture this image of a beautiful Turquoise Bluet damselfly (Enallagma divagans) as I explored the edge of a small pond in Prince William County, Virginia. The damselfly was conducting short patrols over the water and then would perch on the vegetation sticking out of the water.

I got low to the ground and squatted as close to the water’s edge as I dared, doing my best to avoid falling into the water as I leaned forward. I managed to stay dry as I waited patiently. Eventually the Turquoise Bluet perched within range of my lens and I was able to capture a pretty detailed image of the little bluet, which was about 1.4 inches (35 mm) in length.

Turquoise Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love dragonflies with patterned wings and one of the coolest ones in our area is the male Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), which has a distinctive combination of one dark and one white blotch per wing. Eventually the immature male in the first photo will turn bluish in color, but for now he has the brown and yellow colors that he shares with the females. The females have only a single large blotch on each wing, so usually I can tell the genders apart.

When the male first emerges, however, the white blotches may be hard to see, so I have to look more closely at other aspects of the dragonfly’s body. I am pretty confident that the dragonfly in the second photo is a very young male Widow Skimmer.

It was really easy to track a male Widow Skimmer dragonfly in the air, because its colorful wings made it look almost like a butterfly. However, the dragonfly in the first photo was remarkably skittish and would perch only momentarily in between its patrols over the waters of the small pond that I visited on Monday. Eventually my patience paid off and I was able to get a shot, albeit from a relatively long distance away.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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When damselflies mate, it is often a very conspicuous event, easily recognized by the heart-shaped “wheel” formation of the mating couple. The male clasps the female by the back of her head and she curls her abdomen to pick up sperm from secondary genitalia at the base of the male’s abdomen. That’s about as graphic as I dare go in describing the process.

Yesterday I spotted a pair of mating Ebony Jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) as I was exploring a stream in Fairfax County, Virginia, the county in which I live. Ebony Jewelwings are immediately identifiable, because they are the only damselflies in our area with dark wings. They can be found at a wide variety of running waters, especially at shaded forest streams, like the one where I found this couple.

Male Ebony Jewelwings have wings that are all black, while females have dark brown wings with conspicuous white pseudostigmas—the male is on the right in this photos. The body of the males is a metallic green with copper highlights—in certain lights, their bodies may look distinctly blue. Females seem to have a bit more color variation, though it is hard to tell their true color because of the reflected light from their shiny bodies.

Ebony Jewelwing

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the coolest, most colorful damselflies in our area is the violet subspecies of the Variable Dancer (Argia fumipennis) that is often called the Violet Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacea). I spotted these handsome male damselflies last Thursday in Prince William County and love the way I was able to capture some of the texture of their environment, especially in the first photo.

Some of you may have noticed that I have had a photo of a Violet Dancer as the banner for this blog for quite a number of years. This coloration of this damselfly is so strikingly different from the various shades of blue of most damselflies that it made an immediate impression on me the first time that I photographed one.

I need to update many aspects of my blog page format, including the information in the “About Me” section, but I am still pretty comfortable with having a Violet Dancer being the first image that viewers see when they access my page.

Variable Dancer

Variable Dancer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was delighted to spot this female Lancet Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus exilis) on Thursday in Prince William County, the first member of this species that I have seen this season. She seemed to be glancing upwards at me as she smiled and posed for me.

When I was doing some research on this species, I got a little confused, because sometimes the Latin name for the species was given as Phanogomphus exilis and sometimes as Gomphus exilis. As far as I can understand it, the Lancet Clubtail used to be included in Gomphus genus. However, according to Wikipedia, “As a result of phylogenetic studies, Gomphus subgenera Gomphurus, Hylogomphus, Phanogomphus, and Stenogomphus were elevated in rank to genus in 2017. With the removal of their member species, Gomphus ended up with 11 of its previous 54 species, none of which are found in the Western Hemisphere.” Yikes!

Lancet Clubtail

Lancet Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Last Tuesday I spotted several beautiful Bar-winged Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula axilena) while I was exploring a small pond in Prince William County, Virginia. The dragonflies kept choosing beautiful, but flimsy perches, so I did not have much time snag shots of them before they flew away.

According to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, Bar-winged Skimmers have relatively specific habitat needs and consequently are one of the less common skimmers in our area. “It prefers very shallow marshy pools in the full sun. If there’s enough water for fish, it’s too deep for Bar-winged Skimmers. And of course shallow pools in the full sun tend to quickly evaporate and dry up, so stable populations in Northern Virginia are few and far between.”

I really like the backgrounds that I was able to capture in these shots—they are colorful, but not at all distracting. If you look closely at the leading edges of the wings, you can see the black spots and stripes that give rise to the name of this species.

Bar-winged Skimmer

Bar-winged Skimmer

Bar-winged Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I love the triangular shape of Spiderwort plants (genus Tradescantia). I tend to think of spiderworts as being a bluish-purple in color, but was delighted to discover them blooming in a variety of colors during a recent visit to Green Spring Gardens, a county-run historical garden near where I live. I think my favorite color combination may be the one in the middle photo, with the white flowers and the purple “fuzz” in the center.

Spiderwort

Spidewort

spiderwort

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although “treehugger” is a term that is sometimes used for environmentalists, it is even more applicable to Gray Petaltail dragonflies (Tachopteryx thoreyi), like these ones that I spotted last Tuesday in Prince William County. Gray Petaltails love to perch on the trunks of trees, where they blend in almost perfectly with the bark, as you can see especially well (or almost not see) in the second photo.

I have been told that Gray Petaltails especially like the color gray and a number of times one has perched on me when I was deliberately wearing a gray shirt. Fellow dragonfly enthusiast Walter Sanford capture that phenomenon in 2019 in one of his blog postings that he called “You look like a tree to me!

I drove up to Massachusetts this past weekend for the celebration of my 50th high school reunion at Northfield Mount Heron School, the private college preparatory boarding school that I attended for three years. I disconnected from the internet during that time there, which is why I have not posted in several days—my apologies to those of you who may be used to a daily “fix.”

It was fascinating to reconnect with high school friends, often for the first time in 50 years, and to meet some classmates for the first time. Northfield was founded as a girls school in 1879 by evangelist Dwight L. Moody and two years he established Mount Hermon as a boy school. In 1971 the two schools formally merged and those of us in the class of 1972, my class, were the first to graduate from Northfield Mount Hermon School. At that time there were close to 1300 students divided between the two campuses, which made it difficult to know everyone—in recent years the school consolidated onto the Mount Hermon campus and it currently has a student body of about 700 students.

Gray Petaltail

Gray Petaltail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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On Tuesday I was thrilled to spot this male Brown Spiketail dragonfly (Cordulegaster bilineata) while I was exploring a marshy area in Prince William County, Virginia. Spiketail dragonflies are quite rare in our area and this was the first one that I have spotted this year.

Brown Spiketails are found only in a specific type of habitat. According to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, Brown Spiketails prefer “clean, small, sunlit, forest streams and seepages” and “perch often and low on grasses and shrubs in clearings, meadow edges and sunny forest edges.” As you can see from the background in these two images, the location where I found this dragonfly was full of ferns.

In case you are curious, spiketail dragonflies are so named because the long ovipositor of the female extends beyond the tip of the abdomen. The females lay their eggs by hovering over shallow water and driving the long ovipositor vertically into the shoreline mud or stream bottom in a fashion reminiscent of a sewing machine. Since these photos show a male, there is no “spike” to see for this spiketail.

I love the striking eyes of this dragonfly and the colorful markings his entire body and was happy to be able to capture such a detailed look at his beauty.

 

Brown Spiketail

Brown Spiketail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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During a recent trip to Green Spring Gardens, a county-run historic garden near where I live, I was delighted to see that Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) was in bloom. Love-in-a-mist  is a flower that looks like it came from outer space, with wild tendrils shooting out of its middle and green spiky vegetation surrounding it. Like many forms of love, the flower simultaneously looks to be both inviting and threatening.

I find this flower to be incredibly beautiful and exotic and it is one of my favorites. Typically Love-in-a-mist is blue, but it also comes in shades of white, pink, and lavender. Many flowers lose our interest after they have bloomed, but I find the seedpods of Love-in-a-mist to at least as intriguing as the flower itself, as you can see in the final photo.

When I did a little research I learned that the striped, balloon-shaped object that I call a seedpod, is actually an inflated capsule composed of five fused true seedpods, according to an article by Wisconsin Horticulture. I also discovered that the thorny-looking spikes that make up the “mist,” which are not sharp, despite their appearance, are technically bracts, a specialized kind of leaves.

I smile whenever I use the name of this flower—we can always use more Love, whether it comes in a mist, in the sunshine, or even in a downpour.

 

Love-in-a-mist

Love-in-a-mist

Love-in-a-mist

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When the weather turns warm and sunny, it is not uncommon for me to spot Common Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus), one of the few lizards that are present in my area. Most of the time I see them on the trunks of trees or on fallen logs, but occasionally I will see one on a man-made structure that has crevices and overhangs where they can hide.

Skinks are skittish and will scamper away if they detect my presence, so I have to be super stealthy in approaching them to get a shot. In the case of these photos, I was at the edge of a small pond at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge last week looking for dragonflies when some movement on a nearby concrete fishing platform caught my eye. The skink had just crawled out of the shadows and was surveying the area when I captured these images.

Juvenile skinks have blue tails and there appears to be some blue on the tail that is especially visible in the second photo, so I am guessing that it is almost a full-grown adult. Some scientists believe that the blue color functions as a decoy, diverting the attention of predators to this “expendable part” of the body—the tail is detachable and regrows if it is lost. Other scientists propose that the blue coloration serves to inhibit attacks by aggressive adult males, who might otherwise view the juveniles as rivals.

If you are curious and would like to see a photo of the blue tail of a juvenile skink, check out this 2021 blog posting entitled Juvenile Skink in April.

 

Five-lined Skink

Five-lined Skink

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was busy this week, so I was not able to spend as much time out in nature as normally. The last two days, temperatures have soared well above normal to over 90 degrees (32 degrees C), so it has been really uncomfortable to spend much time outdoors. Later in the summer, my body will grow accustomed to the heat, but right now the high temperatures are unbearable.

I was able to make a short trip on Wednesday to Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, a small nature preserve not far from where I live, and was delighted to spot this female Ashy Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus lividus). Ashy Clubtails are an early spring species—they appear in April and are gone by June—and I have seen them several times already this year. Most of the ones I have spotted have been males, so it was a treat to be able to photograph a female.

Ashy Clubtails like low perches and often perch on the ground, where they often are camouflaged by the vegetation. In this case, the dragonfly perched a bit above ground level, so I was able to get a pretty good shot of her profile. It is probably my imagination, but it seems to me that she was glancing up at me and smiling a little as she posed for this portrait.

Ashy Clubtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.li

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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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Do you worry about how you look when you are taking a photograph? Most of the time I am by myself in remote locations, so I don’t feel at all self-conscious when I kneel and lean or even sprawl onto the ground in order to get a better angle for a shot. Recently, though, I was at Meadowlark Botanical Garden, a relatively crowded public space, with some friends and one of them, my photography mentor Cindy Dyer, photographed me in action.

You probably cannot help but notice my brightly colored sneakers. Since I retired, I have developed a fondness for Chuck Taylor Converse All Star sneakers and have pairs that are aqua, orange, and blue, in addition to the hightop coral ones in the photos. Did you notice that I was using a monopod for additional stability for the macro shot that I was taking? I was also leaning my elbow onto my knee to steady my shot.

What was I shooting? I was photographing a tiny spider on the side of a snowflake flower that is barely visible in the foreground of the photos. I reprised the photo of the spider that I originally included in a posting entitled Spider on snowflake to give you a sense of the distance that I was from the subject. One of the real benefits of the 180mm macro lens is that it lets me get close-up shots without having to be be on top of the subject, as would be necessary with my 60mm macro lens or even my 100mm macro lens.

In case you are curious, I tend to wear more subdued footgear when I am out in the wild. Many of my subjects are probably colorblind, so they would not be mindful of my bright shoes—I am more worried about covering them with mud and dirt, which I seem unable to avoid when I am trekking about in nature.

mike powell

Mike Powell

spider and snowflake

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Last Monday I was really excited to spot several male Stream Cruiser dragonflies (Didymops transversa), one of the early spring dragonflies that heretofore had eluded me this season. Stream Cruisers are habitat specialist, according to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, and prefer “stable, small to medium, forest streams, with good flow and rocks. The best place to find them is hunting in sunlit meadows near their woodland waterways.”  That is am accurate description of the spot where I photographed these Stream Cruisers alongside a stream in Prince William County, Virginia.

I love the overall look of a Stream Cruiser, with its distinctive green eyes, its colorful markings, and its long, gangly legs. If you look closely at the first image, you can see that the dragonfly is holding onto both sides of the forked branch with its long legs. I marvel too at the way that the Stream Cruiser is hanging in the second and third images—the pose looks awkward and precarious, but somehow the acrobatic position worked for the dragonfly.

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

Stream Cruiser

© 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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It is prime time for the bearded irises in the garden of my dear friend and fellow photographer Cindy Dyer. There are several dozen irises in bloom now in multiple colors, including these beauties, and it looks like even more flowers will be blooming soon.

Beauty is everywhere.

bearded irises

Bearded Iris

Bearded Iris

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It did not seem like there was much pollen inside of each little phlox flower, but bees were busily collecting it when I spotted several of them last Saturday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia. I love the way that some bees, including honeybees, collect pollen in little pouches on their back legs. When the pickings are really good, I have seen those pouches, which technically are called corbiculae, so full and bulging that they seem ready to burst—that was not the case this early in the spring, when not very many flowers were in bloom.

I was pleasantly surprised when I managed to capture a bee in flight in the second photo below as it surveyed the phlox flowers and planned its next assault. My 180mm macro lens is notoriously slow to acquire focus, so I rarely try to use it to try to capture moving subjects. The lens also is so noisy when focusing that one of my friends calls it “The Grinder.” Nonetheless, my trusty Tamron lens is my constant companion during the warm months and it is the one I use most often for my insects and other macro shots.

bee and phlox

Bee and Phlox

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Some of the coolest looking plants that I saw last Saturday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens were Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit flowers (Arisaema sikokianum). There is something so alien and exotic about this plant that it stopped me in my tracks when I first spotted it.

According to the Plant Delights Nursery, Inc. website, the dark pitcher and two five-lobed leaves of this plant emerge on a 12 inch tall (30 cm) fleshy stalk from an underground tuber in early spring. As the pitcher opens, it reveals a swollen, pure white, protruding spadix that provides a dramatic contrast to the purple of the pitcher.

The Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit is closely related to the Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), which, according to Wikipedia, is common to the eastern United States. I checked the range map and the Jack-in-the-Pulpit can be found in Virginia where I live, though I have not yet spotted one. When I looked at photos of the American species, it looks fairly similar to the Japanese variant, but the spadix, the part that is the “Jack” in the name, is darker in color and the pitcher more closely matches the leaves. Check out this blog posting by Steve Gingold to see a beautiful photo of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit growing wild in his area of New England.


Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Japanese Jack-in-the-Pulpit

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am a bit of a romantic, so my eyes are immediately drawn to the heart-shaped blooms of Bleeding Heart flowers whenever they are present in a springtime garden. Most of the time they are reddish in color, as their name suggests, but they also come in other colors. I spotted these beautiful White Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spectabilis alba) last Saturday at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens.

I was fortunate to be able to get close enough for the first photo to be able to focus on the delicate shape of a single flower. Somehow the little wings on the hearts make me think of angels or maybe the little cherubs that we associate with Valentine’s Day. The second image gives you an idea of the way that these flowers grow in rows, suspended from tiny filaments from a stalk, twisting and turning in the wind.

Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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A speedy little Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) was perched on a paved path at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens last Saturday and I captured this first image as it was taking off. The shot is a little blurry, but I love the the really cool shadow that the swallow was casting onto the ground. The second image shows the same swallow just before it took off and give you a better view of the coloration and markings of a Barn Swallow.

When I first spotted the birds in the final photo, I thought they might also be Barn Swallows, but when I took a closer look and did a little research, I determined that the bird on the outside of the nest was a male Purple Martin (Progne subis) and the one with her head poking out was a female Purple Martin. As far as I can recall, this is the first time that I have photographed this bird species, which is the largest swallow in our area.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Purple Martin

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I love the shape and colors of columbine flowers that appear in many of the gardens that I visit during the spring. According to Wikipedia, the genus name for these flowers Aquilegia is derived from the Latin word for eagle (aquila), because of the shape of the flower petals that are said to resemble an eagle’s claw. The common name “columbine” comes from the Latin for “dove”, due to the resemblance of the inverted flower to five doves clustered together.

I spotted several spectacular columbines during a visit to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia last Saturday. The purple columbine was in the middle of a flower bed and I could not get very close to it. I was really happy though that I had to shoot from a longer distance away than normally, because I able to capture some of the shadowy shapes of the ferns in the background.

I did manage to get quite a bit closer to the pretty pink columbine. I smiled when I saw a marker that indicated that this variety is called “Strawberry Ice Cream.” I now have an overwhelming urge to buy some strawberry ice, one of the many ice cream flavors that I love.

columbine

columbine

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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