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Posts Tagged ‘Woodbridge VA’

I have not seen very many Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) this summer, though I did spot a similar-looking Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Monarchs were in the news last week. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a Switzerland-based conservation organization that monitors the status of wildlife, added migratory monarchs (Danaus plexippus plexippus) to its list of threatened species this week.”

I decided to include an image of a Monarch that I captured earlier this month as it was feeding on a cone flower. I thought I would have more chances to photograph more monarchs, but this one was the only one that I have seen in July.

How do you tell the two species apart? The main visual difference between the two species is the black line across the Viceroy’s hind wings, which Monarch butterflies do not have. Both are stunningly beautiful.

Viceroy butterfly

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was delighted to encounter this group of butterflies last Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Several Zebra Swallowtails (Eurytides marcellus) and one prominent Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) were poking among the rocks, drinking in salts and other nutrients. If you look carefully at the image, you will see that one of the Zebra Swallowtails (the one to the right of the Spicebush Swallowtail flying—apparently it wanted to join the party.

Did you know that one of the collective nouns for a group of butterflies is “kaleidoscope?” I think the word is a a perfect descriptor for these multi-colored swirling beauties.

kaleidoscope of butterflies

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Some crows were harassing an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The osprey kept looking to the sky and crying out. Was it yelling at the crows or perhaps calling out to its mate?

Eventually one of the crows flew up onto the same branch as the osprey and continued to pester the larger bird. When I captured the final image, the crow looked away with a look of feigned innocence. The osprey, however, was not buying the act and appeared to be looking over its shoulder, keeping an eye on the crow.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Osprey

Osprey

Osprey

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I try to pay a lot of attention to the background when I am composing a photo. If it is too cluttered, the background can draw attention from the primary subject, but if it is too plain, it can remove all sense of the environment in which the shot was taken. Ideally, the background adds visual interest to an image without being distracting.

For most of my wildlife shots, I have only a very limited control over my physical environment. Birds and insects will choose their perches or their flight paths and I am the one who has to adapt. It is amazing, though, how a slight change in the angle of view can improve an image. Sometimes I am able to improve my shot by moving a little to one side or the other or by shooting a little higher or a little lower.

Camera settings can help a bit too—by making the depth of field more shallow, for example, I can blur out the background. I have to be careful, however, in using this technique, because important parts of my subject to be blurred as well if I do not pay attention to my relationship to my subject. There are a lot of creative choices to make in choosing camera settings. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the number of choices when I first started becoming more intentional in my photography—it is now second nature and I make my choices instinctively, knowing pretty well what the effect will be of changing a setting.

In the first photo, I tried to be sure that the plane of my camera sensor was parallel to the body of the male Slaty Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula incesta), which meant that most of the dragonfly was in focus, while the background was blurry. You can certainly tell that there were branches all around, but the blurry branches, I think, make this image a whole lot more interesting than the traditional “dragonfly on a stick” shot.

The second image shows a Big Bluet damselfly (Enallagma durum) perched on some vegetation. I really like this shot because of the way that the background gradually fades away, unlike in the first image in which there was a sharp distinction between the foreground and the background. I also like the linear nature of the stalks of vegetation and their varying angles.

I took both of these shots using my Tamron 18-400mm lens during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge last week. As I mentioned in some other recent posts, I am experimenting with this lens to see if it can serve as an all-in-one lens for those times when I want to travel light, while retaining the capability to photograph a variety of subjects. These two shots proved to me that with this lens I can capture images of some small creatures with a good amount of detail. So far I am quite happy with its performance and I will continue playing around with it to learn about its capabilities and limitations.

Slaty Skimmer

Big Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Every now and then one of my readers will ask me to post photos of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my favorite local wildlife photography spot. Usually I have either a telephoto or macro lens on my camera, neither of which is all that suitable for landscape-type shots. If I thought about it, I could switch to a wider lens and generally have one with me in my backpack, but it is kind of a hassle to do so.

This past week I have been finally shooting with my Tamron 18-400mm zoom lens, which I bought months and months ago, but had rarely used. This lens gives me good all-round capability in terms of focal length, but I wasn’t sure how it would handle the kinds of shots that I like to take. Could it handle macro-style shots of dragonflies? How would it handle birds, especially birds in flight?

I am still working on the answering those questions, but so far the results look promising. The dragonfly photos in my past two postings were taken with this lens, as were the landscape photos in this posting. One of the challenges of using this kind of all-in-one lens is that I have to retrain my eyes to look everywhere—when I have a long telephoto lens on my camera, I look mostly into the distance and when I use a macro lens, I look mostly at areas that are close to me.

As you can see in these photos, water is one of the features of this wildlife refuge. Sometimes I search for subjects near the ponds and streams and at other times I focus my attention on the wider waters of the bay. At this time of the year, the vegetation is green and lush. Fortunately the foliage on the trees provides some respite from the oppressive heat that is common here in the summers.

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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We are at a time of the summer, when it is unlikely that I will see any new dragonflies for the season. Several species will emerge towards the end of the summer, but for now I see the same familiar faces over and over again.

I really am content, though, with photographing the beauty of these wonderful aerial acrobats and never grow tired of photographing the same ones over and over. Each outing with my camera is an opportunity to capture images in a different way, in different environments, and in situations with different lighting.

Last  week I was delighted to capture these images of male Widow Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula luctuosa) during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I just love the brown and white patches on the wings of these dragonflies that make them really stand out from all other dragonflies in our area.

These shots also illustrate the fact that the shapes of the front wings of most dragonflies are different from the rear wings. I suspect that the different shapes play a role in enabling the amazing flight capabilities of dragonflies, although I confess that I do not understand very well the aerodynamics of dragonfly flight—their flight seems almost magical to me.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Dragonflies perch in many different ways and in many different places. Here are some simple shots of three dragonflies that I encountered last Thursday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The first one is a Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami) and I love the way that its coloration contrasts so well with the sea of green vegetation in which it is perched. The dragonfly in the second photo, my personal favorite of the three images, is a Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). When it’s hot outside, some dragonflies, like this one, like to assume a handstand-like pose, often called the “obelisk” position, to reduce their exposure to the direct sunlight. The final photo shows a Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans) perched on the tip of a leaf.

Each of these shots represents my efforts to isolate a dragonfly a bit from its surroundings and to highlight its beauty and its behavior. None of theme is spectacular or award-worthy, but they are pleasing little portraits of some of my summer companions.

Needham's Skimmer

Blue Dasher

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was hot and humid when I went trekking with my camera this past Wednesday and most of the wildlife seemed to be taking siestas in the shade at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I could hear the sounds of birds, but spotted only a few of them. Even the dragonfly activity seemed to be lower than normal.

Fortunately, a good number of butterflies were active. In fact they were so active, that I expended a lot of energy chasing after them. I noticed that several of them were showing some wear and tear, with visible damage to their wings.

The first and third photos show Black Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio polyxenes), while the butterfly in the middle shot is a Zebra Swallowtail butterfly (Eurytides marcellus). None of these images is spectacular, but I like the way that they work together as a set, with the green vegetation in the background of each of them serving as a unifying element.

Have a happy weekend and chase a few butterflies if you can find them—it will make you feel like a child again.

Black Swallowtail

Zebra Swallowtail

Zebra Swallowtail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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Earlier this season I saw a lot of Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) activity at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Many of the Ospreys seemed to be attempting to build nests, but it was never clear to me which ones were viable. These potential nesting sites were scattered around the entire refuge, so I count not simply monitor them as I do with the two eagle nests.

One of these sites is a man-made nesting platform that is located in the middle of a field. It is a simple wooden platform atop a vertical post that looks like a telephone pole. During the off-season, when the ospreys have departed from our area, bald eagles often perch on this platform, but it is not suitable for a bald eagle nest.

Apparently, though, the nesting platform is suitable for ospreys. Last Friday, I noted a lot of activity at the platform and managed to capture this image of an osprey family. I was shooting a telephoto lens, but was a good distance away, so the shot is not quite as sharp and detailed as I would have liked. However, it is easy to pick out both parents and at least two baby ospreys.

That same day, I checked the eagle nest to see if I could see the eaglet that I had previously photographed, but did not see it. Previously it looked like the eaglet was almost ready to fly and it is possible that the eaglet is no longer spending its time in the nest, but I will be sure to check for activity the next time that I visit the refuge—it is one of my regular stops when I make the rounds at the wildlife refuge.

Ospreys

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The calendar and the temperatures both tell me that we have entered into the long, hot, lazy days of summer. Here in the Washington D.C. area, where I live, that often means a lot of humidity too. Some days it can be a bit of a challenge to motivate myself to go out into the wild with my camera.

However, many dragonflies seem to love this kind of weather and the fields and ponds are abuzz with dragonfly activity. One of our common species is the Great Blue Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula vibrans). This past week I noticed a sharp increase in their numbers as I wandered the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Great Blue Skimmers have stunning blue eyes and white faces, which help to distinguish them from similar species. The Great Blue Skimmer in the first photo, which looks to be a young male, was cooperative and let me get quite close to him to get this close-up view of his head. Dragonflies of this species seem to have a pronounced overbite, which gives them a goofy grin that I find endearing.

I think that the dragonfly in the second shot is a female Great Blue Skimmer. Several dragonfly species share the same black and yellow coloration and pattern for juveniles and for females, so it can often be a real challenge to make a definitive identification. Fortunately, the differences among the species become more pronounced as the dragonflies mature.

 

Great Blue Skimmer

Great Blue Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I noticed on Friday that quite a few milkweed plants are now in bloom at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Hopefully they will attract some Monarch butterflies. In the meantime, I was happy to see this Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) with its cool “longhorn” antennae.

Over ten years ago, I encountered these strange-looking insects for the first time and was utterly fascinated by their appearance. That fascination has not diminished over time. Milkweed plants are amazing hosts to a wonderful variety of insects and it is always fun to examine them closely.

I was a pretty good distance away from this beetle, so I was not able to get a close-up shot of it, so settled for a shot that included a bit of the milkweed. I really like the resulting image, a reminder to myself that the primary subject does not necessarily have to fill the frame for a photo to be effective.

If you want a better view of a Red Milkweed Beetle, check out my June 2013 posting entitled “Red Milkweed Beetle—he’s back.”

Red Milkweek Beetle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Numerous Needham’s Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula needhami)) have recently emerged at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Yay! I just love the golden leading edges on the wings of this species. Male Needham’s Skimmers eventually turn reddish-orange in color, but initially have the same yellow and black coloration as the females.

In the first shot, I was thrilled to photograph a beautiful female as she perched on some colorful Eastern Gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides).  I cannot identify very many plants, but this one is distinctive enough that it has stuck in my memory. I love the expression on the dragonfly’s face–she seems to be either smiling at me or sticking out her tongue at me.

The Needham’s Skimmer in the second image also seems to be smiling. I think that it is a male, but cannot be certain from this angle of view.

Have a wonderful weekend. Needham's Skimmer

Needham's Skimmer

© 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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Here is a look at what might be one or more of the parents of the young eaglet at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge that I featured in a recent post. Last Friday, the larger Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at the top was perched for an extended period of time in a tree overlooking the large nest when the second eagle flew in. They remained in place for several minutes before flying away.

Are these two eagles a couple? The one on the left is probably three to four years old and may not be mature enough to be a parent—it can take about five years for the head feathers to turn completely white and for an eagle to fully mature. On the other hand, if only the older one is a parent, it seems a little strange that it was so comfortable with an interloper zooming in and perching that close if they are not a couple.

Several Facebook readers commented that the eagles that were hanging around the nest earlier in the year both had completely white heads. What happened? We may need a paternity test to determine if this precocious young eagle is indeed the father.

So what do we have here? Is this a much older sibling of the eaglet in the nest? If so, where is the other parent? Female eagles tend to be larger than males, so it is quite possible that the eagle perched higher is a female. Maybe she is disappointed that there is only a single eaglet and is trying out a possible new mate. It is a bit of a mystery.

bald eagles

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Earlier this month I did a posting called  Looking out of the nest that featured a young Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sitting up in a large nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and wondered when it would be able to fly. Last Friday I returned to the refuge and was delighted to see the eaglet flapping its wings and testing them out—I think it is almost ready to fly..

The eaglet repeatedly extended its wings, but seemed a bit uncoordinated, like a gawky teenager who has experienced a growth spurt. Several times it was able to rise up into the air, but looked uncertain about what to do next. The photos below show some of the action, which lasted only for a few minutes. The eaglet then disappeared into the deep nest, possibly to rest after its exertion.

I watched for a while longer and eventually the eaglet reappeared, but it simply sat up, looking out of the nest. A fellow photographer told me that he spotted the eaglet the following day perched in the tree that you can see in the right side of the image. I suspect, though, that the eaglet will need some quite a bit more practice before it will be capable of venturing out on its own and, of course, it will have to learn how to fish.

I will probably make a trip to the refuge this week to check on the eaglet. So many of the nearby trees are covered with leaves that I may have trouble spotting the eagle, particularly because its dark, and mottled plumage help it to blend in well with the foliage. Adult Bald Eagles tend to stick out a bit more because of the bright white feathers on their heads.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) looked a bit bedraggled when I spotted it on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where it was perched just above the large eagle nest in which a young eagle was visible. Harried parent? Check out yesterday’s posting “Looking out of the nest” if you missed the photos of the inquisitive juvenile eagle.

The sky was totally overcast on the day when I took these photos and the sky was almost pure white. The resulting effect makes these shots look almost like high key portraits taken in a studio setting, although personally I would have liked a little more directed light to make the photos look less flat. Still, any day is a good day when I get to see a bald eagle.

bald eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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It was really cool on Tuesday to be able to capture these images of a young Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) looking out from the large eagle nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The growing eaglet appeared to be quite alert and was sitting up quite high near the edge of the nest. I love how you can see the mottled plumage, dark eyes, and multi-colored beak of this eaglet in these photos.

The nest is high in the trees and there is now a lot of vegetation growing, so it was quite a challenge to get a clear angle of view. I am pretty happy with the results that I was able to achieve. The eaglet looks to be big enough to be flying, but I am not sure if that is the case. One of its parents was perched on some branches just above the nest, so I am pretty sure that it is not yet ready to go out on its own—eagles normally take about 12 weeks to fledge and then may hang around with their parents for another month or two.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I have seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) only a few times in my life, so I was thrilled last week when I spotted one last week at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my second sighting of this species this year. Once again I was struck by the brilliant blue coloration of its feathers—even from a distance the bird’s amazing blue color really stood out.

As I was doing a little research, I was surprised to learn that Indigo Buntings, along with other buntings and grosbeaks, are part of the Cardinalidae family, which I tend to associate with the bright red Northern Cardinals. When I look at the first photo, though, I must admit that the raised crest on the head of the bunting does remind me a bit of a cardinal.

I did not notice it when I took the first photo, but as I was processing the first image I spotted what appears to be a band on the bird’s right leg—I encourage you to click on the image to get a closer look at that leg. There is a bird banding station at this wildlife refuge and several years ago I visited it and watched the fascinating process of bird banding (see my 2018 posting entitled Visit to a banding station). I recall being amazed at the range of sizes of the bands, which allow for the banding of birds even smaller than the Indigo Bunting, which is about 5 inches (13 cm) in length.

I believe that Indigo Buntings remain with us all summer, so I will be keeping my eyes open for them during future visits. However, I couldn’t help but notice how the trees are now covered with leaves and the vegetation is lush, which makes it really hard for me to see small birds, even when I am able to hear them.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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On Saturday I spotted my first Spangled Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula cyanea) of the year at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It is remarkable easy to identify this species, because it is the only dragonfly in our area that has both black and white stigmata.

The stigmata, or pterostigmata, which is the more technical name, are the pigmented hollow structures on the leading edge of dragonfly wings. They are slightly heavier than the adjoining cells and have a significant effect on the aerodynamics of the wing, particularly while gliding, according to an article entitled “Dragonfly wings: tried and tested over millennia!” I confess that I don’t understand aerodynamics at all and look at dragonfly flight as nothing short of miraculous.

You may have noted that all the dragonflies in all three photos look pretty much the same, but the first two are male and the third is a female. Mature males are blue in color, but when they are young, the immature males share the brown and yellow coloration of the females. The easiest way to tell them apart is to look at the tip of the abdomen (the “tail”)—the terminal appendages of the two genders are quite different in appearance.

Spangled Skimmer

Spangled Skimmer

Spangled Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When the Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) emerged from the water on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I initially thought that he had snagged some underwater vegetation. However, it quickly became apparent that the prey was wriggling and squirming and was in fact alive. It looked a bit like a small snake or maybe some kind of marine worm, but several Facebook viewers later informed me that it was probably an American Eel (Anguilla rostrata).

The eel put up quite a struggle, but I believe that the grebe eventually subdued it and swallowed it. Unfortunately the grebe turned his back to me during the process, so I was not able to document the final phases of his efforts with my camera.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was a bit surprised and absolutely delighted to see my first Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of the year yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I love to see these colorful butterflies, but each year it is a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition, as habitats for Monarchs continue to be threatened and their numbers seem to be declining.

Monarch butterfly

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I spotted this Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There are a lot of sandpipers that are similar in appearance, so I was not sure what kind it was when I took these shots. As I looked through my bird identification guide, however, I realized that the spots on the bird’s chest and the orange bill made it quite easy to identify, because these traits are distinctive for breeding Spotted Sandpipers.

I was intrigued to learn on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that the female Spotted Sandpiper is the one who establishes and defends the territory—she arrives at the breeding grounds earlier than the male, unlike in other species of migratory birds, where the male establishes the territory and arrives earlier. More amazingly, the male of this species takes the primary role in parental care, incubating the eggs and taking care of the young. Wow!

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I am finally starting to see many of the common species of dragonflies and damselflies that will keep me company through the long hot days of the summer. On Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge I spotted my first Big Bluet damselflies (Enallagma durum) of the season, including the mating pair shown in the first photo below. This sidewards heart position, sometimes referred to as the “wheel position,” is quite distinctive and reminds me of something you might see in a Cirque du Soleil production.

American bluets are the largest genus of damselflies in North America and are often the most familiar and numerous damselflies that people see. As the genus name Bluet suggests, most members of this genus have bright blue coloration in various patterns, although I have also photographed Orange Bluets, which sounds like a contradiction in terms.

During the summer, I often see Big Bluets along the trails adjacent to the water at this wildlife refuge. As damselflies go, Big Bluets are comparatively large at 1.3- 1.7 inches (34 – 44 mm) in length. Big Bluets have elongated, arrow-shaped black markings on their abdomens, as  you can see in the second photo below, and this helps in distinguishing them from other bluets.

Damselfly identification is challenging under the best of all circumstances and even in this case, when I was fairly confident about my identification, I sought confirmation in a Facebook dragonfly group.

 

Big Bluet

Big Bluet

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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I was tracking the movement of this colorful Prothonotary Warbler on Monday (Protonotaria citrea) at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it hopped about in the dense green foliage, when suddenly it popped into the open and I was able to capture these images.

I absolutely love the bright yellow coloration of this warbler that never fails to put a smile on my face—years ago I used to drive a Toyota Matrix that was Solar Yellow and was visible from a long distance away. It was cool during this encounter that the bird was close enough to me that I managed to capture the reflection of the sky and the landscape in its eye.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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I was excited to spot this juvenile Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sitting up in the big nest at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Monday. I assume that this eaglet was born this spring, based on its coloration and markings.

Earlier this spring I had noted eagle activity around this nest and thought that the nesting process had already begun long ago. However, this nest is very large and so high up that it is impossible to tell when the eagles began to sit on the egg or eggs. I checked my blog postings from the past and saw that I posted a shot of eaglets at this same nest on 19 May last year (see the posting Eagle nest update in May), so things seem to be following the same approximate schedule.

I saw only a single eaglet this time, but will continue to monitor the nest for more eaglet activity, including indications that there is more than one eaglet. Earlier on the same day I spotted an adult eagle perched in a tulip tree—you can actually see some of the “tulips”— adjacent to the nest and suspect that this is one of the parents keeping an eye on the eaglet(s). I included a shot below of the presumed proud parent as a final photo.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

 

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This bird was in the middle of a field on Tuesday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when its movement caught my eye. When it hopped to the top of the vegetation, its brilliant yellow chest made it really hard to miss, even though it was far away. I am pretty sure that it is a Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens), my first sighting ever of this cool bird species.

Many of the migrating warblers that are passing through my area have various yellow markings, so I assumed that this was simply another warbler that I had never seen before. The reality, however, is hardly simple. According to Wikipedia, “The Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) is a large songbird found in North America, and is the only member of the family Icteriidae. It was once a member of the New World warbler family, but in 2017, the American Ornithological Society moved it to its own family. Its placement is not definitely resolved.”

Compared with most other warblers, the Yellow-breasted Chat seems much larger and bulkier and it has a relatively long tail and a rather robust beak. I love the bright yellow color on its breast and the distinctive eye-markings that make it look like the bird is wearing spectacles.

I think that we are nearing the end of the period of bird migration, but I will definitely keep my eyes open for possible new finds like this gorgeous Yellow-breasted Chat.

Yellow-breasted Chat

yellow-breasted chat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although I have photographed a Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) several times in the past, I had never seen one in colorful breeding plumage until yesterday. According to the range maps on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, Horned Grebes do not breed in my area, so this one, who was swimming by himself, may just be passing through as he migrates northward.

The colors and patterns on this bird are amazing. The gold circles in the grebe’s red eyes really grab a viewer’s attention, though I must admit that I find them to be a little bit creepy—it is definitely worthwhile to click on the photos to get a closer look at those eyes. The bird’s distinctive “horns” appear to be tufts of long golden feathers behind each eye in a pattern that is reminiscent of the haircut of a medieval monk, particularly in the middle photo. My favorite photo may well be the final one that captures some of the grebe’s spunky personality.

Like most other grebes, Horned Grebes have compact bodies, relatively short necks, blocky heads and straight, narrow bill that is very different from a duck’s bill. I observed the grebe as it repeatedly made short dives in search of food yesterday in the waters off of Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, during the breeding period Horned Grebes also feed heavily on insects and larvae, some caught in the air, others in or on the water.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Although I enjoy photographing large, colorful butterflies, like the Zebra Swallowtail that I featured in a recent posting, I also love to photograph smaller, more nondescript butterflies. I spotted this pretty little Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) during a visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and chased it about as it gathered nectar from several early spring wildflowers.

There are over 3500 species of skipper butterflies worldwide, according to Wikipedia, and the Silver-spotted Skipper is one of the few that I can reliably identify. Many of the others that I see are so similar in appearance that I have to pore over identification guides to try to figure out what kind they are. Often I end up guessing and am wrong just about as often as I am right in identifying a skipper.

Silver-spotted Skipper

Silver-spotted Skipper

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I was thrilled to capture this image of an Eastern Comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) during a recent visit to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. When its wings are closed, this butterfly blends right in with the bark of the trees on which it frequently perches, so it was nice that it chose to perch on some green leaves.

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Zebra Swallowtail butterflies (Eurytides marcellus) are amazingly skittish. They fly all about, approaching plants as though they were planning to land and then change course at the last moment. I was thrilled during a recent trip to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge when this beautiful Zebra Swallowtail landed on a small wildflower and stayed still long enough for me to lower my monopod and focus on it.

I was shooting at the extreme end of my long telephoto zoom lens and was not sure if I could capture the fine details of the butterfly—the lens is supposedly soft at 600 mm. I was delighted when I saw my shots on my computer to see that I had managed to capture the beautiful red markings that really pop amid the zebra stripes pop on this swallowtail. Even the long antennae and the “tails” of the butterfly are pretty sharp.

Zebra Swallowtail

© 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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