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Archive for the ‘Dragonflies’ Category

It was inevitable as we moved deeper into autumn that all of the summer dragonflies would eventually disappear. The nights have been getting colder and not long ago we went through a spell of rainy weather. Over the past two weeks I have searched all over Occoquan Bay Wildlife Refuge, my recent favorite photography location, desperately hoping each time to find a few survivors.

Well, it is beginning to look like the male Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) that I spotted on the 15th of October will be the last summer dragonfly for me, at least at that location. Earlier this month I had seen multiple Twelve-spotted Skimmers patrolling over a small pond at the wildlife refuge, but this old guy was perching alone in the vegetation adjacent to the pond and seemed reluctant to take to the air. It appeared that there were no rivals to fight off and no females to attract.

The colorful pattern on its wings is still very distinctive and the wings are amazingly intact. You may notice the uneven color on its body. As the males get older, their bodies develop a waxy blue powder called pruinescence. (Check out this link to get more information on this dragonfly from the wonderful website Dragonflies of Norther Virginia (dragonfliesnva.com).

It’s hard for me not to feel a little wistful as I bid farewell to the summer dragonflies, with whom I have spent so many pleasant moments this year. There are still autumn dragonflies around, most notably the little red Autumn Meadowhawks and Blue-faced Meadowhawks, and an occasional migrating dragonfly, like a Wandering Glider or Common Green Darner, so dragonfly season is not yet over. You will notice, however, that the proportion of postings on birds will continue to increase and those on insects will decrease in the upcoming months.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Do you ever get so obsessed with a single species that you return over and over again to the same location, seeking another glimpse (and hopefully more photos) of that species? Generally I describe myself as an “0pportunistic” shooter—I like to walk around and photograph whatever I happen to see—and only rarely do I have specific goals for a photo shoot.

My normal approach changed this past month as I became somewhat obsessed with the Fine-lined Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora filosa). My good friend and local dragonfly expert Walter Sanford encouraged me to seek out this rare species, which has been seen at only a single location, Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, in our area. I started spending most of my free time at this wildlife refuge, rather than at Huntley Meadows Park, my most frequent shooting location.

Mostly on my own, though occasionally shooting with Walter, I learned more and about this species, including its preferred perches and patrolling techniques. Over time, I learned to recognize Fine-lined Emeralds as they flew towards me at knee-level with their shiny green eyes glinting in the sunlight and spent endless hours chasing after them. Eventually I acquired a collection of shots of them perching and even managed to capture an image of one in flight and some shots of a couple mating.

I was painfully aware that, as the old saying indicates, all good things must come to an end. The excellent website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia showed the record late date for this species of 4 October in our area, so last Friday, 6 October, I went out to shoot with high hopes, but low expectations. I was thrilled to have multiple sightings of Fine-lined Emeralds during the day and the images below are among my favorites of the day.

We have now entered into a period of rain in our area and I fear that I may have seen my final Fine-lined Emerald dragonfly for the year. I am a bit stubborn and unusually persistent, though, so I may make a trip again on Friday, my next free day for shooting, hoping against the odds to see my Fine-lined friends one more time.

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Autumn seems to be the season for migration—it’s hard to miss the flocks of honking geese that fill the skies and mysterious warblers taunt me with their songs from hidden haunts behind the foliage as they rest before continuing their journeys. Did you know that some species of dragonflies are also migratory?

Most of the migratory species unsurprisingly spend a lot of time in the air. They are visible as they pass through our area, but are tough to photograph. This past weekend I manage to get shots of two of the migratory species at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The first one is a Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) and the second is a Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata). What really stands out to me is the perfect condition of their wings, in contrast to the wings of the remaining resident dragonflies that are often tattered and torn this late in the season.

Wandering Glider

Black Saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As October begins, I renew my search for red dragonflies. Autumn is quite naturally the season when Autumn Meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) appear along with their more gaudily-colored brethren, the Blue-faced Meadowhawks (Sympetrum ambiguum). Both of these species have bright red bodies that should be easy to spot, but they like to perch low to the ground and sometimes even on fallen leaves, so you really have to pay attention.

I was a bit shocked on Monday to see some other small red dragonflies—at least three male Calico Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis elisa) were active at a small pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Calico Pennants are generally a summer species and I have featured them a couple of times earlier this year in this blog. According to the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website, their peak flight time is June to July and their late date is 23 September (I saw the one below on 2 October).

There are still other active dragonflies, but over time their numbers will continue to drop. Autumn Meadowhawks, though, usually stay with us into December and, if I remember correctly, occasionally even into January. I’ll be continuing my October hunt for red dragonflies into November and beyond.

Calico Pennant

Calico Pennant on 2 October at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

 

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

Blue-faced Meadowhawk at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

 

Autumn Meadowhawk

Autumn Meadowhawk at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As we move inexorably deeper into autumn, more and more flowers and leaves are fading and falling. Many of the familiar dragonflies of the summer also are disappearing. I was heartened yesterday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to spot this Fine-lined Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora filosa), a survivor that is tattered and torn, but is still flying in October.

I mentioned in a recent blog posting that I am experimenting with carrying two cameras with me when I go out shooting. The first photo was shot with my Canon SX50, a super-zoom camera and the second was taken with my Canon 50D DSLR. The depth of field is so shallow with the DSLR, normally shooting close to the 600mm end of my zoom lens, that it seems more ideal for shots like the second image where the subject is flatter. The SX50 gives me more depth of field and I love the way that it allowed me to capture the background as circles of color.

Fine-lined Emerald

Fine-lined Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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This Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) chose a beautiful perch and posed briefly for a couple of autumn portraits on Friday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Black Saddlebags usually spend a lot of time soaring high in the air, so it is a special joy for me when one lands and I am able to get some decent shots. I have never before managed to get a good look at their eyes and absolutely love the two-toned color combination.

black saddlebags

black saddlebags

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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I am becoming convinced that dragonflies are rulebreakers. Yesterday I noted that dragonflies do not always follow the rules and can sometimes be found in habitats where they are not supposed to be. Apparently they also do not know how to follow a calendar and can sometimes be found earlier or later than the rules and records indicate they will be present.

This past Monday I was back at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, searching again for the rare Fine-lined Emerald dragonflies that I had seen there previously. When I saw a dragonfly with bright green eyes perch in a distant tree, I naturally assumed that it was a Fine-lined Emerald. It is getting to be late in the dragonfly season, so many other species are no longer present. The dragonfly never got any closer, so I had to be content with my long-distance shots.

When I pulled up the images on my computer, something didn’t look quite right. The shape of the body seemed a little different from the Fine-lined Emeralds that I had seen previously and the tips of the abdomen (the “terminal appendages”) also looked different. I consulted with some dragonfly experts and they identified the dragonfly to me as a Mocha Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora linearis). I have seen this species before, but in a totally different environment and much earlier in the year, so I had mentally removed it from consideration.

Now I don’t feel too bad about missing the identification, because the two species are part of the same genus Somatochlora, also known as Striped Emeralds. The website Dragonflies of Northern Virginia indicates that the flight records for the Mocha Emerald are from 16 June to 16 September—I guess that window can now be extended a little.

I am including two photos of the Mocha Emerald that may look almost identical, but were shot with two very different cameras. The settings for the cameras were almost the same with an aperture of f/7.1 and a shutter speed of around 1/400 of a second and both were handheld. The first shot was with my Canon 50D DSLR and Tamron 150-600mm lens. Taking into account the crop factor of the camera, the field of view was equivalent to 960mm. The second shot was with my Canon SX50 with a field of view that was equivalent to 1200mm.

The DSLR was a lot heavier and a lot more expensive, but produced a more out-of-focus background. The Canon SX50 was cheaper, lighter, and brought me in closer to the subject. It’s clear to me that equipment did not make a huge difference in this case and that there are advantages and disadvantages to each system. I am increasingly drawn to the idea of carrying both with me for the moment and continuing to experiment with them.

The other big lesson that I continue to learn is to expect the unexpected. As I am discovering, subjects may pop up in places and at times when you least expect them.

Mocha Emerald

Mocha Emerald

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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