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Archive for the ‘Nature’ 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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Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were quite active yesterday at Huntley Meadows Park, including one that was investigating tree cavities. I am not sure if the bluebird was checking out potential nesting spots for next year or was merely searching for insects. Whatever the case, it was definitely cool when the bird climbed inside the cavity and poked its head out. I was particularly happy that the sun was shining brightly, which made the bluebirds’ brilliant blue really pop.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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One of the coolest turtles in our area is the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), also known as the Woodland Box Turtle. Unlike many turtles, this one spends most of its time on land rather than in the water. I spotted this beauty, which is probably a male,  last weekend at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge as it was slowly making its way across a trail—males generally have red eyes and the females have brown eyes.

As I was doing a little research, I discovered that the Eastern Box Turtle is the official state reptile of North Carolina and Tennessee. Who even knew that states had official reptiles? According to an article in ncpedia.org, the General Assembly of 1979 designated the Eastern Box Turtle as the official State Reptile for North Carolina. Given that this was agreed in a legislative body, debates were held about the relative merits of this reptile versus other potential candidates.

I couldn’t help but laugh as I read the words of the preamble to the legislative bill that cited a variety of reasons why the box turtle was selected:

“Whereas, the turtle is a most useful creature who serves to control harmful and
pestiferous insects, and acts as one of nature’s clean-up crew, helping to preserve the purity and
beauty of our waters; and

Whereas, the turtle is derided by some who have missed the finer things of life, but
in some species has provided food that is a gourmet’s delight; and

Whereas, the turtle, which at a superficial glance appears to be a mundane and
uninteresting creature, is actually a most fascinating creature, ranging from species well
adapted to modern conditions to species which have existed virtually unchanged since
prehistoric times; and

Whereas, the turtle watches undisturbed as countless generations of faster hares run
by to quick oblivion, and is thus a model of patience for mankind, and a symbol of this State’s
unrelenting pursuit of great and lofty goals; and

Whereas, the woodlands, marshes, and inland and coastal waters of North Carolina
are the abode of many species of turtles; Now, therefore. . .”

As an interesting sidenote, Virginia, the state in which I live, has twice considered adopting this turtle as the state’s official reptile, but rejected the legislative proposals in 1999 and 2009. A posting on nbcwashington.com reported that during discussions in 2009, one delegate asked why Virginia would make an official emblem of an animal that retreats into its shell when frightened and dies by the thousands crawling across roads and counterproposed that the rattlesnake be chosen. The fatal blow, according to the posting, might have been the disclosure that the Latin name for the Eastern Box Turtle—Terrapene carolina carolina—implied too close a relation to a Virginia regional rival.

Eastern Box Turtle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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As I turned the corner of a trail at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge on Monday, I spotted a large bird perched high in a tree. It didn’t immediately fly away, so I figured it wasn’t an eagle. Zooming in, I realized I was wrong—it was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) facing in the opposite direction.

I got lots of photos of the back of the eagle’s head, but decided that I wouldn’t share any of them. I knew that eventually the eagle would turn its head and tried to get ready. I snapped off a few photos, including the first one below, when the eagle turned its head and surveyed the area.

I don’t know if it was the noise of the shutter or if it detected motion, but the eagle spotted me and I was able to capture the second shot as it was preparing to take flight. I was thrilled, because this was the closest encounter that I had had with a bald eagle in a long time.

I continued down the trail and a short while later made a turn onto another trail. As I glanced to my left, I saw a perched eagle. I don’t know if it was the same one that I had just observed, but I managed to snap off a few more shots, including the third shot below. I like the way that I was able to capture a bit of the feel of autumn with the red leaves.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I spotted this bird on Monday at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, it was facing away from me and I couldn’t immediately identify it. It had fluffed up its feathers and appeared to be basking in the sunlight.

When it finally turned its head slightly, I caught a glimpse of its red eyes and realized that it was probably an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). All of the other times that I have seen towhees in the past, they have been foraging in the cluttered undergrowth, so it was a real treat to see one more or less in the open. As a bonus, the light coming from the left helped to illuminate some of the details of the bird’s beautiful feathers and the bird’s pose is quite different from that of a typical perched bird .

Eastern Towhee

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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When I heard loud singing coming from the top of a tree, I glanced up and saw a shape that reminded me of a mockingbird. Looking more closely, I realized that the colors looked more like those of a female Red-winged Blackbird, but the shape of the body and behavior were not those of a blackbird. Although I was pretty far away, I noticed that the bird had startlingly light-colored eyes. What was this bird?

Thanks to its physical characteristics, it was not hard to locate this bird in my identification book when I got home—it is a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum).  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Brown Thrashers are exuberant singers, with one of the largest repertoires of any North American songbird.” The same article notes that some early naturalists thought that the Brown Thrasher’s musical abilities are underappreciated, as compared with the mockingbird, which has received greater acclaim. “Brown Thrasher”  somehow sounds to me like it should be associated more with a heavy metal band than with this pretty bird. Maybe this bird needs a better marketing strategy and a public relations campaign.

The sky was heavily overcast the day I took these shots. Normally I don’t like the look of the washed-out skies, but in this case I really like the effect. One of my Facebook viewers commented that it made the photo that I posted (the first one below) look like an Audubon print.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Recently at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the only views I have gotten of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) have been of them flying away from me. Yesterday I got lucky and caught a glimpse through the foliage of one sitting in a distant tree in what appears to be a nest. Earlier this year, several roads in the refuge were closed after two eaglets were born. I don’t know if this was the nesting site, but suspect it might have been.

I was a long way away, but had a small visual tunnel through the trees that gave me a mostly unobstructed view of the eagle. I tried to move slowly, although I figured that the eagle was unaware of my presence. Apparently I underestimated the sharpness of the eagle’s vision, because it took off from the nest not long after I began shooting.

As I have said in the past, however, any day that I am able to see and photograph a Bald Eagle is a wonderful day.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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