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Archive for the ‘wildlife’ Category

It’s springtime and love is in the air. So many creatures seem to be searching for mates and some of them have obviously found one, like this pair of Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) that I spotted in flagrante delicto at Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge in Northern Virginia this past Friday.

I am no expert in butterfly anatomy and have no idea how this works, but there is a real beauty in the position, which appropriately looks  to me like a double heart. What can I say, I am a romantic at heart.

Pearl Crescent

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Last weekend at Huntley Meadows Park, a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) seemed determined to scare off potential competitors by screaming loudly and vigorously flapping its wings as it sat atop a pole to which a nesting box was attached. The swallow spent a lot of time looking upwards, scanning the skies for rivals. I couldn’t tell if the swallow’s mate was inside of the nesting box or if it was simply staking a claim to the box for future use.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Now that the dragonfly season has started in my area, I am devoting more and more of my available photography time to searching for these beautiful little creatures. Some dragonflies can be found almost anywhere, but many of them require a very specific kind of habitat and may be present for only limited periods of time.

Yesterday afternoon I visited Jackson Miles Abbott Wetland Refuge, which features a small pond surrounded by a pathway. Last year I found several different dragonfly species there, so I knew that I might have a chance of seeing some dragonflies. I looked in the brush and in the vegetation and came up empty-handed until I looked at the water and spotted several dragonflies flying low above the water.

I recognized the dragonflies as Common Baskettail dragonflies (Epitheca cynosura) and knew that I faced a challenge—this species seems to fly continuously and rarely have I seen one perch. I realized that if I wanted to get some shots of the dragonflies I would have to capture the images while they were flying.

I had my Tamron 180mm macro lens on my camera and started to track the flying dragonflies. I have tried a number of focusing techniques in the past and have had the most success when I focus the lens manually (although I hesitate to use the word “success,” given the high rate of failure in getting an in-focus shot). This was my favorite shot of a Common Baskettail flying above the water. There is a bit of motion blur in the wings and I had to crop the image quite a bit, but I managed to keep most of the dragonfly in focus.

Common Baskettail

I walked multiple circuits around the pond, still searching for more dragonflies. I tend to like to keep moving, rather than sticking in one spot. As I reached one end of the pond, I suddenly realized that a dragonfly was hovering in mid-air right in front of me. The dragonfly was moving slowly above a grassy patch adjacent to the pond, but did not seem interested in heading for the water.

I could hardly believe my good fortune and tried to compose myself and focus on the dragonfly. I managed to get some detailed shots that show, for example, how the Common Baskettail folds up its legs when flying. I took the first shot below while on my knees, so that I was almost level with the dragonfly. For the second shot, I was shooting down on the dragonfly and it looks almost like it was taken by a drone, hovering above the hovering dragonfly.

Common Baskettail

Common Baskettail

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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Hooded Merganser ducks (Lophodytes cucullatus) are usually pretty skittish, but the females are a little less so at this time of the year as they hang around and wait for their eggs to hatch.  I spotted this little lady earlier this month on a morning when the light was particularly beautiful. She was unusually cooperative and looked in my direction as if to say, “I’m ready for my close-up.”

Hooded Merganser

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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With so much water currently in the central wetlands area of Huntley Meadows Park, I don’t see many shorebirds at this time of the year. The shorebirds seem to prefer to wade in shallow water. This past weekend, however, I spotted this one as it surveyed the marshland from atop a log. I think it is a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), although I admit that I have troubles identifying the different shorebirds, many of which look almost identical to me.

As you can see, the yellowlegs was a long way away. Usually I try to get close-up shots with either a telephoto or a macro lens and am a little disappointed if I can not fill a substantial part of the frame with my primary subject. In this case, however, I was never tempted to crop the image more severely, because  the surrounding landscape is an important element of making this image appealing to me.

Greater Yellowlegs

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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I am not exactly sure what was going on, but this muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) seemed to be really struggling in the open water one afternoon last week as the strong wind gusts made the water really choppy at Huntley Meadows Park. Normally muskrats use their tails as a source of underwater propulsion, but it seemed really unusual to see a muskrat’s tail completely out of the water.

A Wikipedia article noted that muskrat tails are covered with scales rather than hair, and, to aid them in swimming, are slightly flattened vertically, which is a shape that is unique to them. I somehow had always thought of muskrat tails as being long and skinny, but, as the image shows, their tails are quite substantial.

I can’t tell for sure, but it looks like the muskrat may be carrying something in its mouth and/or front paws. Is that why it was seeking to balance itself with its tail? For now it remains a mystery, but I think I will go back over the other photos that I took of this muskrat to see if I can find an answer.

muskrat

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved

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On the same day that I saw the Common Whitetail dragonfly that I featured yesterday in my blog posting, I was thrilled to have the chance to photograph an uncommon dragonfly, a male Stream Cruiser (Didymops transversa). I had never before seen a Stream Cruiser, but local dragonfly expert and fellow photographer Walter Sanford had observed them in the past at Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge and offered to guide me.

It’s somewhat of an understatement to say that Stream Cruisers are hard to spot. The are not very big (about 2.2 inches (56-60mm) in length), they are skittish, and they often perch on the stems of low vegetation. During the hours that we searched for them, I observed a couple of probable Stream Cruisers in the air, but lost them in the blur of the vegetation and never saw a single one land. Walter saw the first one of the day, a female, and posted an awesome photograph of the beautiful dragonfly in a blog posting yesterday. Unfortunately for me, I was unable to make it to the dragonfly’s location before she flew away. Walter spotted a few more Stream Cruisers during the day, but each time I couldn’t get there quickly enough to see one.

I was beginning to think that I was going to end up empty-handed for the day when Walter called out that he had spotted a male perched in the underbrush. This Stream Cruiser was cooperative enough to stay perched as I rushed to try to get a shot. I had my Tamron 180mm macro lens on my camera at that moment. The dragonfly and the stem on which it was perched were so small in the viewfinder that my camera’s autofocus would not lock on my subject, so I had to resort to focusing manually. Dragonflies have so many fine details that it is really hard to tell when they are in focus. This image was the best I could get after cropping the initial shot quite a bit.

Stream Cruiser

I decided to push my luck and see if I could get a better shot with my Tamron 150-600mm lens that I use primarily to photograph birds. Amazingly the dragonfly stayed put while I changed lenses. Once again I had to focus manually, which is an even bigger problem with this lens, because the focus ring is located really close to the lens mount. It’s hard to hold the camera steady and focus manually at the same time.

Here’s an image that I shot at 600mm. I managed to get the eye pretty sharp and to capture some of the details of the dragonfly’s incredibly long legs, but the depth of field was so shallow that the abdomen is out of focus. Normally I will try to move around the subject to be as parallel as I can be, but in this case I stayed fixed at one spot and remained as immobile as I could.

Stream Cruiser

It is really nice to start off this dragonfly season with a new species. If you want to learn more about the Stream Cruiser dragonfly, check out this page from the Dragonflies of Northern Virginia website (and stay tuned for Walter’s shots of this dragonfly that should appear tomorrow morning in his blog).

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

 

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