Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

One Morning at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge by Todd Henson

Periodically I like to share a sampling of what one can see on a single visit to locations I enjoy. On most visits I don’t have any goals other than to enjoy the hike and see and photograph as much as I can. I accept what nature provides. And then I gather together what I’ve seen and share it with you.

Today’s post is about an early June morning spent hiking at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a hidden gem in northern Prince William County, Virginia. It’s located at the point where the Occoquan River flows into Belmont Bay, and then into Occoquan Bay, before merging with the Potomac River. It contains a variety of terrain and habitats, with trails along the waters edge, through wetlands, across grass fields, into the woods, and beside ponds.

Below is a small sampling of what I photographed on that morning. Click on any of the photos for a larger view.


This can be a great location for photographing wildflowers throughout the year. They border many of the trails, so you don’t have to go far to see them. Do be careful, though, if moving into the grass and brush beside the trail. Some years ticks are plentiful here, so carry bug spray and check yourself after each hike.

A pink Virginia Rose

A beautiful American Water-willow growing along the shoreline.

A small cluster of Hairy Skullcap flowers

I plan on sharing more of the flowers in a future post, but today I’m sharing a bright pink Virginia Rose, a small cluster of Hairy Skullcap, and an American Water-willow. Many thanks to Steve Gingold for identifying the American Water-willow (USDA profile of American Water-willow / Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center profile of American Water-willow). Check out Steve’s blog for some great photography and education related to nature and the outdoors.


If you want to photograph butterflies it’s easiest if you can get here first thing in the morning, before the butterflies have become more active. But with a little patience you can still photograph them later in the morning or throughout the day. Those in this post were photographed between 9 to 10 in the morning.

A Monarch butterfly on milkweed.

A Zebra Swallowtail butterfly which proved a very patient subject.

A Skipper butterfly resting on grass. I don’t know the specific species of Skipper, but if you do let me know.

Many of the butterflies would fly away anytime I approached to photograph them. But occasionally one would sit still long enough for me to capture a few pictures. The Monarch was a challenge. It kept moving. The Skipper was a little easier to photograph, sitting still for a brief time before disappearing. The Zebra Swallowtail was a complete joy to photograph. It sat very patiently as I approached, letting me capture a number of photographs before moving on.

Reptiles & Amphibians

This is a perfect environment for a variety of reptiles and amphibians, so keep your eyes open while hiking. The first we found was a very small young Eastern American Toad, at least that’s what I think it is. It could be a Fowler’s Toad, as these do sometimes resemble one another. Let me know if you think I’ve misidentified it.

A very small young Eastern American Toad, or perhaps a Fowler’s Toad.

Further on we encountered two different snakes. The first was a Northern Watersnake feeding at the edge of the water. I shared a number of images of this watersnake in last week’s post. Not long after this we encountered a Northern Black Racer along the side of the trail. Whereas the watersnake didn’t react at all to our presence, the racer was very watchful, flicking its tongue, getting our scent as we stood around watching it.

A Northern Watersnake swallowing prey along the waters edge.

A Northern Black Racer snake, flicking its tongue as we watch.

Not long after this we ran into a Southeastern Mud Turtle trying to quickly get back to the swampy area just off the trail. I barely had time to snap a photograph before it was back in the brush.

A Southeastern Mud Turtle hurrying off the trail towards the swampy area.


I’ve been fortunate to see many species of mammals here over the years, such as Coyote, Red Fox, White-tailed Deer and Northern Raccoon. On this particular day I photographed two very different species. One was an young Eastern Cottontail Rabbit just off the trail. It froze when it saw us, hoping we couldn’t see it. We just stood there, quietly, until it grew used to us and went back to eating the greenery on the ground. I love watching these rabbits.

A young Eastern Cottontail rabbit.

The second species was a most curious one, some form of mouse. It’s the first time I’ve seen one of these at the refuge. I don’t believe it’s native to these parts, and appears to have washed ashore. But it just goes to show, you can see all sorts of crazy and wonderful wildlife while hiking Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

What strange species of mouse is this?

Parting Thoughts

This was a small sampling of what you might find at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There are so many other species to see here, whether they be insects, reptiles, or wildflowers. It’s also a good birding location, and in fact is a great place to see nesting Osprey and Bald Eagles.

One drawback during parts of the year are the biting insects. The hot humid months of summer can be miserable in parts of the refuge, especially those that border wetlands areas. And ticks can be very bad some years. So don’t forget your bug spray, and again, check yourself thoroughly after each hike. But don’t let this scare you off. This refuge has a lot to offer a nature lover. Check it out if you’re in the area.

What Does an Engorged Tick Look Like? by Todd Henson

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit with at least 4 ticks. Look at its snout and ear. Click on the images in this post for a larger view.

We know to avoid ticks, that they carry disease, and that they can be very small and sometimes difficult to notice. You generally don’t feel them when they embed their head into your skin, so you have to go out of your way to search yourself for them after a hike through their territory. And they survive by feeding on the blood of their hosts.

But how often do you see an engorged tick? Do you know what a tick looks like when it has been attached and feeding for several days? Well, if you hike through enough parks where they live you’ve likely seen them on rabbits, deer, or other wildlife. They may be very difficult to see when they first attach themselves to their host, but they are very easy to spot when they have engorged themselves on their host’s blood.

Closer view of the rabbit with 2 engorged ticks on its snout, and at least 2 ticks on its ear.

These photos show a small Eastern Cottontail Rabbit at a local wildlife refuge that is host to several ticks. Rabbits and deer are very prone to hosting ticks because they frequent just the sorts of grassy environments where ticks often hang out, waiting for something to walk by.

Closeup of the rabbit's snout. You can easily see the 2 engorged ticks.

During one visit to a park I kneeled down on the trail to look closely at the grass growing down the center of the trail. The trail was a dirt service road with grass in the center. Just in that one spot I could see dozens of ticks perched at the top of blades of grass, with their front legs open and stretched out, ready to grab onto anything that brushed against them.

Closeup of the rabbit's ear. There is an engorged tick, and one higher up that hasn't been feeding quite as long.

Thankfully, I have not seen quite this concentration of ticks since then, but I do still pick one up from time to time. I’m usually able to find them on my clothing, but sometimes I don’t find them until they’ve attached themselves. That’s why it’s important to check yourself very carefully after every trip to this sort of environment. If you can find the ticks quickly, before they have embedded themselves too deeply, they are much easier to remove. And I’ve read there is much less chance of them passing on any of the diseases they carry if you can remove them within 24 hours.

Avoiding Ticks

Please don’t let ticks dissuade you from visiting the beautiful parks out there. But do be aware of their existence if they live in your area. Take precautions to avoid being bitten:

  • Use tick repellents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend tick repellents that contain 20% or more DEET, picardin or IR3535 for protecting your skin. They recommend using permethrin on clothing.

  • Be careful where you walk and perhaps avoid leaving the trail. If possible, avoid grassy areas.

  • Check yourself over carefully every so often as you hike. It’s best to find them and knock them off your clothing before they bite you.

  • Carefully check yourself when leaving the park. I like to do this before getting in the car. Once I didn’t do this and found a tick crawling on me while driving. Not a good distraction.

  • If you use a tripod be sure to inspect the tripod before packing it up. I have found them crawling up the tripod legs.

  • Don't forget to check any bags or backpacks you carried with you, especially if you set any of them on the ground.

  • When you get home, the CDC recommends throwing your clothes in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill any ticks crawling on them.

  • When you get home also look yourself over even closer to catch any ticks that made it under your clothes and might have attached themselves. Taking a shower can help you find any and possibly wash them off. But don’t scratch them off if they’ve bitten you, that might leave the head under your skin.

Removing Ticks

If you do find a tick that has latched onto you follow the directions from the CDC on removing the tick. They recommend using fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull upward with a steady, even pressure. It can take more pressure than you might think, especially if it has been attached for any length of time. Ticks don’t want to let go. So just keep slowly pulling upward until you do remove it. Then be sure to thoroughly clean the area of the bite. In the coming days and weeks watch the area of the bite. If any rashes appear or if you develop a fever, go see your doctor and mention the tick bite.

To recap, please continue to visit all the wonderful parks in your area. Just be aware of ticks if they are in your area. Take precautions to avoid them. And if you are bitten remove it as quickly as possible.

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