Northern Watersnake

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.

Northern Watersnake Swallowing Prey by Todd Henson

Full view of the Northern Watersnake eating prey.

On a recent hike through a wildlife refuge I stumbled upon a Northern Watersnake on a rocky beach at the edge of the bay. After creating a couple photographs I noticed it was in the process of swallowing some form of prey. This was the first time I’d seen this in person.

Moving in a little closer to the Northern Watersnake.

Wanting a better look I slowly moved in closer, photographing as I did. I moved slowly and only got as close as I felt I could without stressing the snake. I never want to overly stress an animal when photographing.

Closer still, approaching the Northern Watersnake.

The snake never moved as I approached, all its energy focused on ingesting whatever it was it had captured. Even as I moved closer I still couldn’t identify what it was eating. If you can figure it out please let me know in the comments below. According to the Virginia Herpetological Society Northern Watersnakes primarily eat fish and amphibians, but do sometimes eat other prey such as small mammals.

I approached as close to the Northern Watersnake as I thought I could without causing it stress.

The light was difficult for these photographs. The snake’s head and the prey were in shadow, and the body was in full sun. I tried to balance the exposure in Lightroom, darkening the rocks while bringing out what details I could in the shadows. In these photos I wasn’t attempting to create artwork, but instead to document the species and try to identify what it was ingesting.

Zooming in on the head of the Northern Watersnake, its mouth open wide around its prey.

A closer look at the patterns on the body of the Northern Watersnake. They are more distinct when wet, but often become less so as it dries.

Click on any of the photos for a larger view.

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What's That Out There In The Water? by Todd Henson

Northern Watersnake swimming in the water.

It’s a Northern Watersnake! Up till now every Northern Watersnake I’ve photographed has been on land, though most were near water. But I’ve finally photographed a water snake swimming through the water. I watched this one as it dove under the water, resurfacing some distance away. These snakes can move fairly quickly through the water and can be difficult to follow.

Northern Watersnake approaching shore.

I don’t consider either of these photographs particularly great, and neither is in any way artistic. But I’m pleased to have created them for the behavior they document.

There can be many reasons for creating a photograph. In most cases I’m trying to show some aspect of landscape, nature, or wildlife in an artistic, pleasing way. But other times, as in this case, I’m just trying to document a species, to capture any behaviors, or to capture different features of the creatures.

Next time I observe this behavior I hope to create a more pleasing set of photographs. First, capture the moment, document the behavior. Then work to create a better version of the photograph. There is always room for improvement. So keep trying!

Do you have any pleasant memories of when you captured an animal’s behavior? Let me know in the comments below.

The resources below contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links. This is at no extra cost to you.