mammals

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.

Flowers

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.

Butterflies

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.

Mammals

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.


One Morning at Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve by Todd Henson

One recent morning I found myself walking through Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve with family and friends. I don’t get to this particular location too often, which is a shame, as it’s a beautiful little spot. It resides on a fairly small tract of land along the Potomac River just south of Alexandria, Virginia, and borders a local marina, so you can observe both wildlife and people on various sorts of watercraft.

I photographed anything that caught my eye, and this particular day it amounted to a nice selection of subjects, from plant life to wildlife to sailboats. Below are a selection to give you a feel for some of the opportunities this preserve offers.

Birds

A male Red-winged Blackbird perched atop a dead tree.

One of the more common inhabitants of local wetlands are Red-winged Blackbirds. The males are easy to identify by the patches of red, and sometimes yellow-white, on their shoulders. This particular blackbird kept flying back and forth between perches.

An adolescent Common Grackle resting on a fallen tree.

Another very common bird in this area are Common Grackles. I saw an adult fly off, very easy to identify because of their very striking eyes. Just afterwards I noticed movement down below and saw an adolescent Common Grackle perched on a fallen tree. This may be the first of these I’ve photographed, and if not for having just seen the adult I might have had a harder time identifying this young grackle. It doesn’t yet have the distinctive eye color of the adults, and its plumage hasn’t yet gained the iridescent quality it one day will.

A male Orchard Oriole far off in the distance. This photo is cropped to the extreme to let you see this beautiful bird.

A species I don’t see as often is the Orchard Oriole. This particular very colorful male was quite a ways off. I saw a streak of color and aimed my lens in that direction. I knew I couldn’t create any interesting artistic photographs from this distance, but I always try to capture photographs of different species. This photo is extremely cropped to zoom in on the bird and show you what it looks like.

A scruffy looking Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.

A Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker stretching its wing while preening.

On the way out of the preserve I noticed movement high up and saw a woodpecker perched at the top of a dead tree. At first I wasn’t sure of the species. It looked very scruffy with what appeared to be almost dirty feathers. But after seeing the red patch on the back of its head and the yellow in its wings I was able to identify it as a Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. I’m not sure if it’s an adolescent, or if it may be molting. It’s plumage just didn’t look as nice as I’m used to seeing. It made all sorts of interesting movements while preening, and I’ve shown a couple here.

A Hairy Woodpecker perched atop a dead tree.

Just after the flicker flew off another, smaller, woodpecker flew in to take its place. This one was a Hairy Woodpecker, and it proceeded to preen itself as the flicker had, though not in quite as interesting a fashion.

Mammals

A posing Eastern Gray Squirrel. They may be common, but I still enjoy photographing them.

The most common mammal to be seen in these sorts of locations are probably Eastern Gray Squirrels. And as common as they are I still find them a fascinating species that I love photographing. I really liked the pose of this squirrel as it sat atop the remains of a downed tree looking out over a small clearing in the woods beside the trail.

Reptiles

The front portion of a Black Rat Snake resting just off the trail.

This preserve is home to several species of snake, one of which is the Black Rat Snake. We saw two of these this trip, though I only photographed this one. I wasn’t able to get the entire snake in the frame, so this photo is just the upper portion.

A Five-lined Skink resting atop a wooden post.

Lizards are also abundant in these parks. The most common species is probably the Five-lined Skink, which is what all these photographs are of. We found one skink resting on the top of a wooden post by a bridge over some water. It was resting, completely indifferent to our presence. Many lizards I’ve encountered will run off before long when they realize you’ve noticed them, but not this one.

A male and female Five-lined Skink. The male is in the background, with a larger head and redder face. The female is in the front, with a smaller head and more orange/yellow face.

A juvenile Five-lined Skink, darker than the adults with a bluer tail. Click on the photo to see a larger view, then look closely just to the right of its front leg. It has a tick embedded on its back.

On the way out of the park we saw a few more. Two adults were hanging out together. The male has the larger redder head. And we saw a juvenile Five-lined Skink, which is darker than the adults. This poor thing was host to a tick. Click on the photo for a larger view, then look on its back near its front legs. This is the first time I’ve seen a tick on a reptile.

Plants and Fungi

A blooming Yellow Flag Iris. These were all over the wetlands.

The water throughout the wetlands was full of blooming Yellow Flag Iris, absolutely beautiful yellow flowers. Most were in the later stages of blooming, beginning to lose petals. But I found one that still looked reasonably nice.

A cluster of fungi growing on a log just off the trail.

And of course, you can find fungi and mushrooms almost anywhere. This small patch of rather large ones was growing off a fallen tree. I’m unsure of the species.

Watercraft

A moored sailboat on the Potomac River

Dyke Marsh has a trail that leads out onto a small boardwalk on the river. On one portion of the boardwalk we saw this lone moored sailboat in the Potomac River, with very small amounts of mist still hovering around the far shore. We also watched a number of folks in kayaks maneuvering through the narrow channels of the wetlands. It looks like a great way to see things we might not be able to from the trail.

Parting Thoughts

This is just a small sampling of what you might find at Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, or in many of these sorts of locations. I love visiting these locales as there’s always something to see, even on slow days.

If you do ever happen to visit Dyke Marsh be aware the trail can flood. It is a tidal wetlands and the water level of the Potomac does very quite a bit. When we visited there were large flooded patches, but not so much we weren’t able to slog through them to the boardwalk.


What Can You Find in a Wetlands Park? by Todd Henson

Why would you ever want to go to a wetlands park? What could you possibly find there that would make it worth the trip?

Answer: Life!

Healthy wetlands parks are absolutely full of life. They are home to countless species of animals, birds, insects, plant life, and aquatic life. They are important locations for these species, both as places to find food and as places to find shelter, to nest, to raise the next generation. And they are important filters for the water system, cleaning water, filtering it through the plants and layers of soil. Visiting wetlands parks helps remind us of the importance of these crucial and beautiful locations.

Red-winged Blackbirds

Male Red-winged Blackbird perched on a stump

Singing male Red-winged Blackbird

I just recently visited a local wetlands park, and this trip is a perfect example of the rich diversity of life you can find. One of the more common species in this park are the Red-winged Blackbirds. Early spring is mating season and you can watch as groups of male blackbirds chase the females, flying almost too fast to follow, hoping to win them over. They will perch on a branch and sing, puffing up their throat, calling out over and over. It’s a very common sound throughout the park.

Muskrat

This park is home to several beaver lodges, but I don’t often see any beaver. I do, however, see the more common and less shy muskrat swimming through the wetlands, pulling up roots and eating. This time we even watched a muskrat gathering reeds and roots and pulling them into its own little lodge, much smaller than that of the beaver. It was less than 6 feet from the boardwalk. Look at the tail of the muskrat in the photos. It’s both long and large, though not nearly the size of a beaver’s tail.

Muskrat swimming right at me

Look at the length and size of the muskrat's tail

Muskrat entering the water

Canada Geese

A nesting Canada Goose was also very close to the boardwalk. She was curled up on her nest, resting, with one eye open watching her surroundings. She wasn’t at all worried about the people walking by on the boardwalk. There are enough people who wander through this park the geese know they are safe. For a brief period the goose lifted her head up and began moving sticks and reeds from the sides of the nest closer to her and just under her, providing more cushioning and buffer between her eggs and the environment.

Mother Canada Goose resting on her nest

Closer look at the mother Canada Goose on her nest

Canada Goose rearranging branches and reeds on her nest

Wood Ducks

This time of the year is also a perfect opportunity to watch Wood Ducks, as they nest in the trees and the boxes built throughout the park specifically for them. They are such a beautiful and colorful species. They didn’t get very close to the boardwalk this trip, but I still attempted photographing them, even at a distance. I could spend hours watching these ducks.

Mates pair of Wood Ducks on a downed tree

Female Wood Duck flapping wings as male swims in the background

Great Blue Heron

A very common species at this, and many, wetlands parks are Great Blue Herons. They live here throughout the year, though their numbers increase this time of year. I never tire of watching these amazing birds. And this time of year the males display their beautiful breeding plumage, with the long lighter-colored feathers surrounding their breast and back. Magnificent and graceful birds. I watched one perched on the branch of a downed tree preening itself, twisting its head around in the strangest contortions, under its wings, over its shoulders, twisting and turning. As with so many species, I love watching these birds and never tire of photographing them.

Great Blue Heron in breeding plumage moves through wetlands brush

Great Blue Heron flying away with Red-winged Blackbird in foreground

Great Blue Heron in breeding plumage preening

Great Blue Heron looking tired while perched on branch

American Coot

Another species to return to the wetlands in the spring are the American Coot, a species that resemble ducks but is its own species. Coot are almost completely black and dark grey with a white beak and deep red eyes. I watched this one diving completely beneath the surface of the water to find food. Their feathers repel the water, and you can see water beading up on their backs and necks after coming back out of the water. They are curious little birds, and as with all species, I love watching and photographing them. I don’t have nearly enough photos of these birds.

American Coot with reflection in still water

American Coot just diving beneath the surface

Osprey

If you’re fortunate you may see an Osprey hovering over the wetlands looking for fish in the water below. And if you’re really fortunate you’ll watch as it plunges down into the water, coming back up with a fish in its talons. It will shake its wings dry, as they don’t repel water as well as those of the coot, and then fly away to find a tree perch where it can eat the fish in peace. Or perhaps it will fly back to its nest and leave the fish with the female. When her eggs hatch the male will be especially busy gathering fish for the hungry young. I love watching young Osprey in the nest, though I’m not aware of any nest in this wetlands park.

Osprey flying away with fish in talons

Spotted Turtles

Spring also brings turtles of various species back out to sun themselves on logs and banks. This trip I photographed a small group of Spotted Turtles on a log. Eventually just about every log will be covered in turtles. And the larger snapping turtles will hide just under the surface looking for any creatures unfortunate enough to stray too close.

Four Spotted Turtles on a log in wetlands

Read-headed Woodpeckers

The trails leading out of the wetlands back to the visitor’s center and parking lot are also full of birds. It’s often more difficult to photograph them high in the trees, but still fun to try. One species that really stands out and spends time at the edge of the woods closest to the wetlands is the Red-headed Woodpecker. This species is aptly named, as its head is completely red, and a beautiful metallic red that just sparkles when the sun hits it. I didn’t manage many photos of red-headed woodpeckers this time around, but did capture one from a distance, high up in a tree just outside a perfectly circular hole, perhaps its nest.

Red-headed Woodpecker perched in front of hole in tree

Insects

Wetlands parks are also home to all manner of insects. I’ve been lucky in this park in that there aren’t usually many biting insects, not like several other parks I visit. But if you keep your eyes out you can find insects worthy of photographing. Eventually the dragonflies and damselflies will return, along with butterflies and katydids. I photographed the remains of an insect nest this trip, possibly an old bee’s nest, hanging from a branch in the woods not far from the wetlands. And we watched what appeared to be hornets nesting in a tree cavity, though we didn’t approach too close.

And Much, Much More

This was just a small sampling of the species you can find in wetlands parks. There are so many other species of birds to watch and photograph, and the list changes throughout the year. Other mammals include deer, mice, voles, beaver, fox, and possibly others. The snakes should be coming back out before long. In this park I’ve seen water snakes, garter snakes, and ribbon snakes. There are many other species of turtles, such as snapping, painted, mud, and box turtles. In the water are fish and crustaceans, though I don’t often see these except when caught by the other animals. There are a large number of amphibians that will soon appear, including several species of frog, toad, and salamander. And, of course, there are so many different species of plants, some flowering, some that live in water, or just near water, and those in the woods beyond the wetlands.

Do you have any local wetlands parks you enjoy visiting? If not look around your area and see if, perhaps, there are any. If so they are very much worth visiting.