park

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.

What Happens When Your Camera Malfunctions in the Field? by Todd Henson

1: Entry display of orchids at Longwood Gardens

Have you ever thought about what you would do if your camera broke down while you were on a trip? Would it spoil your trip? Or could you recover and make the most of what remained of your trip? Thankfully, I chose the latter when it happened to me.

2: Closeup of orchid display

3: Streams inside Longwood Gardens Conservatory

A few weeks ago I shared a post about the beautiful Orchid Extravaganza display each winter at Longwood Gardens. That post reminded me of an experience I had there during a different trip. Shortly after arriving at the Conservatory I had a bad experience with my DSLR, the only time I’ve had this kind of experience. I had been shooting with my relatively new wide angle lens and decided to switch to a telephoto lens. But the wide angle lens got stuck when I tried to remove it. I was unable to remove the lens, and I was also unable to fully reattach it. It was stuck partly connected. Something had malfunctioned in the mount of the camera or the lens. I worked on it for a few minutes, but couldn’t budge the lens.

4: Brick path through Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

5: Lots of greenery in hallway

My brother offered to go back to the car to try to figure something out, or for us to trade his camera back and forth so we could both shoot. But I didn’t want to take away from his enjoyment of the trip, so I told him to keep shooting with his camera. I had my phone with me and could use that for the remainder of the trip. I didn’t see any need to cut the trip short or to change any of our plans. So I packed my DSLR into the camera bag, pulled out my phone, and fired up a camera app. Some of the photos in this post were created using the DSLR before it malfunctioned, and the rest were created using my phone. Can you guess which are which? See the end of this post for the answer.

6: So many beautifully laid out walkways

I’m happy to report I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the trip. There might have been times in my life when I would have let this experience ruin the trip. But not this time. I think both my brother and I had a great time. And looking back, I’m reasonably happy with the images I created. Using the camera phone did somewhat limit the types of photos I could create. The lens on the phone was a fixed focal length, there was no switching of lenses. I lost true macro capability, and had no telephoto capability. I was very limited in my ability to create a shallow depth of field. And I couldn’t mount the phone on my large tripod.

7: Path around a central lawn display

8: View of lawn display from a path

9: Another view of a lawn display from a path

But all of these limitations create opportunities to exercise your creativity. You must be more creative to work around the limits, to still produce pleasing images. You will learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of the gear you’re using. And you’ll either find a way to make it work, or you’ll discover that even though it may be limited in some ways, it still has a large number of capabilities. And if you give it enough time and patience you’ll learn how to leverage those capabilities.

10: Colorful flower closeup

But even more importantly, when you set yourself up with technical limitations you’ll have to focus more on the creative and artistic aspects of your work. You will need to spend more time thinking about what makes a pleasing composition. You won’t have the option of simply zooming the lens to try to fill the frame. You will need to think about how to fill the frame and why. Perhaps a different angle would be better. Maybe getting down low, laying on the ground, would help create a unique image that better expresses your vision. Maybe you need to walk closer to the subject, or move a little further away.

Having limitations to work around can help teach us that creativity is in the photographer, not in the gear. I have learned a lot about these topics from David duChemin, a photographer who focuses on the artistic side of photography. He teaches about how to see, how to find something that speaks to you and might speak to your viewer, and how to translate that into a moving, impactful image. He teaches about seeing, about vision, and about turning those visions into stories to share with the world.

11: Small field of colorful flowers and foliage

Try this some time. Find some way to limit yourself. Maybe pick a specific lens and decide to only use that lens for some period of time, especially if it is a prime (fixed focal length) lens. If you only have zoom lenses then pick a focal length and put a small piece of tape on your lens to keep it from zooming. Spend the entire day using just that one focal length. Try this for more than a day if you can. Sometimes it takes time to learn to let go of what we’re used to and really start to embrace the limitations. But I do believe your creativity will benefit from repeating this exercise every so often. Try different limitations, be creative in how you limit yourself. And believe me, I’m saying all this for my own benefit as well as yours. I need to constantly remind myself to try these exercises, to try something different, to find ways to limit myself and to grow in the process.

12: A display room within the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

Tell me if you’ve had any similar experiences, or if you’ve tried any of these exercises yourself. How did it turn out? What did you learn? Would you try it again?

 
 


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Orchids in Winter at Longwood Gardens by Todd Henson

Pair of orchids at Longwood Gardens' Orchid Extravaganza

Does winter ever get you down? Do you miss the brighter colors of spring, summer, and fall? Whether you answer yes or no I have an idea that might appeal to you. Find yourself a local garden or park with a greenhouse, somewhere you can always find flowers and greenery, whether during the coldest parts of winter or the hottest parts of summer. And if you can’t find a local one then search a little wider and take a day trip.

Grouping of orchid flowers

Single orchid flower from a grouping

One particular location I enjoy during the winter is Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. They have an exhibit each winter called Orchid Extravaganza, where they fill their indoor gardens with orchids of all sorts, and of all colors. It’s a perfect place to get over the winter blues. They have such a large variety of orchids, it’s almost overwhelming. I’m always fascinated by the intricate details in these flowers. Some of them almost look like little creatures.

Look closely at this orchid. The flower looks like a little person or creature.

Single orchid flower from a group

Colorful orchid

I feel that flower photography is an area where I have plenty of room to grow. I’m often disappointed with the flower photos I produce. Not always, but often. Locations like Longwood Gardens are perfect places to practice, especially if you get there early, before the larger crowds arrive. Then you have room and time to study the flowers, look for pleasing backgrounds, find different perspectives and angles, wait for the light coming in through the glass walls to shift just this way or that way, or use your own diffusers and reflectors to experiment with creating the lighting you want.

Delicately shaped orchid

Orchids come in so many shapes, colors, and patterns

And don’t worry if you’re not that into orchids. Longwood Gardens, even during their Orchid Extravaganza, is full of other flowers and other displays. At 4 acres, the main Conservatory has plenty of space, with many different areas just filled with flowers and plants. My images here really don’t do them justice, so I hope you’re able to get there yourself one day. It’s a long drive from where I live, but it really is worth the trip. So far I’ve only ever been there during the winter. I would really like to visit at other times, see how their displays change, and spend some time walking their almost 400 acres of outdoor gardens.

Colorful field of flowers

More abstract view of a set of planters

A view inside the Conservatory

Another view inside the Conservatory

Outside the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

Have you ever visited Longwood Gardens? What did you think? Do you have any great gardens with indoor displays near you?