red-winged blackbird

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.


Fledged Red-winged Blackbird by Todd Henson

Drawn by the sound of my camera's shutter, the Red-winged Blackbird fledgling looks my way.

In this post we take a look at a fledged Red-winged Blackbird sitting on a perch in the wetlands waiting for a parent to return to feed it. The fledgling appears to be maturing nicely, but is still young enough to rely on its parents.

The fledged Red-winged Blackbird looks up, likely watching some other bird fly overhead.

The coloration of its feathers are those of both adolescent and female Red-winged Blackbirds, namely a pattern of light and dark brown. You can see the ends of many feathers stick out, they’re not yet smooth. You can also tell from its face that it is a fledgling. The feathers on the face have not yet fully grown in.

The young Red-winged Blackbird closes its eyes and takes a short nap.

This particular fledgling didn’t move around much while I observed it. In fact, at one point it closed its eyes and appeared to nap. And it remained completely quiet, as well, though I suspect it would have begun making quite a noise if it saw a parent approaching.

Parting image of the young fledged Red-winged Blackbird.

Keep your eyes open when you’re out in the field. There’s plenty to see if you stay observant.



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Singing Red-winged Blackbird by Todd Henson

Image of a singing Red-winged Blackbird in a wetlands environment. Click to see a larger view.

Early Spring is a wonderful time to observe Red-winged Blackbirds in wetlands environments. The males hop atop any tall perch, puff up their chests, and sing, looking to attract a mate.

This post includes a sequence of 12 images of a male Red-winged Blackbird as it sings atop its perch. The entire sequence took place in less than 2 seconds. In it you can see the bird puffing itself up, then lifting its head and singing. Click on the image below to cycle through the sequence.

Look closely and you will also see the bird’s nictitating membrane in several of the frames. This is an extra eye lid that closes over the eye while their main eye lid is still open. It can help keep the eye clean and offers some extra protection. See my post about nictitating membranes for more examples.

Red-winged Blackbird with eye fully open. Click the image for a larger view.

Red-winged Blackbird with nictitating membrane covering its eye. Click the image for a larger view.

Next time you’re out and about in a wetlands environment keep your eyes open for red-winged blackbirds (if they happen to pass through your area). And watch their eyes very closely. Perhaps you’ll see their nictitating membrane.

Camera Geekery

This sequence is an example of one of the benefits of some of today’s cameras: a high frame rate. This sequence was shot with a Nikon D500, which can shoot up to 10 frames per second. Some cameras support even higher frame rates.

This is a great benefit when photographing wildlife, sports, or any other fast moving action. It helps capture extra moments during peak action. Just be prepared to sort through a LOT of photographs after you’ve transferred them to your computer.

Below are some cameras with high frame rates (measured in frames per second, or fps), at different price points. The only one I’ve used is the Nikon D500.

The links below are 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

Nikon D5 - 14 fps

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II - 16 fps

Nikon D500 - 10 fps

Canon 7D Mark II - 10 fps

Nikon D7500 - 8 fps

Canon EOS 70D - 7 fps