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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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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