wetlands

Focus by Todd Henson

Focus: A Green Heron walking along a downed tree looking for its next meal.

Green Herons are very sleek birds, and along with other herons have an amazing ability to focus on finding their next meal. Perhaps I’m anthopomorphizing too much, but just looking at them you can see the concentration, the determination, the focus, as they slowly and quietly move forward.

We found this particular Green Heron while walking along a boardwalk at a local wetlands park. It had landed on a fallen tree and was slowly walking down its length, watching the edge of the water. They can move through water seemingly without causing any noticeable disturbance. But when walking outside the water their prey below has little chance of escape.

I don’t recall now whether this heron caught anything. I certainly didn’t capture a photograph if it did. But I was pleased with this photograph, showing that amazing focus. And a bonus feature for observant viewers is a white feather out of place along its back. It had attempted to fix this, but being unsuccessful left it alone and went back to looking for food.


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.


Eastern Phoebe Catching Insects for its Young by Todd Henson

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Eastern Phoebe looking to the left

This Eastern Phoebe was found in my favorite wetlands park, just off the boardwalk that extends over portions of the wetlands. It was common to see these birds in this section as they created a nest under the boardwalk each year.

Eastern Phoebe tilting its head towards the camera

This particular bird was catching insects to bring back to the nest. Eastern Phoebe are a species of flycatcher, and when watching them you can easily see why they fit that name, catching insects, often in the air. Amazing little birds.

Eastern Phoebe with an insect in its beak

Eastern Phoebe with another insect in its beak

According to Wildlife of Virginia and Maryland and Washington, D.C., by Charles Fergus, they eat a variety of insects, including small wasps, bees, beetles, flies, and moths. They sit on a perch and watch for flying insects, then dart out and catch them. And as with most all flycatchers, their “drab plumage makes the waiting birds hard to see, not just by its prey, but also by hawks that hunt for flycatchers and other small birds.”

Eastern Phoebe looking back over its shoulder

Many of the flycatcher species can be difficult to tell apart. Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America lists the following as identifying characteristics of the Eastern Phoebe:

  • downward tail-bobbing
  • no eye ring
  • no strong wing bars
  • small, all-dark bill
  • dark head
  • its song.

Additionally, the Eastern Phoebe is known to nest in sheltered spots such as under a bridge, which was exactly the case with this phoebe (or perhaps it was actually a pair).

Eastern Phoebe preening

Spending a little time standing in the same location can sometimes pay off when observing and photographing nature. Doing so allowed me to notice this phoebe flying from beneath the bridge and onto a nearby perch. I noticed it kept returning to the same set of perches after darting off to catch an insect. And it always flew back under the bridge in the same spot. When I walked over that spot I could hear the young chicks in the nest.

So stop and stand (or sit) every so often on your hikes. Just rest a while and observe. Look around and listen. Maybe you’ll notice something interesting.