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.


How to Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding by Ted Floyd by Todd Henson

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The cover of  How to Know the Birds  by Ted Floyd

The cover of How to Know the Birds by Ted Floyd

I received my copy of How to Know the Birds from the publisher, National Geographic Books, through a giveaway at goodreads.

How to Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding by Ted Floyd is packed full of interesting and educational info on a range of different birds, and on many of the topics relevant to the birding world. I wasn’t sure at first how much I’d enjoy it, as it is broken into 200 one-page lessons, with each lesson largely focusing on a single topic and typically using a single bird as an example of that topic. I just doubted a lot of little sections would be all that interesting.

But the more I read the more I enjoyed it. Each lesson can to some extent stand on their own. But reading it straight through I also found lessons building on one another. Think of it as a fun primer on birding put together by a great group of local birders, getting together each week to continue learning. It felt like the sort of book that would be great for the beginning birder, which I would consider myself. But it delves deep enough in some topics I suspect more knowledgeable birders would also enjoy it.

How to Know the Birds is a storybook for bird lovers. It is not a field guide in the traditional sense. Many of the accounts go into some detail about the way birds look and, just as important, the way they sound; but many others barely scratch the surface in that regard. What you will find in the accounts—and I’ve endeavored to emphasize this in every single one of them—is a big idea, a method or technique or resource, about bird study in our age. A number of the accounts conclude with an open-ended question or, at least, some measure of ambiguity; that’s a reflection of the intellectual health and scientific rigor of modern birding. An even 200 accounts, or lessons, fill the pages of this book.
— How to Know the Birds, page 21

The book is broken into 6 parts, each corresponding to several months of the year, and to an over-arching theme that each lesson in that part will contribute to.

Spark Bird!

Part 1, titled “Spark Bird!” covers January and February and is composed of lessons 1-36. The title refers to the idea that many birders have a specific species of bird that first got them interested in birds and birding, their “spark bird.” I don’t know that I have a spark bird, myself. I came to birding largely through photography, and it has slowly grown from there.

This section starts us down the path of how we first start identifying birds. We see them, we recognize them, but what bird is it, what’s it called? How can we identify a bird? Slowly we learn more about physical characteristics of birds (color, patterns, size, shape), about bird song and sounds, behaviors, and habitat. We learn that sometimes females and males look very different, as can juveniles and adults, as can the same bird seen at different times of the year.

After the Spark

Part 2, titled “After the Spark” covers March to May and is composed of lessons 37-74. After we begin learning how to identify birds we begin to realize there are many birds we can hear but can’t identify. We learn about bird song, how to identify birds through their song, what their song is for, and many other topics. We also learn about bird migration, how some birds can only be seen in some areas for part of the year. Where do they go and why?

Now What?

Part 3, titled “Now What?” covers June and July and is composed of lessons 75-115. We love watching birds, but sometimes we feel like there must be more to do, right? Is there a way we can contribute to the birding community? We learn about citizen science projects, such as bird surveys. We learn about different groups, projects, and online resources. There are also lessons on many aspects of breeding and habitat.

Inflection Point

Part 4, titled “Inflection Point” covers August and September and is composed of lessons 116-141. Some birds change their appearance during the year, and some change their locations. They molt and they migration. This section provides many lessons on these two fascinating topics. The migration lessons even go into more modern issues affecting birds in migration, such as the confusing lights of cities at night and the problem of birds smashing into large buildings covered in reflective windows.

What We Know

Part 5, titled “What We Know” covers October and November and is composed of lessons 142-169. We’ve learned a lot so far. But where did this knowledge come from? We learn about many of the resources, old and new, available to birders, from books and CD’s, to online resources, apps, organizations and events. We also learn about many of the things some birders do, such as compiling lists, chasing after a specific species, looking for as many species as we can in one day or one year, traveling, bird banding, and many other activities.

What We Don’t Know

Part 6, titled “What We Don’t Know” covers December and is composed of sections 170-200. Despite all we’ve learned so far there is still so much more to learn, so much we don’t yet know. And isn’t that a wonderful and exciting thought? That we can still go out and learn more about these wonderful creatures we’ve spent so much time watching and studying.

I thoroughly enjoyed How to Know the Birds, by Ted Floyd, who also happens to be the editor of Birding magazine. This is one of those books that’s fun to read through the first time, but is also enough of a resource that you return to it again and again, rereading sections as you encounter a bird you remember reading about, or when you want to explore a new aspect of birding you recall being mentioned. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who already considers themselves a birder, and to those just getting started, who like watching and learning about birds, but don’t really know much else about them. This is a great step down the path of life-long learning.


2019 Manassas Airshow by Todd Henson

The Bealeton Flying Circus Wingwalkers

It’s been a few years since I attended an airshow, so this year my father and I made our way to the Manassas Regional Airport for the 2019 Manassas Airshow held on Saturday, May 4. This is only my second time at this show, and I certainly hope it’s not my last. I really enjoy these shows.

This year had some of the same performers as the last show we attended, but it also had new ones to add a little variety. And some of the same pilots were flying different aircraft. The weather looked somewhat questionable at first, with the possibility of rain, and some low lying clouds. Thankfully it cleared enough by noon that the aerial performers were given the go-ahead.

Click on any of the photographs for a larger view.

RJ Gritter and his Bellanca Decathalon

RJ Gritter was flying his Bellanca Decathalon, performing some amazing aerobatics, trailing white smoke through most of the show. His plane is painted in red, white and blue.

RJ Gritter pulling up in his Bellanca Decathalon

RJ Gritter flying by in his Bellanca Decathalon

The Flying Circus Wingwalkers

The wingwalkers from the Bealeton Flying Circus always put on an amazing performance. Chuck Tippett flies their Stearman biplane while Joe Bender climbs out on the wings to perform a number of different incredible moves. He flies like superman, stands atop the plane, and this year they also flew the US flag. Beautiful sight.

Look closely to see Joe Bender flying like Superman between the wings of the Stearman biplane, flown by Chuck Tippett, of the Bealeton Flying Circus.

Chuck Tippett and Joe Bender of the Bealeton Flying Circus flying a US flag atop their Stearman biplane.

Art Nalls and his L-29 Albatross

Art Nalls performed this year in his L-29 Albatross, a very maneuverable jet flown by a very capable pilot.

Art Nalls performing a flyby in his L-29 Albatross.

Art Nalls and his L-29 Albatross may look like they are floating above the runway because of the fast shutter speed I used, but he was, in fact, flying by quite fast.

The Bealeton Flying Circus

This year the Bealeton Flying Circus flew four of their biplanes in formation, circling the airport a number of times. They looked amazing as they turned against clouds, the sun highlighting each plane. I’d love to visit Bealeton and see them perform on their home turf.

Four biplanes from the Bealeton Flying Circus flying in formation against the cloudy sky.

The Bealeton Flying Circus Stearman biplans flying in formation.

Lee Leet and his Super Tucano

I love the look of Lee Leet’s Super Tucano, a turboprop aircraft that was a lot of fun to watch.

Lee Leet flying his Super Tucano.

Lee Leet landing his Super Tucano.

Chef Pitts and his Pitts S1S

Chef Pitts performed some absolutely incredible aerobatics in his small red Pitts S1S. This guy was absolutely amazing. There’s no way I could list all the incredible moves he performed. This was one of my favorite parts of the airshow.

Chef Pitts and his amazingly aerobatic Pitts S1S biplane.

Chef Pitts taking his Pitts S1S down for a 1-wheeled landing.

Warrior Flight Team

The Warrior Flight Team was back, flying a pair of Czechoslovakian L-39 jets, piloted by Charlie “V+12” VandenBossche and LCDR Mark “Crunchy” Burgess. Awesome performance.

Charlie “V+12” VandenBossche and LCDR Mark “Crunchy” Burgess of Warrior Flight Team performing a synchronized flyby in their L-39’s.

One of the Warrior Flight Team L-39’s coming in from a distance, trailing smoke.

US Air Force A-10 Demonstration Team

One of the highlights of this years show was the performance by the US Air Force A-10 Demonstration Team. I have always loved the A-10, both the look of it, and the way it moves. It’s such an incredible and capable aircraft, and they did a great job showing off some of its capabilities.

USAF A-10 Thunderbolt performing a flyby.

USAF A-10 Thunderbolt quickly changing orientation. Notice the air being forced over the tops of the wings near the fuselage and trailing from their tips.

P-51 Mustang in the Parade of Planes

At the end of the show was the Parade of Planes, where a large number of aircraft all took to the sky, one at a time, most of which had not performed in the airshow. One of the highlights for me was an absolutely gorgeous shiny silver P-51 Mustang. I just love the look of this aircraft.

P-51 Mustang taking off. The rear tire has already left the runway.

US Marine Super Stallion CH-53 and the Crowds

In addition to the performances, the Manassas Airshow included a nice collection of static displays. The photo here shows some of the crowd walking around the show, along with a US Marine Super Stallion CH-53 helicopter in the background. The tail of the helicopter was open, with folks lining up to walk through it.

Crowds walking around the 2019 Manassas Airshow, with a US Marine Super Stallion CH-53 helicopter in the background.

Final Thoughts

I had a great time at the 2019 Manassas Airshow. These shows always seem to be over far too quickly. I do wonder sometimes if I should try attending one without bringing a camera, so I can just relax and watch the show. But I really enjoy photographing them, so that would be tough to do.

This year I decided to use my 200-400 mm f/4 lens, a large and slightly heavy lens, but one that works really well for these shows. Though it’s a bit heavy, it’s still light enough to hand hold for short bursts as the planes fly by. A lighter lens would be nice, though. In the past I’ve also used and been happy with a 70-200 mm.

I found myself switching back and further between aperture priority mode and shutter priority mode. I used shutter priority for the slower flying propellor-based aircraft so I could capture motion in the propellers. And I used aperture priority for the faster flying jets to get a faster shutter speed. In the future I think I will just stick to shutter priority and adjust the shutter speed as I see fit. I don’t really know why I kept flipping to aperture priority, other than that’s the setting I most often use.

For the fast moving jets I tended to use a much faster shutter speed, for example 1/1000 to 1/3000 of a second. That helped assure I captured sharp images of the jets, though in one case it captured the L-29 Albatross seemingly hovering over the runway, when in fact it was moving very fast. I should have used a slower shutter speed in that case to blur the background as I panned with the jet.

When the propeller aircraft were flying I lowered my shutter speed to between 1/25 to 1/125 of a second. This increased the chances of blurry photographs, but it assured I’d capture movement in the propeller. If you use a fast shutter speed you may freeze the propeller, which looks very strange when the aircraft is in the air. This also helped blur the background as I panned with the planes when they flew low enough to see trees behind the planes.

This year was a great year for the Manassas Airshow. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I very much look forward to attending again in the future. If you’ve never been to an airshow I’d highly recommend you give one a try.