Photograph Time in a Wetland Wonderland

Blue Heron in Huntley Meadows Park by Anne Bolen
A blue heron surveys the waters of Virginia’s Huntley Meadows Park for a meal.

Just a few days are left for you to enter your photograph into this year’s National Wildlife Photo Contest. So if you are looking for a place to capture spectacular images of nature, try your local wetland. Some people might think wetlands are desolate swamps. In fact, they are beautiful wonderlands, critical wildlife habitat that offers vibrant bounties for wildlife watchers, particularly birders and photographers.

See a slideshow of great wetlands photos from the National Wildlife Photo Contest.

The Life, Near Death and Rebirth of a Wetland

Whenever I go to Huntley Meadows Park, an inland Northern Virginia wetland, I make sure that I bring my camera because I never know what spectacular scene I might see. Each time, I feel like I have been traveling in the TARDIS, Doctor Who’s time machine: Whether just a few days, weeks or months have passed since my last visit, this dynamic ecosystem has transformed.

During the past decade, I have seen its main pond full of water and waterfowl, with water levels so low it became a lush meadow munched on by deer, and so dry its cracked, orange soil looked like a desert, only then to rebound and once again be a thriving watery home for a plethora of critters. I’ve watched a rainbow of dragonflies landing on blooms, beavers repairing their dams and lodges, geese escorting their goslings out of their nests, blue herons and egrets fishing, water snakes swallowing frogs and even plate-sized snapping turtles wrestling. I’ve also seen children peering wide-eyed into the water from the boardwalk, discovering some of these animals and their behaviors for the first time.

Why Are Healthy Wetlands Essential?

Wetlands are found on every continent except Antarctica, in a wide variety of environments, from tundra to the Tropics. They can be inland, freshwater wetlands or tidal or coastal wetlands with brackish or saline waters. These unique ecosystems are made up of mosaics of trees, shrubs and plants that can thrive in soils that are seasonally or frequently saturated.

Also like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, they are bigger on the inside: As some of the most productive and valuable ecosystems on the planet, their benefits outweigh the space they take up on the landscape. Indiana University’s Center for Earth and Environmental Science reports that in the United States, “Nearly 35 percent of all rare and endangered animal species depend on wetlands for survival, although wetlands constitute only 5 percent of the nation’s land.” They are also critical flyways for migratory birds, which stop to rest and replenish before continuing on their journeys. In addition, these hydraulic systems act like livers, filtering pollutants from surface and groundwater. They also store carbon and serve as buffers from soil erosion, flooding and storms, increasingly important functions as the climate continues to change.

This photo of a beaver is a National Wildlife Photo Contest entry.

What Is Happening to Our Wetlands?

Drastic changes in water levels can be part of the natural lifecycle of wetlands. My wetland’s busy beaver family is continuously remodeling, building and maintaining its dams and lodges and therefore raising and lowering water levels and carving new pathways for wildlife. However, silt from construction of nearby residential areas has also filled in the wetland over time. Droughts have also hit it hard. County park staff now must build an earthen berm, a structure to control water levels and retaining ponds to make sure the beaver have enough water to be enticed to stay and continue the upkeep on this vital aquatic world on which so many other animals depend.

What is happening to my wetland is not uncommon: Wetlands all over the nation have been filled in from silt from not only construction but mining. They have also been drained and converted into farmland, cities and residential areas. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that the United States has lost more than 100 million wetland acres since the late 1700s and continues to lose about 13,000 acres each year. Further, U.S. wetlands are now at risk from pollution, as  Supreme Court decisions have weakened the 1972 Clean Water Act that once protected wetland habitats.

How You Can Help

Fortunately, we don’t yet need a time machine to save our wetlands. You can still help.


Photographer in Huntley Meadows
A photographer scans the main pond of the Huntley Meadows wetland for birds.
July is National Park and Recreation month, so it is a perfect time to visit and find out how you can support your local wetland. In fact, I hear my camera calling. I’m off to capture a moment in time in my own wetland wonderland.

Slideshow of Spectacular Wetland Images

All of these images are entries into National Wildlife’s Photo Contest. It’s not too late to enter yours today!