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Teaching Marsh: Hidden Diversity - Wildlife & Birds

Both large and small species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, as well as numerous invertebrates, are dependent on marshes for food and nesting habitat. Animals of the wetlands are specialized to withstand a wide variety of salt and inundation ranges. In addition, reproduction strategies of many amphibians and reptiles are also adapted to the various conditions found in shallow or temporary wetlands that are seasonally wet.

Some of the species commonly observed at the Teaching Marsh include muskrat, rabbits, water snakes, frogs, turtles and terrapins, fish-eating birds such as herons and red-winged blackbirds.


Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus)
Muskrats are aquatic rodents commonly observed in ponds, streams, and marshes. They are about the size of a small house cat with dens, glossy fur ranging in color from light brown to sometimes black. Muskrats are excellent swimmers and they eat mostly wetland plants, but will also feed on clams, frogs and fish. They are sometimes considered to be a nuisance because they excavate bank dens that is perceived as shoreline erosion.

river otter

River otter (Lutra canadensis)
River otters live in rivers, marshy ponds and wooded areas and move between these habitats seasonally in search of food, such as fish, crabs, frogs, and snakes. They have sharp teeth, long tails and webbed feet for swimming. Otters are sensitive to human disturbance and are not often seen. They often leave areas of flattened marsh vegetation and trails coming out of the water that contain shellfish parts and droppings.


Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
Raccoons are upland residents that are easily recognized by the black face mask and ringed tail. They forage mostly at night along marsh edges for a variety of foods, including turtle eggs, muskrats, fish, frogs, insects, clams and fruits. They may even wash their food before eating.


Beaver (Castor canadensis)
The beaver is not commonly associated with tidal marshes, but in a suburban setting they will search for food in any suitable wetland habitat. Beaver visit the Teaching Marsh during the winter and eat low branches of river alder and wax myrtle.


Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus mallurus)
This common rabbit with a bright white tail is associated with a variety of habitat types, including urban areas and the edges of swamps and marshes. They are somewhat tolerant of human disturbance and are often seen during the day in the Teaching Marsh eating grasses or moving through the dense undergrowth. Their nests are lined with grasses and fur and young rabbits are eaten by snakes and owls.

northern diamondback terrapin

Northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin terrapin)
A medium-sized turtle that lives in brackish waters. The upper shell has a distinct pattern of concentric rings and the head and limbs are spotted. The females lay eggs in shallow nests dug into sandy beach and marsh shorelines. Diamondback terrapins eat clams, worms, snails, crabs, dead animals and some vegetation.

green treefrog

Green treefrog (Hyla cinerea)
This species occurs in the coastal region, including the Eastern Shore. The green treefrog occurs throughout the coastal plain and prefers the floating and emergent vegetation along the swampy edges of ponds, lakes, marshes, and streams. During the day, these well-camouflaged frogs rest motionless, often on cattail plants: at night, they are sometimes attracted to insects near lights. It is often found in campground bathrooms, on kitchen windows, or on the side of well lit buildings actively foraging for insects.

northern watersnake

Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon)
This snake is found below 1500 meters elevation statewide in Virginia, including several of the barrier islands. The northern watersnake is common in a variety of aquatic habitats, including lakes, ponds, rivers, freshwater and tidal creeks, ditches, swamps, freshwater and brackish marshes, and low wet areas.

belted kingfisher

Belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon)
Blue breast band & wings; short, stocky legs; large head, large bill, shaggy crest; perches then dives head first to catch small fish; burrows in sandy banks.

green heron

Green heron (Butorides virescens)
Small, chunky heron with short dull yellow legs; green upper parts mixed with blue-gray; greenish crown; solitary, prefers marshes with adjacent woodland cover.

red-winged blackbirdfemale red-winged blackbird

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
Male birds are glossy black with red shoulder patches; female birds dark brown & heavily streaked; nests in thick marsh vegetation; abundant & aggressive; mixes with winter flocks of other black birds.

great blue heron

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
Large, gray-blue heron, black stripe extends above eye; holds neck in S-shape hook during flight; commonly seen in fresh and salt water marshes along the water’s edge; eats fish, snakes, frogs.

marsh wren

Marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris)
Small, chunky bird with slender, slightly curved bill, white eyebrow stripe; common in reedy marshes; football-shaped nest attached to reeds above water; loud song, vigorous territorial defense.

Photo credits - muskrat:Iowa State, otter:Oakland Zoo, raccoon:Illinois DNR, beaver:Nova Scotia Natural Resources, cottontail:Jeff Nadler, northern diamondback terrapin:Stu Weiss, green treefrog:John White, northern watersnake:Tim Vechter, kingfisher:Greg Gillson http://thebirdguide.com, green heron:Marshall LLiiff, red-winged blackbird (male):Jim Bailey, red-winged blackbird (female):Arthur Morris, great blue heron:Central Missouri State U., marsh wren:Jim Rose