Bay Journal

Smorgasbord makes Blackwater a winter hot spot for birds

  • By Cindy Ross on January 01, 2008
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Button Creek, a part of Blackwater’s Green Trail, offers paddlers an opportunity to see a variety of water, including American bald eagles. (Cindy Ross) Button Creek, a part of Blackwater’s Green Trail, offers paddlers an opportunity to see a variety of water, including American bald eagles. (Cindy Ross) Bird blinds along the Wildlife Drive auto tour provide an intimate view of the marsh for those on land. (Cindy Ross) Snow geese take off in unison over the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Pennsylvania. (Cindy Ross) Canada geese graze in a field planted for wildfowl outside of the Visitor Center at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. (Cindy Ross)

"Development" in Maryland's Moneystump Swamp consists of a few duck blinds and yellow wildlife refuge signs. One is hard-pressed to find any people.

Tall, gangly pines sway and make music in the wind. Their tannic acid leeches into the waters, turning it "black."

We point our kayaks away from the bridge on MD Route 335, south of Cambridge, and into the headwind that is racing across the swamp.

And then we see them...eagles, high in the trees. Magnificent birds, dwarfing the snags they perch on. They spread their majestic wings, forcing us to throw back our heads in wonder and awe. We count more than a dozen in one spot! An astounding 130 or more bald eagles make Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, their home.

Paddles are laid to rest across our thwarts and we don binoculars to watch the show. While some eagles soar, their mates keep vigil over their colossal nests, with heads and upper bodies poking above the mass of lumber. The nests are up to 11 feet deep and 8 feet across-one could hold several humans.

Blackwater is one of nine national wildlife refuges on the Delmarva Peninsula and by far the largest at 27,000 acres. Its tidal wetlands are brimming with loons, cormorants, grebes, ospreys, herons, egrets, ibis, geese, ducks-the refuge's bird list includes 250 species with 20 species of ducks alone.

So many species come to the Blackwater to overwinter, it is an ideal time to visit, and an especially good time to view waterfowl, long a signature species for the Chesapeake region.

These birds have flown thousands of miles from the Arctic, where they converged and had their young. Now they have returned. Using the sun and the stars, they tracked the Earth's magnetic fields like a compass. Youngsters flew with the elders, memorizing the route.

The Chesapeake Bay area is an important staging ground, hosting one-third of all migratory waterfowl wintering on the Atlantic coast. Approximately 1 million migrants make their home around the Bay for at least part of the year.

In the 1800s, the population of waterfowl was even more spectacular.

This abundance drew hunters to the Eastern Shore. What began as a means to feed their families, though, developed into a wasteful, devastating sport. Meanwhile, wetlands had been developed, transformed into agricultural fields. Birds were also shot for their feathers to adorn ladies' hats. But by the early 1900s, the seemingly endless numbers of birds were dwindling at an alarming rate.

Insightful conservation leaders realized the approaching demise. Their response led to regulations being put in place and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's establishment of a system of 540 wildlife refuges, including several around the Bay. One of the feathers in the system's hat and the Chesapeake's prime refuge is Blackwater in Dorchester County, MD, which was established in 1933 for migratory birds, primarily ducks and geese.

This colossal wildlife refuge, along with the state of Maryland's adjoining Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, is affectionately called "The Everglades of Maryland." It appears as a vast green wild area on a state highway map-a remote wilderness of meandering creeks, marsh grass habitats, secluded ponds and islands of loblolly pines. This is remarkable in the congested mid-Atlantic seaboard.

The best way to see this predominately watery landscape is by boat. The nonprofit Friends of the Blackwater organization has created three signed water trails, making it much easier to navigate this often-challenging ecosystem. We selected the Green Trail on the upper reaches of the Blackwater River, which is considered the most scenic and is also where bald eagles like to hang out.

We paddle into Buttons Creek and watch Cooper's hawks, winter hawks and red-tailed hawks surf the currents. Kingfishers, terns, cormorants and great blue herons keep our binoculars poised in position. Massive swarms of migrating red-winged blackbirds volley for our attention.

We also watch the rare and endangered Delmarva fox squirrel climb up the trunks of a loblolly pine. One doesn't need to be a birding expert to appreciate the richness of waterfowl and wildlife here in the refuge.

After a morning paddle, we hop in our car and take the refuge's 4-mile Wildlife Drive. This dawn-to-dusk paved road snakes around pools and the Blackwater River, featuring 11 points of interest.

We look for large numbers of Canada geese-the refuge is one of the chief wintering areas for those using the Atlantic Flyway. Geese number approximately 35,000 and ducks exceed 15,000 at the peak of fall migration, usually in November. We stretch our legs on the 4.5 miles of trails and boardwalks that bring visitors up close to the wintering waterfowl. For a sunset walk and to continue our search for birds, we take the scenic drive to Hooper Island.

One of the reasons millions of waterfowl make their home on the Chesapeake is the available smorgasbord. Both fresh and saltwater aquatic grasses grow abundantly in sheltered, shallow waters. Meanwhile, a feast of small marine animals multiply in the protective grass beds.

While scouting around the Delmarva Peninsula and the Chesapeake Bay in the winter, one might expect to see thousands of birds grouped together, but the land is so big and the refuges so vast, that the waterfowl tend to spread out.

December and January are blustery months for birding, but the occasional midwinter thaw is a great time to get out with your binoculars and keep the wintering waterfowl company. Whole days can be spent exploring numerous waterfowl hot spots around the Bay.

By late February and early March, the migrants are congregating and heading out.

As warmer breezes return to the mid-Atlantic seaboard, ice breaks up on the ponds and lakes and the heads of tasty green winter wheat poke up through the fertile farmlands of Pennsylvania.

If one is a snow goose, one is thinking of leaving the Chesapeake and heading north. If one is a bird gawker, one is thinking of heading to Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, which straddles Lebanon and Lancaster counties and is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

The sky is beginning to glow pink as I bank a turn into the entrance of Middle Creek. I hustle down the Willow Point Trail with a sense of urgency, zipping my parka as I go. I don't want to miss the show that is about to begin.

I cock an ear toward the body of water to my left, on the far side of the woods. I can't see the 100,000 snow geese that float on the sheltered lagoon, but I can make out their gibbering voices.

It's late February, and these migrating, snow-white birds have made this wildlife refuge their home for a few weeks. They have come from the Chesapeake Bay area, where they wintered over, and Middle Creek is their first staging area. After they fatten up on the local farmers' crops, they'll continue on to the St. Lawrence River in Canada, and later, the Arctic, their mating and breeding grounds.

The first shreds of light enable me to make out their bobbing bodies on the lake-there are so many that I see a blanket of white instead of dark water. They have very slowly, almost imperceptibly, begun to spread out onto the 400-acre lake, to position themselves for takeoff.

Suddenly, the cold morning air is filled with goose voices, excitedly growing louder and louder until they are almost yelling. They rise up from the lake in a great sweeping wave, flapping their wings to take off. One hundred thousand white birds, their brilliant bodies reflecting the sunrise, swirl around my head in a great arch, moving as a single organism.

They engulf me. I throw my head back and stare mesmerized. In a matter of seconds, they're gone in the direction of today's meal, not to return until the last light graces the evening sky. In only a matter of seconds, the show is over, and I am left speechless.

By mid-late March, the snow geese begin to leave Middle Creek by the tens of thousands. Some years, 50,000 to 60,000 will head out on a single morning. The entire lake can clear out in a single day. The Great Lakes staging area calls them and their magnificent journey from the Chesapeake to the Arctic continues.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

The Visitor Center at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, MD, is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. It is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Visitors can drive, bike or walk the length of the approximately 4-mile Wildlife Drive, as well as hike on the associated trails, dawn to dusk every day.

A daily permit is required for all visitors to the Wildlife Drive unless they possess an annual pass, lifetime passport or current duck stamp. Admission is $3 / private vehicle; $1/ pedestrian or bicyclist; $15 /commercial van or bus up to 20 passengers; and $25 / 21 or more passengers.

For information, including directions, visit www.fws.gov/blackwater or call the visitor center at 410-228-2677 or the refuge office at 410-228-2692. For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Kleinfeltesville, PA, is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday from February through the day before Thanksgiving. A self-guided driving tour is open March through mid-September. Hiking Trails are open dawn to dusk year-round.

Admission is free and includes all public and group programs. Groups are asked to make reservations at least eight weeks in advance for for spring and fall programs, and three weeks in advance at other times.

Directions: Take Interstate 76 West to Exit 21. Take PA Route 272 (North Reading Road) north for 3 miles. At the light, turn left onto PA Route 897. Go 14 miles to Kleinfeltersville. Make first left after the stop sign and go 2 miles to the Visitor Center entrance.

For information, call 717-733-1512.

Where to flock to see waterfowl around the Bay watershed

Situated along the Atlantic flyway, the Chesapeake 's vast wetlands and expanses of shallow water are magnets for migrating waterfowl, which often overwinter here or stop en route from their northern summer breeding grounds. Once there were millions. Today, a decline in the quantity and types of underwater grasses; overhunting; more people; and shrinking habitat have cut their overall numbers to about 1 million. Dozens of sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network offer opportunities to view waterfowl or learn about waterfowl heritage, such as decoy carving. The sites here highlight some of what's available.

  • Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, Havre de Grace, MD: Located on the banks of the Susquehanna Flats, the museum features decoys and decorative carvings, as well as boats, guns, documents and photographs.
  • Marshy Point Park, Baltimore, MD: This park along the Dundee and Saltpeter creeks is the largest natural wetlands and forest open to the public in the Baltimore area. Dundee Creek is home to 11 thriving species of submerged aquatic vegetation that attract flocks of tundra swans and 20 species of waterfowl.
  • Patuxent Research Refuge-National Wildlife Visitor Center, Laurel, MD: The refuge encompasses 12,750 acres of land surrounding the Patuxent and Little Patuxent rivers between the District of Columbia and Baltimore. It supports a diversity of wildlife in forest, meadow, and wetland habitats. More than 200 species of birds are found on the refuge.
  • Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, Rock Hall, MD: This island refuge at the confluence of the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay includes a tidal marsh, upland forest and croplands managed for wildlife. It is an important migration stop and wintering area for more than two dozen waterfowl species and is a major staging and wintering area of the tundra swan.
  • Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, Grasonville, MD: This 500-acre preserve is located 15 minutes from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Wintering waterfowl include the canvasback, American black duck, shoveler, ruddy duck, redhead, Canada goose and tundra swan.
  • Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area, Queenstown, MD: Located in the tidal recesses of the Chesapeake Bay between the Wye and Wye East rivers, this site includes 2,800 acres of habitat for wintering waterfowl populations and other native wildlife.
  • J. Millard Tawes Historical Museum & Ward Brothers Workshop, Crisfield, MD: Among the museum's many exhibits is the evolution of decoy carving and painting, which is highlighted during tours of the Ward Brothers Workshop.
  • Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Warsaw, VA: This site is part of the Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge protects and manages tidal and inland wetlands and adjacent uplands. More than 200 species of birds have been observed here, and bald eagles are present year-round.
  • Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge: Located at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, it is a gathering place for migrating birds, which wait for favorable conditions to cross the Bay in the fall. In the spring, shallow waters and moist grassy areas provide food for marsh and shorebirds.

To learn more, visit www.baygateways.net. To discover other waterfowl-related sites, click on "Visit a Gateway By Theme" in the menu bar.

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About Cindy Ross

Cindy Ross lives in Pennsylvania and unlike some children today, has a hard time coming indoors. She has written six books about it; her latest, from McGraw-Hill, is “Scraping Heaven: A Family’s Journey Along the Continental Divide.” She fears she has inflicted her children with the same addiction to fun in the outdoors.

Read more articles by Cindy Ross

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