As the days grow shorter and the air becomes crisper, the daily activity of wildlife around the Chesapeake Bay changes. Animals are already preparing for colder weather. Deer gorge themselves on crop grains, berries and just about any edible plants they can nuzzle up to. Squirrels greedily hide nuts. Muskrats build up their mounds, weather-proofing these homes against the bitter winds that will sweep across the bare marshes. Blue crabs are segregating, females swimming toward the southern end of the Bay while the males remain around mid-Bay.
Many birds are on the move, beginning their long migrations south to warmer and more hospitable climates. The Chesapeake Bay lies in the middle of a major aerial highway known as the Atlantic Flyway. Waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds and songbirds traverse this invisible highway, often using the Bay watershed as a rest stop. The Bay itself is a major wintering site for waterfowl.
National Wildlife Refuges provide many opportunities for the public to view wildlife around the Bay not only in the autumn but year-round. People can observe huge flocks of migrating birds; resident mammals and birds; wintering waterfowl; and other wildlife species at strategically located refuges around t he watershed.
The National Wildlife Refuge System was established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System is a diverse collection of lands set aside specifically for wild animals. Refuges play a vital role in preserving endangered and threatened species. They also provide secure habitat for native plants and many species of resident and migratory birds, mammals, fish, insects, amphibians and reptiles. Below is a partial list of the habitats and wildlife one is likely to encounter during the autumn at the refuges that surround the Chesapeake Bay.
Habitat: tidal marsh, fresh and brackish ponds, mixed woodlands, hardwood swamp, open meadows, cropland, beaches, dunes and open water
Endangered or threatened species: bald eagle, peregrine falcon and Delmarva fox squirrel
Waterfowl: tundra swan; snow geese; Canada geese; mallards; black ducks; American widgeon; Northern pintails; gadwall, blue-winged and green-winged teals; wood ducks; greater and lesser scaup; canvasback ducks; redhead ducks; bufflehead ducks; red-breasted and hooded mergansers; common and surf scoters; oldsquaw
Raptors: northern harrier, Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, broad-winged hawk, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, merlin, great horned owl, screech owl
Other birds: cormorants, egrets, herons, gulls, terns, plovers, sand pipers, dowitchers, American woodcock, bobwhite, woodpeckers, wrens, towhees, nut hatches, chickadees, warblers, vireos
Mammals: white-tailed deer, raccoon, river otter, beaver, opossum, skunk, red fox, gray squirrel, muskrat, nutria (introduced), Eastern cottontail rabbit
Fish: alewives, blueback herring, gizzard shad, hickory shad, American shad, striped bass, bluegill, largemouth bass, catfish, crappie, pickerel
Refuges also serve the public by providing opportunities to see wildlife in a natural environment. Many refuges have interpretive foot and vehicular trails. Birding, hiking, biking, wildlife observation and photography are some activities that visitors can enjoy. Sometimes hunting, fishing and trapping are permitted on refuges. Some visitor centers offer exhibits, videos, and slide shows. Contact individual refuges for details on fees (if any), hours of operation and particular activities. To spice up your autumn, visit one of these Chesapeake Bay refuges.
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge
1730 Eastern Neck Road
Rock Hall, MD 21661
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
2145 Key Wallace Drive
Cambridge, MD 21613
Telephone: (410) 228-2692
Eastern Shore of Virginia National
Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge
5003 Hallett Circle
Cape Charles, VA 23310
Telephone: (804) 331-2760
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
4005 Sandpiper Road
Virginia Beach VA 23456-0286
James River National Wildlife Refuge
Presquile National Wildlife Refuge
P.O. Box 189
Prince George, VA 23875-0189
Telephone: (804) 733-8042
Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge
14416 Jefferson Davis Highway,
Woodbridge, VA 22191
Telephone: (703) 690-1297
Patuxent Research Refuge
12100 Beech Forest Road
Laurel, MD 20708