One of Maryland’s top birding sites is not as open to the public as it used to be — but no one told the birds.

From their vantage point, the Cox Creek dredged material placement site just southeast of Baltimore on the Patapsco River offers about 100 acres of shallow, brackish waters with easy eating for wintering ducks. In the summer, it functions as mud flats for shorebirds rarely seen this far from the beach.

The 11-acre wetland along Swan Creek, just a stone’s throw away, provides habitat to orchard orioles and Virginia rails. And from the backdrop of a protected forest, eagles regularly swoop in for a feast.The Swan Creek wetlands,  adjacent to the Cox Creek dredged material placement site, draw a wide variety of birds. (Maryland Port Administration)

None of them seem to mind the constant beep-beep-boom of construction equipment preparing the site to receive more sediment dredged from Baltimore’s shipping channels.

The Maryland Port Administration purchased the Cox Creek site from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1990s and opened it for the placement of dredged material in 2006. The process creates flats and shallow water areas that attract a variety of birds. Combined with the creation of the Swan Creek wetlands, the site has taken on a lively secondary role as a destination for birders and school groups.

Ultimately, the site is industrial, said Tim Carney, senior environmental specialist at the Maryland Environmental Service. Carney is the official bird observer for Cox Creek and other dredge material sites in the state.

“In so many decades, it could be an auto terminal,” he said. “But, for now, the birds love it because it’s easy foraging.”

The birders love it, too. Together, Cox Creek and Swan Creek have been ranked among the top Maryland sites on ebird.org for the last three years, with about 280 species spotted on the grounds. Carney, an avid birder himself, said he’s completed only two 100-plus-species checklists: one at Cox Creek and the other in Costa Rica.

“Pretty much every habitat is here — except for a freshwater stream,” he said.

Public access to the site has been reduced recently because of the flurry of construction activity taking place. A former copper refinery is being demolished to expand the receiving area for dredged material, and crews are working to widen the dikes around the edge of the containment cell where the material is placed.

Participants on a tour of the Cox Creek dredged material  placement site in Maryland line up to photograph the birds they observe. (Tim Carney)Still, with a little planning, birders can find their way onto one of Carney’s popular guided tours, which are now the only way to visit the site. The next tour takes place on Sat., Jan. 25, and the best way to get on the list is to email him at tcarney@menv.com.

The 3-mile walks take visitors around the perimeter of the watery containment cell that juts into the Patapsco River. A longer stop at a bump-out from a former road takes visitors partly across the cell, close to where birds tend to congregate.

The four-hour tour also includes a guided walk through the Swan Creek wetland.

On a recent morning, a raft of more than 1,200 ducks floated in the waters of the containment cell. Carney got out his scope to identify species in the group, which included mostly greater and lesser scaup and ruddy ducks.

In January, when many of the shallow-water habitats in the area have frozen over, “we’ll have ducks by the thousands,” he said.

In the warmer months, similar numbers of shorebirds show up at the site, picking through the freshly turned sediment looking for food. Sandpipers and plovers are a rare sight this far from the beaches of Delaware, and Baltimore area residents flock to the site’s guided tours to see them up close.

“A lot of the walks we do focus on looking at all the little brown things that look the same, because there could be 30 different species in there,” he said. “For birders, those are new birds for their list and a chance to see something they might not normally see around here.”

An American golden plover pays a visit to the Cox Creek dredged material placement site in Baltimore. The variety of birds observed there have made it one of the top birding sites in Maryland. (Tim Carney)Carney uses a clicker to count birds in groups of 10s or 50s, hoping all the while that a local pair of peregrine falcons doesn’t put them to flight when he’s in the middle of a tally. Counting birds, especially in the wetland, gives managers a sense of how the environment is changing or improving over time. If a bird shows up one year and breeds the next, that’s a good sign.

The Swan Creek wetland was created a couple of decades ago to offset the impact of the Cox Creek facility on river’s shoreline. The port administration armored the dikes at the containment facility to make them more stable after purchasing the property, which took up an additional 4 acres of river. The 11-acre wetland was created to mitigate the impact, said Jessica Keicher, lead environmental specialist for the Maryland Environmental Service.

Carney said that the wetland creation began with the aggressive removal of the invasive phragmites plant and continues with ongoing maintenance and plant surveys.

“The birds that are here now probably wouldn’t be here if it were a phrag jungle,” Carney said as he walked the path winding through the wetlands.

Overhead, a late-migrating osprey flew toward the tree line carrying a breakfast of fish. Nearby, a kingfisher eyed the still water below his perch on a post. The less obvious birds, though, are the ones Carney is always straining to spot.

In the fall, he can almost set his watch by spotting a Nelson’s sparrow in this portion of the wetland, a little orange-brown bird similar to a saltmarsh sparrow that gets regulars excited. Virginia rails overwinter in the thick marsh cover here, Carney said. Though they’re hard to spot, the chickenlike marsh birds sometimes respond to a recorded call.

Orange-and-black orchard orioles used to nest here every year, before a beaver took down their favorite tree. And a rare black rail was spotted here several years ago, “before my time,” Carney said.

Carney counts himself lucky to spend as much time as he does at this and other dredged materials sites in the state, where he monitors bird populations and leads tours. Cox Creek is one of four sites that receives or has received dredged material, creating new habitats in the process. Poplar Island and Hart-Miller Island no longer receive newly dredged sediment but are still well-known for the birds they attract. Masonville, in Baltimore, is still an active placement site. It is also home to the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center, a popular base for nature walks.Ibis wander the shoreline at the Swan Creek wetlands. (Maryland Port Administration)

The relationship between birders and these highly used sites is always subject to change, Carney said, but the port “knows how important the birding outreach is.”

Offering guided walks, even as activity ramps up at Cox Creek, is an olive branch to birders who have long enjoyed the site.

And, Carney said, it’s a fresh invitation to those who have not yet visited.

Plan ahead for visits to Maryland’s dredged material placement sites

The Cox Creek dredged material site and Swan Creek wetland are located at 1000 Kembo Road in Curtis Bay, MD. For information, visit Marylandports.com/greenport. For information or to register for Cox Creek birding tours (which are free and occur at least once a quarter), email tcarney@menv.com. The next tour takes place Jan. 25. Guided tours will be scheduled at least quarterly throughout the year. Other sites related to dredged material placement are also open to the public:

  • Masonville Cove is the most accessible site, established over the last decade as an urban wildlife refuge in Baltimore. The campus is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Visitors must sign in at the education center upon arriving, but admission and parking are free. Visit MasonvilleCove.org.
  • Maryland’s Hart-Miller Island State Park in the Chesapeake Bay is accessible only by personal boat and open 8 a.m. to sunset, May to September, with options for camping.
  • Tours of Poplar Island, which was reconstructed with clean dredge materials, must be scheduled in advance by contacting the tour coordinator. Email poplartours@menv.com.