In the winter, wherever there are farm fields and water, there are birds. Hungry geese squawk in flocks as they snack on leftover corn kernels. Majestic tundra swans fill up on underwater grasses, shoots of winter wheat and grain. Snowy egrets, great-horned owls, golden and bald eagles, and wood ducks all come together to the water's edge to eat and find warmth.
An observant birder can see these interactions, and more, almost anywhere on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, much of which is on the Atlantic Flyway and a favorite wintering ground for birds. And while there are many fine birding sites around the Chesapeake (See"Where to watch waterfowl," on page 5.) four sites along the Eastern Shore provide the opportunity to pack lot into one weekend.
"I think birding has promise for everybody, mainly because you can do it anywhere," said Judy Wink, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, one of the region's best spots to find winter ducks and geese. "You never know what you're going to see. You can walk or hike, so there are physical benefits. And it's not an expensive hobby."
Winter is an excellent time to visit the Shore.
Trees have shed their leaves and the marshes take on their winter coats of russet. Red winterberries pop out from behind icicle-covered holly bushes. Muskrat nests rise from the marsh. The marsh seems quiet, peaceful. The mosquitoes are gone, and there are no backups on the Bay Bridge, little traffic on the roads and plenty of room — and discounts — at area inns.
All one needs to spot the region's winter residents are a pair of binoculars, and perhaps a camera, field guide, warm jacket and a sense of adventure. The birds provide everything else.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
With more than 27,000 acres of wetlands, Blackwater is a great place to start a birding adventure. Every November, about 35,000 geese and 15,000 ducks arrive, searching for food and habitat along the refuge's marshlands. Up to 20 species of ducks visit Blackwater in the winter.
Visitors can drive or bike the Wildlife Drive loop. Look for bald eagles — Blackwater has the largest East Coast population north of Florida — as well as herons, egrets and the rare Delmarva fox squirrel. Blackwater recently built a new viewing platform, which offers expansive views of the marsh and the waters for optimal birding.
Be careful to stay on the marked paths; winter is hunting season and the areas around Blackwater are a prime spot for shooting deer.
Pickering Creek Audubon Center
Pickering is not the easiest place to find — we saw no signs for it on our drive there — but it is well worth a visit. Formerly the Heigh-Ho Farm, the land was donated to the Audubon Society in 1984, but it's still a well-kept secret. Admission always has been and remains free.
Pickering Creek still looks like a farm, but trails meander through forests, past wetlands and toward the shimmering creek. Common winter birds include mallards, Canada geese, tundra swans, turkey vultures, bald eagles and red-tailed hawks.
Pickering is a great place for a brisk walk to spot mergansers, northern harriers and Eastern screech owls. Near the creek one might see belted kingfishers, and in the woods and on the field edges, red-bellied woodpeckers and Carolina wrens.
Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center
This Grasonville birder's paradise is not as hard to find as Pickering Creek, and it's much closer to the Bay Bridge and main highways than Blackwater is. Still it is somewhat unknown.
That's a shame. More than 20,000 ruddy ducks and 20,000 canvasbacks may show up in the winter. There are widgeons and pintails, scaup and mergansers diving into the shallows for their meals. The epicenter of birding is Lake Knapp, where the birds use the five acres of freshwater to bathe.
The center also offers a "bird school." Wink, an ornithologist, teaches about the birds that come to the property and how to identify them. She is usually onsite and is a fantastic resource.
Sometimes, an odd duck — or bird — shows up. Once, a yellow-crowned night heron wintered there, then lost its migratory instinct and just stayed.
The center came to be in 1979, when the nonprofit Wildfowl Trust of North America purchased the property to preserve habitat and wetlands for the nation's migratory birds. Formerly the Horseheads Wetlands Farm — some locals still call it that — it offers four miles of wetland trails for hiking and birding.
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is almost straight across the Chesapeake from metropolitan Baltimore. With its 15 miles of shoreline, this northern shore outpost is a wonderful spot to watch tundra swans congregate in the shallow-water coves near the refuge's entrance. The numbers of swans and geese at the refuge have dropped a bit from their peaks because of the Baywide loss of underwater grasses, although a typical winter still brings thousands of birds. Volunteers have counted populations of more than 50,000 winter birds, including 33 different species at Eastern Neck.
Where to watch waterfowl
In addition to the sites mentioned in the story, those interested in seeing birds in the winter have many great choices, including a string of National Wildlife Refuges, state parks and game areas, as well as privately owned conservation areas. Here are a few good spots to consider.
- Virginia offers a birding tour. Check it out at www.virginia.org/birdingandwildlifetrail.
- Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel: Birds love to stop on the man-made islands at this great engineering wonder, on which cars travel on a 23-mile fixed-link span across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Here, where the Chesapeake meets the Atlantic, birders can see falcons, gulls and and sometimes loons and gannets. Make arrangements beforehand, as visitors need to have permission and, in some cases, must be escorted. Contact: 757- 331-2960 or www.cbbt.com/birding.html.
- Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge: This 1,127-acre refuge is a prime spot to see migrating songbirds and raptors. For details, visit www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=51650 or 757-331-2760.
- Kiptopeke State Park: Hawks and eagles frequent this 562-acre park just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Scientists come, too, for the opportunity to count and study hawks, ospreys and raptors. The park offers camping as well as yurts in season. Contact: www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/kip.shtml or 757-331-2267.
- First Landing State Park: First Landing, Virginia's most visited state park, has good reason to be popular in the winter. Several species of warblers, songbirds and woodpeckers spend the winters here and chickadees and titmice visit as well. Contact: www.virginiaoutdoors.com/parks/details/first-landing-state-park or 757-412-2300.
- Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge: In 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established this refuge on Virginia's Northern Neck peninsula. The refuge boasts more than 200 bird species. Bald eagles roost here; the refuge has one of the region's largest populations. They're joined in the winter by northern harriers, red-tailed hawks and Canada geese. Contact: www.fws.gov/northeast/Rappahannock or 804-333-1470.
- Belle Isle State Park: This 739-acre park includes trails where visitors can see and hear hawks, turkeys and bald eagles. Contact: www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/bel.shtml or 804-462-5030.
- Audubon offers an online guide to Pennsylvania birding areas at http://web1.audubon.org/pabirdingtrails.org.
- Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area: This lake and its surrounding farm fields turns into a tundra swan staging area in February and March. Nearly 25 percent of all migrating tundra swans stop here before returning north to Canada and Alaska. Several organizations cooperate to protect the area for the birds, as the nearby farmland is facing development pressure. The Pennsylvania Game Commission manages the site. Contact: www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/middle_creek or 717-733-1512.
- Muddy Run Recreational Area: Muddy Run, on the eastern side of the Lower Susquehanna, features a lake and 700 acres of woodlands and fields. Snow geese, tundra swans and American black ducks often stop here on their migrations in winter. The area is open all year, 24 hours a day. Contact: 717-284-4325 or www.muddyrunpark.com.
- Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: Contact: 410-228-2677 or www.fws.gov/blackwater.
- Pickering Creek Audubon Center: Contact: 410-822-4903 or www.pickeringcreek.org.
- Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center: Contact: 410-827-6694 or www.bayrestoration.org.
- Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge: Contact: www.fws.gov/northeast/easternneck or 410-639-7056.