William Dixon made his first approach to Eastern Neck Island in 1923, on the edge of a nor'easter. But it wasn't the storm that impressed him.

"...as far up the creek as one could see, was literally a mass of waterfowl, so thick, that it almost seemed one could walk upon them. I am not exaggerating in the least when I tell you-no history of the earliest records of the flight and congregation of waterfowl could have exceeded what we saw that day. There must have been hundreds of thousands-the very best of all our known varieties-Canvas, Red and Black Heads; intermingled also great quantities of geese and swan."

Nearly a century later, Eastern Neck Island remains a remarkable magnet for waterfowl.

Winter marks the height of the show, as large populations of tundra swans and Canada geese settle in to wait for warmer months up north. The numbers have certainly dropped since Dixon's time, but their presence is still dramatic, defining both fringe marsh and inland fields with their elegant group profile and filling the air with constant calls.

The entire island-more than 2,000 acres-has become a haven of preserved wildlife habitat. It lies just north of the Chesapeake Bay bridge in Maryland, where the Chester River curls along its shoreline before opening into the Bay itself.

The federal government picked up the first parcel of land there in 1962 to rescue the island from a planned housing development. Today, Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a popular hiking and birding site in the Chesapeake Gateways Network.

Eastern Neck enthusiasts know that winter is an ideal time to visit.

Visitor services specialist Michele Whitbeck was recently treated to the sight of two bald eagles that sat calmly on the Bay's icy surface before they took flight, lifting a large cloud of geese with them toward the sky.

"There's all sorts of things going on," Whitbeck said. "If you don't go outside and spend some time, you miss out on a lot."

Whitbeck said there are typically thousands of geese on hand during the winter, along with hundreds of snow white tundra swans. This year, weekly bird count volunteers have reported an unusually high number of scaup, a diving duck with strong white and black markings. Over time, refuge staff has documented peak populations of more than 50,000 waterfowl of 33 different species.

The birds are drawn in part to the corn fields, where farmers harvest 80 percent of the crop and leave 20 percent on the ground as a food source. They also thrive on beds of underwater grasses, known in scientific circles as submerged aquatic vegetation or SAV. They eat the plant matter, as well as the insects and invertebrates that linger nearby.

"The island has a lot of creeks that are sheltered from wave action, and those sheltered coves provide a great place for SAV," Whitbeck said.

Baywide, though, the amount of SAV plummeted during the 20th century. And despite a slow trend toward recovery, the reduced acreage means fewer waterfowl. Increasingly, the Bay's much-admired tundra swans migrate through the Chesapeake region instead of stopping here. North Carolina now hosts approximately 65,000-75,000 tundra swans each winter-about three-quarters of the Eastern migratory population.

Larry Hindman, waterfowl manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said that the number of wintering tundra swans in Maryland has dropped roughly by half since the 1970s, from approximately 25,000 to between 12,000 and 14,000.

Hindman has observed tundra swan activity on Eastern Neck Island for years. "They're just very graceful, and I particularly like their sound," he said. "It's kind of unique."

Hindman said the swans favor the northwest corner of the island, unless the water is frozen. "The water there is so shallow that is has very little boat traffic, and they don't get disturbed. And of course with shallow water, they typically find clams and Bay grasses to feed on."

Little visible evidence remains of Eastern Neck's human history, but the stories are rich and rustic. They begin with Native Americans, who began frequenting the island and fishing its shores at least 4,000 years ago.

In the mid-1600s, a Kent Island settler named Joseph Wickes enjoyed a view of Eastern Neck Island and set out to own it. Over the next 20 years, Wickes and a partner acquired the entire island, and Wickes himself became a chief justice for the county.

The island passed through various branches of the Wickes family, which held the island collectively until 1902. Small family farms and sharecroppers dominated the scene.

Then, as the urban population grew wealthy and more mobile, the island became a coveted hunting retreat. Three lodges once stood on the island, but only one remains-"the Lodge," with the look of an oversize cottage and symmetrical wings that wrap forward toward guests.

Today, the Lodge houses the visitor center and refuge offices, but the inside is still very much the picture of wood-paneled warmth and seclusion.

Maurice Dashiell, nephew of a man who helped build and maintain the lodge, recently began volunteering on the refuge after a decades-long absence. He recalls youthful summers on the island, and one area in particular that was fondly dubbed "Bachelorville."

"Not one married person lived down there," he said.

Today, most historic buildings are gone and Bachelorville has faded away, but some names have stuck fast to the island's creeks and roads.

There's Wickes Beach, and a marker for the original Wickes family manor house near the south end of the island. Wickes' civic duties left a mark on Hail Creek, the point from which all ships on the Chester River could be hailed to enforce shipping regulations. Today, Hail Cove is considered one of the best waterfowl habitats in Maryland.

At the end of Bogles Wharf Road, 20th century steamboats made regular calls to collect produce and seafood for Baltimore markets. Now a shorter pier and public landing offer easy access to the water, and an ideal place to launch a kayak or canoe to explore the island's water trail.

Calfpasture Cove and Frying Pan Cove, flanking the entrance bridge to the island, are favorite gathering places for tundra swans.

Nearly six miles of roads and trails travel through these areas, including three trails with fully accessible boardwalks. Observation blinds and one tower offer striking views of the marshes and waterfowl, while viewing scopes at a Bayfront overlook bring the opposite shore into view. (Keep the quarters in your pocket; use of the viewing scopes is free.)

Wearing extra layers this time of year is a good idea, especially when cold air sweeps in from the open Bay-possibly brushing an icy surface on the way. But snow, ice and even the exposed branches of the forest transform the landscape in surprising ways that mild weather visitors often miss.

Eastern Neck is full of wildlife at any time of year, but Whitbeck said winter is a showcase of waterfowl.

"If you come in the spring or fall, you'll still see the birds but not the numbers you do now," Whitbeck said. "Plus, winter has that stillness in the air. You can just hear the life."

Eastern Neck NWR

The trails and refuge are open 7:30 a.m. (sometimes earlier) to one half hour after sunset daily. The visitor station and bookstore/gift shop is open 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. daily during the winter and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily the rest of the year. There is no admission fee.

The Ingleside Recreation Area has facilities for crabbing and car-top boat launching from April 1 though Sept. 30. Bogle's Wharf landing offers a launch for trailered boats, but requires a county permit.

For directions or information, call 410-639-7056 or visit www.fws.gov/northeast/easternneck/index.html. For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.

Where to Watch Waterfowl

Explore the Chesapeake Gateways Network (www.baygateways.net) for places to see wildfowl, as well as to learn about their ecology and the traditions of hunting and decoy carving. Three driving tours are highlighted, including these and other sites:

  • Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge - Cambridge, MD
  • Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center - Grasonville, MD
  • Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge Area - Rock Hall, MD
  • Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge - Cape Charles, VA
  • Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve - Portsmouth, VA
  • Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary and Visitors Center - Upper Marlboro, MD
  • Patuxent River Park, Jug Bay Natural Area - Upper Marlboro, MD
  • Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area - Queenstown, MD