For many outdoor adventure seekers, the first sign of a worthy destination is that you might have trouble finding it.
Pickering Creek Audubon Center, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, offers this friendly warning on its website because Internet mapping services often steer visitors the wrong way. In reality, Pickering Creek is just a few miles beyond the well-traveled pavement of interstate Route 50, but the side roads quickly wind toward a landscape that sounds of wings more often than cars.
A modest sign marks the gravel drive to the center. With nearly 400 acres along Pickering Creek, the center's grounds blend seamlessly with neighboring farms except for one key difference: The public is welcome from dawn to dusk.
"We don't charge admission, and we're pretty proud of it," director Mark Scallion said.
Pickering Creek Audubon Center, formerly Heigh Ho Farm, was donated to the Chesapeake Audubon Society in 1984 to create a place where all visitors, regardless of age or background, could freely experience the beauty and wonder of the Chesapeake ecosystem.
Visitors can launch a canoe or kayak into Pickering Creek, which flows past undeveloped shores into the Wye East River, or ramble four miles of trails that range from flat to mildly rolling terrain. The paths traverse a patchwork of Eastern Shore landscapes, from mature forest with towering hardwoods to waterfront views and an expanse of open wetlands. The property also includes 165 acres of active cropland, cultivated by a family who has tended the same land for generations.
Meadows of wildflowers thrive by a cabin that was built by Eastern Shore author and naturalist Gilbert Byron, and relocated to Pickering Creek in 1991. Restoration is well under way, and the cabin and meadows will soon serve as a base for outdoor education, literature and writing programs.
Pickering Creek Audubon Center has already developed a robust educational program with approximately 13,000 program contacts each year. School students account for most of those contacts, but Scallion said the number of general visitors has gone up in recent years, largely because of increased visibility through the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
"Ten years ago, if you didn't come on a school bus then you probably didn't come," Scallion said.
Today, the center's guest book logs names of visitors from across Maryland and beyond. Many come for the birds. The diversity of habitats at Pickering Creek provides homes and stopovers for a wide range of wildlife - from red fox, deer and the Delmarva fox squirrel to migrating monarchs and a symphony of spring frogs. Birds, though, are the starring attraction, especially during fall and winter migrations.
Charles Hopkins, a member of the Talbot Bird Club, walked the trails for the second time in a week on a mild November day. Fields of dried soybeans and sorghum crackled to life as sparrows burst from the undercover.
"On a good day, you can see eight or nine species of sparrows - the Eastern Tohee, fox sparrow, white throat," Hopkins said. "And over there, look. That's two immature eagles just playing around in the sky."
Other members of the club have reported sighting 42 and 58 species on a single day. Their lists include clay-colored, white-crowned, and swamp sparrows, as well as raptors, warblers, nuthatches, waterfowl and a variety of woodpeckers.
A bluebird trail and viewing blinds and platforms help visitors make the most of their birding experience. Binoculars and field guides can be checked out from the office.
The most dramatic addition has been the restoration of a 90-acre freshwater wetland at the southern end of the property. Created in 2005, the project helped to offset the steady decline of wetlands in Talbot County, estimated at a 69 percent loss since the 1600s. The "new" wetland has an average depth of 18 inches, is well-dressed with grass, shrubs and wildflowers and ripples with life. Visitors take in the dramatic view from a large, raised platform.
Birding at Pickering Creek is a highlight throughout the year, but Scallion said that winter months should not be missed.
"The numbers and variety of waterfowl along the creeks and wetlands is really good, and tends to peak in March," Scallion said. "And though it's quiet and peaceful here all the time, you'll have it even more to yourself."
Pickering Creek Audubon Center is free and open to the public from dawn to dusk every day. Be aware that driving directions found on many online mapping sites are incorrect. Visit www.pickeringcreek.org for precise directions.
A launch is available for visitors bringing their own canoes or kayaks. Canoes are also available on-site for Pickering Creek supporters and Audubon members, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
For details, call 410-822-4903 or visit www.pickeringcreek.org.
For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.