Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge - near Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

Birds and Marshes of the Chesapeake Bay Country
Eagle-eyed birders will find plenty to see at Blackwater
Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network / By Lara Lutz - Bay Journal

It’s an Osprey Cam—no, wait, it’s an Eagle Cam. But in a short few months, it will be an Osprey Cam again.

So stay tuned. Use that lunch break to log onto http://www.friendsofblackwater.org/ and see what happens to one popular osprey nest while the owners have flown south for the winter. You’ll see current, close-up images of the nest, with a gallery of archived photos showing creatures that stop by to visit—including squirrels, blue jays and, yes, bald eagles.

The nest itself is perched high on a stand at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network near Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The Blackwater refuge is a mecca for bird watchers, showcasing impressive populations of geese, ducks and other birds that vary in number and species throughout the year.

Blackwater also supports the largest density of nesting bald eagles on the Atlantic coast north of Florida. More than 75 eagles have a permanent residence here. In the winter, migrating eagles boost this number to 150 and beyond.

While eagles are arguably the star attraction at Blackwater, they are by far not the only show on the playbill. With 27,000 acres of waterways, fields, forest and marshes, the refuge is a sprawling oasis of habitat for a wide range of wildlife. The refuge is also a prime destination along the Atlantic Flyway—so winter is the ideal time to make your visit, when the gathering of migratory species reaches its peak.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge came into being as the first federal wildlife refuge in the northeast region. It was formed in 1933, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased 8,200 acres of land along the Blackwater River to establish a wildlife sanctuary for migratory birds. Prior to the purchase, the land was owned by the Delmarvia Fur Farm, which bought the property from multiple local owners in 1927 and used it to harvest muskrats. In 1956, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assumed management of the refuge.

Since then, both the mission and the size of the refuge have expanded. Passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 ensured that Blackwater would be recognized for its invaluable habitat for the bald eagle and Delmarva fox squirrel. Over the years, the refuge has more than tripled the amount of its original holdings. Today, it stands at 27,000 acres divided approximately in thirds between forest, marshland and open water.

Approximately 400 acres are managed as farmland for the benefit of birds, deer and waterfowl. Usually, the refuge staff plants the fields themselves. On occasion, though, the refuge partners with local farmers who labor in the fields for free and leave one-quarter of their crops for wildlife.

This diverse and largely contiguous landscape at Blackwater provides a haven for Canada geese, snow geese, and tundra (or whistling) swans.

In the fall and winter, great clouds of geese rise from the fields with squawks and rumblings at a volume rarely heard elsewhere. Blackwater also harbors more than 20 species of ducks, including mallards, black ducks, wood ducks, blue-winged teals, green-winged teals, wigeons and pintails. Prothonotary warblers, bluebirds, flickers, sparrow hawks, orioles, bobwhites and owls are among the 85 species of birds that live at the refuge or make a seasonal visit. Shoreline sightings of osprey, herons and egrets are common.

The landscape of Blackwater also nurtures mammals such as otters, raccoons, red fox, muskrats, white tailed deer, sika deer, and the Delmarva fox squirrel.

Sika deer are an Asian species of elk introduced to the area in 1916. The nocturnal sika coexist peaceably with the native white-tails, feeding on marsh grass while the white-tailed deer graze the forest for leaves, buds and twigs. Both enjoy the culinary options of a good farm field.

The Delmarva fox squirrel remains on the endangered species list but has regained a noticeable population in Maryland, with Blackwater boasting the largest protected population within the species’ range.

The nutria, a small muskrat-like animal native to South America, has also made an impact on life at the Blackwater refuge. The good news is this: Blackwater is now a model success story for eradicating this tenacious animal, which has destroyed untold acres of wetlands nationwide.

Nutria have an insatiable appetite for marsh plants—roots and all. After its initial appearance in 1943, the nutria population at Blackwater exploded. Blackwater has lost more than 7,000 acres of wetlands through the years, and nutria are largely to blame. Their feeding habits clear marsh vegetation and leave expansive mud flats in their wake. In time, the mud wears away and is replaced by open water.

In 1999, the Blackwater refuge and 26 project organizations launched an aggressive counterattack. The first few strategies faltered. Then the plan became rather simple, but enormous in scope. Full-time trappers began making year-round sweeps of the area, working west to east, hunting and trapping approximately 8,300 nutria. Just recently, Blackwater and its surroundings—nearly 37,000 acres—were declared essentially nutria-free. Small remnant populations still require attention, but the rebuilding of damaged wetlands is already under way.

Supported in part by grants from the Chesapeake Gateways Network, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge offers plenty of ways to experience the abundant wildlife and learn about the ecosystem that supports it.

Wildlife Drive is a 6.5 mile loop of all-weather road that hugs the shoreline of Blackwater River. Freshwater ponds, woods, fields and marshes grace the landscape on either side of the road.

Visitors can hike, bike or drive the route, enjoying two trails and numerous spots for birding along the way. One fun spot is the photo blind, a wood hut with small camouflaged openings for viewing waterfowl on all sides and levels.

Be sure to stop at the Visitors Center in advance to ask for maps and brochures that interpret the sights that you encounter. Staff at the Visitors Center can also help to extend touring options by mapping routes along county roads adjacent to refuge lands.

Two hiking trails branch off directly from Wildlife Drive. The Marsh Edge Trail is a wheelchair accessible, stroller-friendly path that winds one-third of a mile through, well, just that: the marsh’s edge. You can watch birds and waterfowl from a shoreline bench or from a boardwalk that extends 80 feet into the marsh.

The Woods Trail, half a mile in length, travels through pine and mixed hardwoods, prime habitat for the Delmarva fox squirrel. Two additional woodland trails will open within the coming year.

Canoe and kayak trails provide nearly 25 miles for paddling and have proved extremely popular with refuge visitors. The trails are open April through October. Rentals are available from nearby outfitters, some of whom will deliver directly to the refuge launch site. Fishing, hunting and crabbing are also permitted in accordance with refuge regulations. Keep in mind, too, that the summer months are accompanied by large numbers of flies and mosquitoes in the marsh and woods.

Contact the Visitors Center for information, or visit http://blackwater.fws.gov.

The Visitors Center is in a temporary location while the main building undergoes construction to improve its exhibits, meeting space and library. Plenty of good resources lie ahead when the new center opens its doors in 2005.

In the meantime, start planning a winter visit to Blackwater or, at the very least, visit at the Eagle Cam web page. When a great image comes on screen, join in the fun: a few clicks of your mouse will send the image to a permanent online photo gallery where others visitors can share in a day in the life of an eagle…or osprey.

Wildlife Calendar

Events may vary by one or two weeks, depending on weather conditions.

January: Geese, swans and ducks dwell in the marsh, as well as hawks, great blue herons and shorebirds. Great horned owls incubate eggs. Bald eagles rebuild their nests in loblolly pines.

February: North-bound migrants appear late in February—killdeer, robins and bluebirds. Eagles also lay eggs late in the month. Wintering waterfowl prepare for the long flight north through intense foraging.

March: Most migratory waterfowl depart for points north. Masses of red-winged blackbirds pass through; some remain to nest. Ospreys return from southern wintering grounds and begin constructing nests.

April: Resident ducks and geese incubate eggs. The majority of migrant marsh birds return by mid-April. Blue-winged and green-winged teal pass through. Delmarva fox squirrels are born. Young bald eagles begin hatching. Osprey, wild turkey and northern bobwhite begin to nest. Late April and early May heralds peak shorebird migrations.

May: Migratory songbirds peak in late April and early May with warblers being most conspicuous and abundant. White-tail fawns begin to appear. Eaglets start to fledge. The first broods of waterfowl appear.

June: Ospreys begin to hatch. Eaglets fledge. Songbirds begin to nest.

July: Local goslings start to fly. Large quantities of insects are consumed by swallows, kingbirds and flycatchers. Marsh hibiscus (mallow) begins to bloom along marsh edges at the end of the month. Osprey young leave the nest.

August: Wading bird numbers increase. Blue-winged teal begin to arrive from the north on their southward migration. Some bald eagles disperse north after the breeding season.

September: Ospreys migrate to South and Central America. Waterfowl numbers gradually increase. Egrets and herons accumulate until cold weather pushes them south. Tickseed sunflowers bloom. Cattails go to seed. Songbird migration peaks in late September and early October. Toads are abundant.

October–December: Blackbirds peak in October and November. The abundance of ducks and geese gradually increases, and peaks occur in late October or November. Tundra swans from Northwest Canada usually arrive in early November. Several hundred remain throughout the winter. White-tailed and sika deer breed. Bald eagle numbers increase. Golden eagles are occasionally seen during winter. Waterfowl numbers decrease. Some remain all winter.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Hours: Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge’s Visitor Center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It is closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Wildlife Drive and trails are open dawn to dusk every day.

Cost: Visitors are welcome to explore the Visitor Center free of charge. A daily permit is required for all visitors on the Wildlife Drive and trails, unless they possess an annual pass or lifetime passport.

The fees are $3 for private vehicles; $1 for pedestrians or bicyclists; $15 for a commercial van or bus, with up to 20 passengers; $25 for a commercial van or bus with 21 or more passengers.

Getting There: The refuge is located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, approximately 12 miles south of Cambridge.

From Route 50 in Cambridge, turn onto Route 16 West (Church Creek Road). A traffic light marks the intersection, with Wal-Mart on one side and the Hyatt Regency on the other. Follow Route 16 through a traffic light at Snow’s Turn, passing the South Dorchester High School. At the first road past the traffic light, turn left onto Egypt Road. Follow Egypt road for approximately 7 miles until it dead ends at Key Wallace Drive. Signs will direct you to the Wildlife Drive, the Visitor Center and the Refuge Office.

For information: Contact Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge at 2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, MD 21613; 410-228-2677 or TDD/800-735-2258;

To learn about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit: http://www.baygateways.net/

Learn more:

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who lives on the South River in Mayo, MD
Eagle-eyed birders will find plenty to see at Blackwater
Article from Bay Journal - Jan, Feb 2005

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