Blackwater: For the Birds
Visit Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, where dozens of rare species of birds
set the stage for hiking, kayaking and other outdoor recreation.
By Steve Bailey
It’s almost like being at sea: driving a car among the limitless marshes under a Montana-size sky at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s eastern shore. That’s the way most people experience this watery world, as a pleasant drive with stops for bird sightings, hikes on forest trails and amazing photo opportunities.
A half-hour west of Cambridge, Maryland, this marshy edge of the Chesapeake Bay attracts hunters, anglers, kayakers, cyclists, hikers, birders and photographers. Soon, they’re likely to be joined by history buffs: visitors to Maryland’s Harriet Tubman State Park, a 17-acre complex celebrating the life and work of the anti-slavery activist. The park is expected to open in early 2013 across the road from Blackwater’s visitors’ center.
“We get about 180,000 visitors a year,” says Ray Paterra, visitor services manager at Blackwater. “We expect that to go up when Tubman Park opens.” Those additional visitors might not be nature or wildlife enthusiasts — at least not when they enter the refuge — but thoughtful visitors are sure to emerge with a new appreciation of the natural world.
This particular world is one of profound environmental changes happening in human time. About 7,000 of the refuge’s 27,000 acres are forest, and that forest is shrinking as groundwater becomes brackish and water levels rise in the Chesapeake Bay. Dead trees, called snags, stand like unarmed sentinels along forest edges and beside the causeway-like roads that reach across the marshes. Blackwater’s “sea level-affecting marsh model” predicts that by 2100 as much as half of the refuge’s fox squirrel habitat will be tidal marsh or open water. Rising water is remapping the marshes, too, creating open water as areas gradually become too deep for cordgrass, saltgrass and other salt-tolerant vegetation.
Despite these dramatic changes, the overall impression of Blackwater is one of timelessness. In a kayak out in the marshes — out of the sight of power lines and cell-phone towers, watched over by birds of prey — you’re in a prehistoric world. Isolated stands of trees appear different from every angle and are unreliable landmarks. You may need a compass to return safely to the present time.
Three paddling trails take kayakers through the refuge, but some people make their own way. Tom Horton, an environmentalist who has written several books about the Chesapeake region, says he has frequently kayaked “the whole extent” of Blackwater. “On a three-day paddle, we encounter only three roads and take our boats out of the water only once, for a 30-yard portage,” he says. “If we were trying to make a point, we could actually paddle under a low bridge there and travel the whole distance with no takeouts.”
Susan Meredith, a kayak tour guide and co-owner of Dorchester Paddle and Pedal kayak and bike rentals, says two of the three kayak trails are difficult to navigate. “The Purple Trail requires a compass, and the Orange Trail is through marsh and it’s easy to get lost,” she says. The only Blackwater trail she takes people on is the Green Trail, which is eight miles roundtrip on the upper Blackwater River through water lilies and other freshwater vegetation.
Even that trail can be demanding. “You never want to get in on a windy day,” Meredith says. “The tide doesn’t affect you, but if the wind is blowing, it’s hard to get anywhere because you are fighting the wind the whole way.” Pick a calm day, though, and the Green Trail rewards paddlers: “It’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s the most paddled trail in the county.”
She describes a recent outing with a grandmother and three grandchildren, aged eight, 10 and 14. “Those kids were loud and laughing and splashing,” she says. “The ospreys and other birds were coming out to the river to see what the commotion was. Most people think you have to be quiet, but here, you can talk.” She does say, however, that if you’re trying to get really close to great blue herons, snowy egrets and other big birds, you have to stop paddling and allow your kayak to coast in. “The paddling coming toward them looks aggressive.”
Another way to self-propel your way around Blackwater is by bicycle. Spring, summer, fall and winter — all are good seasons to visit according to Georgena Terry of Penfield, New York. An avid cyclist and the founder of Terry Bicycles, she says she visits Blackwater at least four times a year.
“In January, the weather is quite bearable for riding — compared to Upstate New York,” she says.
She first came to the Eastern Shore in 2006 for a cousin’s wedding and cycled the flat roads of Blackwater. “I thought it was incredible,” she says. “I saw my first bald eagle.”
“You can ride for hours and hours and never see a car,” Terry says. “Inside the refuge, the roads are in great shape. The wind can be bad on occasion; there’s nothing to stop it. It comes whipping across the marsh lands, and, wow, it hits you!”
Since 2008, Terry has teamed with Gore Bikeware, a Maryland company, to sponsor an annual women’s bike ride to raise money for the Friends of Blackwater, a nonprofit group that aids the refuge. The ride, called the Wild Goose Chase, is not actually in the refuge, which allows biking, but discourages groups as large as the nearly 900 cyclists who rode in the 2011 event. The ride on county and state roads near the refuge draws riders from across the United States.
In 2011, the ride’s registration fees netted almost $35,000, putting the total since 2008 at more than $100,000. Friends of Blackwater has used the money for habitat preservation, to help rebuild an overlook, to help rebuild boardwalk trails in a marshy area and to regrade a marsh. “This year we hope to use it for educational exhibits and for the renovated visitors’ center,” Terry says. The 2012 ride is Sunday, October 14, with other events on the 13th.
The flat landscape that makes Blackwater so pleasant for cyclists also attracts photographers. The nearly horizontal rays of sunlight at dawn and sunset put spectacular photography within reach of almost anyone with a camera. And if you’re not just anyone, well, the photographs get even better.
Dave Harp, a professional photographer and a contributor to many books about the Chesapeake and its tributaries, lives in nearby Cambridge, Maryland. “I’ve driven the Wildlife Drive” — a four-mile road through forests and marsh — “and walked the trails at Blackwater hundreds of times,” he says, “and no two times are alike, which makes it a special place for photography.”
He says the best time to take pictures at Blackwater is in the winter. “The migratory birds come and go from field to field, the sun’s rays are more oblique and their warm light is a nice contrast to blue sky and water,” he says. “My favorite subjects are the tundra swans and snow geese. Both species are very white, and to get any detail in their feathers, they should be photographed shortly before or very soon after sunrise. The same is true at sunset.”
Harp also likes the winter’s snow and ice. “The birds are sometimes forced into tighter groups when ice covers some of the impoundments. There’s nothing more beautiful than a tundra swan in the snow.”
Dave Palmer, a birder and photographer from Easton, Maryland, agrees that the winter is best for photography, especially “on a crisp, cold day when the angle of light is generally very good all day and the haze is minimized.” He sees another winter advantage: “Bird activity, especially bald eagles and waterfowl, is greatest at this time of year with resident eagles well into courtship rituals and winter visitors” — he means birds, not people — “allowing a lot of interactions, which tends to make for more interesting photos.”
Palmer says that summer’s rare low-humidity days are also good, with morning and evening having the best light and the most bird activity. “When I do go to Blackwater, at any time of year, I usually spend a full day to capture the spectacular sunrises and sunsets,” he says.
Blackwater is known as a wintering area for ducks, tundra swans, Canada geese and snow geese. It also plays host to migrating shorebirds like blacknecked stilts and sandpipers and waders like herons, egrets and bitterns. Several years ago, a flock of white pelicans, a bird more often seen near the Pacific, showed up and has been returning annually.
Vince De Sanctis, a frequent visitor from Tilghman, Maryland, an hour’s drive from the refuge, says various rails are another attraction, but that the rail most birders want to observe, the black rail, “is found only on rare occasions in nearby marshes like those along nearby Elliot Island Road.” He sees Blackwater’s most distinguishing characteristic as “the eagle gathering in the winter.” Indeed, it’s the rare winter visitor who leaves without having seen at least one of the more than 150 bald eagles recorded in the refuge’s 2012 January eagle count.
On a somewhat chilly recent visit, not really a birding trip, De Sanctis easily spotted 25 bird species, including some relatively uncommon ones: cooper’s hawk, northern harrrier and black vulture. Three bald eagles careening overhead were icing on the cake.
The big birds aren’t the only attraction at Blackwater, and sometimes it’s the smallest bird that can make the biggest impression. “One time,” says Susan Meredith of Blackwater Paddle and Pedal, “a hummingbird kept trying to feed at a pink, breast cancer ribbon on a white baseball hat.”
The birders aren’t the only people at Blackwater who go around spotting things. Shirley Bailey, a Blackwater volunteer from Hurlock, Maryland, is honing her tree-identification skills.
Leading forest walks on Woods Trail is the first thing Bailey mentions of her many volunteer activities. She knows most trees in summer by their leaves and is trying to know them in winter by their bark. “It’s hard,” she says. “Some trees that aren’t at all related can have very similar bark.” One tree offers a bit of help. The American beech, she points out, keeps its grocery-bag-brown leaves almost all winter, making it easy to spot in an otherwise denuded forest.
Woods Trail, which boasts the rusting ruins of a steam-powered sawmill, and Marsh Edge Trail are both half-mile-or-less trails off the popular Wildlife Drive, the must-see drive that takes visitors through forests and marsh. You haven’t been to Blackwater if you’ve skipped Wildlife Drive.
Jamie Kellum, the Blackwater forester, knows all about the fauna along Wildlife Drive, taking care recently to make sure a couple of visitors noticed a Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel. This endangered species makes its home in Kellum’s forests; about 5,500 acres are mature forests with little undergrowth, the squirrel’s preferred habitat. Blackwater has the world’s largest natural population (about 1,650) of the silver-gray squirrels.
Managing the forest to create or maintain such habitat is what Kellum does, trying to balance the needs of different animals. The fox squirrels may not like understory, but it’s essential for other creatures.
Different parts of Blackwater are managed in different ways. “There are the natural areas,” says Kellum. “That’s where we take only protective action, like fighting destructive insects: southern pine beetle, the gypsy moth.”
Other areas are more intensely managed. In some places, trees are marked for removal to develop or preserve three distinct types of bird habitat: ground, midstory and upper canopy. The ground, with a nice covering of fallen leaves and other natural debris, is important to birds that Kellum calls “leaf flippers,” mainly hermit, Swainson’s and wood thrushes. Worm-eating warblers, ovenbirds and waterthrushes also dine on the forest floor.
According to Kellum, thinning dense stands means that the remaining trees will grow taller with larger crowns and greater fruit or nut production. Thinning also creates greater vertical structure within the forest and better habitat for forest-interior-dwelling songbirds. “The only way to increase understory and midstory,” he says, “is to open up the canopy by removing trees to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor.” The shrubs and young trees of the understory and midstory are preferred by various flycatchers, white-eyed and blue-headed vireos, house wrens, hooded warblers, blue grosbeaks, indigo buntings and more.
Higher in the upper canopy is where yellow-billed cuckoos are found, along with red-eyed vireos, rose-breasted grosbeak, summer and scarlet tanagers and an array of warblers — northern parula, pine, palm, and black and white.
In creating these environments, Kellum is limited to native shrubs and trees. Fortunately, that’s a pretty big palette. Beyond red oaks, there are cherrybark, willow, pin and southern red. There’s also white oak, swamp chestnut oak, river birch, sweetbay magnolia, American beech, loblolly pine, Virginia pine, indigo bush, American holly and more. Some are easy to identify in any season; others pose challenges for visitors who want to put names to everything they see.
The refuge’s human visitors, however, aren’t really the point. “Our job is to enhance and manage forested properties to benefit forest interior birds and the Delmarva fox squirrel,” Kellum says. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but recreational activities take a backseat to wildlife in a national wildlife refuge.
“They’ve been doing such an amazing job down there,” Georgena Terry says of Kellum and everyone else who works at Blackwater. “It’s really there for the animals.”
Steve Bailey, a former New York Times editor, teaches journalism at Salisbury University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.