Bona Nelson - April 2007

Tidewater Day Tripping:

Blackwater Biking and Birding

by

Bona L. Nelson

   We rose early one Saturday morning and packed peanut butter sandwiches, apples, water bottles, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug repellant, a camera and hats. We pulled on our biking shorts, grabbed some jackets, loaded our bikes and were off for a day’s adventure at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
    The hazy, buff-tinted sun was sliding in and out of grayish clouds in a pale blue sky as we crossed the Choptank River on Route 50 heading towards Cambridge, MD. Our bicycles rattled a bit on the bridge and in the distance we noticed sailboats gliding across the water, taking early advantage of a light breeze. After passing several busy Cambridge shopping centers and a Refuge sign we made a right turn on MD 16 west and then a left on Egypt Road.
    High in the sky over the fields on Egypt Road we beheld a sight new to us and quickly left our real world behind. Hundreds of seagulls flew and swooped in a syncopated movement like a large school of fish. After a brief stop on the downward swoop, into freshly planted fields, swiftly upward they rose, dancing in graceful loops until they dove downward again. Amazed by the sight, we pulled the car over into a field to better observe the phenomenon.
    As we gazed across the vast fields north of Blackwater NWR we saw this phenomenon repeated again and again by swarms of seagulls as far as the eye could see. We were mesmerized but after awhile we realized that if we spent any more time observing the seagull dance we would never get to bike and observe birds at the Refuge. Reluctantly, we pulled back onto Egypt Road looking for Key Wallace Drive.
    Immediately after making a right on Key Wallace Drive we encountered another bird dance! This time the participants were blackbirds and starlings. Like swarms of giant bees silhouetted against the sky, hundreds of gray and black dancers in flight swooped overhead between the forest of tall pines on the right and the crop fields on the left. Diving, soaring, diving, and soaring, up to the tree tops, down to the fields, up to the tree tops, and down to the fields, the birds were like Santa Claus practicing his up-and-down chimney act for Christmas Eve. And since, unlike the seagulls, we were close to these dancers, we could hear the accompanying chatter, clatter, cheep, screech, and flutter, over and over again.
    By now we were entering the Blackwater Visitors Center parking lot and feeling anxious to talk to a US Fish and Wildlife ranger to solve the mystery of the bird dances. Behind us the swooping frenzy from treetop to field continued along with the chatter.
    Greeted by Blackwater staff, we immediately asked them about what we had just seen. There was a surprisingly simple answer to the witnessed phenomenon. The birds were getting ready for a storm due the next day and were in a feeding frenzy, searching for food in the fields before the coming rain. The bird behavior was similar to human behavior when a snowstorm is predicted. We drive out in a frenzy searching for bread and milk, while the bird frenzy takes place over the feeding grounds.
    Apparently our Avis friends are better than meteorologists and satellite maps when it comes to predicting weather. The birds were right on; it did rain the next day. But when it comes to inciting frenzies, birds and meteorologists are pretty much on equal footing.
    After our chat with the ranger we could have spent the rest of the day in the newly renovated Eagle’s Nest Book and Gift Shop browsing through stacks of nature books, brochures, maps, hats, t-shirts, sweatshirts and tote bags as well as science items and children’s gifts. But we needed to start biking while the weather held up. After a quick glance at the collection of wildlife exhibits at the Center, including an authentic eagle’s nest, the Butterfly and Beneficial Insect Garden outside, and the second-floor bird observatory from which we saw hundreds of birds on the river, with biking maps in hand we set out to ride.
    Special bird sightings are posted on a board at the Visitors Center, and we learned of unusual sightings of white pelicans in previous days on the water along the Blackwater Wildlife Drive. The drive can be accessed by walking, biking or driving and provides ample opportunities for observing the Blackwater wildlife and habitat.
    The vast Blackwater Refuge, just 12 miles south of Cambridge, encompasses 27,000 acres of tidal marshlands, swamps, creeks, ponds, meadows, croplands, freshwater impoundments and forests. The Blackwater River and Little Blackwater River flow into the Refuge and also flow through the colorfully named Gum, Kentuck and Moneystump swamps, also part of the sanctuary. Established in 1933 as a protected habitat for migratory geese and birds, the Refuge is also home to resident waterfowl, the threatened bald eagle, the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, deer, muskrats, raccoons, gray squirrels, rabbits, turtles, reptiles, osprey, wading birds, songbirds and many more species.
    The best time for observing large numbers of transitory waterfowl is fall to early spring. Then, after the migratory birds leave, romance blossoms in April, May and early June. Ospreys return to nest, resident ducks and geese produce new broods, eaglets are hatched and fledged, migratory songbirds peak and nest, and white-tail fawns appear. So fall through spring is the best time for biking and birding. By summer the heat and insects take over and biking is less pleasant.
    The Wildlife Drive has 4-mile and 7-mile loops from which to view the varied habitats of waterfowl, birds and mammals in the sanctuary. The Drive begins at the Visitors Center. Observed along the paved route (over freshwater impoundment dikes) were small islands, wild marsh grasses, cropland and other nesting habitat for waterfowl. We spotted mallards, wood ducks and pintails along the edges of the marsh and wading birds, like the great blue heron, stalking prey in the quiet, still mudflats. We chose the 7-mile route in hopes of spotting some of the 250 bird species that call Blackwater wetlands and forests home.
    Here and there along the evergreen and deciduous tree-lined trail were bluebird, warbler and wood duck boxes. The artificial nesting boxes are provided for birds whose natural nesting sites have been altered or diminished by human activities—agriculture, land development, etc. The bluebirds consume huge quantities of insects, like the pesky mosquito, and have been successfully reproducing at Blackwater.
    Though we did not see the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, white-tail deer or sika deer that day, we did see hundreds of ducks, geese and swans sunbathing on the river and islands. We watched in awe as birds flew, floated and splashed. Though Blackwater is known as a winter habitat for birds traveling the Atlantic flyway, it is a permanent home to many resident species, a true bird watching paradise.
    The Wildlife Drive parallels the Blackwater River and at the midpoint a small quiet crowd had formed. The news about the spotting of white pelicans had spread throughout the bird watching community, attracting birders from all over Maryland as well as surrounding states. There was a hushed, appreciative silence at the edge of the river where three giant telescopes, perfectly arranged by serious birders, perched. The birders welcomed visitors to stop and use the telescopes to watch the unique birds preening a few hundred yards out on a small spit of land. I don’t know what sparkled more on that, by then, mostly sunny afternoon, the water or the wings of the large magnificent, prehistoric-looking pelicans crowded together on a little spot in the middle of Dorchester County.
    Not to be outdone by some silly temporary visitors, Blackwater’s resident majestic bald eagles gracefully soared high above us with outstretched 7-foot wingspans. Some were resting in tall loblolly pines and dead trees along the edge of the river, regally looking over their kingdom. Chances are good that a birder will spot a bald eagle, since Blackwater is home to one of the largest concentrations of breeding bald eagles in the eastern US, north of Florida.
    After taking a few photographs I continued to bike, searching for more wildlife. My husband spotted a man in camouflage bent over in the marsh, and curious, he parked his bike and went to investigate. He learned that the man was a muskrat trapper on contract with Blackwater. Trappers have been successful in reducing the numbers of nutria in the Refuge, and they continue to trap muskrat. Both mammals are controlled to prevent marsh damage. T he critters can consume huge quantities of marsh vegetation, destroying the habitat needed by many other creatures in the ecosystem. Nutria and muskrats also reproduce quickly and have few predators, thus control is thought to be necessary.
    As the sun sank lower in the sky and the clouds moved in we donned our jackets to finish the ride. We pedaled a bit faster back to the car, not only because of the chill air but because we wanted to get in some more exercise. With all of the bird watching, snapping photographs, and chatting with other visitors we hadn’t really accomplished much solid biking. And, at that late point in the day we were not up to cycling the 20-mile or 25-mile trails, even though the longer trails were flat and explored other areas of the Refuge. Perhaps we will try one of them the next time.
    For now, for a dollar each, we had spent a day out of time, stopped the clock to meditate with nature, reflected on what is important in the scheme of things, and marveled that such a place still existed. We left hoping that those gulls will continue to dance over the fields on Egypt Road and those starlings will continue to dance across Key Wallace Drive and those geese, ducks, swans, pelicans, herons, and eagles will always find sanctuary at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. We left in silence, thankful, and thinking about the beauty that we had experienced.
    For more information contact Blackwater NWR at 1-410-228-2677 or search at www.fws.gov/blackwater.