Bonna Nelson - August 2007

Tidewater Day Tripping:

A Pickering Creek Pilgrimage

by

Bonna Nelson

   After slathering on sunscreen, spraying on a coat of bug repellent, slapping on a hat, slinging binoculars on a rope around my neck and strapping my camera around my wrist I was ready to peregrinate to Pickering Creek Audubon Center (PCAC) just a few minutes outside of Easton proper. I planned an adventurous pilgrimage to the 400-acre wildlife sanctuary and education center to explore the wetlands, meadows, forests, fields and creeks, an expedition, with objectives: observing birds and other wildlife, hiking, meditating, journaling and canoeing.
    As I turned off of Route 50 onto Airport Road and made an immediate right turn onto Route 662 I noticed that the traffic sounds faded, my breathing slowed, and a sense of peace enveloped me. I traveled down the quiet country road surrounded by fields of healthy green corn and soybeans with a few farm houses, barns and silos scattered in between. I passed several bikers eyeing the orange day lilies swaying in the breeze under a cerulean blue-skied day with only a smattering of fluffy puffy white marshmallow clouds passing overhead.
    After wandering down the winding rural road for a matter of minutes and over a small bridge, I made a left onto Sharp Road and was presented with more fields of soybeans, back-edged by pines and deciduous forests. I spotted a few “McMansions” under construction in the midst of the natural beauty. The road dips and winds through more corn fields and white pines and bends to the right as Sharp Road continues. The healthy appearance of the corn means to me some tasty buttered corn-on-the cob eating in the months to come. The heavy clay soils in the fields hold the water so the corn appears to be doing well even though we haven’t had much rain.
    Just as the Pickering entrance came into view a sleek, caramel-colored doe and her frisky white-speckled fawn sauntered across the road from the Audubon Center’s farmlands to greet me. I slowed the car to watch with delight. When I tried to photograph the pair, the doe jumped into the forest on the left of the road with a quick glance back to ensure that the fawn followed her and not me. What a superb way to start my journey, I thought, spotting deer under the sign reading “Waterfowl Sanctuary.”
    Making a right onto Audubon Lane, a one mile, tree-lined, Maryland blue chip-graveled lane that traverses the sanctuary, a large white sign announces “Pickering Creek Audubon Center, A Sanctuary of Chesapeake Audubon Society.” Surrounding the sign, lining the lane, and interspersed throughout the wetlands are colorful wildflowers, golden black-eyed Susans, lavender swamp milkweeds (primary source of food for monarch butterflies), bee balm, coneflowers, blackberry bushes, dogbane, goldenrod and brilliant orange trumpet creeping vine. Butterflies, hummingbirds and bumblebees partake of the feast. On the right of the lane are acres of farmland, part of the Pickering agriculture program. At the far edge of the wetlands on the left and the farmlands on the right are pine and deciduous forests as far as the eye can see.
    Scattered throughout the Pickering campus are close to 100 bluebird (short) and wood duck (tall, the wood duck in nature climbs trees to nest) bird boxes on wooden posts. Hampered by loss of habitat sites, these birds need extra help with nesting sights and even with nesting boxes, volunteers are still needed to monitor the boxes to remove the messy nests of aggressive starlings who try to squat, rent free. Approved squatters are tree swallows, chickadees, Carolina wrens and screech owls. Also decorating the skyline are purple martin birdhouses, groupings of natural gourds painted white and hung together on tall poles throughout the wetlands.
    A local farmer plants 80 acres of winter wheat, soy beans, and corn in succession on the Pickering farmlands. With a total of 200 acres of farmland, plans are to engage more farmers to raise vegetables and fruits there and to use the agricultural component of PCAC for educational and environmental purposes. The winter wheat cover crop and stands of uncut corn provide food and sanctuary for over-wintering geese, ducks and other birds and creatures.
    A few feet down the lane to the left is a bird viewing blind, similar to a duck blind, only for observation, not shooting. The blind provides an elevated view of the wetlands and on this hottest day of the year, and with little rainfall, only a third of the wetlands are covered in water. But what that third has in sights to behold! In less than eighteen inches of water two ospreys prance and preen. This is an unusual sight to see ospreys on the ground. Usually we see ospreys on their large nests on poles tending to their young or soaring over the water or diving into the river for a fish dinner.
In the winter and spring the wetlands and farm fields are filled with waterfowl—thousands of geese, shorebirds and songbirds. In the summer songbirds, dragonflies, bees and frogs populate the area. Seasonal changes in flora and fauna make for interesting observation.
    Near the ospreys but keeping their distance are a family of mallards, Mom, Dad and two fuzzy mud-brown young ones. A Great Blue heron gracefully stalks fish at the edge of the water. Overhead purple martins, swallows and red-winged blackbirds dart and swirl. A large open viewing platform with a sign describing some of the wetlands inhabitants is located further down the lane and juts out over the water.
    Be careful and drive slowly when heading down the lane towards the Welcome Center and farm buildings, you never know what you might find in the road, Delmarva fox squirrel, toads, frogs, deer, hikers, schoolchildren, fox… And at the center itself lookout for the wooden sawhorse, for under it is a Killdeer nest – a depression in the gravel with three oval brown and black speckled eggs that blend into the surrounding pea gravel. Mama Killdeer, a shorebird ground nester, scampered around on the ground when I got too close to the nest and then to distract me she pretended that she had a broken wing and then played dead with her feet up in the air. She put on quite a performance and then when I got back in my car she settled back on her nest. She is known to nest in this same area every year despite the car and foot traffic! Tiny baby toads are hopping about and they too blend with the colors of the pea gravel in that area. I had to be careful where I walked.
    At this point in the pilgrimage I walked the trail to the observation deck over the wetlands with a sign describing the bird population, but most of the birds flew away because I was so close to them. Then I traversed the trail in the meadows around the pond. The pond is home to tadpoles, frogs, crayfish, turtles and small fish—minnows and sunfish as well as wood ducks and herons. Baltimore orioles nest here but leave by July. Be prepared to see more beautiful wildflowers—elderberry shrubs, and wild roses as well as more tiny toads hopping about, dragonflies, butterflies and swooping songbirds. Either trail is a good short 15-minute jaunt.
    Following the trail through the forest that parallels the lane leads to a small creek and the headwaters of Pickering Creek, which broadens from a trickle to 100 feet across. Short loops detour the hiker back to the lane.
    The longer trail passes the Gilbert Byron House, home of the writer called the “Chesapeake Thoreau,” known for his many books, poems, stories and essays about the bay ecology, life and culture. As I approached the house a glorious rusty red and white fox walked out from under the house pilings. I was advised that a family with 6 cubs lives under a house nearby.
    Across the lane from Byron’s home is a Children’s Imagination Garden, a colorful and scent filled Herb Garden, picnic tables for visitors and a classroom for the many students who travel to PCAC for environmental education. PCAC staff provide science-based environmental education to over 16,000 students each year from Maryland and the District of Columbia. And all first through eighth grade Talbot County students participate in PCAC programs integrated into the school curriculum. PCAC has also published two environmental education school textbooks for classroom use.
After hopping back onto the woodland creek trail, I spotted a shaded bench and stopped for a swig of water and to jot down some notes in my journal. I was soothed by the tranquility of the tall oak forest, the quiet sounds of trickling water, tree frogs croaking, songbirds chirping, a cool breeze and being at one with nature. I spent some time there meditating, staring out at the creek. At this point it was broad and more like river than creek.
    The hiking trails have short 15-minute loops through wetlands, marsh, and meadows. The farm to bay, the longest trail, which parallels the lane, is about a 45-minute hike and does include some small hills in the woodlands. It is covered with soft pine needles and is about four to five feet wide. In some areas small bridges have been built over streams. I spotted a heron, woodpecker, egret and many small and large toads while walking in the woods by the creek. The canopy of fluttering oak, tulip poplar and beech trees overhead beckon the hiker to stop and meditate on the several benches along the way.
    At the end of the trail and after a granola bar and water I explored the waterman’s shanty and dock jutting out on the creek. Here students can try their hand at fishing, crabbing and eeling. Oyster spat grow on old oyster shells in sloughing trays with creek water pumping through. A sign displays the story of the eagles, heron and egrets that can be seen in this area of the shoreline. Nearby canoes beckon to the adventurous to explore the nooks and crannies of the creek and coves or head out to Wye River. (Canoes can be used by Audubon members only, a great reason to become a member!) I opted to canoe on another day. I had met several of my objectives for this day trip, observed birds, mammals and reptiles, hiked the trails, journaled and meditated. I plan to make a day of canoeing on my next visit and observe, journal and meditate while paddling the Pickering.
    The PCAC, a center for recreation, environment and wildlife preservation and observation, education, culture and history, is free and open to the public year round from dawn to dusk. In the unattended Welcome Center you will find a white board with recent bird and animal sightings (on that day owls, buntings, blue grosbeak, etc. I added my sightings), maps and brochures. The large map across the lane from the center also delineates the various walking trails. There are eight large signs throughout the campus that describe wildlife. No biking or horseback riding are allowed.
    The lane wanders back to the waterfront on Pickering Creek and the PCAC offices and classrooms. The office is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. Maps, brochures, flyers about upcoming events and other materials are available in the office lobby. Next to the lobby is a display room where mounts of waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and mammals are on display. All are welcome to bring a lunch and enjoy the picnic tables in the shade behind the office overlooking Pickering Creek. Restrooms are located in the offices.
    Trail guides and more information about how to contribute, become a member, volunteer opportunities, summer camps and upcoming events are available at the PCAC website at www.pickeringcreek.org or at 410-822-4903.
    Many thanks to Executive Director Mark Scallion and Volunteer Coordinator Beth Wadsen for a wonderful day at Pickering Creek.