Chesapeake watershed topography varies from the Coastal Plain to the Piedmont to the mountains. There are marshes and meadows, woods and wetlands, bright sunny beaches and dense dark forests.
This varied landscape is one of the reasons that the Chesapeake is at the heart of the Atlantic Flyway, one of nature’s superhighways for migrating birds. Millions of birds from 300 species live, migrate or breed here annually, and there are many terrific spots where you can find them. Here are some of my personal favorites. They are located throughout the watershed, include a variety of habitats and feature a range of species. You’ll find good winter bird spots in the list, as well as a few places to visit in the spring or summer. These 10 sites should provide hours of enjoyment for any experienced or would-be Chesapeake birder.
Trap Pond State Park
33587 Baldcypress Road, Laurel, DE 19956
This 3,000-acre multi-use facility contains the northernmost large natural stand of bald cypress in the United States. There are freshwater ponds, streams, woods and open fields. This diversity provides terrific habitat for breeding, migrating and wintering birds. The park’s amenities include canoe rentals, picnic tables and grills, and an education center.
Geese, swans and ducks use the ponds during the winter. In the spring, the park’s oak-pine forest is home to 30 warbler species, including breeding populations of prothonotary, Kentucky, pine, prairie and black-and-white warblers. You can also find wrens, kinglets, tanagers, woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, owls and finches. Herons, egrets, cormorants, plovers and sandpipers are found on the ponds and along the streams. Overhead, look for eagles, osprey, vultures, gulls and terns. In all, the park has recorded more than 200 species.
U.S. National Arboretum
3501 New York Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20002
The arboretum is a lightly used gem along the eastern edge of the District of Columbia. Operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it has a bit of everything: old pillars from the Capitol, a bonsai collection, an impressive herb garden, a working children’s garden, trees from every state, and a historic collection of azaleas. It is also an oasis for lots of birds in the urban landscape.
The little Fern Valley trail is my favorite. One early spring morning as I walked beside the stream, I spied a sleeping barred owl high in the trees and turned around in time to see a Canada warbler flit into a thicket. On the same trip, I spotted a yellow-billed cuckoo near the trail’s entrance. Songbirds like northern parula can be seen — and heard — high in the towering trees that dominate the landscape of the Asia collection, while red-eyed vireos and rufous-sided towhees can be found in the scrub. Birds range from bald eagles to ruby-throated hummingbirds. Come for a lovely walk and stay for the surprising varieties of birds.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, MD 21613
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is my favorite winter birding area in the Chesapeake, partly based on location (it’s about two hours from DC) and partly because of my personal connection with the refuge. (As a congressional aide, I had a small hand in efforts to expand the refuge and establish the Harriet Tubman National Park nearby.)
My wife and I like to watch the sun rise over the refuge on New Year’s Day. It is a prime time to see thousands of snow geese as they explode off the refuge’s waters with the first rays of sunshine. The winter population of migrating Canada geese is equally impressive. Tundra swans are numerous and there is even an oddly out-of-place small flock of white pelicans that use the refuge as wintering grounds. Winter ducks, including pintails, canvasbacks, redheads and bufflehead, can be found in the waters around the refuge. Together with the state-owned Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area and protected lands along the nearby Nanticoke River, this Chesapeake wetlands complex is vital to the health of many waterfowl that have been wintering here for centuries. For this birder, there is no better way to start the year.
Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary and Patuxent River Park (Prince George’s section)
1361 Wrighton Road, Lothian, MD 20711
The Patuxent River is the longest river completely within Maryland. The section between upper Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties is largely preserved within three separate areas: The Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary on the eastern shore and the Patuxent River Park and Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary on the western shore. Together, they account for more than 10,000 acres. For handicapped birders, few places in the Chesapeake can rival the 4.3-mile Critical Area Driving tour through Patuxent River Park and Merkle. The drive wends through open fields and forests and even goes over marshes on an elevated boardwalk.
With its varied habitats along the tidal freshwater Patuxent, these areas host scores of species through the year. The open waters at Merkle attract 2,000 wintering migratory Canada geese. The freshwater marshes are home to red-winged blackbirds, egrets, herons, least bitterns, marsh wrens, killdeer, osprey and rails. In April
and May, the upland and riparian forests hold hundreds of warblers, wood thrush, flycatchers (Acadian and great-crested), eastern wood-pewees, phoebes and red-eyed vireos. In the summer, look for eastern bluebirds in the fields and indigo buntings in the woods.
Lakefront Park (Lake Otsego)
1 Pioneer Street, Cooperstown, NY 13326
Immortalized in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Lake Otsego — called Glimmerglass in the books — is the origin of the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna is the Bay’s largest tributary, contributing half of the fresh water that enters the Chesapeake, 464 miles downstream. The area is home to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Glimmerglass (Opera) Festival, a museum that houses an impressive collection of Native American art and more Little League games than you can count.
Largely surrounded by forests, Lake Otsego offers birders a bit of everything. On the lake, you can see ducks, geese and gulls. In the nearby parks, look for titmice, chickadees, vireos and warblers. Start your birding trip early in the morning at the village docks, then head out to one of the parks on the lake. Be sure to visit the riverside parklands extending south from the lake. During one relaxed morning of birding in June, I saw egrets and herons in the marshes, and warblers and vireos in the woods, as well as woodpeckers and thrushes. I even caught a good view of wild turkeys scratching through the weeds, looking for food.
Waggoner’s Gap Road (Route 74), Carlisle, PA 17015
717-213-6880 (PA Audubon); waggap.com
Hawk Mountain in Schuylkill County, PA, is one of the most famous sites in the world to view the fall hawk migration. But an even better location is Waggoner’s Gap, west of Harrisburg. Located on Blue Mountain, this migration hotspot has one of the largest concentrations of raptors in the United States. The 125-acre site records 20,000 raptors annually from mid-August through December.
The gap was one of my first birding trips, more than 30 years ago. I was amazed to see experienced raptor watchers easily distinguish different species by silhouette and relative size. A volunteer called out, “sharpie,” and his partner added another hash mark next to the species. I was dumbfounded. “How can you tell?” I asked. He explained, “See the squared-off, long tail on that little one over there? Those are three of your best field marks: size, tail length and shape.” I was hooked. You will be, too. Come here to see broad-winged, Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks. You’ll also see turkey and black vultures, as well as northern harriers. And best of all, you’ll be at one of the premier sites in the East to see both bald and golden eagles.
Blue Rock Road boat launch, Washington Boro, PA 17582
The Conejohela Flats cover much of the Susquehanna River from Wrightsville and Columbia south to Else Island. The best way to view the flats is by kayak or canoe, but the boat launch off Blue Rock Road in Washington Boro provides some of the best land-based viewing of the area. In the winter, thousands of tundra swans use the flats as well as Canada geese and ducks: black ducks, goldeneyes, buffleheads and mergansers. The location is truly unusual, though, because of the large number of migrating shore birds that stop here every fall. The mud flats provide rich nutrients in the form of worms, crustaceans and insects.
Many shore birds breed in the Arctic and head south as early as July. The best viewing is from mid-August through September. Bring a spotting scope if you have one. Veteran birders are often on hand to provide identification help. Look for golden, black-bellied and semi-palmated plovers, lesser and greater yellowlegs, short– and long-billed dowitchers and lots of sandpipers: lesser, least, pectoral, spotted, stilt and semi-palmated. You may also see marbled godwits and glossy ibis. There are ducks, geese and swallows by the hundreds.
Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge
5003 Hallett Circle, Charles City, VA 23310
This is a globally important birding area and perhaps the finest single birding location in the Chesapeake watershed. Millions of songbirds, raptors, shorebirds, waterfowl, swallows, herons and egrets come through the refuge annually. The concentration of songbirds in late summer and early fall is incredible. It is probably the finest spot in the world to see migrating merlins and peregrine falcons. More than 300 avian species have been recorded here.
Birds on the Atlantic Flyway are funneled through the refuge as they head south for the winter, starting in mid-October. The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge covers most of the final 15 miles of the shore before birds take the impressive flight across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The refuge covers 780 acres and includes extraordinary marsh areas as well as upland sites. Combined with the adjacent Kiptopeke State Park (540 acres), the southern tip is largely protected, affording birds safe haven and birders a viewing paradise.
In my opinion, it is better than Cape May, NJ, another renowned spot, funneling more birds through more protected, diverse habitat.
Shenandoah National Park
3635 Highway 211 East, Luray, VA 22835
As a younger, more limber man, I liked to go camping with my wife. Even before we moved to the DC area, Shenandoah National Park was one of our favorite destinations. We used the Big Meadows camping area as our base as we explored the wonders of this park.
Seeing wild turkeys in the meadows and warblers in the campsite hooked me on birding. Every spring, millions of neotropical breeders head north from their winter grounds and follow the spine of the Appalachian Mountains north to their nesting grounds. For some, that trip ends in the boreal forests of Canada, but an impressive number stop in the cool mountain forests of the Blue Ridge. Here, we have seen black-throated green and black-throated blue warblers. The lovely cerulean warbler breeds here, as well as hooded, worm-eating, Canada and Kentucky warblers. You can see Blackburnian, golden-winged and prairie warblers as well as common yellow-throats. Grosbeaks, owls, hawks, woodpeckers and grouse also inhabit the forest and fields.
Yankauer Nature Preserve
This tiny, 104-acre preserve is packed with breeding birds every spring and summer. There are three trails providing access to multiple landscapes, including oak forests and glens of red cedar. An overlook offers a memorable view of the Potomac River. A 0.2-mile loop trail is suitable for wheelchairs and strollers.
After spending the night in quaint Shepherdstown, we headed out at daybreak to this little gem, just a few miles to the north. It was early May and wildflowers were everywhere: Dutchman’s breeches, hepatica, spring beauties and jack-in-the-pulpits. A chorus of male birds was establishing territory and attracting mates. Scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, eastern towhees, cedar waxwings, wood thrush and brown thrasher were spotted in the first hour. Before the morning was over, we added blue-wing, yellow and prairie warblers, northern parula, and American redstarts, as well as chipping and song sparrows. I’ve rarely had a more productive five hours of birding, and the setting was as wonderful as the birding.