A Visit to a Natural Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, just 12 miles south of Cambridge, gives waterfowl a place to land, provides a safe haven for bald eagles and endangered Delmarva fox squirrels, and lets humans stand in awe of nature. Some 25,000 acres of marsh, freshwater ponds, river, forest, and field were set aside in 1933 for the migratory birds that use the Atlantic Flyway.

The most popular time to visit is during the fall migration, which peaks in November. Some 35,000 geese and 15,000 ducks fill the refuge. Blackwater's free open house, held the first weekend in October, is a great time to see some of the refuge residents up close.

Winter is the best time to see bald eagles. As many as 200 eagles have been seen at Blackwater, and some 18 nesting pairs have set up homes high in the trees -- the greatest breeding population of bald eagles on the East Coast north of Florida.

Visitors in spring will see lots of birds headed north. Marsh and shorebirds arrive, as do the ospreys who set up house for their new families. The ospreys build huge nests on platforms in the middle of the marsh. They swoop and dive into the water for fish, and then fly back to feed their noisy offspring. The refuge hosts an Eagle Festival in March, and a youth fishing derby is held the first weekend in June.

In summer, birders can find warblers, orioles, blue herons, and even wild turkeys. Be prepared: Mosquitoes and flies can be fierce here in summer. Wear a hat and be on the lookout for ticks in early summer.

Getting There -- From Route 50, take Route 16 southwest from Cambridge; turn south on Route 335, then left on Key Wallace Drive and right to the visitor center.

Visitor Center -- The visitor center is on Key Wallace Drive (tel. 410/228-2677; www.fws.gov/blackwater). It's open year-round, Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 5pm. Staff members can provide maps, bird lists, and calendars of events. Exhibits explain who lives at the refuge, while an observation deck gives visitors a view of the waterfowl browsing in nearby fields. Look for the real-time cameras trained on the osprey and eagle nests. (The nest cams are on the Friends of Blackwater website, too -- go to www.friendsofblackwater.org.)

Fees & Regulations -- The entry fee for the wildlife drive is $3 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian or bicyclist. It's free to anyone holding a Federal Duck Stamp, Interagency Pass, Senior Pass, Access Pass, or Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Pass. Pets are not permitted on trails but are allowed in vehicles on the drive.

Wildlife Drive -- Though the refuge belongs to the wildlife, the park has set aside hiking paths and a short drive for cars and bicycles so visitors may see and hear these amazing crowds of birds. These are open from dawn to dusk.

After paying the entry fee at a self-service pay station, visitors will reach a fork in the road about 1/3-mile into the drive. Turn left for the Marsh Edge Trail and Observation Site. Then head back up the road for the rest of the drive.

The 5-mile ride meanders through woodlands and marshes that stretch to the horizon. It's quiet, except for the insects and calling birds. Bring your binoculars and camera: You might see any number of birds, deer, or the rare Delmarva fox squirrel.

Want to stretch your legs and see everything a little more closely? You can park at one of the four walking trails. The Woods Trail is .5 miles long and runs through a mature forest. The 2.7-mile Key Wallace Trail centers on forest interior birds and forest management. For a look at how Mother Nature recovers after a tornado, take a walk on the 2-mile Tubman Road Trail.

The .3-mile Marsh Edge Trail begins in the woods and ends with an 80-foot boardwalk extending into Little Blackwater River. If you visit in spring or summer, look for the osprey. In fall, you'll see waterfowl. An observation site has been set up at the end of this part of the drive, with an information kiosk. The view over the Blackwater River, with all the sights and sounds of thousands of migrating waterfowl, can be awe-inspiring. A photo blind is at the edge of a pond and connected by a boardwalk to the drive overlooking the Little Blackwater River.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.