Two Bald Eagles perched majestically on parallel snags in one of the impoundments at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on Maryland’s eastern shore. Suddenly one of the eagles lifted off, its wings beating gracefully. Then it swooped down and a moment later flew off over the refuge, a long fish dangling from its talons. We saw at least 10 Bald Eagles as we toured the refuge – most sitting high in the sparse tops of Loblolly Pines.
Bald Eagles prefer habitat that is isolated, yet adjacent to water where they can feed on fish, birds and other wildlife. According to the American Bird Conservancy’s October 2006 Bird Calls newsletter, Blackwater NWR contains the highest concentration of Bald Eagles outside of Alaska. It is estimated that at one time there may have been as many as 3,000 eagles in the Chesapeake Bay area. However, loss of habitat and pesticides diminished the population to 80 or 90. They have now recovered sufficiently from being ‘endangered,’ to only be considered ‘threatened.’ We were continually awed to see these regal birds.
As we sat watching the eagle, a Tundra Swan extended its neck, appeared to run across the water for about 10 to 15 feet to gain momentum, and then took flight, its 50 plus inch body resembling the take-off of a wide-body aircraft. The Tundra Swans that winter on the Chesapeake Bay nest on the arctic tundra of northern Canada and Alaska.
We visited the new visitor’s center which opened in the fall of 2005. Its centerpiece is an observation tower with views that span 180 degrees of the refuge. “I wish there was an overnight shift,” one of the volunteers exclaimed. “I would love to wake up and see the sun rising over the refuge.”
There are three strategically placed zoom spotting scopes for visitors to observe activity on the ponds. An eagle was perched on the nesting platform vacated by ospreys that are wintering in Mexico. Through the web cam that records the mother osprey feeding her chicks during late spring, we could see the neck feathers of the eagle wafting in the breeze of the approaching storm.
Later we followed the Marsh Loop Trail along the edge of the Little Blackwater River, a tributary of the Chesapeake. According to the trail guide, more than 5,000 acres of marsh vegetation bordering the Little Blackwater River have disappeared since the refuge was established. This has occurred from the rising sea level, wind and wave erosion, and the invasive Nutria, a semi-aquatic, feral rodent that eats the tubers of the marsh grass.
According to an article in the Fall 2006 Wildlife Refuge Magazine, Congress has begun to address how global warming and the resultant sea-level rise will affect the ecology of coastal wildlife refuges.
Outside of the refuge, marsh land increasingly has been gobbled up by development. Within the last month, the state of Maryland successfully completed negotiations that will allow it to purchase land adjacent to the refuge that was targeted for the development of a resort and 2700 homes. Two thirds of the proposed development will remain in its natural state, while allowing one third to be developed into single family homes. Balancing the economic needs of an area, with the preservation of wetlands is a continual struggle.
As we walked out on the boardwalk over the marsh, we watched a Great Blue Heron nestled in the reeds on the edge of the river waiting for a fish to swim by. During the spring and summer, the broad leaves of the Olney Three-square, the marsh grass, provide protection for nesting songbirds and waterfowl, but today the marsh was silent.
As we left the refuge, I pondered President Theodore Roosevelt’s vision to have a network of areas set aside to conserve America’s unique wildlife heritage. Blackwater NWR is a distinctive gem in that network.