Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, MD 21613
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a showcase for Maryland’s Eastern Shore wetland habitats and the birds that use them. It is the #1 eBird hotspot for Dorchester County. Because of the iconic habitats here, every birder should visit Blackwater at least once, and when you do, you’ll want to return again and again.
Located 12 miles south of Cambridge, Maryland, the Refuge was established in 1933 as a refuge for migratory birds. The refuge includes more than 28,000 acres of rich tidal marsh, mixed hardwood and loblolly pine forests, managed freshwater wetlands, and croplands. It serves as an important resting and feeding area for migrating and wintering waterfowl, and is one of the chief wintering areas for Canada Geese using the Atlantic Flyway. The Refuge is probably most famous for its huge flocks of wintering Snow Geese. The refuge supports one of the highest concentrations of nesting Bald Eagles on the Atlantic coast. In recent years, a flock of American White Pelicans have taken up year-round residence, although their numbers dwindle in the warm months; this is the only place in Maryland to regularly host American White Pelican. Blackwater NWR is also a haven for one of our nation’s endangered mammal species, the Delmarva Fox Squirrel.
The Wildlife Drive is a 3.5-mile paved driving tour that provides a sample of Blackwater’s prime habitats. The Wildlife Drive has numerous opportunities to pull over to look for birds. Wetlands on the south side of Wildlife Drive are tidal. They are at their birdiest when waters are low and there is exposed mud. In mid-winter, the areas farther out on the open Blackwater River are one of the best places on the Delmarva Peninsula to see large numbers of Common Mergansers. Wetlands on the north side of Wildlife Drive have fresh water that comes from runoff in adjacent forests. Be sure to stop where MD Route 335 crosses the Blackwater River just south of Key Wallace Drive, where big numbers of Bald Eagles are frequent and 4-5 nests are usually visible.
There are four short land trails at Blackwater that loop off the Wildlife Drive: the Marsh Edge Trail, Woods Trail, Key Wallace Trail, and Harriet Tubman Road Hiking Trail. You can download a descriptive brochure for each of these trails, except the Woods Trail, at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Blackwater/visit/landtrails.html. Although the Wildlife Drive is excellent, we highly recommend walking some or all of the foot-trails to best experience Blackwater. In particular, the foot-trails provide the best opportunities for songbirds. In addition, there are three water trails for paddlers, and a mapped bicycling route through Blackwater and the surrounding countryside.
Blackwater NWR, like other parts of Dorchester County and low-lying areas elsewhere in Maryland, is significantly threatened by sea level rise. Inundation of the marshes is causing loss of habitat for Black Rails and Saltmarsh Sparrows, among others. To combat the effects of sea level rise, an ambitious and innovative project to raise the marsh level has been undertaken at Blackwater and nearby by a coalition of partners led by The Conservation Fund, working with US Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon Maryland-DC. See https://www.conservationfund.org/projects/adapting-to-climate-change-at-blackwater-national-wildlife-refuge and https://adaptationprofessionals.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Snapshot-2017-BNWR_EHG_5-9-17.pdf.
If you would like to see more of the countryside than is available from the Wildlife Tour, a longer option is the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Driving Tour. The Harriet Tubman Driving Tour travels through Maryland’s Eastern Shore for 125 miles, and then goes into Delaware for another 98 miles. The Harriet Tubman Driving Tour focuses on sites of historic significance in the life and work of Maryland native Harriet Tubman, who risked her life to conduct enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which adjoins Blackwater, is a good place to learn about Harriet Tubman and to start your driving tour. Although it has a historical focus, the Harriet Tubman Driving Tour covers much good bird habitat on the Eastern Shore, and will give you a unique perspective on the intersection of habitat and history.
The official checklist of Blackwater NWR lists 316 species. Over 285 species have been reported to eBird from Blackwater. There are eighteen separate eBird hotspots covering Blackwater NWR: see https://ebird.org/region/USFWS_58/hotspots?yr=all&m=,
Waterfowl are the signature birds of the Refuge. The best time to view waterfowl is November through February. Wintering species include Tundra Swans, Canada and Snow Geese, and more than 20 duck species. The most common ducks found are Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and all three mergansers. Ross’s Goose occurs most years during the winter, and the fun is in sorting through thousands of Snow Geese to try to find one. Although most waterfowl migrate north in the spring, some remain through the summer, using the protected areas of the Refuge to raise their young. Nesting waterfowl include Mallards and Wood Ducks.
Numerous marsh and shorebirds arrive in the spring and fall, searching for food in the vast mud flats and shallow waters of the Blackwater River. Other large resident birds include Great Blue Heron and Bald Eagle. Year-round sightings of eagles are common as Blackwater is the center of the greatest nesting density of Bald Eagles in the eastern United States north of Florida. Ospreys are also common from spring through fall and use nesting platforms that have been placed throughout the marshes. Osprey and eagle interactions are interesting due to their competition for fish resources.
The refuge woodlands provide year-round homes for owls, towhees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, American Woodcock, and Wild Turkey. The warmer months invite warblers, vireos, orioles, flycatchers, and many others to this same habitat. In all, over 85 species of birds breed in the refuge woodlands and surrounding habitat. A bird checklist for the refuge can be picked up at the Visitor Center or downloaded from https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_5/NWRS/South_Zone/Chesapeake_Ma….
Between the town of Cambridge and the Refuge, Egypt Road offers views of excellent habitat, with breeding Field Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Prothonotary Warbler (at the wooded swamp) and, still, a few Northern Bobwhite. The adjacent fields often have numbers of Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls, and sometimes Horned Larks, Killdeer, Eastern Meadowlarks, and American Pipits.
For more details, the Blackwater NWR website provides a month-by-month list of what birds to expect at the Refuge – check it out!
Paved or gravel lots and pull-outs throughout the Refuge; see trail map at link at left.
Fishing and crabbing are permitted in certain areas of the Refuge. There are many other activities and programs for visitors and provides environmental education programs for school classes. Be sure to check out the Refuge’s Calendar of Events. ◾ The Refuge hosts the annual Federal Junior Duck Stamp Contest in Maryland. The Junior Duck Stamp artwork is displayed annually in the Visitor Center; stop by to view the work of the talented young artists, or view the artwork online. ◾ Check out the “Birding in the Heart of Chesapeake Country” brochure produced by the Dorchester County Tourism Office and MD DNR. You can also pick up a printed copy at the Sailwinds Park and Visitor Center in Cambridge. The brochure outlines five birding/driving tours through Dorchester County, and also has an overview of birds and habitats in the county. ◾ The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park adjoins Blackwater NWR on MD Route 335 just south of Key Wallace Drive. ◾ Blackwater NWR is the focal point of the Southern Dorchester County Important Bird Area as designated by the National Audubon Society. ◾ Blackwater NWR is supported by the non-profit Friends of Blackwater, who conduct multiple activities in support of the Refuge’s educational, interpretive, and public use missions. The Friends provide volunteers who help to staff the Visitor Center information desk, run the Gift Shop, and maintain the Birding and Natural History Library on the second floor of the Visitor Center. The Friends have been instrumental in obtaining grant funding to allow Blackwater to improve the facilities. The Friends provide scholarships to students pursuing careers in fish and wildlife management, environmental education and science, and related fields, and they conduct ongoing fundraising to benefit the Refuge. ◾ There is no local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society centered in Dorchester County, so many local birders are members of the Talbot Bird Club, which offers field trips and meetings with informative presentations, all free and open to the public.
◾ Check out the seasonal waterfowl and Bald Eagle and Osprey nest web cams at Blackwater.
From US Route 50 in Cambridge, take MD Route 16 West (Church Creek Road) until you reach the flashing light (about 5 miles); then turn left onto Egypt Road. Follow Egypt Road for approximately 7 miles and it will dead end at Key Wallace Drive. Turn left for the Wildlife Drive (0.2 miles), or turn right for the Visitor Center (1.25 miles). GPS Alert: If you are using GPS navigation to find the refuge, you will need to enter the actual physical address: 2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, Maryland 21613. This will bring you to the Blackwater NWR Visitor Center.
Cambridge – Sailwinds Park & Visitor Center, Cambridge – Oakley Street, Cambridge – Great Marsh Park, Cambridge – Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park (Dorchester County Side), Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park (Talbot County Side), Elliot Island Road/Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area (Eastern Section), Chesapeake Forest – North Tara Road, Hooper’s Island, Taylor’s Island, Deal Island WMA, Pickering Creek Audubon Center, Idylwild Wildlife Management Area
Bottomland DeciduousConifersHedgerows Agricultural Crop Fields or Fallow FieldsOld Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainFreshwater Pond, Lake, or ReservoirMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Rivers & StreamsSalt or Brackish Marsh
BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Bird Feeding StationBirding By CarBoardwalkBoat or Canoe/Kayak LaunchFishingGift Shop or BookstoreHabitat Restoration ProjectHiking/Walking TrailsHuntingLake, Pond, Bay, River, OceanNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsNature CenterObservation Platform or TowerParkingRestroomsVisitor Center, Interpretive Displays, ExhibitsWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families
#1 Hotspot in County or CityAudubon Important Bird AreasChesapeake Bay Eastern ShoreDriving Tours (Birding By Car)Hiker-Biker Trails (Paved)National Wildlife RefugesThe Rivers of the Eastern ShoreWater Trails