Hart-Miller Island State Park
In the Chesapeake Bay off Rocky Point Beach and Park, Essex, MD 21221
Hart-Miller Island: you will either love it or hate it. Birders who know the island well find it a source of never-ending surprises, with ongoing habitat changes and rare birds tucked into hidden corners. Others come to the island and see only mud, water, and gravel roads, and dread a long walk around the perimeter.
In truth, Hart-Miller Island is the #2 eBird hotspot in all of Maryland, with over 290 species reported on eBird, and 306 species on the official list maintained by the Maryland Ornithological Society (click here for the official checklist). With its placement in the upper Chesapeake Bay, at the mouths of the Back River and Middle River in southeastern Baltimore County, Hart-Miller Island is well-positioned to host fall and spring migrating birds as well as summer breeders and overwintering birds. Hart-Miller is difficult for birders to access, but no guide to birding spots in Maryland would be complete without it.
Originally, Hart and Miller Islands, along with nearby Pleasure Island, were a chain of small islands historically used for duck hunting. But in the 20th century, the islands were eroding away, and their placement near the main shipping channel for the Port of Baltimore inspired an ambitious plan to connect Hart and Miller Island with a man-made dike, creating two impoundments to receive material dredged from the shipping channels. The project was a partnership between the Maryland Port Administration, Maryland Environmental Service, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Dike construction started in 1981; dredge placement began in 1984 and ended in 2009.
Today, the 1,140-acre island is shaped somewhat like a figure-eight: the large North Cell (not open to the public) occupies about 800 acres and the South Cell occupies about 300 acres. The two cells are divided by a cross-dike, and each is circled by an outer dike. The cells are filled with dredged material and a varying amount of water. There are a couple of small but deep pits where soil has been removed for various projects, and these pits are attractive to certain birds. The remnants of the original Hart and Miller Islands, accounting for a little over 200 acres, are on the northwestern and southwestern edges of the present-day island, and support two small stands of trees separated by a marsh.
The North Cell is still under construction and is closed to the public, but the South Cell has now been deeded over to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and in 2016 opened to the public as part of Hart-Miller Island State Park. Visitors must provide their own boats; there are no public ferries or shuttle services. Private boats can moor off the beach; there are no docks available.
On the northwest side of the island, facing the mainland, the State Park has a sandy beach with a primitive camping area, concession stand, and restrooms that are open May 1 through September 30. There are also a few campsites on nearby Pleasure Island. The South Cell is open for visitation from May 1 through September 30, Thursdays through Mondays from 11 am to 6 pm. The State Park staff has loaner binoculars and rents bicycles that can be used to ride around the South Cell, or it can be explored on foot.
The rim of the South Cell, which received dredged material from 1984 through 1990, has been extensively vegetated, and a nature trail with interpretive signage winds along the perimeter. The dike and nature trail allow viewing of an extensive grassland area as well as the open waters of the South Cell and the surrounding Chesapeake Bay. There is also a short trail through the woodland that borders the camping area, leading to an observation platform looking out over the marsh, and there is a tall tower near the beach that allows an extended viewing range. There is a small pine woods on the remnant of old Hart Island.
How to Visit:
For those who do not own a boat, there are two other possible ways to visit. The Maryland Environmental Service (MES) and Maryland Port Administration sponsor birding trips to Hart-Miller; these trips are scheduled twice a year, in spring and fall, with limited seating and requiring advance reservations. There is no cost. Birders are taken to the island on an MES boat and are shuttled around the island by bus, with an accompanying tour leader. The MES trips are usually announced via an email to the MD & DC Birding Group and seats fill fast, usually within a few hours. For further information on these trips, call MES at 410-729-8649 or send an email to the MES Outreach and Education Coordinator at OutreachTours@menv.com.
It may also be possible to join a small birding group conducting weekly bird surveys on foot. Volunteers from the Maryland Ornithological Society have been conducting such surveys at Hart-Miller since the early 1980s. The birding group is taken to the island on the MES workboat in early morning and spends the day walking the island, including the North Cell. Usually the weekly trips are on Mondays, but the day can change depending on weather and other factors. Advance arrangements are needed and seats are limited. To inquire about the possibility of going, email Kevin Graff of the Baltimore Bird Club at email@example.com, no later than Thursday of the week preceding when you want to go. Be prepared to hike up to 8 miles; you will need to bring all of your food, water, and protective clothing for the day in a backpack, and a scope will be needed.
Over 290 species have been reported on eBird from Hart-Miller Island, but the official checklist maintained by the Maryland Ornithological Society lists 306 species, as of January 2020. Click here for the official MOS checklist.
Hart-Miller is best known for its vast assemblages of shorebirds during migration, with an astonishing 41 species reported on eBird. Breeding shorebirds include Black-necked Stilt, Killdeer, and Spotted Sandpiper. Migrating shorebirds that are rarities or hard to find in Maryland can be almost expected on Hart-Miller; these include Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit, Marbled Godwit, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and all three phalaropes.
Hart-Miller is also used by large flocks of gulls and terns, with 24 species reported. Notable rarities for the area have included Black-legged Kittiwake, and Black-headed, Little, Franklin’s, California, Iceland, and Glaucous Gulls; and Gull-billed, Black, Roseate, Arctic, and Sandwich Terns, as well as Black Skimmer. Lesser Black-backed Gulls are reliably found from May through October.
The island is also a prime overwintering spot for waterfowl and other swimmers. Thirty-two species of waterfowl have been reported on eBird, comprising almost all of the ducks, geese, and swans that regularly occur in eastern Maryland. Only Harlequin Duck and the eiders have not yet appeared at Hart-Miller. All four regular grebes (Pied-billed, Horned, Eared, and Red-necked) can be found in appropriate seasons, with Pied-billed breeding on the island. Both Common and Red-throated Loons can be found in the offshore waters, mostly from fall through spring. Both American White Pelican and Brown Pelican occasionally turn up and are becoming more frequent.
Virginia Rail, Sora, and, in recent years, Common Gallinule breed on the island. Great Blue Heron (year-round), Great Egret (April-October), and Snowy Egret (April-October) are easily seen; Black-crowned Night-Heron and Green Heron are also common; Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, and Cattle Egret are less common but reliable. Least Bittern, more often heard than seen, breeds on the island, and American Bittern is sometimes found during migration.
Osprey and Bald Eagle are local breeders and are easily seen. Northern Harrier is also regular from August through May. Other regular raptors include Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, Red-shouldered, and Red-tailed Hawks. Great Horned Owl nests on the island; Short-eared Owl overwinters; and Snowy Owl is almost regular in winter, at least during irruption years. A pair of Peregrine Falcons nest on the nearby Craighill Channel Light, and often are seen, sometimes in extreme close-up views, chasing shorebirds and scattering the flocks. Merlin and American Kestrel are also easy to see.
The island is a great place to observe swallows, especially during migration, when there can be large flocks hunting over the impoundments. All of the expected Maryland swallows have been seen, including Cave and Cliff. The small woodlands hold a surprising variety of passerines, including the usual flycatchers, vireos, and other small birds. House Wren, Marsh Wren, and Carolina Wren all breed in numbers, and Winter Wren overwinters. Both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets are common fall through spring. Wood Thrush and American Robin breed on the island, Hermit Thrush overwinters, and Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, Bicknell’s, and Veery might be found during migration.
The grassland areas of the South Cell can be good for field birds, including American Pipit, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, Bobolink, and Eastern Meadowlark. About twenty species of sparrows have been reported; specialties include “Coastal Plain” Swamp Sparrow, which breeds on the island and is found year-round, and Savannah Sparrow, present in large numbers from fall through spring. Yellow-breasted Chat occasionally shows up from May through September, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds have been found during fall migration.
Thirty species of warblers have been reported, mostly migrants, but Common Yellowthroat and Yellow Warbler breed on the island, while Yellow-rumped overwinters in good numbers. Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting are two more breeders on the island, easily seen from May through September.
Pets are not permitted on the spring and fall bus tours or on the weekly bird surveys conducted by MOS. For people arriving in their own boats, pets on leash are permitted in the State Park.
Hart-Miller Island is not accessible to wheelchairs.
The entire island has been designated by the National Audubon Society as the Hart-Miller Island Important Bird Area.
An interesting history of Hart-Miller Island, written by DNR Seasonal Ranger Molly Hoopes, can be found in the MD DNR newsletter “Gunpowder Currents,” Fall-Winter 2016. ◾ For the official Maryland Ornithological Society checklist for Hart-Miller Island, go to https://drive.google.com/open?id=1c0yMmItUgk-BkSsF73mc4MmV-b_M9zSy. ◾ The State Park offers a seasonal concession stand, bicycle rental, picnic area, loaner binoculars and field guides, and primitive campsites. The island is popular for boating, fishing, offshore swimming, and waterfowl hunting. ◾ The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Baltimore Bird Club, which offers field trips and meetings with speaker presentations, free and open to the public. The Baltimore Bird Club is the founding chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society, and remains an important hub of birding activity in the state.
The Maryland Department of Natural History has posted two short YouTube videos in their “Virtual Ranger” series:
Both videos will give you some sense of the habitats and conditions on the island.
Depends on where your boat will leave the mainland. No cars on the island.
Hart-Miller Island is located off Rocky Point Beach and Park in Essex, MD. Because the island is normally only accessible by private boat, general directions are not possible. ◾ It may be possible to rent a boat from a facility near Middle River. It is possible to kayak or canoe to the island (not recommended for beginning paddlers due to strong currents), but taking a scope that way might be difficult. Nearby, the Island View Waterfront Cafe rents kayaks; see https://www.islandviewwaterfrontcafe.com/. The Carefree Boat Club (private club with membership fee) on Middle River offers unlimited boat usage to members (https://carefreeboats.com/locations/middle-river-md/). ◾ Those who have seats on the Maryland Environmental Service bus tours or who will participate in the MOS weekly bird surveys will be given directions to the MES boat dock by the trip coordinator.
Gunpowder Falls State Park – Hammerman Area & Dundee Creek Marina; North Point State Park; Fort Howard; Marshy Point Nature Center.
ConifersUpland Deciduous Dredged Material Containment FacilityReclaimed Industrial Site Old Fields, Shrubby MeadowsSandy Beach or Dunes Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainJetties & SeawallsMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Open Ocean, Bay, or Estuary
Bicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)CampingFishingFree - No Entry FeeHabitat Restoration ProjectHiking/Walking TrailsNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsObservation Platform or TowerPets AllowedPicnic AreaRestroomsSnack Bar, Camp Store, Food ConcessionsSwimmingWater View
#1 Hotspot in County or CityAudubon Important Bird AreasChesapeake Bay Western ShoreState ParksThe Rivers of the Western Shore