At a Glance

Hours: Varies by access point.

  • Mason Springs Soft Launch: Dawn to dusk daily.
  • Mattingly Park Boat Launch: Sunrise to sunset daily.
  • Sweden Point Marina at Smallwood State Park: April through October: 5 a.m. to sunset; November through March: 7 a.m. to sunset.
  • Indian Head Rail Trail: Sunrise to sunset, daily year-round.
  • George Wilmot Trail: Sunrise to sunset, daily year-round.

Cost: Varies by access point.

  • Mason Springs Soft Launch: Free.
  • Mattingly Park Boat Launch: Free to walk-in to check the water for birds; fee for boat launch.
  • Sweden Point Marina at Smallwood State Park:
    Park entry fee: April through October, weekends and holidays, Maryland residents $3/person; out-of-state residents $5/person; weekdays: Maryland residents $3/vehicle; out-of-state residents $5/vehicle; November through March, Maryland residents $3/vehicle; out-of-state residents $5/vehicle. Additional fee to launch boats: Maryland residents $10/vehicle; out-of-state residents $12/vehicle. Golden Age Pass accepted for park entry and for boat launch.
  • Indian Head Rail Trail: Free.
  • George Wilmot Trail: Free.

Tips: Bring a scope if birding from land. ◾ The George Wilmot trail may be wet or muddy. Wear sturdy waterproof hiking boots or shoes. ◾ Hunting takes place on portions of the Mattawoman NEA (the Buteaux Crossing Tract and the Pomfret Road Tracts). Be aware of hunting seasons and plan your visit accordingly. Visit these areas only on Sundays during deer and turkey seasons.  ◾ Restrooms at Mattingly Park, Fort Smallwood Park, and at several points along the Indian Head Rail Trail. No restrooms at Mason Springs soft launch or at the George Wilmot Trail.

Best Seasons: The birds are great year-round, but winter is especially good with a broad selection of waterfowl.

Breeding Bird Atlas Blocks: Indian Head NE, Indian Head CE, Port Tobacco NW, Port Tobacco NE

Local MOS Chapter: Patuxent Bird Club or Anne Arundel Bird Club.

Mattawoman Natural Environmental Area

Near Indian Head, MD, 20640
(301) 743-7613 (Smallwood State Park)

The Mattawoman Creek watershed is something of a miracle. Widely regarded by biologists and naturalists as a treasure of national significance, the watershed, located less than 20 miles from Washington, DC, is one of the last remaining on the East Coast with a largely intact ecosystem and relatively unimpaired water quality. The entire watershed covers 63,000 acres straddling the Prince George’s County – Charles County border, with ¾ of its expanse lying in Charles County. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has worked over many years’ time with private owners, local non-profits, and county government to protect the incomparable resources of the Mattawoman Creek watershed. The creek, which flows 22 miles from its headwaters into the Potomac River, is beloved by local birders, paddlers, fishermen, and other outdoors-people.

The 1,727-acre Mattawoman Natural Environmental Area is just one of several state-owned properties that protect the heart of the watershed. Its status as a natural environmental area, rather than a state park, means that the focus is on conservation and preservation of the natural resources of the area, and visitor amenities are not as extensive as you would expect at a state park. The NEA is near the town of Indian Head in northwestern Charles County and encompasses the Mattawoman Creek itself as well as surrounding marshlands and adjacent forested tracts, including a large woodland on the south side of the creek.

It is a privilege to be able to bird here. There are three ways to sample the rich wetlands and forested lands in the Mattawoman NEA: by kayak or canoe; on foot at the George Wilmot Trail; or by foot or bike or by wheelchair on the Indian Head Rail Trail.

Paddlers may put in a canoe or kayak at three points: the Mason Springs soft launch site; Slavin’s Dock at Mattingly Park in Indian Head; or the Sweden Point Marina at Smallwood State Park.

  1. The Mason Springs soft launch site is located on MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road, southeast of the intersection with Livingston Road. It is located within an extensive wetland, where the main channel of Mattawoman Creek widens to an estuary with extensive marshes. The public launch site is owned and maintained by the private Mason Springs Conservancy. (There’s a story here: back in 2008, the Mason Springs site was purchased by a group of 12 community-minded citizens in order to provide a safe and clean fishing and boat launch site for the public.) There is no fee to launch, and this site is for non-motorized vessels only. Launching requires a portage of approximately 75 yards along a dirt path from the parking lot to the water. The launch site is open 24/7.
  2. Mattingly Park is owned by the town of Indian Head and is located at 105 Mattingly Avenue. This newly expanded park buffers the Mattawoman Creek from a residential neighborhood and provides a playground and areas for picnicking. Indoor bathroom facilities are available April 1st – October 31st. Slavin’s Dock, located at the south end of the park on the Mattawoman Creek, features a fishing pier and a boat and kayak launch (fee for launching). Canoes, bicycles and kayaks are available for rent from Atlantic Kayak & Canoe, located near the dock.
  3. The third launch site is at the Sweden Point Marina within Smallwood State Park, near the mouth of the Mattawoman Creek. Technically, the state park and its marina are not part of the Mattawoman NEA, but you can paddle upstream from Smallwood to the part of the creek that flows through the NEA. The creek at Smallwood is broad, with lots of open water. There is no soft launch, just a regular concrete boat ramp at this large, full-service marina. There is a fee to launch boats and you must pay the park admission fee as well. For more details, see the separate entry on Smallwood State Park in this Birder’s Guide.

If you’re a landlubber, you can, of course, stop at any of the three launch sites to view the water and look for birds. You also have the additional option of birding from the Indian Head Rail Trail or from the foot-trail at the George Wilmot Area. See our separate entry on the Indian Head Rail Trail in this Birder’s Guide.

The George Wilmot Area is a wooded tract on the south side of Mattawoman Creek, accessed from MD Route 224/Chicamuxen Road. The area and its trail are named after George Wilmot, a local conservationist who was instrumental in protecting the area. There is an unassuming foot-trail with a non-conspicuous small DNR sign, accessed from the shoulder of the Route 224 on its north side. Look for Lackey High School on the opposite side of the road; the trailhead is off the north-side shoulder 0.3 miles west of the school driveway. Look for small signs after the first telephone pole beyond a guard rail. It is permissible to park one or two cars on the road shoulder. Then walk down the grassy slope from the road to enter the woods near some heaps of soil that prevent vehicle access. The trail leads north through bottomland deciduous forest to reach the south shore of Mattawoman Creek in about 0.4 miles. Watch for white blazes on the tree trunks. The Mattawoman Watershed Society provides a good map of the George Wilmot area (the George Wilmot Trail is called the “Wildlands Walk” on that map).  The natural surface trail is not regularly maintained and will have exposed roots, holes, and wet spots. You will be rewarded at the end of the trail with an outstanding view of the creek, and in winter the creek will be filled with waterfowl. Carry a scope with you, as some of the birds will be distant, and be sure to move around to get the best vantage points through the trees.

Additional state-owned properties within the Mattawoman watershed are Myrtle Grove Wildlife Management Area, Smallwood State Park, Chapman Residual Wildlife Management Area, and part of Chapman State Park. A large swath of these properties is set aside with special protections as the Mattawoman State Wildland (2,993 acres) and the Chapman State Wildland (an additional 694 acres). Maryland State Wildlands are areas of state-owned land or water that have retained their wilderness character or contain rare or vanishing species of plant or animal life or similar features worthy of preservation. These areas are specifically designated by the Maryland General Assembly, and are Maryland’s equivalent to the federal Wilderness Preservation System. Only passive recreation activities such as hiking, hunting, fishing, bird watching, horseback riding and nature interpretation, are allowed in State Wildlands.

In addition, the National Audubon Society has designated the Mattawoman NEA and some adjoining properties as the Mattawoman Creek Important Bird Area, which encompasses over 15,000 acres. The IBA includes not only the Mattawoman NEA and other state-owned properties, but also includes a band bordering the upper Mattawoman Creek along the Prince George’s County border.

Conservation Note:
Currently, much of the Mattawoman watershed is protected through a combination of state and county ownership, county planning documents and zoning codes, and conservation and preservation easements. However, threats to the watershed continue to arise periodically and the goal of protecting the Mattawoman requires constant vigilance and advocacy to prevent some of the existing protections from being overturned. For more information about why the Mattawoman deserves and needs protection, see “The case for protecting the Mattawoman,” a 2011 presentation from MD DNR, as well as the website of the Mattawoman Watershed Society, especially the pages “About the Mattawoman,” “the Fact Sheet,” and “Our Issues.”

Birdlife:

The aggregate eBird list for the entire Mattawoman Creek Important Bird Area includes 201+ species. There are a number of individual hotspots that cover the Mattawoman NEA and its various access points and adjoining areas:

Year-round species (essentially all are breeders): Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Mallard, Mourning Dove, Killdeer (sporadic), Great Blue Heron, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk (sporadic), Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Barred Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe (numbers dwindle in winter), Blue Jay, American Crow, Fish Crow (sporadic), Common Raven (formerly rare but increasing, sporadic), Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, European Starling, Brown Thrasher (may be absent in December), Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, American Goldfinch, Field Sparrow (may be absent in late summer), Song Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle (might be absent in December), Northern Cardinal.

Winter – 94+ species (including some that may be present over a longer period from fall through spring): Tundra Swan, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback (some years), Redhead (some years), Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup (some years), Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser (rarely), Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Double-crested Cormorant, Northern Harrier, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch (not annual), Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Savannah Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Summer/breeding season – 106+ species (including some that may be present from spring through fall; essentially all are breeders): Wild Turkey, Rock Pigeon, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Great Egret, Green Heron, Osprey, Eastern Screech-Owl, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher (scarce), Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Purple Martin, Tree Swallow, Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, House Wren, Gray Catbird, Wood Thrush, House Sparrow, House Finch, Chipping Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Chat, Eastern Meadowlark, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, Brown-headed Cowbird, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting.

Spring and/or fall migrants: Blue-winged Teal, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Common Nighthawk, American Woodcock, Wilson’s Snipe, Greater Yellowlegs, Bonaparte’s Gull, Laughing Gull, Common Tern, Forster’s Tern, Common Loon, American Bittern, Snowy Egret, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Sedge Wren, Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Evening Grosbeak, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Bobolink, Northern Waterthrush, Golden-Winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Cpae May Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Canada Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Wheelchair Access:

  • Mattingly Park has a handicapped-accessible boat launching area and accessible restrooms. The two piers at the water are each attached to ADA accessible docks. ADA accessible restrooms are available at the park April thru October and portable toilet is available at the boat ramp year-round.
  • The Indian Head Rail Trail is wheelchair-accessible and is a great place to take a spin.
  • There are handicapped parking spaces and a wheelchair-accessible fishing pier at Smallwood State Park, but the marina there does not have wheelchair access for boat launching.
  • The Mason Springs soft launch site and the George Wilmot Trail are not wheelchair-accessible.

Pet Policy:

Pets are allowed on leash; be prepared to pick up after your pet. Please do not let your pet run loose in the George Wilmot Area as there are many ground-nesting birds there.

Special Designations:

Mattawoman NEA is the keystone of the Mattawoman Creek Important Bird Area (IBA), as designated by the National Audubon Society. The Mattawoman Creek IBA adjoins the Chapman State Park IBA.

As discussed above, the MD General Assembly has designated 2,993 acres as the Mattawoman State Wildland, and an additional 694 acres as the Chapman State Wildland; the Wildlands overlie the Mattawoman NEA as well as the Chapman Residual WMA and other adjoining properties. DNR’s Wildlands interactive map shows the full extent of the protected lands.

 Special Features:

The paddling route between Smallwood State Park and Mattingly Park constitutes the Mattawoman Creek Water Trail, described in the Charles County Water Trails brochure.  The water trail will take you through rich marsh habitat where you will be surrounded by spatterdock (a native waterlily) and other wetland plants. The water trail is also shown on DNR’s interactive Public Water Access map. ◾ Shoreline fishing is available at Mason Springs, Mattingly Park, and at Smallwood State Park. ◾ A concessions stand with food, drinks and supplies is located at the Sweden Point Marina in Smallwood State Park. ◾ Canoes and Kayaks can be rented at Atlantic Kayak and Canoe, located near Slavin’s Dock in Mattingly Park.

The non-profit Mattawoman Watershed Society has worked diligently over many long years to protect the Mattawoman, and our access to great birding owes much to their hard work. Donations  are always appreciated.

There is no chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society in Charles County, but many birders participate in MOS through the Anne Arundel Bird Club or the Patuxent Bird Club; both of these MOS chapters offer field trips and meetings with informative programs, all free and open to the public. In addition, the Southern Maryland Audubon Society serves birders in Charles, Calvert, St. Mary’s, and Prince George’s Counties.

Multimedia:

A short video features Ken Hastings from the Mason Springs Conservancy surveying the Mattawoman for Yellow Perch eggs and discussing some of the threats to the creek.

Parking:

  • Mason Springs soft launch: Gravel lot for about 10 cars at the intersection of MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road and Route 224/Livingston Road; the parking area is reached via a spur on the southeast side of the intersection. Google Map.
  • Mattingly Park: There is paved parking for about 7 cars plus 2 handicapped spaces immediately adjacent to the boat launch area. Additional parking for cars and for boat trailers is located about 200 feet away in a paved lot at Mattingly Park. Google Map.
  • Sweden Point Marina at Smallwood State Park: Large paved lot at the Sweden Point Marina. Other parking throughout the park; see the separate entry for Smallwood State Park in this Birder’s Guide. Google Map.
  • Indian Head Rail Trail: Parking for the most productive birding area is at a gravel lot on Livingston Road at Buteaux Crossing. Google Map. There are other access points for the Rail Trail, with paved lots at the two end points in Indian Head and gravel or paved lots at intermediate points. See the separate description and maps of the Indian Head Rail Trail in this Birder’s Guide.
  • George Wilmot Trail: Parking on the paved shoulder of Route 224 for no more than two cars. Google Map.

Directions:

Mattawoman NEA is located in northwest Charles County near the town of Indian Head. The following directions will take you from the different parts of MD or DC to the intersection of MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road and MD Route 224/Chicamuxen Road on the outskirts of the NEA; then scroll further down for specific directions to the different access points to the NEA from that intersection.

From the Chesapeake Bay Bridge: Take US Route 50/301 west to Exit 13, where Route 50 and 301 split. Take Exit 13 for Route 301 south and follow Route 301 for 34.7 miles to its junction with MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road. Turn right to go west on Hawthorne Road for 8.9 miles to the intersection with MD Route 224/Chicamuxen Road on the left. From here, follow specific direction below to the access point of your choice.

From the Baltimore area: Use I-97 southbound and take Exit 7 for MD Route 3 southbound. In 9.7 miles, Route 3/Crain Highway will pass under US Route 50 and at that point, the route number changes to US Route 301 (still Crain Highway). Continue south on Route 301 for 34.7 miles to its junction with MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road. Turn right to go west on Hawthorne Road for 8.9 miles to the intersection with MD Route 224/Chicamuxen Road on the left. From here, follow specific direction below to the access point of your choice.

From the Washington, DC area: From the DC Beltway, take Exit 7 for MD Route 5 south toward Waldorf, MD. Stay on Route 5 for 11.7 miles to Brandywine, MD, where Route 5 joins US Route 301. Follow Route 301 southbound. (In 2.3 miles, Route 5 will split off to the left but ignore that). Stay on Route 301 South for 10.9 miles to its junction with MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road. Turn right to go west on Hawthorne Road for 8.9 miles to the intersection with MD Route 224/Chicamuxen Road on the left. From here, follow specific direction below to the access point of your choice.

From Western MD: Travel east on US Route 70 and at Frederick, follow signs to take I-270 southeast to Washington DC. Follow signs to merge onto the DC Beltway toward Silver Spring and follow the Beltway, heading clockwise on the inner loop. Then follow directions as above from Washington, DC.

Directions to specific access points:

  • To reach the Mason Springs Soft Launch: From the intersection of MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road and Route 224/Chicamuxen Road, stay straight and continue north on Route 225/Hawthorne Road for another 0.4 miles, to the intersection with MD Route 224/Livingston Road. Make a hard right turn, almost a U-turn, not onto Route 224/Livingston Road itself, but onto a spur road that runs southeast into the parking area for the Mason Springs Soft Launch. The launch is located down a dirt trail that leads to the water’s edge from the south edge of the gravel parking lot.
  • To reach the boat launch at Slavin’s Dock in Mattingly Park: From the intersection of MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road and Route 224/Chicamuxen Road, stay straight and continue north on Route 225/Hawthorne Road for another 1.6 miles, to the T-intersection with MD Route 210/Indian Head Road. Turn left to go west on Indian Head Road for 1.9 miles. Turn left to go south on Mattingly Avenue; this road will take you through a residential area into Mattingly Park and will end at the parking for Slavin’s Dock in approximately 0.7 miles. If there is no room to park at the dock, turn around and use the larger lot just 200 feet away at the main part of Mattingly Park.
  • To reach the Sweden Point Marina in Smallwood State Park: From the intersection of MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road and Route 224/Chicamuxen Road, turn left onto Route 224/Chicamuxen Road and travel southeast for 3.8 miles. Turn right into the main entrance for the park and continue straight ahead to the parking area for the marina in approximately 0.8 miles. There are several overflow lots; follow signs.
  • To reach the Indian Head Rail Trail: There are several access points for the Indian Head Rail Trail; the one closest to the intersection of MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road and Route 224/Chicamuxen Road is on Livingston Road at Buteaux Crossing. From the intersection of MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road and Route 224/Chicamuxen Road, stay straight and continue north on Route 225/Hawthorne Road for another 0.4 miles, to the intersection with MD Route 224/Livingston Road. Turn right to go east on Route 224/Livingston Road (passing the parking area for the Mason Springs Soft Launch at the intersection). The Rail Trail parking area will be on the left in 0.4 miles, where Route 224/Livingston Road crosses the Rail Trail. Get on the Rail Trail at the far end of the parking area and walk northwest to bird the very productive Mason Springs area. To reach other access points for the Rail Trail, see the separate entry for the Indian Head Rail Trail in this Birder’s Guide.
  • To reach the George Wilmot Trail: From the intersection of MD Route 225/Hawthorne Road and Route 224/Chicamuxen Road, turn left onto Route 224/Chicamuxen Road and travel southeast. In 0.7 miles, you will pass Lackey High School on the left; the driveway is a loop road with two branches. Slow down here. The trailhead is off the right shoulder of Route 224 just 0.3 miles beyond the second branch of the school driveway. The trailhead is at the edge of the woods down a grassy slope from the road shoulder, after the first telephone pole beyond a guard rail. Look for small DNR signs and heaps of soil that block dumping mark the trail head. Be sure to pull well off the road when parking on the shoulder. Walk down the grassy slope to enter the trail at the edge of the woods.

Nearby Sites:

Charles County: Allen’s Fresh Natural Area / Zekiah Swamp Natural Environmental AreaChapman State Park & Chapman Residual Wildlife Management Area ◾ Indian Creek Natural Resources Management Area ◾ Indian Head Rail Trail ◾ Maxwell Hall ParkMyrtle Grove Wildlife Management AreaSmallwood State Park

Habitats:

Bottomland DeciduousHedgerowsUpland Deciduous Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Rivers & Streams

Features and Amenities:

BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Boat or Canoe/Kayak LaunchBoat RentalsFishingFree - No Entry Fee at Any TimeHiking/Walking TrailsParkingPets AllowedPicnic AreaRestroomsSnack Bar, Camp Store, Food ConcessionsWater ViewWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families

Type:

Audubon Important Bird AreasHiker-Biker Trails (Paved)State Natural Areas & WildlandsWater Trails