Ocean City: Skimmer Island (4th Street Mudflats)
Main Viewing Point: Boardwalk on Chicago Avenue between 2nd & 4th Streets, Ocean City, MD 21842
(410) 250-0125 (Ocean City Parks & Recreation)
Skimmer Island (aka 4th Street Mudflats) is an islet in the Sinepuxent Bay just north of the bridge that carries US Route 50 into Ocean City. Skimmer Island attracts waterfowl, gulls, terns, shorebirds, and other water birds, and the easy viewing of the island’s specialty birds is one of the joys of birding in Ocean City. Skimmer Island is the most important nesting site in Maryland for three species of colonial waterbirds: Black Skimmer, Royal Tern, and Common Tern. The surrounding sand flats provide foraging habitat for a variety of shorebirds during their spring and fall migrations, and are also a critical spawning area for horseshoe crabs, which come on shore during the full moon each May to lay their eggs at the water’s edge.
Skimmer Island, along with nine others, is protected by the State of Maryland as the Sinepuxent Bay Wildlife Management Area. The islands are a mixture of sand, marsh, and tidal mud flats. Vegetation management and placement of dredged sand has been used to enhance nesting habitat for shorebirds and colonial nesting waterbirds. Beginning in 1987, one of the Sinepuxent Bay islands even supported a colony of nesting Brown Pelicans for a period of years. Boaters are prohibited from landing on the islands during the summer nesting season, and the MD Department of Natural Resources has special patrols and education campaigns to enforce this restriction.
Many of the islands in Sinepuxent Bay were created in the 1930s by the deposition of material dredged from the bay to create navigation channels, and other islands are natural formations. In 1964, the Maryland General Assembly designated a collection of islands for wildlife protection, effectively creating the Sinepuxent Bay WMA. Additional islands have been added to the WMA since that date. Currently, the WMA consists of ten islands, totaling approximately 20 acres. The islands are dynamic, with their outlines and above-water extent ever-changing as a result of tides, storms, sand deposition, and sea-level rise.
If you have a boat, then viewing Skimmer Island and others in the Sinepuxent Bay WMA is easy. You can launch at the West Ocean City Public Boat Ramp on Sunset Avenue or the South Point Boat Ramp or any of the sites at the Assateague Island National Seashore. Use your favorite navigational chart and remember that you cannot set foot on the islands or approach closely during nesting season.
For landlubbers, Skimmer Island and two immediately adjacent islets, Horn Island (privately owned, not part of the WMA) and Spoils Island (aka 6th Street Flats), can be easily viewed from several spots on shore. The most popular viewing location is in Ocean City at a boardwalk that runs along Chicago Avenue between 2nd Street and 4th Street (see area map at link at left; note that Chicago Avenue is one-way northbound, so approach from 2nd Street and turn right to park). Viewing from the boardwalk is best in the morning as it faces west and the afternoon sun will result in backlit birds. The boardwalk is a popular fishing and dog walking area and is adjacent to a skate park, a playground, and other sports facilities that occupy two whole blocks between the bay and Philadelphia Avenue – it’s a busy place, but in the off-season it’s relatively quiet. The 4th Street Park itself became famous as a birding destination when it hosted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher for a couple of weeks in March of 2017.
Another option for viewing Skimmer Island is to drive across the Route 50 bridge heading west out of Ocean City, and park at the foot of the bridge on the west side, make a quick right to park in a small dirt area along the roadside. (Roadside conditions here have been changing. If area is posted No Parking, obey signs and seek an alternate area to legally park nearby.) Then walk back up the slope of the bridge to the grassy knoll between the roadbed of the bridge and the water, on the bridge’s north side. This grassy knoll is a favorite fishing spot and provides a good place to set up a scope to view Skimmer Island. Or you can walk onto the bridge itself, using the pedestrian sidewalk, and peer at the island through the chain-link fence; however, you may find the noise and wind from the traffic rushing over the bridge to be distracting.
Yet another possibility for viewing Skimmer Island is to request permission from Hooper’s Crab House, located at the west end of the bridge, to view birds from their parking area or back deck. Please do not even think about requesting permission to bird at the restaurant during the height of the summer season, but you might want to consider it on a quiet weekday in the in spring or fall, or when the restaurant is closed for the winter. Do not bird from Hooper’s Crab House without permission. Of course, when it’s open from May to September, you can always give the restaurant some business by getting a table and ordering a meal (Hooper’s is famous for their steamed crabs and other seafood) and let them know you’d like to do some birding from their grounds.
Another alternative viewing spot is a public fishing pier at 9th Street and the bay in Ocean City. This vantage point is particularly good for Spoils Island/6th Street Flats and Skimmer Island to the south. Your view to the north up the bay will be partially blocked by adjacent buildings.
A word about the name of the waters surrounding Skimmer Island: On various maps, you will see the waters around Skimmer Island referred to as either “Sinepuxent Bay” or “Isle of Wight Bay.” Historically, the name “Isle of Wight Bay” was used to refer to the a more northerly piece of water: the wide area extending south from the Isle of Wight at MD Route 90 to Keyser Point and Drum Point in West Ocean City, while “Sinepuxent Bay” extended south from Isle of Wight Bay to Chincoteague Bay in Virginia. Thus in the traditional usage, the area around Skimmer Island is part of Sinepuxent Bay, and the MD Department of Natural Resources still conforms to this name. However, the Army Corps of Engineers and other entities use the name “Isle of Wight Bay” for the entire extent of water from MD Route 90 south to the Ocean City Inlet, and consider the northern end of Sinepuxent Bay to be at the Ocean City Inlet. In this usage, Skimmer Island is in the Isle of Wight Bay.
There are separate eBird hotspots covering Skimmer Island and its main viewing points:
• Ocean City – Skimmer Island – 190+ species.
• Ocean City – 4th Street Park – 106+ species; most birders use this hotspot for land birds in and around the park.
• West Ocean City – Hooper’s Restaurant (private) – 171+ species. This hotspot captures birds in the marshy area adjacent to the restaurant, as well as birds on the islands and on the water.
• Ocean City – 6th Street Flats – 55+ species. This hotspot covers Spoils Island.
The major attraction for birders at Skimmer Island are shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Skimmer Island, quite simply, is one of the best shorebird spots in all of Maryland, with 29 species reported. It is noteworthy that this is a place where you can expect to see at least a few species of shorebirds even in the dead of winter.
Year-round or nearly so, you can expect to see American Oystercatchers, Killdeer, Ruddy Turnstone, and Sanderling. Black-bellied Plovers are present in most months except March and mid-summer. Willets are present much of the year, but tend to disappear in December and again in February-March. Dunlin is an overwintering species that is present from late September through June or early July, but absent in late summer and early September.
Shorebirds that breed in the Ocean City NW Atlas block, including some on Skimmer or other islands and some in adjacent marshes, include American Oystercatcher, Piping Plover (breeds on Assateague Island), Killdeer, and Willet.
Generally the southbound migration from July through August or September brings a larger set of shorebird species, and in greater numbers, than the northbound migration in May and June. For some species, birds may be present throughout the summer, bridging spring and fall migration. Some of the migrants are present over a long, drawn-out period, and others are rare and put in only brief appearances. Migrant shorebirds that use Skimmer Island include American Avocet, American Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Piping Plover, Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit, Marbled Godwit, Red Knot, Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher (rare), Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. See the eBIrd bar charts for more details.
The gull and tern show around Skimmer Island is quite good. Birds will be seen hunting over the water or flying high overhead, and birds in the air often fly low to get under the Route 50 bridge, or they’ll bank and turn when they get to the bridge, giving good views of their upper surfaces. Many birds gather on Skimmer and other islands or on the water to rest and roost, and many birders enjoy meticulously picking through the flocks to look for rarities. The usual gulls include Bonaparte’s (October through May); Laughing (present in all but January); Ring-billed, Herring and Great Black-backed (year-round); and Lesser Black-backed (almost year-round) – this is probably the best spot in Maryland to be sure of seeing one or more Lessers at almost any time of year. Iceland and Glaucous also turn up, with Iceland being the more likely of the two. Black-legged Kittiwake has appeared in winter, but is more likely at the Ocean City Inlet, and no doubt the birds near Skimmer Island were strays from the Inlet.
Skimmer Island is a great place to study terns. The usual species are Least, Caspian, Common, Forster’s, and Royal. The exciting terns are Black (small numbers from May through September), Roseate (spring), Gull-billed (small numbers from June through August), Arctic (rare in late August). A special treat is the ability to readily see numbers of Sandwich Terns from May through October; Skimmer is near the northernmost extent of their breeding range. Black Skimmers (the island’s namesake) are present from April through November and breed on the island, as do Royal and Common Terns. The presence of these breeders has been a key factor in MD DNR’s staunch protection of the island.
Wintering waterfowl are another major birding attraction near Skimmer Island and throughout the Sinepuxent Bay, with 31 species reported at Skimmer. Brant are easy to see in numbers from October through May. Essentially all of the regular Maryland dabblers and divers may be present. Even Wood Ducks may turn up, mostly near the marshes on the western side of Sinepuxent Bay. Some of the true sea-going species such as eiders, scoters, Harlequin, and Long-tailed may stray over from the Inlet. The one species not expected in the Bay is Common Merganser, but there will be loads of Red-breasted and some Hooded. It’s really quite a bonanza of waterfowl, and with the waters of the bay usually being calmer than at the Ocean City Inlet, the waterfowl can be relatively easy to see and study.
Other specialties of Skimmer Island and the vicinity include three grebes (Pied-billed, Horned, and Red-necked); Clapper Rails in the marshes near Hooper’s Crab House; Red-throated and Common Loons (often close in to the boardwalk at 4th Street); Great Cormorants in addition to the numerous Double-cresteds; and Brown Pelicans in large numbers.
There is also a full set of wading bird possibilities, mostly during the warm months: American Bittern (carefully scope the marsh edges on the western side of Sinepuxent Bay); Great Blue Heron (year-round); Great Egret; Snowy Egret; Little Blue Heron; Tricolored Heron (becoming more common); Reddish Egret (one bird in fall 2015 and a few other records); Cattle Egret; Green Heron; Black-crowned Night-Heron; Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (less likely than Black-crowned); White Ibis (becoming more common with northward range expansion); Glossy Ibis; and White-faced Ibis (rare in spring migration).
Of course, you can expect large numbers of Ospreys, which are present over a long season from March through October. Bald Eagles are present almost year-round. Fish Crows are more common than American Crows here. Another specialty of the area is Boat-tailed Grackle, present year-round.
Pets are allowed on leash at all of the stated viewing points; be prepared to pick up after your pet in accordance with local laws. If you are boating, do not take pets onto any of the islands.
The boardwalk on Chicago Avenue between 2nd and 4th Streets is wheelchair-accessible, as is the public fishing pier at 9th Street. The parking lot at Hooper’s Crab House can be negotiated with a wheelchair. The grassy knoll at the west end of the Route 50 bridge is not wheelchair-accessible, but the pedestrian sidewalk on the bridge is accessible if you can find nearby legal parking.
Skimmer Island and the other islands of Sinepuxent Bay WMA lie within the Maryland Coastal Bays Important Bird Area (IBA), as designated by the National Audubon Society. This large IBA encompasses the entire inland bay area along the Atlantic Coast of Maryland, and adjoins IBAs in Delaware and Virginia.
The State of Maryland classifies Skimmer Island as a State Natural Area. The Maryland Natural Areas initiative seeks to identify the best remaining natural areas found within the State. Recognition as a Natural Area carries a commitment to sustainable management to conserve the natural features that the area was established to recognize and protect. Read about how Maryland is actively working to preserve and enhance bird habitat on Skimmer Island.
If you want to explore around Skimmer Island in a boat, you can launch a kayak or canoe from the sandy beach at Homer Gudelsky Park. There is also a large public boat launch a couple of blocks south on Sunset Avenue, just east of the intersection with Golf Course Road. The Sunset Avenue boat launch provides access to Sinepuxent Bay and Ocean City Inlet; the facilities include lighted, paved parking, 6 paved boat ramps, and a restroom. See the MD DNR Public Water Access Interactive Map for details. Another option is the South Point Boat Ramp at the end of South Point Road off of Route 611. There are also multiple launch sites within Assateague National Seashore. ◾ If you don’t have your own boat but want to get out on the water, check out water sports rental and outfitter information at the Beach & Beyond Worcester County Visitor website.
Fishing is excellent in the Sinepuxent Bay and is a popular activity at the boardwalk between 2nd and 4th Streets, the 9th Street Fishing Pier, and the west end of the Route 50 bridge. The boardwalk between 2nd and 4th Streets is a “Free Fishing Zone” – no permit required. There are numerous other fishing spots around the areas; consult the MD DNR Public Anglers Access Interactive Map for details. ◾ Ocean City and West Ocean City have a large selection of restaurants, ranging from little locally-owned casual places and take-outs to chain restaurants and up-scale dining rooms and nightspots. There are also a couple of fresh seafood markets in the Wests Ocean City area, selling fish and shellfish fresh from the boats.
The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Tri-County Bird Club, serving Somerset, Wicomico, and Worcester Counties, and offering field trips and meetings with informative programs, all free and open to the public.
- Episode 2902 of Outdoors Maryland on Maryland Public Television includes the segment “A Tern of Fortune,” about the efforts to protect nesting birds on islands in Sinepuxent Bay. Other segments in this episode cover the Maryland Hunt Cup horse race and the building of a classic Smith Island skiff.
- Join former Governor Martin O’Malley on a kayak tour of Skimmer Island, courtesy of a MD DNR video on YouTube. The video showcases restoration of habitat for endangered wildlife. Governor O’Malley was also joined by Coastal Bays Program Executive Director Dave Wilson, DNR staff and Coastal Stewards, members of a summer youth employment program, for an informational tour of the island’s renovations.
- The Maryland Coastal Bays Program has a brief YouTube video showing horseshoe crab spawning at Skimmer Island.
- Delmarva Almanac has an audio program on YouTube; this is a recording of a radio show hosted by Jim Rapp from Conservation Community Consulting, talking about the birds of Skimmer Island.
- At the boardwalk on Chicago Avenue between 2nd and 4th Streets, there is ample head-in parking at meters on Chicago Avenue and adjacent cross-streets.
- At the west end of the Route 50 bridge for viewing of Skimmer Island from the grassy knoll, there is room for about 6 cars on the road shoulder on the north side of Route 50 at the base of the bridge. However, roadside conditions here have been changing. If area is posted No Parking, obey signs and seek an alternate area to legally park nearby.
- At Hooper’s Crab House, there is a large paved parking lot. Remember to ask for permission to bird at Hooper’s and only in the off-season.
- At the 9th Street public fishing pier, there is on-street parking. Obey posted regulations for parking.
Use directions given for the Ocean City Inlet & Sunset Park entry in this Birder’s Guide to reach Ocean City. All directions below start at the Inlet but can be easily adapted to other starting points.
Follow the directions carefully because the area near the Inlet has many one-way streets. Here are some pointers:
> The east-west streets near the Inlet are named, but above the Route 50 bridge, the east-west streets in Ocean City are numbered, from 1 Street at the south end near Route 50, to 146th Street at the Delaware state line at the north end of Ocean City.
> Philadelphia Avenue is one-way southbound from 9th Street to the Inlet, but is two-way above 9th.
> Baltimore Avenue is one-way northbound from the Inlet to 15th Street, but is two-way above 15th. At 33rd Street, northbound Baltimore Avenue ends and you have to swing left and then right to use Philadelphia Avenue to continue northbound.
> At the east end of the Route 50 bridge, North Division Street is one-way eastbound to Baltimore Avenue; hence it is not possible to use North Division Street to get onto the Route 50 bridge from within Ocean City.
> Some, but not all, of the numbered streets are one-way between Philadephia and Baltimore Avenues. Pay attention to one-way signs.
- To reach the boardwalk at the 4th Street Park: From the Inlet, go north on Baltimore Avenue, turn left (west) onto 2nd Street, and continue on 2nd Street its end at Chicago Avenue. Turn right and you will see head-in parking at meters on the right side of the street, opposite the boardwalk. Park anywhere and don’t forget to feed the meter. Note that Chicago Avenue is one-way northbound so do not try to approach from 4th Street.
- To reach the west end of the Route 50 bridge for viewing of Skimmer Island from the grassy knoll: From the Inlet, go north on Baltimore Avenue, turn left (west) onto 1st Street, then left again at Philadelphia Avenue and get into the right lane. Follow signs to merge onto US Route 50/Ocean Gateway westbound. You will almost immediately be going over the bridge. Stay in the right lane and look for parking on the right on the grass and dirt shoulder at the base of the bridge, near Hooper’s Crab House. (Roadside conditions here have been changing. If area is posted No Parking, obey signs and seek an alternate area to legally park nearby.)
- For Hooper’s Crab House, follow directions above to parking for the grassy knoll at the Route 50 bridge, and simply continue to the first right turn, at Inlet Isle Lane, to the entrance to the restaurant parking lot. Remember to only bird here with permission and even if you are ordering a meal.
- For the 9th Street public fishing pier: From the Inlet, go north on Baltimore Avenue, turn left (west) onto 9th Street. Drive to the end of 9th Street at the bay and look for on-street parking. Obey posted regulations.
Worcester County: Assateague Island National Seashore & Assateague Island State Park ◾ Castaways RV Resort & Campgrounds ◾ E.A. Vaughn Wildlife Management Area ◾ Heron Park (formerly Berlin Falls Park) ◾ Ocean City Inlet & Sunset Park ◾ Pocomoke State Forest – Hickory Point Cypress Swamp Natural Area ◾ Truitts Landing & Other Bayside Landings ◾ West Ocean City Park-n-Ride & Homer Gudelsky Park ◾ West Ocean City Pond
Wicomico County: Cedar Hill Marina & Park ◾ Ellis Bay Wildlife Management Area ◾ Nanticoke River Wildlife Management Area – Nutter’s Neck ◾ Pemberton Historical Park ◾ Roaring Point & Nanticoke Harbor ◾ Tyaskin Park & Wetipquin Park ◾ Ward Museum & Schumaker Pond
Urban or Small Town Landscape Sandy Beach or Dunes Jetties & SeawallsMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Open Ocean, Bay, or EstuarySalt or Brackish Marsh
Features and Amenities:
Ball Fields or Other SportsBeginnersBoardwalkFishingFree - No Entry FeeHabitat Restoration ProjectHuntingObservation Platform or TowerParkingPets AllowedPlaygroundRestroomsWater ViewWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families
Atlantic Ocean and Intercoastal WaterwaysAudubon Important Bird AreasCommunity and Urban Parks