At a Glance
Hours: Visitor Center & grounds open daily 8 am – 4 pm. Closed on federal holidays.
Tips: You must sign in at the Visitor Center and you must sign out when you leave. ◾ Bring a scope for viewing Merganser or Allen Pond. ◾ Restrooms are at the Visitor Center and at the Wildlife Viewing Area (Merganser Pond). ◾ Hunting takes place on portions of North Tract and several trails may be closed during hunting. See the Refuge website for details.
Best Seasons: All year, but spring and fall are best.
Breeding Bird Atlas Blocks: Laurel NE, Laurel NW, Laurel CE, Laurel CW, Laurel SE, Odenton SW, Odenton CW
Patuxent Research Refuge – North Tract
230 Bald Eagle Drive, Laurel, Maryland 20724
North Tract is one of the special birding gems of Anne Arundel County. It is part of the Patuxent Research Refuge, a facility of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Established in 1936 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Patuxent Research Refuge is the nation’s only national wildlife refuge established to support wildlife research. Containing 12,841 acres, Patuxent Research Refuge is a unique oasis of natural habitat in the middle of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. It has been referred to as the “green lungs” of the region.
North Tract is one of three tracts at Patuxent Research Refuge: the other two are South Tract in Prince George’s County and Central Tract, which has portions in both Anne Arundel and Prince George’s Counties. Both North and South Tracts are open to the public. Note that there is no direct access between North and South Tracts – one has to drive on public roads to go between the two areas.
Central Tract, which houses the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center (formerly known as the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center), is closed to the public. (Birds that you see reported on eBird from within Central Tract have usually been observed by the Science Center’s employees.) The Eastern Ecological Science Center’s purpose is to conduct research to form the biological foundation for effective conservation and management of the country’s biological resources. Two of the notable programs within the Science Center are the Bird Banding Laboratory and the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The wildlife and habitat research being conducted by the Eastern Ecological Science Center goes well beyond birds: read more about the science programs. Fish and Wildlife biologists also conduct research and projects on habitat management and species conservation at the Refuge.
The 8,126 acres of land at North Tract were mostly acquired from the U.S. Army’s Fort Meade in 1991 and 1992. North Tract contains upland hardwood forests and upland meadows, riparian habitat near the Patuxent and Little Patuxent Rivers, and constructed wetlands. Eight miles of paved roads make up the drive-able Wildlife Loop that winds through North Tract. The Wildlife Viewing Area at Merganser Pond on the Wildlife Loop provides visitors the opportunity to see waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds. Several natural-surface hiking and biking trails enable birders to explore in-depth the varied habitats of North Tract (see trail map at link at left). An extensive power line cut, visible from the Wildlife Loop Drive, contains excellent scrub-shrub early successional habitat. There are pollinator gardens at the Visitor Contact Station and at the Merganser Pond Wildlife Viewing Area. There are also regular bird feeders as well as hummingbird feeders at the Visitor Contact Station, near the building’s east side and behind the pollinator garden across the road from the building.
Sign-in at the Visitor Contact Station is required upon arrival, and it is also necessary to sign-out when you are ready to leave.
Patuxent Research Refuge can be considered a significant landmark in the history of wildlife conservation. Some of the world’s most important research related to conservation of birds and other species has been carried out at Patuxent, with wide-reaching effects throughout the country and the world. Some of the better-known projects have included:
- Research on the bioaccumulation of DDT and its effects on egg-shell thinning in birds, which caused severe population declines in top-level predators such as Bald Eagle and Osprey; the Patuxent research, inspired Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, and led to a restriction on the use of DDT, with the ultimate recovery of both Ospreys and Bald Eagles.
- Chandler Robbins and his colleagues published a series of papers documenting the effects of forest fragmentation on breeding success of Forest Interior Dwelling Species. This work is reflected in the layout of the Refuge itself: the entrance drive on South Tract is purposely divided into two narrow one-way routes, separated by a wide forested island, in order to retain unbroken forest canopy over the paved roads.
- Advances in the science of bird banding and later recapture. The most notable example of this research is the Laysan Albatross named Wisdom, banded by Chandler Robbins himself on Midway Island in 1956. As of this writing (spring 2022), Wisdom is still alive and is widely considered to be the world’s oldest living documented bird. Her annual egg-laying usually merits widespread media coverage. But Wisdom is just one example of the millions of birds that have been banded through the USGS Bird Landing Laboratory’s programs, which have been instrumental in establishing an understanding of bird populations and migrations.
- Patuxent is indelibly linked to its role in captive breeding of endangered species in order to restore them to the wild. This work is exemplified by Patuxent’s Whooping Crane breeding program, from 1967 until 2018. This short article on the USGS website was written in 2018, before the program came to an end later that year, when the Patuxent birds were dispersed to other facilities.
- The North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Breeding Bird Atlas are other ongoing projects that arose from the work of Chandler Robbins and others at Patuxent.
A printable checklist compiled by the Friends of Patuxent includes 282 species. Over 260 species have been reported on eBird for the Refuge as a whole. There are eight eBird hotspots at the Refuge, and six of these are on North Tract:
- Patuxent Research Refuge–North Tract (overall) – 222+ species
- Patuxent Research Refuge–North Tract–Lake Allen – 143+ species
- Patuxent Research Refuge–North Tract–New Marsh/Cattail Pond – 123+ species
- Patuxent Research Refuge–North Tract–Pine Trail – 116+ species
- Patuxent Research Refuge–North Tract, Power Line section – 121+ species
- Patuxent Research Refuge–North Tract–Wildlife Viewing Area/Merganser Pond – 159+ species
North Tract has become famous for hosting a pair (and occasionally more) of Trumpeter Swans that started showing up in 2018 at Merganser Pond. They have been present almost year-round since then and there is speculation that they may eventually breed. In recent years, Red-headed Woodpeckers have been documented breeding near the power line cut.
Winter: Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Winter Wren, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco
Spring: Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, American Woodcock, Veery, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Pine Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Palm Warbler, Prairie Warbler
Summer: Wild Turkey, Green Heron, Osprey, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Whip-poor-will, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole
Fall: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Year-round: Canada Goose, Mallard, Great Blue Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Killdeer, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, American Goldfinch
At North Tract, there is excellent birding available from or near the car; hence this is a great place for those who are mobility-impaired. However, the foot-trails are natural surface and are not wheelchair-accessible. There are wheelchair-accessible restrooms near the Merganser Pond Wildlife Viewing Area and in the Visitor Contact Station.
Pets are allowed on leash; pick up after your pet.
The entire Patuxent Research Refuge has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. ◾ Patuxent Research Refuge is part of the US Fish and Wildlife Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, which works to ensure that urban populations have access to wildlife and natural habitats. Through this program, Patuxent partners with local community groups to increase appreciation of local ecosystems.
The non-profit organization Friends of Patuxent works to support the Patuxent Research Refuge and Eastern Ecological Science Center. ◾ The refuge offers a wide range of public programs at both North and South Tracts. Patuxent public programs are small-group interpretive activities conducted by staff and volunteers. The programs are designed for individuals and/or families. Some programs are for all ages; some are intended for specific age ranges including groups as young as 18 months. Typically, pre-registration is required. Programs are free. Check program schedules. ◾ Fishing is popular at North Tract. A state-issued non-tidal fishing license is required. Biking is permitted along many of the trails at North Tract. See the Refuge website for details. ◾ Horseback riding is also permitted at North Tract; there are no rental stables – bring your own horse.
The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Anne Arundel Bird Club, which offers field trips and meetings with informative programs, all free and open to the public.
- The US Fish and Wildlife Service has posted a brief YouTube video that shows aspects of both North and South Tracts at Patuxent Research Refuge. The Refuge’s partnership with Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center in Baltimore is featured in some scenes.
- Agents of Discovery is a free app that youngsters can play outdoors on a smart phone. Through the game, kids locate and collect missing data while learning about nature. The kids are given a mission to locate hidden Challenges and provide the answers that research scientists need to update the Refuge’s database.
Gravel lot at the Visitor Contact Station and at designated points along the Wildlife Loop and at Lake Allen.
From Washington, DC: Take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD Route 295) north and exit on to MD Route 198 East toward Fort Meade. Travel almost 2 miles. Then turn right on to Bald Eagle Drive (at the ball fields), drive past the Refuge’s Hunter Contact Station on the right, and continue to the North Tract Visitor Contact Station on the left. It is about 1 mile from Route 198 to the Visitor Contact Station.
From Baltimore: Take Baltimore/Washington Parkway (MD Route 295) South and take the MD Route 198 exit toward Fort Meade/Laurel. Then turn left on to Route 198 heading East and travel about 2 miles. Then turn right on to Bald Eagle Drive (at the ball fields), drive past the Refuge’s Hunter Contact Station on the right, and continue to the North Tract Visitor Contact Station on the left. It is about 1 mile from Route 198 to the Visitor Contact Station.
From Annapolis and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge: From MD Route 50 west of Annapolis, take Interstate Route 97 North. Then take MD Route 32 West (toward Columbia) for about 8 miles. Then take the MD Route 198 exit toward Laurel/Ft. Meade. Travel around the circle following the signs to Odenton/Laurel to MD Route 198 West. In less than 1 mile turn left on to Bald Eagle Drive (at the ball fields), drive past the Refuge’s Hunter Contact Station on the right, and continue to the North Tract Visitor Contact Station on the left. It is about 1 mile from Route 198 to the Visitor Contact Station.
Anne Arundel County: Davidsonville Park ◾ Downs Memorial Park ◾ Fort Smallwood Park ◾ Greenbury Point◾ Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary ◾ Kinder Farm Park ◾ Lake Waterford Park ◾ Mandares Creek MOS Sanctuary ◾ Oxbow Natural Area ◾ Patuxent Research Refuge – North Tract ◾ Piney Orchard Nature Preserve◾ Quiet Waters Park ◾ Sandy Point State Park ◾ Smithsonian Environmental Research Center ◾ Swan Creek Wetlands | Cox Creek Dredged Material Containment Facility
Prince George’s County: Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (restricted access) ◾ Fran Uhler Natural Area ◾ Governor Bridge Natural Area ◾ Greenbelt (National) Park ◾ Greenbelt Lake Municipal Park (Buddy Attick Lake Park) ◾ Lake Artemesia Natural Area ◾Patuxent Research Refuge – South Tract (National Wildlife Visitor Center) ◾ Rosaryville State Park ◾ Schoolhouse Pond
Bottomland DeciduousConifersHedgerowsUpland Deciduous Hay Meadows, Pasture, Grass FieldOld Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainFreshwater Pond, Lake, or ReservoirMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Rivers & Streams
Features:BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Bird Feeding StationBirding By CarFishingFree - No Entry Fee at Any TimeHabitat Restoration ProjectHiking/Walking TrailsHuntingNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsNature Education ProgramsObservation Platform or TowerParkingPets AllowedPicnic AreaRestroomsWater ViewWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families
Type:Audubon Important Bird AreasDriving Tour (Roadside Birding)Hiker-Biker Trails (Paved)National Wildlife RefugesNature CentersThe Rivers of the Western Shore