Patuxent River Park – Jug Bay Natural Area
16000 Croom Airport Road, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772
Jug Bay Natural Area refers to an extensive land area on the Prince George’s County side of the Patuxent River that has been set aside with special protections and limited development. Jug Bay Natural Area has such an outstanding ecosystem, with splendid visitor amenities, that it is almost as though it were designed to be a birder’s playground. The “Jug Bay” itself is an expanded section of the river where it is about a half-mile wide. The convoluted shorelines of Jug Bay are bordered by brackish marsh and inlets, with extensive wild rice beds that form ideal habitat for waterfowl and other marsh birds. The Jug Bay marshes are notable for hosting breeding Sora who fatten up on the wild rice before undertaking fall migration. Marsh Wrens are another keynote species of Jug Bay, and the marsh is enlivened by their bubbling songs in spring and summer.
[Note that Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary is on the opposite shore of the river, in Anne Arundel County; see the separate entry in this Birder’s Guide, and see the overview map of Jug Bay area parks at the link at left.]
Jug Bay Natural Area is one section of the Patuxent River Park system, a noteworthy string of county park properties along the Prince George’s side of the Patuxent River, operated by the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation/Maryland-National Capitol Parks and Planning Commission. There are innumerable parcels of the Patuxent River Park system that extend from Laurel at the north end of Prince George’s County, all the way to Cedar Haven and Eagle Harbor at the county’s south end. At the northern end of Prince George’s County, the Patuxent River is just a narrow stream, but below MD Route 4 near Upper Marlboro, the river widens to an impressive tidal channel; thus the various parts of the park system represent a wide diversity of habitats along the river. In all, Patuxent River Park protects over 7,400 acres of sensitive habitat along the western banks of the Patuxent, a significant conservation achievement in the densely populated Washington, DC suburban area. See the online park brochure for more information.
[Note that Patuxent River State Park is an entirely different park, operated by the MD Department of Natural Resources and located in Howard and Montgomery Counties in the Central Region of the state. See the entries for Patuxent River State Park – Annapolis Rock Road Area and Patuxent River State Park – Hipsley Mill Rd Area in this Birder’s Guide.]
The Jug Bay Natural Area itself is over 1,900 acres in size, and includes the Park Headquarters and Visitor Center. The headquarters area has extensive amenities, with a boat launch and canoe/kayak rental and launch site at Jackson Landing and the Rural Life Museums, an outdoor museum featuring a collection of historic buildings. Just outside the Visitor Center is a tall observation tower providing a panoramic view of the river, and the tower has a wheelchair-accessible elevator. There is a pollinator garden featuring native plans near the Visitor Center and the restroom area. Native Virginia Bluebells appear on the slopes around the area in early spring.
Habitats in the area of Headquarters and Jackson Landing include tidal marshes, non-tidal wetlands, and hardwood forests. There is an extensive trail network that takes birders to low-lying wetland habitats along the river as well as to upland areas dominated by a mature forest of oak, beech, and yellow poplar with an understory of mountain laurel and holly. Yellow-throated Warblers nest in sycamores in the stream valley of Black Walnut Creek, which winds through the park. The upland forest is a good spot for warblers and thrushes during migration, and can be accessed on foot via the trails or from the car while driving the long entrance road to Jackson Landing. See the trail map at the link at left.
Especially noteworthy is a loop of trails in the Black Walnut Study Area just south of Jackson Landing. Here, a long boardwalk encircles a freshwater swamp where Black Walnut Creek flows into the Patuxent River. The swamp is typical of southern habitats, and contains one of the largest stands of Bald Cypress trees at this latitude. There are acres of skunk cabbage and pickerelweed. The Black Walnut Study Area pops with warblers, vireos, and flycatchers during spring migration, and Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and others stay to breed here. A branch of the Green Trail heads south along the riverbank to an elevated viewing platform, a good place to look for shorebirds when the tides and the season are right. Another, longer branch of the Green Trail goes south along a ridge that parallels the river, to come to a dead-end at a scenic overlook near a freshwater marsh that holds a small nesting colony of Red-Headed Woodpeckers.
Also within the Jug Bay Natural Area, Selby’s Landing lies to the south of Jackson Landing. Selby’s features a boat and canoe launch area (bring your own – no rentals) and short fishing pier (a good place to set up your scope) as well as a group campground; a canoe camping area; a children’s nature play area; a picnic pavilion; and a reconstructed Indian Village with displays that focus on the Native Americans’ relationship with the Patuxent River. The habitats at the Selby’s Landing area include tidal marshes; non-tidal wetlands; cultivated fields; grassy fields; mixed forests; numerous streams. Selby’s includes trailheads for the Yellow and the Red Trails, which connect to the main network of trails emanating from the Headquarters area (see trail map at the link at left). These trails go through an area that seems to attract migrant thrushes in the spring.
Adjacent to Selby’s Landing is a monument and interpretive displays for the Croom Airport/Columbia Air Center Historical Site; the airport, which operated from 1941 to 1956, was the first African-American flying field in the U.S., at a time when other airfields were open to whites only. The fields of the old airport are now leased to a farmer for crop production, and host bluebirds, blackbirds, and crows. There are geese here almost year-round, and sometimes a few Snow Geese, a great rarity west of the Chesapeake. The fields at the old airport are a staging site for swallows as they prepare for migration in late summer, and a birder can spend hours examining the swallow flocks that gather on the electrical wires at the edge of the fields.
A great attraction for birders is the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Driving Tour, a mostly one-way, four-mile route that starts at Selby’s Landing and ends at Merkle Natural Resources Management Area, immediately adjacent to the south. The Driving Tour route goes through mature hardwood forest and then over a remarkable 300-yard-long trestle bridge that spans the marshes of Mattaponi Creek, a tributary of the Patuxent River. You can stop on the bridge at a wooden observation platform to scope the marsh, which is ringing with bird song most of the year. This is a good spot to look for herons and egrets, Osprey and Bald Eagles. The bridge is also a good place to look for butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, which come up out of the marsh to perch on the bridge.
The entire Critical Area Driving Tour (that is, from Selby’s Landing to Merkle NRMA) is open to cars only on Sundays from 10 am to 3 pm, year-round. But pedestrians and bikers may use the entire Driving Tour route any day of the year. In addition, the 2-mile portion of the tour located within Merkle NRMA is also open daily for driving, hiking and biking daily. It’s just that the part of the tour that starts at Selby’s Landing is open to cars only on Sundays. The Driving Tour is great for mobility-impaired birders, in that it allows birding from the car. The first mile of the Driving Tour, from Selby’s Landing to the Mattaponi bridge, is paved, and is wheelchair-accessible. Once the Driving Tour crosses the bridge to arrive in Merkle NRMA, the road changes to gravel and has some grades that would be rough-going for a wheelchair.
The south-most area of Patuxent River Park – Jug Bay Natural Area is accessed from St. Thomas Church Road, where there is a tiny parking lot at a trailhead for the Blue Trail (see trail map at the link at left). This part of the park is little visited but deserves more exploration: the wooded bottomlands are good for thrushes and warblers, while the fields attract bluebirds, sparrows, and blackbirds. The Blue Trail leads north from the parking area, skirting a field and hedgerow, then enters a strip of woods to cross a branch of the Mattaponi Creek. After ascending a hill, the trail emerges into an area of rolling grassy hills and deciduous woodlots. You can follow the Blue Trail north all the way to Croom Airport Road, a distance of about 1.6 miles from the St. Thomas Church Road parking area. Or, there are connections to the other trails in the Jug Bay Natural Area. One option is to turn east on the Light Blue Trail, which joins with the Red Trail that goes to the Critical Area Driving Tour near the trestle bridge over the Mattaponi. Or farther north on the Blue Trail, after crossing Big House Creek, the Orange Trail will be on the right (east). Another benefit of the St. Thomas Church Road area is that the parking lot is just under a mile from the Fenno Road entrance to Merkle NRMA, making this a natural stop on the way to or from Merkle.
Conservation note: The focus on preservation and conservation of the Patuxent River is fueled by recognition of the river’s ecological and economic significance. The Patuxent is the longest river located entirely within the state of Maryland, and its watershed spans seven counties: Howard and Montgomery in the state’s Central Region, and Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s, and St. Mary’s Counties in the Southern Region. More than 1.5 million people live in the watershed, and more than 1 million of them depend on the river for their drinking water. But the river has suffered from centuries of pollution from agriculture, industry, and residential development, and there is consensus that cleanup of the river is essential to the long-term health of the region. The river is an important bird migration corridor and offers critical habitat for breeding and wintering birds. The Patuxent River Commission oversees the overall planning for improvement in the health of the river, and Patuxent River Park is one player in protecting this important resource.
The official bird checklist for the Jug Bay area of Patuxent River Park lists 305 species. Over 220 species have been reported on eBird from the vicinity of Patuxent River Park—Jug Bay Natural Area. There are separate eBird hotspots for several sites described above:
During migration, there can be a rich diversity of species throughout the park. During fall, Sora and Virginia Rail are in the wild rice marshes near Jackson Landing and Selby’s Landing. In late fall, after harvest, the leased agricultural fields at Croom Airport may harbor sparrows, American Pipits, and Horned Larks.
Spring brings warblers, vireos, thrushes, and flycatchers to the wooded areas. Shorebirds can be found on the mudflats at low tide. You can explore on foot using the trail system, or can bird from the car on the long entrance drive to Jackson Landing, the shorter entrance drive that loops around Croom Airport to go to Selby’s Landing, or on the Critical Area Driving Tour.
Waterfowl are a highlight of the winter months all along the river. Use the various observation platforms and overlooks for good views. Also in winter, check fields for Horned Larks, American Pipits, and sparrows.
Summer features terns and waders. Marsh Wren, Least Bittern, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole and many other species nest in the park. In some years, depending on the crops that are planted, Dickcissels may breed at the Aquasco Farm section of Patuxent River Park, farther south on the river.
There is ample parking in designated lots at the Visitor Center, Jackson Landing, Selby’s Landing, Croom Airport, and St. Thomas Church Road.
Extensive historical features and interpretative displays are found throughout the Park, and especially at the Rural Life Museum and the Indian Village. This is a perfect place for a family outing.◾ Canoe/kayak launch sites and rentals are available at Jacksons Landing, and a boat launch (bring your own) is at Selby’s Landing. ◾ Group pontoon boat rides are available with advance arrangements through Patuxent River Park.◾ Both Selby’s Landing and Jackson Landing are sites on the Patuxent Water Trail. ◾ Patuxent River Park-Jug Bay Natural Area is a part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network of the National Park Service.
The Patuxent Riverkeeper is a grass-roots organization dedicated to improving the health of the Patuxent River and connecting local communities to the river. The Riverkeeper organization has a headquarters building on the river at Nottingham, just south of the Jug Bay Natural Area and Merkle NRMA. Patuxent Riverkeeper rents canoes and kayaks to members and to the public and hosts public events throughout the year. ◾ Jug Bug is one of about thirty Natural Areas designated by the State of Maryland. ◾ The Jug Bay area has been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. ◾ In addition, the Jug Bay area is one of three Maryland locations for the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve; the other two are the Anita Leight Estuary Center at Otter Point Creek (Harford County) and Monie Bay (Somerset County). ◾ Patuxent River Park is a certified Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE) Green Center.
Greg Kearns, a naturalist with Patuxent River Park, has been conducting banding studies on Sora at Jug Bay for many years. See the Multimedia section below. Greg Kearns is also involved with a long-term project monitoring productivity of Osprey at Jug Bay.
The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Patuxent Bird Club, which offers field trips and meetings with informative programs, all free and open to the public.
For Patuxent River Park -Jug Bay Natural Area, Park Headquarters/Visitor Center and Jackson Landing: From US Route 301 at MD Route 4 near Upper Marlboro, go south on Route 301 for about 4.0 miles and turn left (southeast) onto MD Route 382/Croom Road. Proceed 3.0 miles to Croom Airport Road on the left, watching carefully for the turn, which is marked with a sign for Patuxent River Park. Continue 1.4 miles on Croom Airport Road, bearing right at a sharp curve at the bottom of a hill, where Duvall Road comes in from the left. Continue on Croom Airport Road for another 0.7 miles to the main Park Entrance Road on left, which is marked with large stone pillars. Turn left through the pillars onto the Park Entrance Road, which leads to the Visitor Center, park headquarters, Jackson Landing boat launch, restrooms, Rural Life Museum, and more. There is good birding all along the entrance road, so drive slowly with your windows down.
If you prefer to start at Selby’s Landing and Croom Airport or the Critical Area Driving Tour: Follow directions above to the main entrance road, for Jug Bay Natural Area, but instead of turning left into the entrance, continue straight ahead on Croom Airport Road. The parking area for the Croom Airport historic monument will be on the right at a T-intersection in about 0.9 miles. To reach Selby’s Landing and the start of the Critical Area Driving Tour, turn left at the Croom Airport monument and follow the road to where it ends at a parking lot near the boat launch. You will see the start of the Critical Area Driving Tour on the right immediately before the parking lot; the gate for the Driving Tour is open for car use only on Sundays, but the Driving Tour route can be accessed on foot, by bike, or by wheelchair any day of the week.
Prince George’s County: Governor Bridge Natural Area, Merkle Natural Resources Management Area, Milltown Landing Natural Resources Management Area, Patuxent River Park – Mount Calvert Historical & Archaeological Park, Schoolhouse Pond
Anne Arundel County: Davidsonville Park, Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary
Calvert County: Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary / Gatewood Preserve / Biscoe Gray Heritage Farm, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, Kings Landing Park & Huntingtown Natural Resources Management Area
Charles County: Indian Creek Natural Resources Management Area
Bottomland DeciduousConifersHedgerowsUpland Deciduous Agricultural Crop Fields or Fallow FieldsHay Meadows, Pasture, Grass FieldOld Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Rivers & Streams
BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Bird Feeding StationBirding By CarBoardwalkBoat or Canoe/Kayak LaunchBoat RentalsCampingFishingFree - No Entry FeeHabitat Restoration ProjectHiking/Walking TrailsHistorical FeaturesHorseback RidingHuntingLake, Pond, Bay, River, OceanNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsNature CenterObservation Platform or TowerParkingPets AllowedPicnic AreaPlaygroundRestroomsVisitor Center, Interpretive Displays, ExhibitsWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families
Audubon Important Bird AreasChesapeake Bay Gateways NetworkDriving Tours (Birding By Car)State Natural Areas & WildlandsThe Rivers of the Western ShoreWater Trails