Skeleton Creek Road & Bethlehem Road
Preston, MD 21655
(410) 632-3732 (Chesapeake Forest – Snow Hill Office)
Skeleton Creek Road and Bethlehem Road, near Preston in southwest Caroline County, offer good roadside birding as well as an opportunity to do some walking, if that’s what you prefer. The roads run past forested tracts and farm fields in an area that is rich with wetlands. This simple, unassuming place holds the #3 slot among eBird hotspots in Caroline County, in terms of diversity of bird life.
Skeleton Creek Road is just 1.7 miles long, running generally east-west between Frazier Neck Road and Poplar Neck Road. There are two major bends in the road, and Skeleton Creek flows under the road at the bend that lies about 0.8 miles east of Frazier Neck Road. The creek is associated with a rich network of wetlands, and not far south of Skeleton Creek Road, the creek opens up to a tidal estuary that flows south into the nearby Choptank River. Wetlands dot the woods all along Skeleton Creek Road, and the adjacent farm fields hold not only natural wetlands but also man-made retention ponds that attract waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders. Add this to the forest habitat and you have the makings of a bird bonanza.
The same is true along Bethlehem Road, which lies about a half-mile to the north. From Frazier Neck Road, Bethlehem Road runs roughly parallel to Skeleton Creek Road for about 0.8 miles, before bending sharply to the northeast and continuing to the village of Bethlehem.
Between Skeleton Creek Road and Bethlehem Road lies the Cedar Lane Tract of the state-owned Chesapeake Forest, with a foot trail (really an old logging road) leading north from Skeleton Creek Road and another old road/foot trail leading south from the big bend on Bethlehem Road. The two trails almost, but not quite, meet within the tract and in summer, some bushwhacking may be required if you want to walk from one road to the other, a one-way distance of just 0.8 miles. The state-owned tract consists of mixed lowland deciduous woods and conifers with lots of wetlands, and for added habitat diversity, there is a power line cut just south of Bethlehem Road, running parallel to the road. The scrubby habitat here attracts birds such as Yellow-breasted Chat and Brown Thrasher.
Along both roads, the parcels adjacent to the Chesapeake Forest tract are privately owned and should not be entered, but the woods and fields that line the roads provide a good setting for roadside birding, especially in early morning and for those who enjoy birding by ear. There isn’t much of a shoulder to speak of, so be extremely wary of traffic if walking on the paved road. The Chesapeake Forest Lands and nearby private lands are actively hunted, so exercise caution during hunting season and wear blaze orange, or choose another time for your visit.
It is also worth exploring the surrounding roads – Frazier Neck, Poplar Neck, Marsh Creek, Ewing, Hog Island – particularly after heavy rains and during migration, when the fields may be flooded, attracting shorebirds, waders, and waterfowl.
The 99-acre Chesapeake Forest – Cedar Lane Tract between Skeleton Creek and Bethlehem Roads is just one small part of the huge state-owned Chesapeake Forest, a sprawling complex which consists of 75,376 acres divided into 187 tracts distributed across six counties on the middle and lower Eastern Shore. The Chesapeake Forest includes some of the last large segments of unbroken forest in this region. Chesapeake Forest Lands include more than 6,000 acres of wetlands and lie across 23 separate watersheds, many of which have been given a high priority for conservation action under the Maryland Clean Water Action Plan. The Chesapeake Forest Lands are known for their populations of threatened and endangered species, including the Delmarva Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus), Bald Eagle, and some 150 other rare, threatened, or endangered species. Ongoing scientific studies monitor the health of the flora and fauna in the Chesapeake Forest. Some of the tracts contain extensive public hiking trails. Printable maps of the public hunting areas are helpful for birders, and there is also an interactive map of all of the Chesapeake Forest tracts.
Optional birding add-on:
For the adventurous birder who might like to explore a new area and discover what birds are there: consider a hike at the nearby Anderson Tract of Chesapeake Forest. Satellite views of this 156-acre parcel show an interesting mix of deciduous woods and conifers, containing scattered wetlands, with good foot access via an old logging road that runs up through the center of the roughly pentagon-shaped tract. There is no eBird hotspot for this parcel yet – be the first to submit a checklist, and set up a public hotspot while you’re there. Access is from Jones Lane, which branches off Poplar Neck Road just north of Marsh Creek Road. Drive up Jones Lane past the private residences, continue into the wooded area, and park outside the gate. See the detail map at the link at left.
The acquisition of the Chesapeake Forest Lands by the State of Maryland was a huge windfall and a conservation triumph. The Chesapeake Forest Lands include most of the former holdings of the Chesapeake Forest Products Company. These lands make up 12 percent of the forests in the region, and in the past produced 15 to 20 percent of the region’s annual timber harvest. In 1999, the State purchased 29,000 acres and The Conservation Fund, on behalf of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, purchased another 29,000 acres.
In December of 2000, The Conservation Fund transferred the deeds on their 29,000 acres to the State, along with a state-of-the-art Sustainable Forest Management Plan, which the State agreed to implement as a condition of the gift. This gift and the management plan were intended to be a national model of public/private partnership, sustainable forestry, and ecosystem management on public lands.
Since the date of the original land acquisition, Chesapeake Forest has increased in size to 75,376 acres through additional acquisitions and incorporation of previously existing state forests. The original Sustainable Forest Management Plan has been updated to cover the entire forest and has been developed with citizen input through a public planning process. The Sustainable Forest Management Plan will ensure the health of the forest ─ and its birds and other wildlife ─ for generations to come.
There are two separate eBird hotspots covering the Chesapeake Forest tract as well as the roadsides:
Thanks to Skeleton Creek, the nearby Choptank River, and the scattered wetlands and retention ponds, the area attracts an assortment of waterfowl, with 16 species reported, about a dozen of these being regular. Wood Duck and Mallard are confirmed breeders, and American Black Duck is a probable breeder.
Wild Turkeys are common. Rock Pigeons are plentiful because of the adjacent farms, and Mourning Doves are also common. Both Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow can be found in late spring to early summer, and the Chucks are considered probable breeders. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are another probably breeder.
Although not reflected on the eBird reports for these two hotspots, four rallids – King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, and Common Gallinule – were found as probable or possible breeders in this Atlas block during the First and Second Maryland-DC Breeding Bird Atlas projects. Birders should keep their eyes open and ears tuned for these birds of special interest during the Third Breeding Bird Atlas project.
A few shorebirds may show up in the wet spots in fields and natural wetlands: Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer (a local breeder and present almost year-round), Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
The fields may hold Laughing Gulls in summer and Ring-billed Gulls in late winter through spring, and always be alert for flyovers, as the Choptank River is not far away. Forster’s Terns are the only expected tern and they are sporadic. Chances are good to see Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Green Herons.
Both Turkey and Black Vultures are numerous, year-round. Ospreys are plentiful summer residents and Bald Eagles are present year-round. Red-tailed Hawks are also year-round residents and breeders, while Red-shouldered Hawks are reported sporadically from March through November. American Kestrels can be seen on roadside wires and in the power line cut south of Bethlehem Road. The breeding owls are Eastern Screech, Great Horned, and Barred; Barn Owl bred in this area in the past and might still be present.
Horned Larks may be in the fields from late winter through spring and then again in the fall. American Pipits also show up in early spring and late fall. Watch for Purple Martins and Tree, Bank, and Barn Swallows.
Woodpeckers include Yellow-breasted Sapsuckers in winter and year-round populations of Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flicker. The forests here also support breeding populations of Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, and Great Crested Flycatcher, and Eastern Kingbird is found in the scrubby areas. The regularly occurring vireos include White-eyed and Red-eyed, and Yellow-throated may be found in small numbers.
Blue Jays and American Crows are noisy and prevalent all the time, but Fish Crows are only rarely reported. Small birds of the forests include Carolina Chickadees (year-round); Tufted Titmice (year-round); Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets (winter); Red-breasted Nuthatches (fall through spring); White-breasted Nuthatches (year-round); Brown Creepers (winter); and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (spring and summer).
There may be a couple of Winter Wrens in winter and Carolina Wrens are abundant year-round, but don’t expect House Wrens at this site. Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Wood Thrushes all breed here. Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Swainson’s Thrush may be found during migration. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings may be found either alone or associating with bluebirds and robins at fruit- and berry-bearing plants.
House Finches are sporadically reported during the summer; Purple Finches come through in spring and fall; and American Goldfinches are abundant year-round. Breeding-season sparrows include Grasshopper, Chipping, Field, Song, and Eastern Towhee; wintering sparrows include Fox, Dark-eyed Junco, White-crowned, White-throated, Savannah, and Swamp. There may be an occasional Vesper Sparrow but they are not regular.
Yellow-breasted Chats breed in the area (check the power line cut). Bobolinks come through during fall migration. Eastern Meadowlarks, Orchard Orioles (but not Baltimore), Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Common Grackles are all local breeders.
The woods are a great place for warblers during migration, with a total of 23 species reported. Confirmed or possible breeders include Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Pine Warbler. Yellow-rumped Warblers overwinter here.
Scarlet Tanagers breed in these rich, wet woods, perfect tanager habitat, and Summer Tanager is considered a probable breeder: they are certainly easy to find from May through September. Northern Cardinals, Blue Grosbeaks, and Indigo Buntings are also local breeders. Back in 2013 through 2014, Dickcissels were reported from the Bethlehem Road hotspot during June, but have not been reported since and breeding was never confirmed.
Pets on leash are OK. Do not let dogs run loose on private property and please don’t let them bark.
There is good birding from or near the car along Skeleton Creek Road and Bethlehem Road and along other roads as described above and under Directions below. The trails within the Cedar Lane tract are not wheelchair-accessible.
Most of the state-owned Chesapeake Forest (98% of the 75,376 acres) has been dual-certified as a Sustainable Forest by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council, which are the two major internationally recognized forest certification systems for public lands.
Skeleton Creek is a tributary of the nearby Choptank River, the longest river on the Eastern Shore. The lower reaches of Skeleton Creek can be paddled in a canoe or kayak. ◾ The Choptank & Tuckahoe Rivers Water Trail encompasses 80 miles along the two rivers, linking multiple public access point, including this area. Paddling put-ins are available at the end of Hog Island Road and at the Choptank Marina, a short distance downstream. Other areas that can be productively birded by kayak or canoe are the Tanyard Marsh at the Route 331 bridge, Little Creek, Marsh Creek, and the Poplar Neck Marsh. ◾ The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has a useful interactive map showing all the tracts of the Chesapeake Forest. ◾ Printable maps are available for public hiking trails and for public hunting areas in Chesapeake Forest. ◾ The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Caroline County Bird Club, which offers field trips and meetings with informative programs, all free and open to the public.
There is roadside parking on the north side of Skeleton Creek Road at the entrance to the old logging road in the Chesapeake Forest tract, about 0.4 miles east of Frazier Neck Road; there is space for only one or two cars. The approximate street address for navigation system purposes is 21200 Skeleton Creek Road, Preston, MD 21655 or GPS 38.718306, -75.972241; there is no mailbox or sign at this address.
On Bethlehem Road, there is space for one or two cars outside the gate at the old logging road entrance to the Cedar Lane Tract. The approximate street address is 4401 Bethlehem Road, Preston, MD 21655 or GPS 38.727293, -75.964261.
Skeleton Creek Road and Bethlehem Road are located near the small towns of Preston and Bethlehem in Caroline County, and are near the east bank of the Choptank River. The directions below include a driving tour between Skeleton Creek Road and Bethlehem Road; be prepared to drive slowly, with the windows down, spotting birds in fields and wetlands as you go.
From points north on the Eastern Shore (e.g., Elkton or Chestertown): Use US Route 301 Southbound toward Centreville. At the junction with MD Route 213, follow signs to go south toward US Route 50. At the US Route 50 junction, follow signs to go east on US Route 50/Ocean Gateway. In 13 miles, turn left to go east on MD Route 331/Dover Road for 5.1 miles, crossing the Choptank River at Tanyard. Then turn right to go south on Frazier Neck Road for 2.2 miles. Turn left on Skeleton Creek Road. The roadside parking for the south end of the Chesapeake Forest – Cedar Lane Tract is on the north side of Skeleton Creek Road about 0.4 miles east of Frazier Neck Road. To make a driving tour of the area and to reach Bethlehem Road, after birding Skeleton Creek Road, continue east to Poplar Neck Road and turn left to go north. Then in just under 1.0 mile, turn left to go west on Marsh Creek Road for 1.3 miles, and then left again to so southwest on Bethlehem Road. The gated entrance to the north end of the Chesapeake Forest – Cedar Lane Tract will be on your left (south side of the road) at the big bend in the road at just under a half-mile. Continuing west on Bethlehem Road past this point will bring you back to Frazier Neck Road in 0.8 miles.
From points south and east on the Eastern Shore (e;g., Ocean City or Salisbury): Use US Route 50 westbound toward Cambridge. After passing Vienna, go another 7.5 miles to Linkwood and turn right to go north on Linkwood Road. Follow Linkwood Road north for about 3.5 miles to the town of East New Market. Continue straight ahead, crossing MD Route 392/East New Market Bypass; the name of the road you are on will change to Main Street/MD Route 16. Continue north on Route 16 for 7.7 miles. Along the way, the name of the road will change to East New Market-Ellwood Road and MD Route 331 will merge in from the right, and the road you are on will become combined Route 16/331. Don’t let that worry you, just follow the signs to stay north on Route 16. When you reach Preston, turn left to go northwest on combined MD Route 16/MD Route 318/Preston Road. In 1.4 miles, you will reach a split where MD Route 16 goes off to the right, and then in just a couple hundred feet, there will be a fork where MD Route 331 is to the right and Sunset Boulevard is to the left. Bear left to go west on Sunset Boulevard, which will soon become Marsh Creek Road. In 1.7 miles, turn left to go south on Poplar Neck Road and then in 1.0 mile, turn left again to go west on Skeleton Creek Road. In 0.9 miles, at a bend in the road, you’ll cross Skeleton Creek and its wetlands. In another 0.4 miles, on the right (north) side of the road, look for a parking spot where the old logging road for the Chesapeake Forest – Cedar Lane Tract emerges from the woods. Bird Skeleton Creek Road on foot or walk into the forest on the old logging road. To make a driving tour of the area and to reach Bethlehem Road, after birding Skeleton Creek Road, continue driving west on Skeleton Creek Road. In about 0.4 miles, you will come to Frazier Neck Road. Turn right to go north. Tun right again at Bethlehem Road in about 0.6 miles. The parking area at the gated entrance to the north end of the Chesapeake Forest – Cedar Lane Tract will be on your right (south side of the road) at the big bend in the road in 0.8 miles. After birding along Bethlehem Road and on the old logging road beyond the entrance gate, continue on Bethlehem Road, now driving northeast beyond the bend. In just under 0.5 miles, turn right to go east on Marsh Creek Road. After 1.3 miles, turn right again onto Poplar Neck Road. You will arrive back at Skeleton Creek Road on the right in under a mile, having driven a big circle.
From the Western Shore: Cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on US Route 50/US Route 301 eastbound. At Queenstown, Routes 50 and 301 will split; stay in the right lanes to continue east on Route 50 to Easton in 19 miles. Turn left to go east on MD Route 331/Dover Road for 5.1 miles, crossing the Choptank River at Tanyard. Then turn right to go south on Frazier Neck Road for 2.2 miles. Turn left on Skeleton Creek Road. The roadside parking for the south end of the Chesapeake Forest – Cedar Lane Tract is on the north side of Skeleton Creek Road about 0.4 miles east of Frazier Neck Road. To make a driving tour of the area and to reach Bethlehem Road, after birding Skeleton Creek Road, continue east to Poplar Neck Road and turn left to go north. Then in just under 1.0 mile, turn left to go west on Marsh Creek Road for 1.3 miles, and then left again to so southwest on Bethlehem Road. The gated entrance to the north end of the Chesapeake Forest – Cedar Lane Tract will be on your left (south side of the road) at the big bend in the road at just under a half-mile. Continuing west on Bethlehem Road past this point will bring you back to Frazier Neck Road in 0.8 miles.
Additional roads to explore for roadside birding:
- Frazier Neck Road from MD Route 331 south to its terminus at private property on Frazier Point, especially the ponds on the west side of Frazier Neck Road at the junction with Skeleton Creek Road, and the area near the bridge over Little Creek about a half-mile south of MD Route 331.
- The end of Ewing Road at a residential area on Little Creek; Ewing Road runs northwest from Frazier Neck Road just south of Little Creek.
- Hog Island Road, which runs west from Frazier Neck Road to the Choptank River.
- The full extent of Marsh Creek Road from Frazier Neck Road just north of the bridge over Little Creek to its eastern end at MD Route 331.
- Poplar Neck Road south of Skeleton Creek Road, including the portion that runs through the Poplar Neck marsh south to the town of Choptank
- Note: The Tanyard Marsh, where Route 331 crosses the Choptank on the Dover Bridge, is a productive spot for birds, but we are not recommending it because there is no place to safely pull off the road and birding from the bridge is dangerous. It is best to explore Tanyard Marsh by canoe or kayak.
Caroline County: Adkins Arboretum ◾ Choptank Marina ◾ Daniel Crouse Memorial Park ◾ Idylwild Wildlife Management Area ◾ Martinak State Park ◾ Pelot MOS Sanctuary ◾ Tuckahoe State Park (Caroline County)
Dorchester County: Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge ◾ Cambridge – Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park (Dorchester County Side) ◾ Cambridge – Great Marsh Park ◾ Cambridge – Oakley Street ◾ Cambridge – Sailwinds Park & Visitor Center ◾ Chesapeake Forest – North Tara Road ◾ Elliott Island Road / Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area (Eastern Section) ◾ Hooper’s Island ◾ Taylor’s Island
Queen Anne’s County: Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center – Horsehead ◾ Conquest Preserve ◾ Ferry Point Park ◾ Matapeake Clubhouse & Beach / Matapeake Fishing Pier & Boat Ramp ◾ Terrapin Nature Park ◾ Tuckahoe State Park (Queen Anne’s County) ◾ Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area
Talbot County: Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park (Talbot County Side) ◾ Black Walnut Point Natural Resources Management Area ◾ Claiborne Landing ◾ Marengo Woods MOS Sanctuary ◾ Mill Creek MOS Sanctuary ◾ Pickering Creek Audubon Center ◾ Poplar Island
Bottomland DeciduousConifersHedgerows FarmyardStormwater Retention Pond Agricultural Crop Fields or Fallow FieldsOld Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainFreshwater Pond, Lake, or ReservoirMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Rivers & Streams
Features and Amenities:
Birding By CarFree - No Entry FeeHiking/Walking TrailsHuntingParkingPets AllowedWater ViewWheelchair Accessible Features
Driving Tours (Birding By Car)Hunting AreasState ForestsThe Rivers of the Eastern Shore