At a Glance
- If staying on the island, birding is available 24/7. If on a day-trip, you would generally have 2 to 2.5 hours to explore before the return trip to the mainland.
- Ferry service hours vary; it’s always best to call to confirm schedules when you make your ferry reservation. Get contact information for the various boats at http://www.smithisland.org/projects and https://visitsmithisland.com/gettinghere.html.
- Smith Island Center is open daily from 12 noon – 4 pm from May 1st through late October.
- No fee for solo birding on the island.
- Ferry service fees vary.
- $3 entrance fee for the museum at Smith Island Center (visitor center, island information, restrooms).
- As the day for your trip approaches, it’s essential to monitor the weather. The boats do not run when there are high winds and storms.
- Restrooms are located in the Smith Island Center.
- Bring a scope for looking out over the marshes and water. ◾ Alcohol sales are not permitted on the island; if you are staying overnight, you might consider bringing wine or beer with you, which is OK.
- Bring cash. Most places on the island do not take credit cards.
- Restaurants close early, particularly on Sundays.
- Consider bringing rubber boots in case there is high water on the island.
- Cellphone service is spotty. Some of the lodgings have internet.
- Breezes off the water usually keep biting insects down, but you may want to bring bug spray for still days.
- If spending the night during spring or summer, bring a sweater for the evening.
- If visiting in winter or late fall, be prepared for cold and high winds.
- Hunting takes place around the island. Be aware of hunting seasons and plan your visit accordingly.
Best Seasons: The visitor season is generally May 1st through late October. In the off-season, ferry service and visitor facilities are reduced. The visitor season spans spring and early fall migration as well as breeding season.
Breeding Bird Atlas Blocks: Kedges Straits SE, Terrapin Sand Point SW, Ewell NE, Ewell CE, Great Fox Island NW, Great Fox Island CW
Smith Island Center, 20846 Caleb Jones Road, Ewell, MD 21824
A birding trip to Smith Island is a unique experience that enables the birder to be immersed in the old-time waterman’s lifestyle of the Chesapeake Bay. It also will put you in the middle of Maryland’s most prolific breeding grounds for colonial waterbirds, including Brown Pelican, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, as well as nine species of saltmarsh-nesting birds.
Smith Island is located in the Chesapeake Bay twelve miles west of Crisfield, MD, and is part of Somerset County. Smith Island actually consists of a small group of islets that are known collectively as Smith Island, part of an archipelago of islands extending from Hooper’s Island in Dorchester County south to Tangier Island in Virginia. Smith Island straddles the Virginia state line, but the Virginia portion of the island is currently uninhabited. Immediately to the northeast of Smith Island is Martin National Wildlife Refuge, also comprised of several small islets.
Smith Island can be reached only by boat; there are no bridges or airport. Smith Island is now Maryland’s only populated Chesapeake Bay offshore island. Other offshore islands in the Bay, formerly occupied, have been abandoned by humans as settlements have been lost to sea level rise and erosion. (Kent Island, Hooper’s Island, Tilghman Island, and others are populated, but are not considered to be offshore and are easily accessible via bridges.)
Smith Island was first settled in the 1600s, after being mapped by explorer John Smith. The early settlers were farmers, but after the Civil War, the island’s economy switched to fishing, crabbing, oystering, and waterfowl hunting. These activities still dominate the culture of the island today.
There are three small towns on Smith Island – Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton – with a combined population of about 280 people. Both Ewell and Tylerton are served by ferry from the mainland, and Smith Island’s sole road connects Rhodes Point to Ewell. Tylerton is separated from the other two towns by water and can be reached from them only by boat; there is no bridge.
Saltmarsh broken by numerous strips of water – creeks and guts – makes up the majority of Smith Island and provides a rich habitat for birds and other wildlife. When planning your birding trip to Smith Island, remember that you will not have a car with you, as the ferries take only passengers, not cars (see “Getting to Smith Island” below). Birding is done on foot, or by bicycle or golf cart, or by kayak.
Whether on foot, or using a bike or golf cart, you should start by checking the marsh visible from the fringes of the towns, and bird the road from Ewell to Rhodes Point, a distance of about two miles, one-way. The terrain is perfectly flat and presents easy walking or biking. It is not advisable to enter the marshes on foot, because you can easily get trapped in the mud or step into a deep water area that is over your head, so stick to the road surfaces. If you wish to check the marshland around Tylerton, you can hire a boat to take you across the water to the town.
It’s possible to see much more of Smith Island by kayak. Some of the ferry boats allow you to bring a kayak for an additional fee, either your own or a kayak rented on the mainland. There are no kayak rentals on the island itself, but some of the bed-and-breakfast places provide kayaks or canoes to their overnight guests. There is an extensive network of marked water trails around Smith Island; see the water trail map at the link at left. It is also possible to hire a local boat operator for a custom tour around Smith Island; inquire at the Smith Island Center.
Another way to visit Smith Island is to take a day-long Smith Island Pelican Tour organized by Delmarva Birding. The tours, which leave from Crisfield, include close-up viewing of pelican colonies from the boat, a bird walk on Smith Island along with stops to observe the island culture, and lunch on the island.
The adjacent Martin National Wildlife Refuge covers 4,548 acres, including the northern half of Smith Island and Watts Island, located in the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay. Martin NWR is part of the Chesapeake Marshlands NWR Complex, which also includes Eastern Neck NWR, Susquehanna NWR, and Blackwater NWR. Martin NWR is reachable only by boat; the habitats there are similar to those of Smith Island, consisting of vast expanses of salt marsh with some sandy beaches on the edges. There are no visitor facilities on the Refuge and it is seldom visited. You could hire a local boat to take you over the Martin NWR to look around; inquire at the Smith Island Center.
Like other island and low-lying mainland areas all along the Chesapeake Bay, habitats at Smith Island are threatened by sea-level rise and erosion. In addition, the presence of Mute Swans, an exotic species, presents a habitat threat in that the swans damage the submerged aquatic vegetation that other species depend on.
Getting to Smith Island:
There is boat service to Smith Island (passengers only, no car ferries) from Crisfield in Somerset County and from Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County. A list of boats and contact information is provided by the Smith Island Center’s “Getting Here” webpage, as well as the Visit Smith Island website. Advance reservations are advised and are required by some of the boats.
Two or three of the ferries run to Smith Island from Crisfield on a daily basis. All of them go to the town of Ewell and one of them continues on to the town of Tylerton, so if Tylerton is your destination, make sure you choose the correct boat.
The cruise boat from Point Lookout to Smith Island runs only from June through August, Thursday to Sunday.
The round-trip cost for a day-trip from Crisfield to Smith Island is $20 to $30 for adults and about $15 for children (spring 2020). The round-trip cruise cost from Point Lookout is about $45 for adults and $23 for children. There may be additional charges for parking at Crisfield and Point Lookout; ask about parking when you make your ferry reservation.
VERY IMPORTANT: If you are planning a day-trip, when you make your reservations, ask if there is an afternoon boat back to the mainland on the same day – the afternoon boat for the return trip does not necessarily run daily; sometimes there is not a boat returning to the mainland until the next morning. If you are planning to spend one or more nights on the island, there may be a surcharge for a round trip that spans separate days. Be sure to make your return plans known when you make your reservation.
Some, but not all, of the passenger boats will allow you to bring a kayak or a bicycle for an additional fee; there may also be an extra charge for luggage or bulky items like coolers. Ask about these items when you make your reservation.
As mentioned above, yet another option is the day-long Smith Island Pelican Tour organized by Delmarva Birding. These tours are offered on selected days during the visitor season, and do not run daily.
Getting Around on the Island:
As mentioned above, you cannot bring a car to the island as none of the boats have car ferry service. Your choices for getting around on the island are by foot, by bicycle, by golf cart, or by kayak.
Bicycles and golf carts are available for rent on the island; see https://visitsmithisland.com/gettingaround.html for rental options. If you are staying overnight in a bed-and-breakfast or rental house, a bike, golf cart, or kayak might be provided; ask about this when you make your reservation.
There are no kayaks available for rent on the island, but they can be rented in Crisfield and brought with you on the ferry for an additional fee, or you can bring your own, although not all the ferries allow kayaks, so be sure to ask when making your boat reservations. Again, some bed-and-breakfast places provide a kayak or canoe to their overnight guests; ask about this when making overnight reservations.
Staying on Smith Island:
There are no large hotels on the island, but there is a good variety of bed-and-breakfast places as well as rental homes and cottages and a small inn. For lodging and places to eat, see the listings at http://www.smithisland.org/where-to-eat-stay or https://visitsmithisland.com/stay.html. Some of the lodgings can provide lunch or dinner for an additional fee; be sure to ask if this option is provided. Advance reservations for overnight stays are recommended.
There are several small restaurants and cafes and a market/deli. See https://visitsmithisland.com/places.html and http://www.smithisland.org/where-to-eat-stay. Dining options are limited on Sunday evenings as many places close early. Also be aware that no alcohol is sold on Smith Island, but it is OK to bring it with you and restaurants allow beer and wine to be carried in by guests.
The Smith Island Center, run by a non-profit organization, should be your first stop on Smith Island; this visitor center/museum/cultural center is located near the dock in Ewell and can provide you with basic visitor information and orientation. The Center has a museum ($3 admission fee). The center also has restrooms and a gift shop. The Smith Island Center is open daily from 12 noon to 4 pm, from May 1st through late October. Note that the center receives no public funding and would appreciate your tax-deductible donation; see http://www.smithisland.org/membership.
Over 180 species have been reported from two land-based hotspots on Smith Island: Smith Island overall with 183+ species, and Tylerton with 57+ species. There is a separate hotspot for the seldom-visited Martin NWR with 47+ species.
There are also separate eBird hotspots for the water routes used by the boats to Smith Island:
Crisfield- Smith Island Boat Trip – 77+ species
Point Lookout-Smith Island Ferry (Somerset County waters) – 50+ species
Point Lookout-Smith Island Ferry (St. Mary’s County waters) – 42+ species
Smith Island is famous for hosting breeding populations of colonial waterbirds, including Brown Pelican and a variety of wading birds. The heron colonies include all the Maryland species: Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. In fact, The Smith Island colonies contain the majority of the state’s breeding population of Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron and Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Glossy Ibis also breed here in numbers. In June 2020, the first White Ibis nest in Maryland was found on an island within Martin National Wildlife Refuge, amid a colony of Glossy Ibises, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, Snowy Egrets, and Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons.
Smith Island supports a rich community of marshland-breeding birds. These include Clapper Rail, Virginia Rail, and perhaps Common Gallinule; Marsh Wren; Song Sparrow; Seaside Sparrow; Saltmarsh Sparrow; Red-winged Blackbird; Common Grackle; Boat-tailed Grackle; and Common Yellowthroat.
As would be expected, Smith Island and its nearby waters provide a rich habitat for ducks, swans, and geese, with 21 species reported. Most of these are wintering birds, but a handful of breeding birds were identified during the first and second Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, and American Black Duck.
Horned Grebes and Red-necked Grebes appear during spring migration. Pied-billed Grebe is a confirmed breeding species. Common Loon and Red-throated Loon spend the winter and spring in the waters around the island.
Breeding shorebird species include American Oystercatcher, Spotted Sandpiper (probable), and Willet. An additional sixteen species of migrating shorebirds come through during spring and fall; notable migrants include Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Stilt Sandpiper, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, and Short-billed Dowitcher.
Both Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls are confirmed breeders; Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls have also been observed during breeding season, as have Least Terns, Common Terns, Forster’s Terns, and Royal Terns. Caspian and Sandwich Terns pass through during migration and post-breeding dispersal. Black Skimmers are seen from time to time in mid-summer.
Given Smith Island’s position out in the Bay, sometimes it is possible to see sea-going species from the island. These include Wilson’s Storm-Petrel in late summer and Northern Gannet in late spring. These species are even more likely to be seen on the boat ride to or from Point Lookout.
Ospreys and Bald Eagles breed here in large numbers, and the eagles are present year-round. Northern Harrier is a probable breeder, and Smith Island is one of a decreasing number of Maryland locations where these hawks can be seen during the summer. Barn Owl is a confirmed breeder, and Snowy Owls sometimes show up during the winter. American Kestrels, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons also occur on the island, mostly during migration, although Peregrines have nested in the past.
The island does not have extensive woodlands, and so flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, and other forest birds occur mostly during migration and in small numbers. One exception is Eastern Kingbird, which probably breeds in or near the marshes and is conspicuous in late summer. Most of the crows on the island are Fish, with smaller numbers of American.
Chimney Swifts and swallows (Purple Martin, Tree, and Barn) are common during the warm months, and Bank Swallows appear during fall migration.
Some, but not all, of the boats going to Smith Island allow pets on a leash. Ask when you make your reservation. Also ask about the pet policy for lodgings if you plan to stay overnight. Do not expect pets to be allowed inside restaurants unless they are certified service dogs.
Some of the boats and some of the lodging and restaurant facilities are wheelchair-accessible. Ask before you make your reservations.
Most visitors to Smith Island enjoy getting a feel for the waterman’s culture on the island. ◾ Fishing is a popular activity for visitors. ◾ Some of the boat operators offer nature tours of the island; ask at the Visitor Center. ◾ It is considered a mark of respect to attend church on Sunday, regardless of your own religious beliefs. There are three Methodist churches on Smith Island, one in each town, and they are central to island life. ◾ A women’s crab-picking co-op on the island offers a viewing window; ask for directions and times at the Visitor Center. ◾ The restaurants specialize in local seafood, as well as Smith Island Cake, the official dessert of the State of Maryland.
◾ The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Tri-County Bird Club, serving Somerset, Wicomico, and Worcester Counties. The club hosts field trips in the region as well as meetings with informative presentations, all free and open to the public.
- There is no better way to prepare for your visit than by reading the book An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake, by Tom Horton. Amazon says: “A classic of Chesapeake Bay literature, Tom Horton’s An Island Out of Time chronicles the three years Horton and his family spent on Smith Island, a marshy archipelago in the middle of Maryland’s famous estuary. The result is an intimate portrait of a deeply traditional community that lived much as their ancestors did three hundred years before, attuned to the habits of blue crab, oyster, and waterfowl.”
- In 2018, Maryland Public Television and the Bay Journal released a half-hour film version of Tom Horton’s book Island Out of Time. This documentary about Smith Island features Mary Ada and Dwight Marshall, whose lives personify the Chesapeake Bay’s seafood-harvesting culture and history, and their four children who chose to break with that tradition. Like Tom Horton’s 1996 book, the film is both a celebration and elegy for a place beset with erosion, dwindling population and vanishing economic opportunities.
- Episode 2804 of Outdoors Maryland on Maryland Public Television has three segments, including “Charm in the Middle: Smith Island.” The footage shows how the island is the perfect getaway for peace, quiet, and genuine Chesapeake charm. Other segments in this episode are “A Chesapeake Passage,” about modern day adventurers who retrace the trail of Captain John Smith, and “Return to the Classics,” about Ralph Cattaneo, who takes classic wooden boats, once condemned to decay, and lovingly restores their elegant splendor.
- A pair of short video segments from Outdoors Delmarva follows one of Delmarva Birding’s Pelican Tours to Smith Island. Footage features Jim Rapp, tour leader. Part 1 shows some of the cultural features of Smith Island, and Part II has an up-close and personal visit to a couple of pelican colonies as well as a heron rookery. These videos are guaranteed to make you want to visit Smith Island.
- Local news station WJZ has a brief video covering the Army Corps of Engineers project to restore habitat with a living shoreline and construction of a jetty on Smith Island.
Ask about parking when you make your boat reservation. Some of the boats provide free parking in designated lots on the mainland; others charge a fee for their parking lot. Be aware that the town of Crisfield may ticket your car if parked in an inappropriate spot. Parking for the boat from Point Lookout is within Point Lookout State Park and requires paying the entry fee or using a state park pass.
Directions are provided here to the boat dock in Crisfield, located southwest of Salisbury and Princess Anne on the Eastern Shore, and to the marina in Point Lookout State Park, at the top of St. Mary’s County on the Western Shore.
To reach the Crisfield boat dock:
- From the North (Delmar and Delaware points of origin): Take US Route 13 south toward Salisbury. Approaching Salisbury, stay on US Route 13 south via the Salisbury Bypass, which swings around the east side of Salisbury. Continue south on Route 13 past Princess Anne to Westover, about 5 miles south of Princess Anne. Bear right to take MD Route 413/Crisfield Highway south for approximately 12 miles to the town of Crisfield. Route 413 will end at the ferry dock in Crisfield. Park in the lot designated by the ferry company where you made your reservation.
- From the East (Berlin, Ocean City, and other beaches): Take US Route 50 Business west to Salisbury, a distance of about 26 miles. At the Salisbury Bypass on the east side of Salisbury, turn left to go south on US Route 13. Continue south on Route 13 past Princess Anne to Westover, about 5 miles south of Princess Anne. Bear right to take MD Route 413/Crisfield Highway south for approximately 12 miles to the town of Crisfield. Route 413 will end at the ferry dock in Crisfield. Park in the lot designated by the ferry company where you made your reservation.
- From the Upper Eastern Shore: Use MD Route 213 and/or US Route 301 south to access US Route 50. Take US Route 50 south and then east to Salisbury Approaching Salisbury, stay on US Route 13 south via the Salisbury Bypass, which swings around the east side of Salisbury. Continue south on Route 13 past Princess Anne to Westover, about 5 miles south of Princess Anne. Bear right to take MD Route 413/Crisfield Highway south for approximately 12 miles to the town of Crisfield. Route 413 will end at the ferry dock in Crisfield. Park in the lot designated by the ferry company where you made your reservation.
- From the Western Shore: Follow US Route 301/50 over the Bay Bridge, and then continue on US Route 50 south and then east toward Salisbury. Approaching Salisbury, stay on US Route 13 south via the Salisbury Bypass, which swings around the east side of Salisbury. Continue south on Route 13 past Princess Anne to Westover, about 5 miles south of Princess Anne. Bear right to take MD Route 413/Crisfield Highway south for approximately 12 miles to the town of Crisfield. Route 413 will end at the ferry dock in Crisfield. Park in the lot designated by the ferry company where you made your reservation.
- From Virginia’s Eastern Shore: Take US Route 13 north to Pocomoke City and continue north on US 13 to Westover. At Westover, turn left onto Sam Barnes Road and then an immediate left again to go south on MD Route 413/Crisfield Highway for approximately 12 miles to the town of Crisfield. Route 413 will end at the ferry dock in Crisfield. Park in the lot designated by the ferry company where you made your reservation.
To reach the Point Lookout State Park Marina:
- From the Baltimore-Washington area: Follow US Route 301 south to MD Route 4 south near Upper Marlboro. Follow MD Route 4 south through Anne Arundel and Calvert Counties, all the way across the Solomons Island Bridge over the Patuxent River. After the Solomons Island Bridge, the first traffic light will be at MD Route 235/Three Notch Road. Turn left onto Route 235 southbound. Follow Route 235 south into the town of Ridge. Turn left onto MD Route 5/Point Lookout Road south. Route 5 south goes directly to Point Lookout State Park. Be aware that Route 5 makes a sharp right turn at the Confederate Memorial. Once inside the park, stop at the toll booth. Pay a $5.00 parking fee for Smith Island Cruise guest (please identify yourselves as cruise guests). Continue south on the road through the park, cross the causeway, and then turn right to park at the Marina parking lot just beyond the Camp Store. Purchase your tickets online and pick them up as you board. Or you may pay cash at the boat if tickets are still available. It is best to reserve your tickets in advance.
- From the Eastern Shore via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge: Take US Route 50 west to Exit 23 and then take MD Route 2 south for about 25 miles to its junction with MD Route 4. Continue south on the combined MD Route 4/2 for another 37 miles. On the way, you will cross the high bridge over the Patuxent River at the border of St. Mary’s County. From the bridge, continue south on Route 4 to the intersection with MD Route 5, and turn left to go south on Route 5/Point Lookout Road. Route 5 south goes directly to Point Lookout State Park. Be aware that Route 5 makes a sharp right turn at the Confederate Memorial. Once inside the park, stop at the toll booth. Pay a $5.00 parking fee for Smith Island Cruise guest (please identify yourselves as cruise guests). Continue south on the road through the park, cross the causeway, and then turn right to park at the Marina parking lot just beyond the Camp Store. Purchase your tickets online and pick them up as you board. Or you may pay cash at the boat if tickets are still available. It is best to reserve your tickets in advance.
Bottomland Deciduous Urban or Small Town Landscape Hay Meadows, Pasture, Grass FieldOld Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampJetties & SeawallsMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Open Ocean, Bay, or EstuaryRivers & StreamsSalt or Brackish Marsh
Features and Amenities:Bicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Boat or Canoe/Kayak LaunchBoat RentalsFishingFree - No Entry Fee at Any TimeGift Shop or BookstoreHabitat Restoration ProjectHiking/Walking TrailsHistorical FeaturesHuntingOvernight Lodging or CabinsParkingPets AllowedRestroomsSnack Bar, Camp Store, Food ConcessionsVisitor Center, Interpretive Displays, ExhibitsWater ViewWheelchair Accessible Features
Type:Audubon Important Bird AreasChesapeake Bay Eastern ShoreChesapeake Bay Gateways NetworkHistorical SitesWater Trails