The Bald And the Bountiful

Where eagles pair. The piney woods and marshes of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore support one of the country's largest eagle populations.
Where eagles pair. The piney woods and marshes of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore support one of the country's largest eagle populations. (Copyright Jim Clark)

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

We saw No. 1 before we even got to the place. There it was, cutting perfect parabolas out of the morning sky, God's own kite swooping and dipping joyously over the pine trees that line Route 335. Not too long ago, this alone would have been enough to pull the car over, call in to a radio station, tell the guys at work. "You know what I saw today? A bald eagle!"

But we would see nine more before our visit to Maryland's Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge was over. These days, and particularly in this place -- and especially at this time of the year -- bald eagles going about their morning chores seem as common as the pickup trucks they fly over. It has been a remarkable and heartening recovery for one of animaldom's great raptors, from its dark days on the endangered species list in the 1970s, '80s and '90s to steadily growing numbers today.

Still, there are whole generations of Americans who have never seen their national emblem in the wild. For them, and for all lovers of majestic birds, there is Blackwater Refuge and the surrounding tidal marshes of Dorchester County. On this soggy patch of the Eastern Shore, less than two hours from Washington, is one of the largest concentrated bald eagle populations in the country (the largest on the East Coast outside of Florida). And for the next couple of months, eagle-watching conditions are perfect: The number of birds is at its annual peak; courtship and nesting activities are getting underway; and unlike in summer, when the eagles seek the afternoon shade, they are active all day in the cool open air. Between December and March, eagle-spotting at Blackwater is about as close to a sure thing as you can get in the maddening world of wildlife viewing.

"I saw five coming in this morning," Blackwater volunteer Nancy Kreek said. "They're everywhere."

Blackwater has long been good eagle habitat; it was here, in 1995, that the Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was upgrading the bald eagle from endangered to threatened status. But in recent years, it has become eagle mania each winter as more birds take up residence and more people learn they are here. In the Visitor Center one morning last week, my two daughters and I joined a small knot of tourists in front of a mock-up eagle's nest (a huge basket of sticks topped by a beautifully stuffed bird). But we were fixated on a monitor up above, a webcam feed from a real nest out in the refuge. We were enraptured by raptors as we watched a pair of adults fly in and out with sticks for the nest and grass for lining it. (You can see the eagle cam and a gallery of images from it at http://www.fws.gov/blackwater.)

There are plenty of other birds to be seen -- a spectacular northern harrier was all but hovering outside the Visitor Center window -- and the ducks, geese, swans and other waterfowl are uncountable. (There's even a surprising group of white pelicans, which normally winter along the Gulf of Mexico, spending a second season at Blackwater). But it's the eagles that draw the crowds.

"It's one of the things we're known best for," Ranger Tom Miller said. "I've been watching them fly back and forth all morning from my office in some kind of courtship behavior."

Blackwater's eagle viewing is at its best between December and March, when the number of birds and their activity are at their peak.
Blackwater's eagle viewing is at its best between December and March, when the number of birds and their activity are at their peak.
In addition to the webcam, the sizable eagle display and the annual Eagle Festival to be held March 10, Blackwater has boosted its eagle ops with a fantastic new observation room on the second floor of the Visitor Center. It opened in October, with three mounted spotting scopes and huge windows that overlook the estuaries. This is where we spied eagles Nos. 2, 3 and 4: One preening on a nearby dead tree, another flying by with a stick in its beak, the third soaring menacingly over a cornfield. Eagles are great fishermen, but they happily hunt rodents, water birds and other critters, alive or dead. That's one thing you learn from the taxidermy displays in the observatory.

The true bird-watching, of course, is to be done out in Blackwater's 23,000 acres. The refuge's waters are laced with three paddling trails that make for good warm-weather exploration. But in the winter, the most comfortable viewing is along the meandering Wildlife Drive. It's a thread of causeway through the marshy plains, with a number of walking trails. We spotted No. 5 in a tree by the Little Blackwater River, and Nos. 6, 7 and 8 on perches near the road.

Some of the best viewing is along the roads outside of the refuge. Dorchester County is an inkblot of farm and marsh land surrounded by Chesapeake waters. It's remarkably undeveloped, although environmentalists are watching nervously as civilization creeps in. Plans for the most controversial project, a development of several thousand houses a few miles from the refuge, were curtailed in November when the state announced it was putting much of the proposed area in protected status. Plans for a smaller neighborhood remain.

"It's still a large development," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association in Washington. "And when you bring those numbers of people up against a fragile ecosystem like the Blackwater refuge, there are bound to be consequences for wildlife."

For now, at least, the area remains good and wild. We saw the most birds along Maple Dam Road, a little-traveled route through estuaries and islands. Ducks and tundra swans gathered at any open water.

We caught just a glimpse of Eagle No. 9 flying high above the road. We pulled over for the next one, a dogged hunter who swooped repeatedly over the creek.

A 10-eagle day. You'd better believe I told them about that at the office.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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