To Find Refuge, Follow the Birds
Wildlife Oasis Is Just a Short Drive From D.C.

By James F. Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Suddenly and briefly a cloud passed overhead, felt more than seen. A shiver ran through me despite the unseasonable October warmth. Overhead a bald eagle, black against the blue sky, swooped just beyond the towering trees. It was a glimpse into the squirrel's view of the world.

That scene took place at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge just south of Rock Hall, Md., an island oasis for migrating birds and home to dozens of other species, including that eagle. On its 2,200-plus acres, humans can wander a series of short, easy trails and observe wildlife and plant life, ambling through woodland, corn fields and marshes of swaying cord grass. You can forget the modern world here, even though the skyscrapers of Baltimore are just visible from the western shore of the island, and it's so close to the District that you could drive from Washington, hike the whole refuge and be back home for dinner.

In late October and November, tundra swans arrive from their summer breeding grounds in northern Canada. We watched some of the early arrivals, huge white birds with black beaks, and they were not alone, as eagles, herons, geese, starlings and red-winged blackbirds vied for our attention.

The island has seven trails, none longer than 1 1/2 miles, with plenty of parking at the trail heads. My favorite was Boxes Point Trail, where the path starts out lined with honeysuckle and thistle and ends at the wide Chester River.

Eastern Neck Island had been inhabited since Colonial times, primarily by the Wickes family, whose estate, Wickcliffe, once stood near Panhandle Point. The federal government saved the island from developers, purchasing the entire place between 1962 and 1967. It is now managed by the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Our base of operations was Rock Hall, six miles up Route 445. It is no-nonsense, from its memory-invoking grocery store, Bayside Foods, to its small-town main street with an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, Durding's Store. Although Rock Hall has lots of visitors (day-trippers, weekenders, goose hunters and fishermen), it is very much a working place, with watermen still going out daily to make a living from the Chesapeake Bay. And boaters love it for its many marinas, seven by my unofficial count.

But Rock Hall is not impervious to change. Many of the people we talked to were transplanted out-of-staters. Typical is Babs Danneberg, a volunteer at the Rock Hall Museum. She and her late husband, Bill, were avid sailors from New Jersey; they knew Rock Hall through the sailing fraternity and decided to retire there in the 1970s. Bill loved the place so much, he became one of the founders of the Rock Hall Museum, dedicated to the town's water heritage and agricultural past. On display are models of schooners, Chesapeake log canoe boats and tugs. There is also a replica of a decoymaker's workshop and a wall of photos of steamboats that made the cross-bay run between 1813 and 1963.

Another "newcomer" is Bill Betts, proprietor of his own museum, Tolchester Beach Revisited. Tolchester Beach was an amusement park north of Rock Hall from the late 1800s to 1962, and Betts remembers visiting the place as a little boy in the early '30s.

He and his wife retired to Rock Hall about 12 years ago from Chester County, Pa. He started collecting postcards of Tolchester Beach, then artifacts, and soon he had a full-blown obsession. After his wife said he needed to get the stuff out of the house, the museum was born, in its own small building on Oyster Court. Three small rooms feature photographs, posters and Betts's collection of postcards. It's a quirky testament to one man's obsession to keep a sliver of the past alive -- and it fits right in with the feel of Rock Hall.

"I started with postcards and I ended up with a museum," he said.

On our last night there, relaxing in Adirondack chairs on a dock jutting into an inlet facing north, my wife pointed out that we were missing the sunset. Hopping on borrowed bikes, we pedaled over to the western end of town just in time to see the sun sinking gloriously. A square-rigged ship sat at anchor, and a flight of geese flew in V-formation south, while children played in the sand. The swans have their refuge -- and so did we.

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