THE CANADA goose is flying south and the pace of the Eastern Shore has quickened beneath the soaring V-formations. At the Robert Morris Inn in Oxford, Md., they are lighting the huge fireplaces nightly to warm the hunters in from their sport. On the shores of the Tred Avon River by the Oxford dock of the little ferry, a woman in a stocking cap stands daily knee-deep in Canada geese, dispensing bread crusts and hoping the hunters will miss their mark. In the Maritime Museum in St. aMichael's, the visitors pause to study thoughtfully how their ancestors shot the geese with ancient fowling pieces, how they carved decoys and nearly exterminated the birds before the migratory bird law was written.
About 10 miles south of Cambridge, there is even more drama this month. At Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, 80,000 Canada geese have congregated, winging in low to join their cousins, an early vanguard from the north. The marshes and ponds of Blackwater are alive with the hoarse honking from thousands of black throats, the rustling of wings of thousands of returning wild birds.
If ever there was a time to make the Oxford-Cambridge tour, November is the month. Take the breathtaking, slow-measured circuit of Blackwater; walk the ancient brick sidewalks of Oxford and keep your eyes on the skies. The cry of the wild geese pierces the frosty air as they follow their leaders south on ancient flyway patterns and their long necks are silhouetted against the gray of the sky.
Go first to Cambridge and Blackwater and stop at the visitors' center to learn something about what you will see. Get a map for Wildlife Drive and study the exhibits so that if you meet an endangered Delmarva squirrel or spot a muskrat den you will recognize it. Leaf through the visitors' book for messages left by earlier visitors -- "Two bald eagles circling overhead at 10 a.m. Our yearly thrill."
And don't miss the eagles nest looking like an untidy kindling pile, or the sawed section of ancient loblolly pine whose rings are thumbtacked to pinpoint the history of our country, from the opening of the Panama Canal to the completion of the Alaskan Oil Pipeline.
Guided by your map you will enter a world belonging to the geese, the eagle, the racoon -- wildlife in many forms. Speed limit is 15 mph, and you must stay in your car, so before your eyes is unrolled a moving panorama of marshes, dry stubble fields, ponds and woodland in which every turn of the road is a new discovery. Open your windows and listen to the sounds; absorb an entire landscape covered with Canada geese.
What else you see will depend on how sharp your eyes are and what you are looking for. I spotted blue geese and a great blue heron, dignified and benign as a preacher in a pulpit, his throat feathers ruffling in the wind. Mallard ducks wind in and out of the rushes of the ponds, shore birds dart on the edges of the pond. They are close, far closer than you would expect to see them.
The end of the wildlife trail spills you out on the return road to Cambridge and it's time then to head north for Oxford, a charming village on the Tred Avon River where there is no hurry and the trees have been leaning over the brick sidewalks for centuries. Oxford is full of modest 18th-century houses. Town Creek, on the right as you enter the village, anchors every kind of boat imaginable, masts swaying in the breezes and water slapping their poops.
The big drawing card at Oxford is the Robert Morris Inn, built in 1710 and a well-known hostelry today. The warmth of this country inn envelops you the moment you step in the door. Everything about it is appealing, from the wooden paneling built by long-ago ships' carpenters to the enclosed Elizabethan staircase which leads to the bedrooms above.
Unless you reserve six to eight weeks ahead of your visit, you probably will not get to sleep in one of the four-poster beds in these attractive rooms, none of which has a telephone or TV. Ever since Michener wrote "Chesapeake," the inn has been packed with guests anxious to take another look at the Eastern Shore. But the inn is happy to feed you, weather you stay there or not, and the crab cakes and oysters are justly famous.
At lunch you'll eat in the tavern wing where the fireplaces are made from bricks used as ballast in the early sailing days. The seafood dishes could hardly be fresher and tastier and their reputation has spread, as the out-of-state licenses on the cars outside attest. Afterwards you can sit for a spell in the Riverview Room, the inn's parlor overlooking the Tred Avon, where even the most frazzled nerves will unwind. There's a letter from John Hancock on the wall here, but Ken Gibson, who with his wife, Wendy, owns the inn, says he hasn't been able to figure out what is says.
Just outside the windows, the oldest ferry not operated by cable plies the Tred Avon. Every 20 minutes it docks outside the inn at the landing, scattering Canada geese who are accustomed to handouts on the nearby shore. It can accommodate six cars and it takes you over to Bellevue across the river, from which you can reach St. Michael's -- worth the trip because of the little Maritime Museum on the harbor.
St. Michael's was once a shipbuilding center but now almost all its nearly 1,500 residents are occupied in catching or processing fish. The museum at Navy Point on the waterside reflects the life of the bay with boat exhibits, an aquarium and a sort of catch-all, two-room museum building with everything from a model lighthouse lens to stills from an old Gary Cooper movie filmed at St. Michael's before the talkies.
The waterfowling exhibit traces the history of duck and goose hunting from the time when the early settlers depended on it for food, to the imposing of the quotas written to save the birds from almost certain extinction. Lots of decoys and plenty of guns. Don't miss the huge blunderbuss made out of pipe by poachers who continued to hunt the birds out of season.
One of two screw-type lighthouses from the Chesapeake Bay has been moved here and you should climb the stairs to take a look. All but one of its kind are out of service now, replaced by electronic buoys which surely lack the appeal of this lonely house with its pot-bellied stove, iron bed and patchwork quilt. You can climb all the way to the top and look out over the water, as well as study the ingenious arrangement of lenses that threw a small light so far to warn ships. And on the way down you can read the diary of the lighthouse keeper of another age, separated from his family for all but a couple of weeks every year and lonely on New Year's Eve.
"Usual work at the station," he writes. "Goodbye old year, Your duration has been mingled with sorrows, tears, Heartaches & Joy. Goodbye forever."
Take the Oxford-Cambridge tour -- with a detour for St. Michael's -- while the geese are overhead. They're headed for faraway places, those that escape the guns, and the shore will not be the same when they are gone.