There's no such thing as a bad day on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The uglier the weather gets the better the view becomes.
Waterfowl hunters say the worst day imaginable is their best day because that's the day the birds fly most. The same applies for people who go to the marshes and farm fields simply to watch the hordes of migrating waterfowl arriving there.
In the current issue of Audubon Naturalist News, Claudia Wilds writes that "the most splendid introduction to winter birding you could make would be an all-day expedition to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Hoopers Island" south of the Bay Bridge on the Eastern Shore.
She recommends November as the time to go, when the weather is least likely to be unbearably foul and the migrants are fresh from their long journeys south.
Blackwater, a two-hour drive from Washington, was established in the 1930s and stands today as one of the most convenient and fruitful birdwatching and bird-admiring points on mid-Atlantic coast.
There are 15,000 acres of marshes and cornfields where hunting is not allowed. The birds seem to have figured that out over the years and they converge on the refuge. Populations of up to 80,000 Canada geese on the Blackwater acreage are not uncommon, as well as thousands of ducks and hundred of swans.
"It's amazing," said a hunter who had spent a morning watching high-flying Canadas soar over his blind, then gone to Blackwater to look over the birds he'd been unable to lure down to shooting range.
"They seem to know exactly where the preserve ends. When they leave they fly straight up until they're above gun range before they head out. When they come back they don't lose altitude until they're over the refuge. They get here and drop straight out of the sky."
Waterfowl watching is only half of what lures birders to Blackwater. There are several resident bald eagles on or near the refuge and on clear days they can be seen stilling over the marshes, looking for fish to prey on. A pair of golden eagles sometimes winters there, and there are marsh hawks, kestrels, red-tailed hawks and rough-legged hawks.
The advantage of Blackwater to novice birders is that almost all of these large birds are easily identifiable, even without magnifying gear, and the birds generally are willing to stay out in the open, unafraid of humans.
There are five miles of hard-surfaced nature roads, a number of walking trails, a tall observation tower that provides a panoramic view of the tawny marsh and a visitor center with information on wildlife likely to be seen, plus stuffed versions of the wild beasts outside.
Recently, I took the five-mile nature drive and managed to get as close to a small flock of wild mallards as I've ever been. They were paddling along in a weed-choked slough five feet from the roadside. I had to climb out of the car (which I wasn't supposed to do) before they flushed, and I watched their frantic leap upward and felt the spray they raised with their flashing webbed feet.
When I got back to the visitor center about 1,000 snow geese had taken up residence in a grassy field next door and I managed to get within 15 feet of them. Canadas and ducks were feeding noisily in a cornfield on the other side of the road.
Last week, according to a staffer at the visitor center, the first flock of huge whistling swans arrived from Hudson's Bay.
Wilds recommends a Blackwater tour followed by a drive south to tiny Hooper Island. The Hooper excursion, another 20-mile voyage, includes a long stretch in sight of the main body of the Chesapeake Bay where flights of sea ducks, loons and other openwater species can be observed.
Harder-core birders and nature-lovers are likely to turn north, instead of south, once they've crossed the Bay Bridge.
They head up through Chestertown and Rock Hall to the other National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore -- Eastern Neck.
The Neck is more primitive than Blackwater but it generally offers the biggest flocks of whistling swans. There's no visitor center there and a lot more of the ground is better covered bushwhacking than in a car. But it offers its own rewards in the isolated setting.
On Sunday one of Wilds' colleagues at the local Audubon Society, Phil DuMont, will lead a group of birders on an annual pilgrimage to Eastern Neck.
"We try to time it with the arrival of the swans," he said.
"We lunch at a picnic area there, and while we're sitting on little hill we can look out over the Bay and see several thousand Canada geese, 2,000 or 3,000 whistling swans, snow geese, and quite an assortment of ducks."
Either way -- north to Eastern Neck or south to Blackwater -- an Eastern Shore trip is worth the price of the fuel to get there.
Blackwater Refuge is off Route 16 near Cambridge, Md. Follow Route 50 south through Cambridge and look for the signs on the right. Wilds recommends that after completing the Blackwater tour, birders follow Route 335 south down a scenic little chain of marshy islands that leads to Hooper Island and Hoopersville.
To get to Eastern Neck, take Route 301 north after crossing the Bay Bridge and then follow Route 213 north to Chestertown, Route 20 east to Rock Hall and then 445 south to the refuge.
The wildlife drives are open from dawn to dusk at both preserves. Blackwater has the extra convenience of the visitors center, open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. all days except Sunday, when it opens at 9:30 a.m.