For hundreds of thousands of birds each fall, Maryland’s Eastern Shore is like a highway travel plaza: A crucial place to stop, refuel and reorient. That’s why, when the summer tourists head home, bird lovers flock to the state’s tidal marshes, pine forests and coastal islands.
“The Delmarva peninsula is smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic flyway, and it acts as a giant funnel, concentrating birds together as they follow the coastline south,” says Jim Rapp, who organizes twice-yearly Delmarva birding weekends.
Some of the first migrants to make their way down the peninsula are the warblers, which string their songs through the forest canopy. Then come the hawks, silently surfing on thermals as they head down the coast. The geese, ducks and swans arrive last and stay until spring, filling the salt marshes with a sociable din of honks, quacks and beating wings.
We asked local birders to share their favorite places to watch the annual avian parade.
Turkey Point at Elk Neck State Park
4395 Turkey Point Road, North East, Md.
When they reach this little peninsula at the top of the Chesapeake Bay, migrating hawks have a decision to make: Will they follow the western shore toward Annapolis or head east toward Easton, Md.? “They wheel around in the sky because they don’t want to cross the river, so we get perfect views of these birds and how beautiful they are,” says Pat Valdata, a bird-watcher who lives in Elkton, Md. Eventually, the birds decide: “They usually end up going in the direction of the prevailing wind.”
Prime spots: Walk down the lighthouse trail toward the peninsula’s point for wide-open sky, ideal for hawk-watching.
When to go: Valdata and her fellow volunteers at the Cecil Bird Club’s annual Hawk Watch count birds at Turkey Point every morning during the fall from
9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and they’re happy to have novice birders tag along, Valdata says.
What you’ll see: Raptors, raptors everywhere. Around 2,000 hawks pass through each year, including red-shouldered hawks on their way to their cold-weather homes in Virginia, and golden eagles, which come down from Canada for the winter.
Where to eat: Local produce reigns supreme at the Fair Hill Inn, which sits on 1.5 acres of land largely given over to vegetable and herb gardens. Raptor favorites like rabbit and duck often land on the menu in the fall. 3370 Singerly Road, Elkton, Md.
Where to roost: Keep the birding going at Elk Forge Bed and Breakfast Inn. The resort and day spa is located on five acres of forest threaded with nature trails. 807 Elk Mills Road, Elkton, Md.
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge
1730 Eastern Neck Road, Rock Hall, Md.
This marsh-rimmed island features acres of grain fields, which visiting waterfowl munch on all winter long. “Eastern Neck is home to 250 different species of birds — shore birds, ducks and, of course, lots and lots of swans,” local birder Gren Whitman says.
Prime spots: Amble down the boardwalk overlooking the marsh and listen for the unmistakable sound of hundreds of honking tundra swans. The graceful, white birds spend their summers in the Arctic Circle.
When to go: Starting Nov. 7, Whitman will lead five monthly, early-morning walks at the wildlife refuge. He’ll take bird-watchers to southern parts of the island that are usually off-limits to the public. To register, email email@example.com.
Where to eat: You probably won’t see Osprey Point restaurant’s namesake bird this fall — ospreys head south in late summer. So enjoy a dinner that would make the fish hawk jealous, like the rockfish or pan-seared salmon. 20786 Rock Hall Ave., Rock Hall, Md.
Where to roost: Get a room that overlooks the harbor at The Black Duck Inn, and fall asleep surrounded by tasteful waterfowl-themed artwork. 21096 Chesapeake Ave., Rock Hall, Md.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, Md.
Sometimes called the “Everglades of the North,” this massive refuge encompasses 28,000 acres of hardwood and pine forest edged with tidal and freshwater marsh. During the fall, thousands of snow geese descend on the refuge, local bird-watcher Vincent DeSanctis says. “It looks like a sea of white flowers, there are so many birds,” he says.
Prime spots: The Marsh Edge Trail runs alongside two rivers and has a boardwalk that juts into the marsh. It’s a great place to spot seasonal water birds as well as year-round residents, bald eagles among them.
When to go: Blackwater plays host to many species of duck, including the striking harlequin duck and the elusive American black duck. Your best chance of spotting these shy birds is on one of the refuge’s guided bird walks. The next scheduled walks leave from the visitor center on Oct. 25 and Nov. 29, at 8 a.m.
Where to eat: It’s easy to work up an appetite while looking at savory waterfowl. Luckily, you don’t have to drive far to get to the University Restaurant in Cambridge, Md., which serves pan-seared duck in the fall. 1042 Hudson Road, Cambridge, Md.
Where to roost: Bird-watchers are in good company at the bucolic Black Walnut Point Inn on Tilghman Island. The bed and breakfast sits on a 58-acre wildlife sanctuary that’s full of migrating warblers and songbirds in early fall. Later in the season, the waters around the 19th-century estate are filled with “hundreds of ducks,” co-owner Bob Zuber says. 4417 Black Walnut Point Road, Tilghman, Md.
Ocean City, Md.
Bad weather makes for good bird-watching in this popular beach town. Storms off the coast can blow in all sorts of migrants who’d otherwise stick to open ocean. For instance, you might see a northern gannet, an enormous seabird with a 5-foot wingspan, dive into the ocean from 130 feet in the air and come up with a fish, DeSanctis says.
Prime Spots: Since most of the other surfaces are covered in boardwalk, sand and concrete, birds congregate at a 2/3-acre patch of green known as Sunset Park. More than 160 different species have been counted there, including many, many different types of gull. “Just don’t call them seagulls,” DeSanctis says.
“There are herring gulls and ring-billed gulls and laughing gulls, but there’s no such thing as a seagull.” Another hotspot, Skimmer Island, is a fine place to see stilt-legged shorebirds like willets and plovers.
When to go: Beginning in November, you’re more likely to see visiting ducks such as the bufflehead, a petite bird with an oversized noggin.
Where to eat: Bundle up and bird-watch with a beer in hand from the bayside deck at M.R. Ducks Bar and Grille, open through the end of October. House specialties include Maryland rockfish and crab cakes. 311 Talbot St., Ocean City, Md.
Where to roost: Check out the historic Chanceford Hall Bed and Breakfast, in Snow Hill, Md., where owners Doug and Fran Wight are happy to put out coffee and muffins for early-rising bird-watchers. The historic inn also provides a great launching point for birding in Assateague and Pocomoke River state parks. 209 W. Federal St., Snow Hill, Md.
You can find more birding hotspots at ebird.org, a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The site tracks bird migration and populations and makes that data publicly available to birdwatchers, scientists and everyone else.