A December Morning at Blackwater

By Wayne Bierbaum

The wildlife drive at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge opens 30 minutes before sunrise and closes 30 minutes after sunset. I usually opt for the sunrise drive.  

On this particular morning, it was slightly overcast and chilly. Many interesting animals were waking up or just going about their early morning business. Morning is the best time of the day for wildlife watching. 

An adult eagle flew over as I turned into the gated drive. In a bare tree to the left was a group of eight turkey vultures and in the wetland to the right were numerous ducks and geese. A flock of goldfinches was feeding on the grass seed along the left side of the first turn of the drive and winged off in a bouncing flight while calling out with their wild chirping. Two great egrets were wading and catching fish along the edge of a shallow pond. They were late for their southern migration and, as ice forms, will quickly regret that tardiness. 

As I turned left onto the one-way section of the wildlife drive, I heard the squeaky-toy sounds of a group of brown-headed nuthatches. They were looking for seeds and bugs hidden in clusters of pine cones. Further down the drive, I looked for screech owls but failed to find one. I could have been looking directly at them but not seen them, they are incredibly well camouflaged. The woods in that area have been affected by rising water levels and many trees are dead. Those standing dead trees have many woodpecker holes that could also be an owl home. Pileated woodpeckers were calling to each other as they flew from tree to tree. I heard one hammering or rather hatcheting for carpenter ants. They are very loud. 

As the road turned to views of the Blackwater River and ponds by the visitor center, I could see thousands of snow geese resting on the river and a couple of hundred tundra swans. plus various ducks, waking up on the ponds. As I reached the next sharp right-hand turn, the snow geese lifted off the river like a white sheet being lifted, and the air was filled with loud honking and calling. A quarter of them flew above me in a disorganized series of V’s and the rest, with sounds of mild squabbling, settled back onto the water. The swans then started to honk and loudly splash as they feigned taking off but then settled down again.  

As I waited for the swans to take flight, a short-eared owl flew past me as it followed the edge of the dike. I saw the owl land in a bush about 40 feet from me but I could not get a photo before it disappeared along the grassy edge. (It was the first time I have seen a short-eared owl along the drive.)  

The swans weren’t ready to take flight, so I moved on. An adult bald eagle was sitting on the osprey platform and three more were sitting on tree tops in a small wooded area on the left. The eagles took flight and started chasing each other because one had a duck in its talons. As I turned left onto the last set of dikes, pin-tailed ducks, black ducks, mallards, and green-winged teals were feeding in the water. Along the water’s edge, more tundra swans were calmly eating vegetation. Several stoic great blue herons were standing along the shore. Two northern harriers flew low above the marsh grass looking for prey. 

To the left, across the water, at least five eagles were perched in the trees isolated on a spit of land projecting into the river. The top of the largest pine tree was filled with a huge eagle’s nest. Above the nest, sat a very proud-looking female eagle. In Maryland, bald eagles lay eggs in January or February, so soon the nest will have several eggs. Last year, three eaglets were raised in that nest. Each year, the eagles add sticks to their nest—this one keeps growing. The nests can weigh several thousand pounds and be so heavy that the tree will topple. The nest on the wildlife drive is at least 7 feet in diameter and 10 feet deep. I hope that tree doesn’t topple. 

I returned to the beginning of the wildlife drive and walked several trails before heading to the well-maintained Visitors Center. Despite the 90-minute drive to get there, I found it was a very pleasant trip. Make it a winter wildlife destination yourself.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, 2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/blackwater