Summer may be over, but there are still a number of opportunities to get outside and enjoy the splendor of the outdoors. In autumn and winter, millions of migratory birds visit the Chesapeake Bay region as they follow the Atlantic Flyway during their seasonal flights.
The Chesapeake, which sits along the Atlantic Flyway, has always been a favored winter residence and stopover for many waterfowl – ducks, geese and swans – on their way to and from their northern breeding grounds. The wetlands, fields, shallows and open waters of the Bay offer a fertile environment for waterfowl to feed and rest.
There are countless great places in the Chesapeake Bay watershed – which stretches from upstate New York to southern Virginia – to catch a glimpse of these beautiful birds on a fall or winter day. From national wildlife refuges (NWR) to state parks and wildlife management areas, the options are plentiful no matter where you live.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the top places to spend a day enjoying the beautiful waterfowl that call the Chesapeake region their winter home.
Located about an hour northwest of Salisbury, Blackwater NWR is one of the premier spots in the Bay region to see wintering waterfowl. Each autumn, thousands of Canada geese flock to the 27,000-acre refuge during their annual migration. Tundra swans, snow geese and a variety of ducks are also abundant at Blackwater.
The refuge is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. There is an entry fee of $3 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian or bicyclist (those under 16 are free).
Elk Neck State Park is situated on the Susquehanna Flats, a unique portion of the Bay that is less than 5 feet deep. In the past, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl used to migrate to this area in massive quantities. While there are fewer birds there these days, the park is still a great spot to watch dabblers like teal and mallards as they feed in the shallow waters of the Flats.
The park is open year-round and cabins are available for rental. On weekdays, the park charges an entry fee of $3 per vehicle; on weekends and holidays, that changes to $3 per person. Out of state residents will have to add $1 to these fees.
With 2,800 acres of land maintained specifically to attract waterfowl, this 30-mile-long island is a sure bet for bird-watching. Wander along inlets and beaches to see thousands of ducks, geese and swans, possibly even close enough to appreciate the intricate differences of each species.
The island is open from sunrise to sunset every day of the year with no entry fees.
The 2,285-acre refuge is home to approximately 243 species of birds. Waterfowl include pintails, goldeneyes, ruddy ducks, oldsquaw, canvasbacks and buffleheads. Also found in the area is the tundra swan, which can be seen in groups of as many as one thousand.
The refuge is open from 7:30 a.m. until one half hour after sunset with no entry fees.
At the end of the last Ice Age, as the last glacier retreated, two masses of ice were left behind and eventually melted, creating the Chenango and Lily lakes in New York. During the migration seasons, birdwatchers can find ducks as well as herons and kingfishers by the lakes. Along the trails, woodpeckers, nut hatches, warblers and thrushes abound.
The park is open year-round for day use, and campsites are available May through October.
Susquehannock State Park offers several river overlooks, which give visitors a unique panoramic view of the lower Susquehanna River. With such a major stop on the Atlantic Flyway nearby, the park is a haven for migratory birds on their journeys. Visitors will inevitably see large numbers of Canada geese, mallards, lesser scaup and several other species. The park also has the world’s first bald eagle sanctuary, where two nesting bald eagles have lived for many years. Several other eagles have nested on the island in recent years as well. The eagle sanctuary can be viewed through binoculars or the on-site optical viewer.
Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area is mostly an oak-hickory forest covering 3,500 acres. While this portion of the Bay watershed is a bit too far west to draw many migratory waterfowl from the Atlantic Flyway, the 205-acre lake does attract limited numbers of ducks and geese. Mallards, Canada geese, wood ducks and several species of diving ducks can been seen on the lake.
The Nanticoke Wildlife Area contains 4,415 acres of forests, fields and wetlands bordering the Nanticoke River. Along the river, visitors will be treated to the brilliant fall plumage of the drake wood duck and also be able to see American widgeon, gadwall and American black ducks. A multitude of herons, grebes, songbirds and egrets also inhabit Nanticoke Wildlife Area.
For more information, please contact the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife at (302) 539-3160.
Rappahannock River Valley NWR is the newest of four refuges that comprise the Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Established in 1996, the refuge protects 20,000 acres of wetlands and uplands along the river and its major tributaries. The vast stretches of wetlands and river frontage provide habitat for a multitude of species of waterfowl, including black ducks, widgeons, greater scaup, hooded mergansers, canvasbacks and ring-necked ducks.
This 146-acre preserve on a peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay has three major natural habits: a tidal salt marsh, a maritime forest and a sandy beach. There is a boardwalk and observation deck over the salt marsh that offers great views of the habitat and wildlife, as well as a roadside between the forest and the marsh where you have a great opportunity to view waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Shorebirds take their places in the tidal lagoons, while land birds roam the forested areas. Neo-tropical songbirds and other migratory birds are frequently seen here as they travel along the Atlantic Flyway.
The preserve is open daily from dawn ‘til dusk.
This salt marsh habitat separates the eastern side of Winter Harbor from the Chesapeake Bay. The habitat is constantly changing due to wind and water that move the sand on the narrow beach, but this doesn’t change how many species of birds and waterfowl are found. Bethel Beach boasts more than 185 species of birds, including 25 species of shorebirds.
Just a few miles from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Kiptopeke State Park is a 500-acre refuge for viewing fall migrations. The park includes a songbird banding station so that visitors of the park can view up-close songbirds like warblers and ovenbirds. There’s also a hawk-trapping station with species including sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawk, peregrine falcons and merlin. The nearby Eastern Shore of Virginia Wildlife Refuge has a migration display that’s also worth checking out.
The park is open year-round with a $3 entry fee Monday through Friday and $4 on weekends and holidays.
This 500-acre preserve, with its wooded trails and shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay, is very appealing to migrating and wintering birds. Beginning in October, wintering waterfowl such as eiders, scoters and open-water ducks come along. The preserve is open to walkers and bikers.
For a different experience, you can observe waterfowl from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel’s four man-made islands. The man-made habitats are located in open waters, providing an inviting resting point for many migrating birds. Frequent avian visitors include northern gannet, pelican, brant, king eider, harlequin duck, red-breasted merganser, peregrine falcon, American oystercatcher, little gull and black-tailed gull.
For another list of great waterfowl-related places to visit around the Bay, check out the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network's compilation of waterfowling driving tours.