The Wildlife Refuge That Almost Became a Housing Development: Exploring Eastern Neck NWR

We visited Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) twice last month: once in the beginning of the month and then in the later half of the month because I’d read that the tundra swans had arrived.

Both times we saw different birds: hawks, seagulls or terns, vultures, Cardinals, tundra swans from a very far distance, Ruddy ducks from a distance so far that I had to take the word of two folks with exceptionally large camera lenses (yes, camera envy is a thing), and Bufflehead ducks.

Eastern Neck NWR, a part of the Chesapeake Marshlands NWR Complex, is a 2,286-acre island located at the confluence of the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay. Although a national wildlife refuge, parts of the island are leased to local farmers.

Eastern Neck is spectacular during the autumn, with the striking colors of the fall foliage.

Established in 1962 as a sanctuary for migratory birds, Eastern Neck NWR provides natural habitat for more than 240 bird species — including bald eagles and transitory peregrine falcons — and is a major staging site for tundra swans. We’d come for the tundra swans, twice.

We got to see them, from a very far distance. I had to be happy with that!

Great blue herons are my favorite bird. If I see one, I take a hundred photos (or so it seems).

I was also intrigued by the history of this beautiful place.

The island was one of the first settled places in Maryland, where Major Joseph Wickes was granted 800 acres in 1650 and built the now-vanished “Wickliffe” mansion. There’s a monument to one of the Wickes on the island. It’s really not the reason why you’d visit. The island was owned by the Wickes until 1902, who continued to raise a variety of crops on the land.

In the late 1880s, the Chester River Steamboat Company made a stop at the island at Bogles Wharf to pick up produce from the farms on the island.

After 1902 portions of the island became hunting preserves, but the island as a hunting retreat really didn’t take off until two decades later. 

In the 1920s, wealthy individuals from surrounding cities were attracted by the waterfowl concentrations and bought portions of the island for hunting retreats. The visitor center is in one of those hunting lodges.

During the 1950s, a property developer proposed to subdivide a portion of the island into 293 house lots, but this development was fought by the local community and only one house was built, and that is now used as a home for NWR personnel. Eventually, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the entire island in the 1960s, preserving the land for wildlife.

Although there’s never really NOT a good time to visit, the following info will give you an idea what to expect when you visit.

January to April

  • Wintering waterfowl, including tundra swans, have typically departed Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge by the end of March. 
  • Bald eagles are nest building in January and laying eggs through February. Although most of the nests are in areas not visible to the public, they can sometimes be seen displaying courtship behaviors as pairs, or carrying nesting material into the forests near the marshes. The eaglets begin hatching in April, and busy parents can sometimes be seen carrying food to the nests.
  • Woodcock may be seen performing their courtship displays along some trails, such as Duck Inn, near sunset on early spring evenings. Their eggs begin hatching in April.
  • Osprey begin to appear back in the area around mid-March, following their migratory return from South America.
  • Blue- and green-winged teal migrate through the area in April, and resident ducks begin sitting on their eggs at this time. As May approaches, migratory songbirds begin to increase in numbers as they make their return trip north for the breeding season.

May to August

  • Songbird migration northward peaks in late April to early May. Duck Inn Trail is one of the best trails on the refuge to look for migratory warblers, thrushes, kinglets, and more. 
  • Deer fawns are born in late May and fawns encountered in the woods and fields after that time are not orphaned, but are hiding from predators. Their mother will return for them soon.
  • Look for osprey nests on platforms situated atop utility poles around the refuge. Their eggs also hatch in late May. 
  • Barn swallows return to their nests under the roof of the porch at the refuge office, and bluebirds and tree swallows establish territories at bluebird nesting boxes around the refuge. 
  • Throughout June, breeding bird species can be heard singing throughout the refuge, along trails and roads.
  • In June, young eagles are learning to fly and will fledge from the nest in July. Throughout the summer, the barn swallows at the refuge office provide a close-up look of nesting birds for visitors.
  • Butterfly numbers and diversity reach their peak on the refuge in July. The native plants in the BayScape garden at the refuge office and along the BayView Butterfly Trail attract these winged beauties in high numbers. Zebra swallowtails, black swallowtails, and American ladies are among the more common species. The water garden in the BayScape will be “hopping” with leopard frogs.
  • In August, ospreys may start their migration south while blue-winged teal, the earliest waterfowl migrants, being to arrive from their northern breeding grounds.

September to December

  • Songbird migration southward peaks in late September to October.
  • Waterfowl numbers gradually increase as many species make their journeys south from their northern breeding grounds. 
  • By mid- to late-November, and sometimes earlier, tundra swans begin to arrive at the refuge. Sometimes large staging groups will arrive at once, and sometimes smaller groups will arrive more gradually.
  • Bald eagles begin to establish territories and start nest building in December.

Getting there: 1730 Eastern Neck Rd, Rock Hall, MD

Hours: daylight


Check out other national wildlife refuges on the Eastern Shore: 

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