Searching for Chuck-will’s-widows at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Refuge
POSTCARD WORTHY: A Great Blue Heron wades in the water as the sun rises over Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The Maryland preserve contains 28,000 acres of tidal marshes, mixed hardwood and loblolly pine forests, and other habitats. Photo by Jim Beers/Shutterstock

I place the note on an empty seat at the table. She’ll find it when she and my husband sit down to eat breakfast. The message is part of the ritual for any long birding day I take and requires two specific components: hugs and kisses. So, after brushing my teeth, I put on bright red lipstick and press my lips to the paper, evenly distributing the impressions. In the note, I leave instructions for them: “Hug each other from me.” My guilt. My love. All neatly translated and sealed for my 6-year-old.

It’s 2 a.m. when I slip past the dogs. The front door creaks but neither stir, so I’m in the clear — free as a bird to bird. I leave my family to their dreams, while I embark on a race against a breaking dawn. On this summer day, sunrise in Dorchester County, Maryland, is around 5:40 a.m., which means that I must arrive well before then if I am to hear and, hopefully, catch a glimpse of my target species: Chuck-will’s-widow, a nocturnal nightjar of the southeastern states.

The drive from my home in western Maryland takes me east through the Baltimore/Washington corridor, across Chesapeake Bay, and south on the Delmarva Peninsula toward Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the largest of the state’s six national wildlife refuges. While Blackwater’s birds are the main attraction, a visit to the refuge and its surroundings carries more historic weight than your average birdwatching outing. Harriet Tubman was born into slavery here in the early 1820s, escaped north in 1849, and returned to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people via the Underground Railroad. Numerous Tubman landmarks exist among the natural beauty of the refuge.

The farther east I travel, the more eager I am to reach my first destination: Bestpitch Ferry Road, along the eastern edge of the refuge. It’s always first on my Dorchester itinerary, but once the sun has risen at the location, I only linger for half an hour. The bark of Yellow-breasted Chat from the loblollies, the song of Indigo Bunting at the edge of a land fragment, and the buzzing of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in territorial dispute, among others, are what decorate this post-sunrise soundscape. I always have a tough time departing from Bestpitch. There is so much to experience. Whether I’m waiting for a rail to appear out of the marsh, checking out a black rat snake, or taking a moment to examine the red tubercles of the invasive red swamp crayfish as it scurries, there’s time to stop and appreciate the details because the roads are quiet.

Northern Shoveler
WATERFOWL HAVEN: Northern Shoveler, other ducks, swans, and geese winter by the thousands at the refuge. Photo by VIKVAD/Shutterstock

Birding among landmarks

I arrive at Bestpitch in darkness and meet up with Anthony VanSchoor, one of my closest birding companions. Standing beside his tripod, in the middle of the road, he is taking long exposures of the night sky. I cut my high beams but not fast enough to avoid ruining a photo.

Bestpitch Ferry Road crosses over the Transquaking River by way of the Bestpitch Ferry Bridge. The landscape remains largely unchanged from Tubman’s time because it has not been over developed, making it a modern-day natural time capsule. The waterways that unfurl from the river snake throughout the marshy landscape. Freedom-seeking slaves used these trails, which were part of the Underground Railroad, on their way north. Independent of the specter of slavery, I find it difficult to imagine traveling under such exposed conditions. Without the aid of light, the darkness is vast, and the insects here are painfully relentless.

Stewart's Canal
STEWART’S CANAL: Enslaved and free black people dug this seven-mile canal for the slave-owning Stewart family. The work took 22 years. The canal is located near the eastern edge of the refuge and is a stop along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Photo by Beth Parnicza/National Park Service

Possibilities and ghosts of the past

Bestpitch Ferry Road connects to Greenbrier Road. At the junction is the Bucktown General Store, a place where Tubman nearly died as a teenager. She was in the store to make a purchase and defied a slave owner’s order to tie up another slave. The slave master threw a heavy weight that struck Tubman in the head, almost killing her and causing an injury that she lived with for the rest of her life.

The store is now a historic landmark and part of the 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Along this stretch of the byway are the Brodess plantation, where Tubman was enslaved, and her childhood home, where she was born into bondage and began slave labor at 6 years old (my daughter’s age). I’m here for the birds, but around every corner, it’s impossible not to sense the ghosts of the past.

West of the general store is Maple Dam Road, a great spot to bird. The best time to cruise it is after sunrise, when the water mirrors the sky. These roads, especially midweek, aren’t busy, making it is easy to pull to the side and spend quality time birding. A few hours can pass quickly. Along several nearby narrow, undeveloped off roads, where the earth is soft and sandy, Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows are possibilities.

At Bestpitch, while we wait in the dark, the thin red line of dawn scatters at the horizon. Despite being close friends, Anthony and I are all business. No chit-chat, not now. We’re here for birds, for solitude. This is how most of our birding adventures begin: silence and darkness, the prelude to the birds. The full-bodied harmonies of the Marsh Wrens, frogs, toads, and mosquitoes shift while we stand in the middle of the road patiently welcoming the possibility of something new. We know it’s coming, so we wait. Then, kidik kidik kidik, a Virginia Rail solos from a section of marsh behind us. We exchange silent smiles and nods. His camera shutter releases.

Blackwater is on Chesapeake Bay and about a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C. The area encom­passes tens of thousands of acres of tidal marshes and coastal forests. The refuge was established for migratory birds in the early 1930s and is recognized as an Important Bird Area with global priority. Long before its designation as a wildlife refuge, the land was used for fur farming, primarily muskrat, and was the backdrop for the slave trade in the area. (When Tubman began her slave labor at age 6, her role was to set out muskrat traps in the icy marshes, barefoot.)

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Blackwater is home to one of the largest concentrations of breeding Bald Eagles along the Atlantic. Wildlife Drive at Blackwater is a 4-mile trail for vehicles, hikers, and cyclists. Four miles may not sound like much, but the drive has many places to pull over and trails to explore. Because it’s in the middle of the refuge, the views are incredible. Herons, egrets, Osprey, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Least Bittern, and others are plentiful and easy to see in spring and summer. It’s a spectacular place with much to photograph and take in.

Even in the cooler morning hours, the humidity is overwhelming. The silvery grasses tssssss as wind ripples the water. Anxiety sets in. I should be at home, waking up to breakfast with my family. There’s no promise that we will find the Chucks. What if the bird is a no-show? How will I mask my disappointment when my daughter asks, “Did you get the bird?” I try to stay positive. After all, we plan to be here all day and will see lots of birds, Chucks or no Chucks.

In less than an hour, the dew-covered dragonflies resting on the tips of the marsh grasses will blow around, wings glittering on the wind. Summer Tanagers will flit branch to branch through the hardwood and pine forest. The morning shift will ramp up as the night shift settles down and the light changes the landscape. For now, we’re standing in the dark, quietly bearing witness to the birth of a new dawn in anticipation of seeing a bird we haven’t seen since last year. Anthony begins packing up his gear. It’s time to find the birds.

Chuck-will's-widows
TARGET BIRD: Late April through July are the best months to look for Chuck-will’s-widow just after sunrise at Bestpitch Ferry Road. Photo by Anthony VanSchoor

Chuck-will’s-widow

Sika deer wander calmly across the road unphased by our vehicles as we caravan away from the marsh through the coastal forest. The cacophony of frogs and toads press through the glass, so I roll the windows down and let it all in: the marshy air, the biting bugs. We come to a stop and get out. Morning glows electric behind the black wood silhouettes. A Barred Owl hoots in the distance. Then, I hear it. A faint whirl of whistles to the south. Without conference, we follow the sound until it is in our faces. Four Chuck-will’s-widows. Two to our right. One to our left. And one right in front of us on the road.

After a few moments, the closest one launches itself onto a snag. It perches momentarily, then swoops, flycatcher-like, and returns. I fumble for the settings on my camera, but knowing this moment will pass swiftly, I opt for video. The song, if you can call it that, is very loud, the clear top line of the soundscape. It repeats the behavior over and over, and the songs decrescendo with distance. It lasts for seven pure, wild, and uninhibited minutes. This was more than we could have hoped for.

Once we’re sure the birds have gone, we are all chat. Gleeful, we rejoice and compare notes. A feeling of immense relief and sheer joy overcomes me. My face aches from smiling so hard. Now, the rest of the day will be carefree.

In awe of what we have just witnessed, we head back to where we started on the other side of the Bestpitch Ferry Bridge. The light is different. The grasses, silvery in the predawn light, are now gilded by the morning sun. The dew-covered odonates are quickly drying out. One has decided to hitch a ride on my driver’s side door. The swallows are gathering; Tree, Barn, and Bank perch on a wire that runs parallel to the bridge. An Osprey patrols the marsh, crows caw in the distance, Great Blue Herons pass overhead, the morning traffic patterns of nature bustling about have begun.

Hyper and excited, I FaceTime home to share the good news. My daughter answers the phone at the breakfast table. “Did you get the bird?” she asks. “Yes!” I exclaim. “Mommy got the bird!” She shouts to my husband. The three of us share the moment as I recount the details. My daughter presses the kisses from the note to her forehead. “I love you,” I tell her, adding, “I’ll be home after dinner.” I cannot wait to hug and kiss them when I get home. I disconnect. The sun has risen quickly, and a flurry of bird activity is just head. We collect ourselves and move toward it.

Connecting to history

Along the western boundary of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge lies Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which was created in 2014. In the center of the refuge and just 1.2 miles from its visitor center, you will find the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center. It opened in 2017 and is jointly operated by the Maryland Park Service and the National Park Service.

Harriet Tubman. Courtesy National Park Service

To understand the historical significance behind the most impressive wildlife areas in Dorchester County, stop at the center for a self-guided tour. The center is a museum where tourists can learn about the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman and others who participated in the extrication of enslaved people via the Underground Railroad. The site is also part of the 125-mile-long Harriet Tubman Scenic Byway.

A tour of the museum is necessary to fully appreciate the area’s wilderness. Learning about the people who passed through and those who lived, were enslaved, and died here completely transforms your perspective of the landscape. When you realize that you’re birding on hallowed surroundings, the connection to the land takes on a deeper meaning. It’s no longer only about the birds. It’s about being present in a place where such profound events occurred. And it’s about acknowledging the abuse, the cruelty, the suffering, and the bondage of an entire group of people based on the color of their skin.

Read more from Audubon: Harriet Tubman, an unsung naturalist, used owl calls as a signal on the Underground Railroad

A sample itinerary

My story is about birding Blackwater in summer, but the refuge is just as engaging during winter. The entire marshland transforms during the colder months. Instead of the summertime aroma of marsh, the breeze carries with it the smell of burning earth. And while Chuck-will’s-widows and other summer residents have moved on, Snowy Owls sporadically descend from the north, and wide rafts of Redhead, Canvasback, scaup, Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, American White Pelicans, and other waterfowl gather on the icy water. Vesper and Clay-colored Sparrows intermingle with Field, Song, and Chipping Sparrows at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center.

When I bird Dorchester County, depending on the season, I typically visit the same spots: Bestpitch Ferry Road, Hoopers Island Bridge, Maple Dam Road, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Drive, and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center. All are accessible by car.

Start out before dawn at Bestpitch Ferry Bridge. The marsh is lively, even in the dark. Once the sun is at the horizon, drive toward Maple Dam Road via Greenbrier Road. Take your time on Maple Dam Road and try one of the off roads. Once you’re satisfied with this area, head to Wildlife Drive. Visit the observation decks first, then continue on the 4-mile road. Take the Golden Hill Road exit. Across the street is the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center. Take a self-guided tour of the museum and end your visit with a walk in the Legacy Garden. Visit mdbirds.org for more information about birding Dorchester County.

This article was first published in the January/February 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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Orietta C. Estrada

Orietta C. Estrada is the editor of The Maryland Yellowthroat, a bimonthly publication of the Maryland Ornithological Society, and a wildlife columnist. She is also a master naturalist and vice president of the Frederick Bird Club.

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