You get your first glimpse of Eastern Neck Island as you drive east over the rise of the Kent Narrows Bridge. It’s over your left shoulder, on the far side of the mouth of the Chester River. It’s only four miles away, but it will take you another hour to get there, driving in a wide circle through Centreville, Church Hill, Chestertown, and Rock Hall until you finally cross that low wooden bridge that takes you to the refuge.
It’s worth the drive. Even in winter. Especially in winter.
My wife and I took that drive on the day before New Year’s Eve. We’d been there several times before; it’s one of our go-to places to take a walk or a leisurely bike ride and see what we can see. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is a 2,285-acre island located where the Chester River opens up onto the Chesapeake Bay. Its fields and forests are surrounded by salt marshes fringed with loblolly pines. The Audubon Society has designated the refuge as one of its “Important Bird Areas.” More than 240 bird species visit the refuge through the seasons, along with small mammals and many other wildlife species.
We came in the winter to see the migratory waterfowl, mainly our favorites – the tundra swans.
And there they were, a large flock rafted up right by the little bridge as though to welcome us back. Winter, of course, is the only time you’ll see such a sight, but it’s also a grand season for a walk in the woods. Eastern Neck has several trails through an interesting variety of habitats, from oak-and-holly woods to glades of loblolly pine, past salt marshes, and through open meadows and fields. Each has its own character and its own set of critters.
Walking in winter presents its challenges, but if you dress correctly, with the proper layers, you can stay dry and comfortable in a wide range of temperatures.
The key is not to sweat it. Literally, don’t wad yourself up like the little brother in “A Christmas Story,” where the mom makes the poor kid so insulated he looks like an overstuffed teddy bear. If you start out hot, you’re going to get hotter once you start to move, and that’s going to cause perspiration. Once you’re wet with sweat, it’s hard to get dry again, and if you’re wet and then you stop moving, you’re going to get cold. That’s when you risk serious hypothermia, especially if it’s windy.
We drove out to Bogle’s Wharf on the eastern side of the island and had a tailgate picnic, sitting in our camp chairs in the lee of our car, watching a great blue heron glide just overhead along the shore of the Chester River. A thermos full of hot tomato bisque slurped from a mug can take the chill out of any afternoon.
This was the site of a small village at one point in the island’s history, with a packing plant and a steamboat wharf that would take the cans of shucked oysters to market across the Bay to Baltimore. On this day, a couple of fishermen were trying their luck at the end of the wooden pier.
The refuge has served as a sanctuary for migratory waterfowl since 1962, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought the island and squelched a developer’s scheme to build 283 houses on the site. Only one was built, and it’s still standing. It’s on the western side of the island near the Bayview Butterfly Trail, and now serves as housing for interns and visiting researchers.
We stopped by there, and though, of course, the butterfly garden was dormant, the open meadow between the house and the shoreline was alive with activity. As we walked down the path toward an overlook, we flushed out a flock of a dozen eastern bluebirds. They seemed to be teasing us along the walkway, posing on the tips of parched flower stalks before flitting off to the next bush, only to stop and pose again. They gave us quite a delightful show.
From the overlook, we could see the Baltimore skyline on the far horizon, with the Diplodocus-skeleton arch of the Key Bridge plainly visible 20 miles away. The nearer land mass was Love Point at the northern tip of Kent Island, about 3-1/2 miles off.
Later, I looked it up on Google Earth and was surprised to see that our home port of Annapolis was just 15 miles to the southwest as the osprey flies, if any osprey were flying this time of year. It was 75 miles away by car.
There are seven marked trails on the island, and we walked several of them, though we only logged about three miles altogether. While they’re short, the trails are entertaining in their variety of habitats. Since the topography is generally pool-table flat and close to sea level, it can be a little muddy in spots this time of year.
The Duck Inn Trail was a particularly fun walk down a country lane through the pines, with glimpses of a salt marsh pond festooned with rafts of Canada geese, black ducks and raucous mallards. The path opened up onto the Chester River just as a bald eagle floated right overhead.
From there, I could see the rise of the Kent Narrows bridge four miles away, and it reminded me of how close we were to civilization, even though it felt so wonderfully distant.
A clever Maryland militia officer took advantage of the vista during the War of 1812. On August 27, 1814, Sir Peter Parker, captain of the Royal Navy, sailed his frigate HMS Menalaus up the Chester River. Lt. Col. Philip Reed, commander of the 21st Regiment of Maryland Militia, wanted to fool the British about the size of his force, so he ferried the same men back and forth between the mainland and Eastern Neck Island over and over again. The ruse worked. “I was surprised to observe the Enemy’s Regular Troops and Militia in motion along the whole coast,” he reported to his admiral. The Marylanders won a victory over the Redcoats a day later in the Battle of Caulk’s Field, just a few miles north of Rock Hall.
We ended our explorations with a walk along the Tubby Cove Boardwalk out to a hammock – what naturalists call a small island of trees in the middle of a marsh. We climbed the wooden stairs to a protected viewing blind at the top of an observation deck. With binoculars we could see flocks of snow geese and tundra swans in the distance, and Canada geese flying in formation overhead, along with a pair of young eagles cavorting about. A tiny woodpecker made itself busy in a nearby pine.
We stopped again at the bridge to say a farewell to the swans.
—Orginially published January 2021
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a 2,285-acre island refuge at the confluence of the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It's an important migration stopover and wintering area for thousands of waterfowl.