I found Rocky Point Park almost by accident. In September 2021, with a couple of hours of daylight to fill before I was scheduled to lead a birding tour of Hart-Miller Island, I did a cursory check of Google Maps to see what other parks were in the area. From the aerial view provided online, Rocky Point Park didn’t look like much – just a thin peninsula without many trees. But I was intrigued. Looking at the park’s statistics in eBird (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online database for bird sightings), I noted that birders’ visits to the park had almost exclusively been during the winter months. That the park would attract birders in the winter made sense, as its location between Back River and Hawk Cove would make it an attractive spot for viewing waterfowl, a winter specialty. But to be ignored nearly completely during the rest of the year? I’ve always enjoyed birding at places and times that are overlooked by other birders; there’s something about the blank slate, and knowing that every bird represents “new data,” that piques my curiosity. So, I took my binoculars down to Rocky Point.
As luck would have it, that first visit produced a beautiful lemony Philadelphia vireo. Philly vireos are uncommon-to-rare migrants in these parts; I only see two or three each year. With a semi-rarity teasing the potential for this spot to be a migrant trap, I committed to giving Rocky Point more attention. In fact, I felt the park had such great promise that I decided to include it in a personal birding challenge for 2022, for which I would only bird at five Baltimore-area parks over the course of the entire year. My hope was that by giving just a few spots more regular attention, I could get a better sense of what birds actually passed through those parks, and perhaps turn up some special finds.
This Philadelphia vireo, seen on my first visit to Rocky Point in September 2021, gave me a good feeling about the park’s potential.
These visits were most productive for waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans, grebes, loons), and in the first three months I observed twenty-five species of waterfowl at the park (including fourteen species in a single visit on a bitterly cold January morning). These included certain sea ducks – such as common goldeneye and red-breasted merganser – that, while common in the open waters of Southern Maryland and Worcester County, can be difficult to find this far up the Chesapeake Bay. Thorough scans from two vantage points – the beach and the point, proper – offer the best chance at viewing these species. It should be stressed that a spotting scope is immensely helpful in bringing a lot of these waterfowl into view, but one can also do quite well just by keeping a watchful eye on the sky for flyover flocks. On March 26th, I observed a group of eighty-three red-breasted mergansers flying over the Point, the most I’d ever seen in Baltimore!
Ruddy ducks, one of Maryland’s smallest duck species, were always entertaining as they dove and resurfaced in the water just off the point.
But waterfowl are not the only birds around during this time of year, as evidenced by a mid-February visit that produced 62 species, a fantastic tally for any spot in Baltimore in winter.
Beginning in mid-March (and continuing through late April), impressive numbers of northbound Bonaparte’s gulls would congregate off the Point. It’s always important to sift through these large flocks – no matter how tedious or frustrating the task may seem – as you never know what might be hidden in the masses. On March 19th, two little gulls – the world’s smallest gull species and a rarity in Baltimore – were fluttering among the hundreds of gulls. Picking out this species from its similarly-marked cousins can be challenging, but a flash of its diagnostic charcoal underwing color will cinch the identification as a “LIGU.”
The park, as expected, had produced some great winter specialties, but now I was heading into the unknown – migration. In the months of April and May, across all years, only fifteen(!) checklists had been submitted for Rocky Point Park (compare that with well-trodden spots like Cromwell Valley Park, for which twenty checklists may be submitted in a single day of migration). This lack of attention meant that only five species of warbler had ever been documented at the park in spring migration, a shockingly low number that I was sure could be raised. With spring on the horizon, my excitement began to build. Would the park attract anything out of the ordinary, or would my prediction fall flat?
My first April visit started off with a bang, in the form of a flyover flock of twenty-nine(!) red-throated loons (RTLO). RTLOs are tough to get in Baltimore, and even when they are found, it is usually just a single bird, maybe a pair. This group of twenty-nine represented my highest count away from the Ocean City Inlet, and one of the highest counts ever recorded in Baltimore. The day only got better from there, with a stunning yellow-throated warbler (YTWA, see photo at top) joining the hordes of yellow-rumped warblers that had been gaining in number since the spring solstice. YTWAs are uncommon migrants in Baltimore (I myself had only seen them a handful of times before in the county), and this was the first time the species had been documented at Rocky Point (amazingly, the park would produce another YTWA on a late-August visit).
Over the next few weeks, the park would produce more and more dazzling spring migrants, including scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and Cape May warblers (one of sixteen species of warbler I saw in April and May). There were some notable surprises as well: a marsh wren (April 22nd) and a grasshopper sparrow (May 2nd), both far removed from their preferred habitats, represented the first records of their respective species for the park.
A marsh wren at Rocky Point in late April, the first-ever sighting of the species at the park.
By the beginning of May, 137 species had been observed at Rocky Point, making this small, oft-overlooked, “winter” park the “top hotspot” in Baltimore City and County in 2022 as of that time. Notwithstanding this early success, I felt it could be even better in the fall. The geography of the park – a south-oriented peninsula – meant it could serve as a natural funnel for southbound fall migrants, such that they would congregate at the park before making the jump over the open water of Back River and beyond. Time would tell whether my prediction would come true.
At the beginning of May, Rocky Point sat atop eBird’s “top hotspot” standings for Baltimore City and County
I didn’t make it out to the park very often in June and July, but the early summer months are usually a comparatively uneventful time for birding. Migrants have fully passed through the region, and the resident breeding birds, no longer needing to stake out their territory or attract a mate, have quieted down. Still, a summer visit to Rocky Point will deliver great views of local osprey, bald eagles, and great blue herons, which are common at the park throughout the year (on the right day, one might see upwards of ten eagles patrolling the Point!).
The real fun begins in August, which marks the beginning of fall migration. First, I discovered that Rocky Point is a prime staging ground for post-breeding purple martins. These boisterous, silky swallows, the largest of the swallow species that we see in Baltimore, would congregate on the telephone wires lining the entrance road to the park. On one early August morning, I counted more than 150!
Dozens of purple martins perched on the wires lining the park’s entrance road.
A couple of weeks later, I was treated to another great swallow spectacle, this one in the form of some three hundred bank swallows pouring over the Point in the first hour after sunrise. Bank swallows are among the less common regularly-occurring swallow species in Baltimore; before this morning, the most I had ever seen in the county – or in the state, for that matter – was fifty-two birds, on Hart-Miller Island. As August came to a close, while I added some beautiful warblers – including chestnut-sided and magnolia Warblers – and some more notable finds like royal tern to my 2022 tally for the park, I was still waiting for the “dam to break” and for the flood of fall migrants I had been hoping for to materialize . . .
September got off to a good start, with an expected but elusive species showing up in the most unexpected of locations in the park. With the huge swath of dense woods that lies at the northern end of the park and extends further north towards Essex, I was sure that there were barred owls in the area. And yet, in the first eight months of the year, I had found none. Imagine my surprise when, just after dawn on September 9th, I finally discovered one – not deep in the woods, but, rather, all the way down at the point proper! A young bird, still showing some of its fledgling downy feathers, I watched it alight into one of the few trees at the point, pause, and turn to face me. I looked down only briefly to send an excited message to a birding colleague, then looked up, and it had disappeared. One of my favorite moments of the year.
This young barred owl paused for only a few seconds above the picnic tables down at the point, but provided one of my favorite moments of the year.
Still, fall migration seemed to be lagging, and I was beginning to get nervous that my prophecy, of amazing fall mornings with warblers galore, would not come to fruition. Then, a turn. I arrived at the park just before sunrise on September 14th, and positioned myself in front of the line of trees along the western shore of the park, just north of the first boat ramp. Most birders are familiar with the phenomenon that occurs when sunlight first hits the treetops on a good morning in migration season; it is a thrill that is hard to put into words, and of which one never tires. This morning, as the first rays of a brilliant sunrise began to wash over that western wall of trees, they came alive with activity. A pair of Blackburnian warblers, stunning even in their fall plumage, were joined by a Canada warbler, then two Tennessee warblers (the first ever recorded at Rocky Point Park), and then a worm-eating warbler (also a first park record). There were dozens of birds, each scan seemed to produce a new species. At one point, I put my binoculars down just to appreciate, with the naked eye, the sheer amount of movement that was going on in front of me – the trees were dripping with warblers. In the first hour of daylight, just within the quarter-mile of trees surrounding the first boat ramp and the playground, I observed seventeen different species of warbler, including ten in a single tree. For a park that, before my first visit in September 2021, had only ten warbler species to its name, to deliver seventeen in a single morning was welcome vindication of my belief in its potential. This place was really good.
September wasn’t over yet, though, and the park had another treat in store for me. My favorite family of birds are shorebirds, the endearing, and often challenging, group of sandpipers and plovers. I had resigned myself to the idea that I probably would not find any at Rocky Point, which lacks the habitat – mud – that shorebirds crave. However, on a late September morning, I arrived to find that stiff and sustained northwest winds were actually blowing the waters of Hawk Cove out towards the Bay, exposing a large mudflat just off of the beach which I was ecstatic to find held a small group of shorebirds. Semipalmated sandpipers, semipalmated plovers and a pectoral sandpiper—all new species for the park’s list – methodically probing the mud, and seemingly oblivious to my presence. The birds were so obliging, and I was so enamored, that I eventually got down in the mud with them to photograph them at their eye-level. A rare experience in Baltimore, and one I never would have gotten had I not made Rocky Point my focus for the year.
This semipalmated plover fed just a few feet in front of me as I lay on my stomach in a rare patch of mud at Rocky Point.
While I wasn’t able to make it to the park very often in the last few months of the year, my final visit of 2022, as part of the Middle River Christmas Bird Count, yielded one last surprise, in the form of a snow goose swimming with a flock of Canada geese just off the beach.
This snow goose, my final addition to my Rocky Point year list, was the 166th species I saw at the park in 2022.
So there you have it, a year of birding at Rocky Point Park. Between twenty-seven visits in 2022 alone, I observed 166 species at the park, more than had been observed there across all previous years combined (162 species had been recorded before 2022)! This number included twenty-seven species of waterfowl, twenty-five species of warblers, twelve species of hawks and falcons, ten species of gulls and terns, as well as shorebirds, herons and egrets, woodpeckers, flycatchers, vireos, swallows, thrushes, sparrows, blackbirds and more.
From the time of my first visit in September 2022 to December 2022, I added 37 species to the park’s species list that had not been recorded before, bringing it to 189 species all-time and lifting this tiny “winter” park from 65th place to 20th in terms of the all-time most productive spots in all of Baltimore City and County. The challenge had paid off in a big way.
If I could leave you with two takeaways from this experience: First, if you have the time, explore the closest greenspace to wherever you are – you never know when the random park you choose to visit might become your new favorite spot! Had I not been searching for a park in the Essex area to fill two hours on that September 2021 morning, I may never have come across Rocky Point. Secondly, just because a park hasn’t received much attention doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve more. I encourage you to seek out a lesser-known park and give it some love – you never know what amazing things you might discover!
Located at the mouth of Back and Middle Rivers, Rocky Point Park features a 300' beach, a 20' x 30' beach front tent, a large and small pavilion, seven shaded picnic groves, fishing pier, two boat ramps, and a bathhouse with first aid station.