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Winter is now solidly upon the Chesapeake, and while the colder temperatures can make it tempting to stay indoors, this is also a great time of year to find some new birding spots in and around the Chesapeake. Many species migrate through or overwinter in our region, and while waterfowl and shorebirds often catch the spotlight of the winter visitors, we are focusing on highlighting species and locations in Maryland where some of our less obvious winter visitors, as well as resident species, can be found. Many of the boreal nesting species, such as white-throated sparrow and ruby-crowned kinglet are common winter visitors that can be seen regularly from year to year. Other species experience ‘eruption’ years, when a high reproductive year will result in seeing that species occurring often in greater abundance and further south than their typical winter ranges. In the Chesapeake, 2018 has been such an eruption year for pine siskin, a small seed-eating bird similar in shape to a goldfinch. Many of our resident species, such as the northern cardinal, Carolina wren, and white-breasted nuthatch start to become much more visible at this time of year with the foliage off of the deciduous trees, and often a blanket of snow to help highlight them against a backdrop.
So with that in mind, here are the top ten places for winter forest birding in Maryland ...
Sandy Point State Park
You may already be familiar with Sandy Point State Park as a summertime recreation hot spot on the Chesapeake, but be sure to bring binoculars if you go in winter to enjoy the 786-acre park. Located in Anne Arundel County, this park offers a variety of facilities and activities in addition to birding, including a nature center, 22 boat launches, hiking, and picnic facilities. The park allows fishing, crabbing, and boating in season. Resident song sparrow and American robin are reliably viewed at this site, while winter visitors may include hermit thrush and white-throated sparrow.
Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area
Primarily focusing on grassland bird species, this 1,900 acre complex is comprised of serpentine barren habitat, a unique soil type that makes Soldiers Delight host to more than 22 species of rare plants, in addition to a number of cultural and historical resources. This Baltimore County park is open to hiking year round and offers a visitor center and facilities on site. In the woodland habitats, several species of woodpecker can be reliably found including red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers as well as northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Cedarville State Forest
With 3,510 acres and 19.5 miles of marked trails, it will take you several trips to cover all of the ground in this forest, or you can find a nice spot to get familiar with and see what comes through. Located in Prince George’s County, Cedarville is part of the Southern Maryland Recreation Complex, and features hiking, biking, equestrian trails, and hunting in season. At Cedarville, many of our common resident forest species can be reliably located, including Carolina chickadee and northern cardinal. Migratory species may include golden and ruby-crowned kinglets among others.
Pemberton Historical Park
This 262-acre park offers 4.5 miles of trails through forest and wetland habitats, in addition to the historical and cultural resources featured in the park. The park is easily accessed from Salisbury, and features a unique assemblage of tidal fresh and saltwater habitats, freshwater ponds, upland pine forest, hardwood forest, and meadow habitats in one complex, which attracts a diversity of bird species. Resident species may include eastern bluebird, brown thrasher, and American robin. Boreal nesting migratory sparrows are abundant in winter at Pemberton, including song, swamp, fox and field sparrows, eastern towhee and dark-eyed junco.
This 200-acre site contains four miles of maintained trails, and is frequented by nature lovers, hobbyists, students, and tourists. The arboretum has a mission to display the indigenous forest types of the Delmarva and as such provides fantastic opportunities for birdwatching for a variety of forest dwelling species. This Caroline County park is open year round and has a nature center, demonstration garden, and other seasonal exhibits. Resident species may include red or white-breasted nuthatch or brown creeper. Commonly seen migratory species may include golden-crowned kinglet and purple finch.
St. Mary’s River State Park
The 250-acre portion of St. Mary’s River State Park contains St. Mary’s Lake and features a 7.5-mile trail that circles the lake, comfort facilities, and other recreation features for picnicking, boating, and seasonal hunting. A second portion of the park is comprised of approximately 2,200 acres and is primarily undeveloped forestland. Common resident species include mourning dove and northern flicker, and migratory species may include winter wren and song sparrow.
Patuxent Research Refuge
The only wildlife refuge with a mission dedicated to wildlife research, Patuxent offers wildlife viewing opportunities to the public in its north and south units, with the central unit being reserved solely for research activities. Both the north and south tracts offer world class birding in all seasons, with more amenities focused on the southern tract, and a slightly more wildlife-centered experience in the northern tract. Common resident species include blue jay, American and fish crow, and migratory sparrows abound including fox, field, song, swamp, and white-throated sparrow to name a few.
Seneca Creek State Park
This 6,300-acre park extends along 14 miles of the Potomac River and offers a variety of birding habitats and locations throughout the over 20 miles of marked trails. Located in Gaithersburg, Maryland, this park offers comfort amenities at several locations, and is a great option for a day trip of birding from the DC metropolitan area. A great location for resident species such as the pileated woodpecker – much more easily spotted in winter without the leaves – as well as migratory species including ruby and golden-crowned kinglet.
Elk Neck State Park
Located in Cecil County, miles of hiking trails are encompassed in this 2,188-acre park that is home to a variety of habitats including sandy beaches, marshlands, and wooded bluffs. In addition to the vast birding opportunities throughout the park, scenic and recreation opportunities including camping, fishing, boating, and seasonal hunting are available to visitors. Check the woodland locations in this park for resident species including Carolina wren and downy woodpecker as well as migratory species such as hermit thrush, purple finch, and pine siskin.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Robinson Neck Preserve
Since these two are relatively close in geography and habitats we are including them both! Located in Dorchester County, both the refuge and the preserve offer a variety of tidal saltmarsh and upland loblolly pine forest habitats, with some freshwater ponds. While the sites will offer you tremendous opportunities for waterfowl viewing, the upland habitats will offer great views of many of the woodland birds. The federally-endangered Delmarva fox squirrel occurs on both properties, as well as sika deer, a rare, introduced species of deer smaller than the more common white-tailed deer. Migratory hawks such as northern harrier, sharp-shinned, and cooper’s hawk are most commonly seen in winter, while migratory species may include American pipit, pine siskin, and American tree sparrow, among others.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, attracts a vast number of waterfowl to model Chesapeake Bay tidal wetlands. While primarily a tidal marsh, the refuge also includes a mature pine forest.
Elk Neck State Park boasts 2,188 acres of sandy beaches, marshlands, and heavily wooded bluffs within the peninsula formed by the North East River, Elk River, and the Chesapeake Bay.
The Patuxent Research Refuge is the nation's only National Wildlife Refuge established to support wildlife research. Tour portions of 12,000 acres along the upper Patuxent River, and a visitor center on regional and national wildlife.
Situated at the northern end of the St. Mary's River watershed, St. Mary's River State Park shows a wide range of habitats, from wooded acres and fields to swamps and small streams.
The 262-acre park is the site of Pemberton Hall plantation and Pemberton Hall, a restored 1741 plantation home. The park includes many of the original plantation grounds and sites of slave quarters, along with natural areas.
The park, comprised of 6,300 acres, extends along 14 scenic miles of Seneca Creek. The Clopper Day-Use Area contains many scenic areas, including the 90-acre Clopper Lake, surrounded by forests and fields.
Sandy Point State Park is located in Anne Arundel county just before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The 786 acre park provides a variety of recreational opportunities such as swimming, fishing, crabbing, boating, and windsurfing.
Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area (NEA) is comprised of 1,900 acres of serpentine barren. The area has over 39 rare, threatened, or endangered plant species as well as rare insects, rocks and minerals.