With its vast expanses of shallow waters and wetlands, the Chesapeake Bay is a waterfowl magnet. It’s situated along the Atlantic flyway and migrating birds often stop or winter here en route from their northern summer breeding grounds.
The diversity of species and sheer numbers in the past created a tradition of waterfowl hunting. This tradition also produced one of the Bay’s loveliest folk art forms—decoy carving. Hunters made decoys to draw real birds within shooting range. Eventually, the carving itself became art, and what were humble working decoys are now sought after collectibles worth thousands of dollars.
This tour lets visitors examine the art and evolution of decoy carving, then travel to a remote refuge to mingle with the birds.
3 Ninth Street
Crisfield, MD 21817
In the pantheon of Chesapeake Bay decoy carvers, few stand out more boldly than Lem and Steve Ward. The brothers, both barbers from Crisfield, learned to carve (and barber) from their father, L. Travis Ward, Sr. At first, the brothers carved decoys for local hunters. But their birds eventually gained a following all over the Bay. Collectors now pay tens of thousands of dollars for them.
Today, you can walk into their workshop and see it as they did; their desk, chopping block, saws, paints and tools are intact. Visitors can observe two master carvers continue the traditions and techniques.
The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art
Salisbury, MD 21804
When decoys began moving from the marshes to mantles, their purpose and value shifted from that of working tools to coveted collectibles. This museum, about an hour northeast of Crisfield, studies that evolution. It also explores the history of waterfowling and decoy carving. Today, carvers create decoys of astonishing detail that are truly a fine art, but their roots are in the Bay’s waterfowling tradition that produced working birds.
The galleries here let you examine the form, function and homespun beauty of a bluebill drake by the Ward brothers, then marvel over the lifelike delicacy of a flock of sanderlings—a winner in the museum’s annual world championship carving competition. Carvers around the Bay created different decoys for varied hunting conditions, and placed their own personal flair and style into their birds.
This museum’s extensive collection also lets you study in detail those variations and begin to understand how they came about.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Cambridge, MD 21613
Despite the proximity of major cities, the Bay still harbors places where you can immerse yourself in wilderness. This refuge, about an hour’s drive northwest of Salisbury, is one of those.
Among waterfowl, the Bay has four types: diving ducks such as canvasbacks and ruddy ducks; dabblers such as black ducks; geese; and swans. All are represented in this refuge’s 26,000 acres of remote tidal marshland. Here, it is possible to watch the autumn arrival of some 30,000 Canada geese, examine the intricate beauty of a pintail, or a blue- or green-winged teal, and listen to the peculiar creak of tundra swans’ wings as flocks of them pass overhead.
Amid the silence of the spindly pines and marshy meadows, it’s possible here to imagine the Bay and its waterfowl as they co-existed centuries ago.