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If only one word could be used to describe the Eastern Shore, “magic” would be the one I would choose. Flanked by the Chesapeake Bay on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east, the Eastern Shore formed through the forces of wind, water and sand. This land between ocean and bay possesses a magical quality that’s much more than its scenery; rather, it’s a sum of all its parts—imposing coastal wetlands and seashores, diverse assemblages of wildlife, and seasons that bring personality to a land of golden salt marshes and shallow bays, fragrant piney woodlands and sandy beaches. Elevation isn’t measured in the thousands or hundreds, but merely in inches and feet. But within its narrow spectrum of rise, a marvelous assortment of life resides within the landscape’s relative simplistic appearance and flatness.
Since 1976, I’ve had an ongoing love affair with the Eastern Shore, which includes the coastal regions of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Nearly six years ago I embarked on a personal journey to document through camera and pen the diversity of life found here. This effort culminated in my latest book, Between Ocean and Bay: A Celebration of the Eastern Shore (Mountain Trail Press, 2008). While the Eastern Shore has many state, federal and private nature parks and reserves, my exploration of the Eastern Shore centered primarily on the shore’s national wildlife refuges as well as the Assateague Island National Seashore. Having spent nearly 28 years working for the National Wildlife Refuge System, I obviously was drawn to these very special enclaves of public land that we as a nation are so fortunate to have—a system so unique that nothing else like it is found anywhere in the world. So, here’s a sampling of those special Eastern Shore places I love to explore.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware
Located along the Delaware Bay in the northeastern portion of the state, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is renowned for its spectacular concentrations of migrating waterfowl. More than 100,000 snow geese and 50,000 ducks of various species converge each fall on the refuge’s wetlands and fields. Established in 1937, the refuge protects more than 15,000 acres, including 12,000 acres of salt marsh that stretch to the horizon—one of the largest untouched tracts of coastal marsh along the entire East Coast.
The refuge has a wonderful 12-mile auto-tour route that offers many opportunities for photographing the morning flight of the snow geese as they depart the refuge to feed in the surrounding agricultural fields. The weapons of choice for photographing wildlife here are the big guns—focal lengths of 400mm to 600mm. But exceptional images of the birds taking off from wetlands can be captured with medium-telephoto zooms as well as wide-angle zooms. The best time to photograph the waterfowl concentrations are from October to November.
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To witness a truly remarkable natural spectacle near the refuge, consider visiting the area in late spring when millions of horseshoe crabs converge on the beaches of the Delaware Bay. From April to June, during the new- and full-moon phases, the horseshoe crabs, which aren’t crabs but rather arthropods, come ashore to lay eggs on the beach. This event coincides with the spring migration of millions of shorebirds, including ruddy turnstones, plovers, sanderlings and 80 percent of the world’s population of red knots. These long-distance migrants scour the beach, feeding on the crab eggs to refuel their depleted fat reserves before continuing north to reach their arctic breeding grounds. The best locations to photograph this event are at Slaughter and Big Stone Beaches, Port Mahon and Cape Henlopen State Park.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is just one unit of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Eastern Neck, Martin and Susquehanna National Wildlife Refuges, as well. Blackwater serves as the mother ship for the complex.
Blackwater protects more than 27,000 acres, composed mainly of rich tidal marsh characterized by fluctuating water levels and varying salinity. Other habitat types found here include freshwater ponds, small tracts of cropland and freshwater impoundments that are seasonally flooded for waterfowl use. The refuge also features extensive stands of forestlands comprised of oak, hickory, sweet gum and the Eastern Shore’s signature tree, the towering loblolly pine. There’s nothing like hiking on a trail in these forests and being treated to the whispering cadence of a spring breeze filtering through the pines; the fragrant aroma of pine needles isn’t bad either.
Blackwater is a popular place in November when upwards of 35,000 geese and 15,000 ducks visit. But the refuge is more than waterfowl; it’s also a haven for several rare species, including the American bald eagle, endangered Delmarva fox squirrel and migrant peregrine falcon. The refuge and surrounding area play host to the largest breeding population of bald eagles on the East Coast, north of Florida. The area’s wintering eagle population is impressive, as well. During spring and summer, ospreys can be seen and photographed just about everywhere along the refuge’s wildlife drive.
Several trails are available to explore, while the wildlife drive winds along the Blackwater River and the refuge’s freshwater impoundments. During fall migration, there are many locations to photograph flocks of geese as they fly overhead and descend on the fields to feed. Check out the visitor center, especially in late afternoon when the geese land in the nearby fields to feed before heading back out to the safety of the wetlands.
A nice side trip not far from the refuge is Hooper’s Island, a small fishing village on the Chesapeake Bay. The 23-mile scenic trip to the island winds through expansive stretches of coastal marshes and forestlands. The island remains a viable fishing community, although the bay’s populations of oysters, clams and crabs are dramatically declining. While on the island, you might relax after a day of photographing and dine at Old Salty’s, a quaint local establishment that cooks up some mighty fine seafood.
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Little Blue Heron, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland.
The little blue heron can be skittish and a challenge to photograph unless its mind is on finding dinner or it’s preening time.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia
Established in 1943, Chincoteague is considered one of the crown jewels of the 99-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System. Protecting more than 14,000 acres of salt marsh, loblolly pine forests and freshwater impoundments, Chincoteague is world-renowned for its diversity of wildlife, especially birds. More than 320 bird species have been recorded here. The refuge’s many wetland habitats provide feeding, resting and nesting sites for a variety of wading birds, including glossy ibis; great and snowy egrets; great blue, green, tricolored and little blue herons; and the yellow-crowned and night-crowned herons. Other wildlife specialties include the diminutive sika deer, the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, the river otter and the muskrat.
The refuge is a nature photographer’s dream with infinite possibilities of landscapes, wildlife, close-ups and abstract subjects. A great place to start your exploration is along the main thoroughfare on the refuge, Beach Drive, which leads to the Assateague Island National Seashore. Drive slowly and watch for river otters feeding and playing in the channels along the road. Belted kingfishers frequent the same area and can be photographed from the comfort of your vehicle as these supreme fishers perch on fence posts along the channel.
For a stunning sunrise location, drive along Beach Drive to Black Duck Pool. A mixture of loblolly pine hammocks and wetlands creates a visually appealing composition. As the sun rises behind the pines, the marsh becomes painted with hues of red and gold. Add in the possibility of waterfowl, shorebirds and sika deer in the composition, and you’ll have the signature image of what makes this refuge so special. Other locations to explore include Woodland Trail, Marsh Trail and Wildlife Drive.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland-Virginia
When visiting Chincoteague, you can’t help but spend time at Assateague Island National Seashore, which adjoins the refuge. Assateague remains the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in the mid-Atlantic region, and its remote beaches are important nesting, staging and migration habitats for a variety of migratory birds, including the endangered piping plover. Stretching for 37 miles along the mid-Atlantic seaboard, Assateague Island harbors an amazing diversity of life. Expect the full gamut of coastal subjects to photograph, including seashells, stunning sunrises over the Atlantic, shorebirds and abstracts.
While the summer season can be very crowded at Assateague and Chincoteague, during spring, fall and winter, visitation is greatly curtailed. These are the times I enjoy Assateague and the Eastern Shore the most—enjoying the silence, solitude and the opportunity to watch nature’s dramas unfold before me. Once you visit the Eastern Shore, you’ll make plans to return. And when you leave, you’ll make an excuse to linger just a bit longer.
To learn more about the National Wildlife Refuge System, visit www.fws.gov. Jim Clark is a contributing editor to Outdoor Photographer.