Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve

Brilliant peach-colored sunrise over water. There are grasses in the foregroun and trees in the distance. Clouds streak across the sky. Sunrise in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve, Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake, Delmarva, Dorchester County, MD. © Jerry Ginsberg
Sunrise in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve, Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake, Delmarva, Dorchester County, MD. © Jerry Ginsberg

By Jerry Ginsberg

National Wildlife Reserves

While our National Parks, the crown jewels of federal lands, often receive the lion’s share of our attention, the wonderful creature sanctuaries known as National Wildlife Refuges provide an immeasurable benefit to wildlife in these days of ever-expanding development. This human expansion inevitably results in ever shrinking habitat and more and more pressure on the wild creatures who rely upon that habitat.

There are actually 568 (as of 2019) such preserves covering over 150 million acres scattered among all 50 states, DC and several territories. While it would be a daunting task to try to visit them all, I do take advantage of a few near my home in South Florida. Thanks to a recent family get-together in Maryland, I found myself just a few minutes from the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in a rural portion of the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, part of the aptly named DelMarVa Peninsula. This 29,000 acre tract was established almost a century ago as a protected sanctuary for migrating bird life along the ancient route known as the Atlantic Flyway. Catering largely to waterfowl, the refuge includes fresh and brackish wetlands, marshes, and forested areas.

Pastel orange colors in the sky behind a stand of trees. In the foreground is a body of water bounded by grasses, with the water's glassy surface reflecting the soft colors of the sky. Sunrise in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve. © Jerry Ginsberg
Sunrise in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve. © Jerry Ginsberg

The Eastern Shore

The ‘Eastern Shore’ is a historic area with its own deeply ingrained culture going back to colonial times. Home of the famed local watermen, their many traditions are inseparable from the culture and understanding of the entire Chesapeake area. For those interested in learning about the long history of this quintessentially American region, I heartily recommend the wonderful fact-based historical novel Chesapeake by the late, great author James A. Michener.

Mid-range to close up photo of part of a tree trunk in the golden light of sunrise. Vines are growing up the trunk, with green leaves and red flowers.Flowering tree in Spring, Blackwater NWR. © Jerry Ginsberg
Flowering tree in Spring, Blackwater NWR. © Jerry Ginsberg

Photography

I am certainly not known as a bird photographer – and for good reason. There are many folks around who are far better than I. That particular slice of art and science was pioneered by Emma Louisa Turner early in the 20th century. Since then, the art of bird photography has become the passion of those who recognize the grace and beauty of our feathered friends. Whether on the wing, the nest, water or dry land, these unique creatures with their poetic forms and movements offer endless visual beauty and great compositions.

Current technology allows us to capture images not possible years ago. Auto focus, high ISO, high frame rates and wider dynamic range create new and exciting opportunities.

While I certainly enjoyed seeing several bald eagles, herons, egrets, and a few owls in the wonderful wetlands of this great reserve, I stuck to my primary skill of landscape photography as a means of expressing my impressions of the land and its characteristics.

When the clouds cooperate, there are multiple spots along Wildlife Drive and nearby roads for photographing brilliant sunrises and sunsets.

I’m always happy to be out in nature waiting for first light in the calmness and tranquility before dawn when the world is still asleep. Long ago, I felt that standing behind my tripod in a natural location at these times was solely to facilitate photography. Over time, I have come to appreciate that making images can become an excuse and a means by which to simply enjoy the wonderful peace and silence that comes along with being out there in the early morning and evening.

For those more skilled than I at making wildlife images, creatures making their homes or visiting the Blackwater NWR include:

Birds:
Bald eagles
Osprey
Hawks
Purple Martin
Peregrine Falcons
Horned owl
Woodpecker
Red-winged blackbirds
Great Blue Herons
Great White Egrets
Canada Geese
Many varieties of Ducks

Mammals:
White tailed deer
Sika deer
Fox
Raccoons
Muskrat
The rare Delmarva fox squirrel

Vast numbers of snow geese, tundra swans, and ducks overwinter at Blackwater. When planning your visit, take a few minutes to learn about the Seasons of Wildlife and what to expect during your time there.

Sunrise in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve. Tall grasses are silhouetted in the foreground. In the mid ground is a body of water reflecting the orange color of the sky. In the distance is the opposite shore with the sun just popping up over the horizon. © Jerry Ginsberg
Sunrise in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve. © Jerry Ginsberg

Logistics

The most convenient gateway airport for this area of the Atlantic Coast is Baltimore-Washington International (BWI). However, Reagan National (DCA) and Dulles (IAD) are not much farther away giving you more options for both schedules and fares.

After crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the eastern shore, head south on busy Route 50 to Cambridge, Maryland. Then turn south on Route 16, east on Route 335 and left onto Key Wallace Drive.

With well paved roads throughout, there is no need for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, so renting any ordinary sedan will suffice. That said, I always prefer the convenience of a tailgate and usually opt for an intermediate or standard size SUV. With the recent upheaval in the travel industry caused by the COVID pandemic, car rental rates have reached the stratosphere. Diligent and persistent shopping online can help to minimize this expense, but only to a degree.

Lodging

In searching the Air BnB website, I happened upon the listing for Harwood Cottage in Church Creek, Maryland. It proved to be a very lucky find. Both the location and amenities made it a really great choice.

Nearby Cambridge has a variety of hotel options and is only a 20-minute drive from Blackwater.

Ponds and wetlands along Wildlife Drive in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve. © Jerry Ginsberg
Ponds and wetlands along Wildlife Drive in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve. © Jerry Ginsberg

The food

Aside from the fast food places along Route 50, this is crab country. If you are a shellfish lover, you will be in heaven along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. Look for the local establishments in the small communities. A busy parking lot out front is usually a reliable barometer.

Sunrise with dark and vibrant reds and mauve clouds. In the distance in a band of trees. In the midground, a thin body of water reflects the color of the sky. In the foreground are grasses. Sunrise in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve. © Jerry Ginsberg
Sunrise in Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve. © Jerry Ginsberg

Side trip into history

Editor’s note: If you’re interested in history and have a little extra time, right next to Blackwater, on Route 335, is the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park. Tubman was born into slavery in this area, escaped, and returned numerous times to lead others north to freedom. A self-guided driving tour leads one past 30 sites associated with her life, and there are two large murals, as well as a small museum, in Cambridge.

Photo of Jerry GinsbergJerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or e-mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.

Photograph from a NANPA Foundation blind!

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is one of 47 sites to date that has partnered with NANPA Foundation to erect a photo blind and encourage responsible nature photography in the wild. Get the map to all 47 sites and plan your next outing.