About two weeks ago we had a terrific day out at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, across the Chesapeake Bay in rural eastern Maryland – the state’s ‘Eastern Shore’ region. I’m lucky enough to visit America to see family once or twice a year, but invariably our trips are devoted to relaxing with family and friends. Birding tends to be fitted into the gaps – a walk on the local trail one morning, an afternoon trek round a nearby lake, garden birds from inside the house or sightings snatched from the car: this was a chance to put in some serious nature time.
As with most things, wildlife in America tends to come in superlatives. Blackwater Refuge is twice the size of Reading, or Southampton, a vast wilderness of open water, tidal and freshwater pools, swampy mixed woodland and the largest expanse of saltmarsh on the east coast north of Florida. It hosts the largest breeding population of bald eagles on the east coast north of Florida too, up to 50 pairs, swelling to 200 overwintering birds, accompanying tens of thousands of passage and wintering wildfowl, as well as ospreys, egrets, and songbirds galore in the summer.
Impressive as some of England’s nature reserves are, statistics like that are hard to find. I suspect even our largest parcels of land strictly set aside for nature would not be that visible on a map of the country, and any holding a single eagle or osprey nest would probably be famous. Ours are set in amongst towns and cities, working landscapes and seaside resorts, crammed into our overcrowded isles, fighting for every hectare. A better way of putting that would be to imagine England as a garden, as we like to do, people and nature attempting to come to a compromise and exist in the same place at the same time. In terms of wildlife at least, America seems to me to be more clearly divided: over here, this is a built up area, this is where we have malls and housing developments and the like, and this – this is the wilderness. It’s expansive, wild and dangerous. This is where bears and wolves roam and murderous hillbillies lurk in the woods. You’ll probably die out there.
This difference is reflected, more subtly, in the visitor experience at nature reserves. In Britain, we have a lot of small to medium sized reserves that often seem visitor oriented, riddled as they are with paths, boardwalks, hides and screens. Space for nature and space for people is, with the exception of the most sensitive breeding sites, mixed in together. In America, again, a clearer separation – this is where the people walk, or drive in air-conditioned comfort, and this is where the wildlife is. Instead of somewhat comfortable hides, you just stay in your much more comfortable car and observe things from the perimeter. Having said that, the American wildlife itself has got wise to the attempted separation and often seems to be most visible from the roadside, perhaps hoping for a free meal. And of course you can find exceptions to every rule; we have some pretty wild-looking reserves, and wildlife gets on fine in many American cities (I’ve done some astonishingly good birdwatching in American city parks), but I think my general comparison kind of works.
One thing common to reserves on both sides of the pond is the visitor’s centre and shop, staffed by volunteers. At Blackwater were greeted by an affable old codger, identified as Chuck by his name badge, who went through a map of the ‘Wildlife Drive’ with us in exhausting detail, telling us where to stop and what to look for, including a detailed description of pelican feeding behaviour (turns out they had moved on, alas) finishing with a personal recommendation: “Come round this corner here, pull over, and you’ll see a bench on your left. Sit there a while, and you never know what you might see.” Halfway through this monologue another volunteer came past the desk. “Hey, Chuck,” said Chuck, temporarily interrupting himself – clearly, being named Chuck is part of the person specification, or maybe ‘Chuck’ is an Americanism for ‘wildlife guide’ or something that I’m not familiar with
He looked up at us and asked who would be driving, and I pointed to Rebecca. “Well sir, you’ll be doing the navigating then”. This seemed a solemn commission and I hoped not to let Chuck down. After all, it looked wild out there. I wouldn’t want to get us lost.
Saying our farewells and thank you to the team of Chucks, we hit the road. On the first stretch of road, ospreys were nesting on a platform a short distance out into the river on our left, no fewer than 14 dazzling Great white egrets feeding in the swampy pool to our right. An auspicious start. The first viewing area overlooking the wide river bay was fried-egg-on-the-pavement hot, sweltering, humid, exposed and sweaty and generally unpleasant. But absolutely beautiful. Absolute silence and stillness of the sort impossible to find in rural England now, plagued as we are by distant road noise, farm machinery and lawnmowers, etc. The only sound at all came from red winged blackbirds, males giving rising calls from the marsh, various quite unusual frog calls, and the occasional peep from spotted sandpipers on a mud bank in the river. Scanning the ‘snags’, as Chuck had described deliberately re-planted dead trees, I spotted our quarry, a majestically huge bald eagle perched, gazing imperiously out over the marshes. Then another, flying out over the river, sometimes coming low but not catching any fish. They probably weren’t biting in the heat.
After a couple more hours touring in the car, with very hot excursions out onto the tarmac, and one rapid mosquito-ridden walk through the woods (we were so harried that we didn’t even have the willpower to stop and search for a pileated woodpecker, cackling at us from somewhere deep amongst the trees), we settled down on Chuck’s bench to eat a sandwich. I’d not been chewing long when a blue grosbeak briefly settled on a branch right in front of us – peanut butter and jam, life bird, a good lunch so far. I could hear their relative the indigo bunting singing from a nearby pine tree; it’s called a ‘bunting’ but is bright blue and sounds like a willow warbler. I love American birds! A sudden scrabbling on the road behind us had us spinning round in situ in time to see two groundhogs running along the hot tarmac just a few feet away. We froze. They froze. One had its fierce, sharpened yellow buck teeth bared, and this one fled after a few seconds, leaving another sat still in the road, now with its back to us, seemingly quite unconcerned. Then it too seemed to startle once more and scampered after the first off the road and out of sight. Woodchuck is another common name for them – and seemed particularly appropriate somehow.
We didn’t find an eagle nest, nor indeed see one actually catch a fish successfully; or see any new kinds of heron, or the prothonotary warblers promised by the trail map. But I wasn’t disappointed by Blackwater: abundant, wonderful, visible wildlife in beautiful, largely undisturbed habitats, lots of new birds for my list, and a a few friendly ‘chucks’. We’ll definitely be going back.