Maryland Wildlife Refuges

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge

One of the system's best kept secrets" is how Marty Kaehney likes to describe the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge that he manages on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

The refuge is a 2,285-acre island at the mouth of the Chester River and, while in sight of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, getting there requires a round-about journey of 50 miles from where the bridge is. But for making the trip, visitors are rewarded, especially during the fall and spring with leisurely viewing of thousands of migrating or wintering birds including the stately tundra swan.

Location: South of Chesterton, MD, on eastern side of Chesapeake Bay.
Size: 2,285 acres.
Features: Island at mouth of Chester River. 243 bird species including tundra swan, bald eagle, and green-backed heron.
Activities: Fishing, hunting, crabbing, birdwatching and nature walks.
Photos: Great blue heron; Canada geese.

Birds and Animals

A large variety of bird and animal species are attracted by the varied habitats of the refuge ranging from the open water of the bay and brackish tidal marshes to forest, grassland, and cropland. Water birds and songbirds share the refuge with nesting eagles and endangered Delmarva fox squirrels.

And, in addition, Kaehney and his three-person staff (assistant manager, maintenance worker, and office worker) offer excellent public-use facilities marked by attractive new information signs throughout the refuge.

The refuge bird list contains 243 species recorded on the refuge and includes wintering lesser scaup, oldsquaws, white-winged scoters, ruddy ducks, canvasbacks, buffleheads, redheads, and pintails. Numerous marsh and shore birds migrate through in spring and fall. Mallards, black ducks, wood ducks, great blue herons, and green-backed herons nest at the refuge.

Bald eagles have fledged young each year since 1986, and blue birds, ospreys, and woodcocks are regularly fledged. The annual Christmas bird count has been conducted by the National Audubon Society on the refuge each year except 1995, when all refuges were closed because of a government worker furlough.

Facilities and Activities

The Tubby Cove Boardwalk is a new facility that was completed in 1995 and features an observation blind overlooking inlet waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Three wildlife trails take visitors into the varied habitats of the refuge (see map).

From May 1 to September 30, the Ingleside Recreation Area is operated by Kent County for picnicking, crabbing, and car-top boat launching. Trailered boat launching is allowed with a county permit at Bogle's Wharf landing.

Deer hunting by gun and bow are allowed by permit holders chosen by lottery; 1 day is set aside for hunters 10 to 15 years old. Besides open-water fishing by boat, fishers also use the bridge over Eastern Neck Narrows at the refuge entrance, a spot where wildlife observers can often see tundra swans as as well.

The attractive wooden bridge that connects the island refuge to the mainland was opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in August 1995 after 6 months of construction during which the refuge had to be closed to all traffic. Unable to persuade Kent County to replace the former obsolete county bridge, the refuge was forced to pay for the design and construction of the new bridge.

The bridge provides access for commercial fishers to Bogles Wharf Landing, but Kaehney wishes that a deal had been struck to limit the 24-hour access the bridge affords to the refuge. One late night fire has already damaged his new boardwalk.

Cooperative Farming and Volunteering

Farming for wildlife is a principal management activity for assistant manager Kathy Owen. She is in charge of a type of share-cropping that refuges call cooperative farming. Father and son farmers from nearby Rock Hall, descendants of a family that farmed the island before it became a refuge, carry out the crop plan, harvesting some crops, leaving some, and planting in accord with the agreement they enter with the refuge.

Owen says that they can make an income while the refuge gains food for wildlife and in-kind services like fence repairs and maintenance of meadow buffers. Corn, millet, and wheat are used for forage by waterfowl, sweet clover for bees and songbirds, and warm season grasses for nest cover.

Crop rotation reduces the need for fertilizers and increases yields, but Owen is especially pleased with experimental"band-spraying" of herbicides with rented equipment. The equipment sprays the herbicides within a narrow band containing the row crop and reduces chemical use by 60 percent.

Area farmers, who came to see the results, were also pleased, and the Heritage agreed to help buy the equipment. To promote both refuge outreach and better area-wide pest management, consideration is now being given to sharing the new equipment with local farmers. Just mention green tree reservoirs and manager Kaehney flashes his ready smile. The refuge has established five GTRs or forested areas that are flooded during the winter to promote the growth of invertebrates for migrant waterfowl to eat when the trees are dormant. The seasonally flooded areas also make good nesting habitat for black and wood ducks.

The areas are dewatered in March after the birds depart and the trees are ready to releaf. The water supply for this operation comes from a deep well and a recently constructed impoundment that also serves as a year-round water area for nesting and loafing. "I'm so excited about this system that I can hardly stand it!" said Kaehney while standing near the project made possible with $25,000 in grant assistance from Ducks Unlimited.

Kaehney also feels good about licking long standing and serious water current erosion that was eating away the island's western shore. Thanks to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a special appropriation was approved for building a geo-tube barrier, a flexible tube into which aggregates are pumped.

Sand dredged by the Corps of Engineers was placed behind the barrier, where refuge volunteers planted 10,000 spartina plants and where Canada geese (photo) now find refuge. And in January, the area survived the first major storm intact and with no erosion. Volunteers coming to the first annual summer beach cleanup in 1995 included volunteer Betsey Howard. At the picnic following the cleanup, Howard met manager Kaehney and assistant manager Owen for the first time. Lucky for them, because it was at that meeting that Betsey Howard consented to be the first volunteer coordinator of the refuge volunteer program!

Since then, Howard has recruited some 30 people as regular volunteers with periodic ads in the local newspaper, immediately responding to anyone who calls or writes. She tries to match their interests and skills with the available refuge jobs such as wildlife surveys, maintenance and cleanup, and book-store sales.

She also lines up volunteers to assist with the annual environmental education program for all county fourth graders, who visit the refuge on the same day! Most volunteers are retired, she says, and most are interested in trail maintenance and litter pickup. The book store is operated as a satellite outlet by the Friends of Blackwater NWR. The volunteers also assist with the annual refuge open house held in early spring, when water birds are still present. This is one of the times when the hunting lodge is pressed into service with displays, book sales, and demonstrations.

The hunting lodge was built for hunting retreats, prevalent on the island in the 1920s and 1930s, by wealthy hunters attracted from surrounding cities by concentrations of waterfowl. The lodge is normally closed to public use except when used by groups for environmental education.

Earlier, the island supported a number of small family farms, a fishing village, and an oyster-shucking plant at Bogles Wharf near where steamboats from Baltimore and other ports would dock.

But the 1950s brought to the island an event that deeply concerned surrounding communities: A developer bought land on the island and subdivided it for 293 new small homes. Local concerns over the impending loss of the island's wildlife habitat were shared by the Fish and Wildlife Service. These concerns led to the establishment of Eastern Neck NWR in 1962 and the eventual purchase of the entire island for refuge purposes with Migratory Bird Conservation Funds.

The refuge headquarters is now located in the only house that was built as part of the defunct housing development, but Kaehney has his mind set on making an office and visitor center out of the handsome hunting lodge that stands in wait of being fully reoccupied.

That wait will likely be a long one, given the existing multi-million dollar backlog of refuge maintenance needs and little sign of a remedy during this time of deficit-reduction mania.

This gem of a refuge is within easy reach of the population centers of the mid-Atlantic states and is sure to excite both first-time and veteran observers of the beautiful tundra swans that winter there. Everyone should also revel in the knowledge that this island wildlife community was rescued from the earthmovers in the nick of time and made a part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.


From US-301, MD-213 to Chesterton or MD-300 and left on MD-213 to Chestertown, MD-20 to Rock Hall, and MD-445 south to the refuge.

For more information, contact Eastern Neck NWR, 1730 Eastern Neck Road, Rock Hall, MD 21661, 410-639-7056.

From Refuge Reporter, an independent quarterly journal to increase recognition and support of the National Wildlife Refuge System

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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