“Everyone loves a swamp”; especially birding enthusiasts and avian photographers; and there are so many to discover and explore in the eastern and southern United States. All are rich in biodiversity and habitat with an abundance of bird species calling them home. So where do we start? I chose to explore a selection of “still water” swamp habitats, especially those including the bald cypress, and single out a specific species over the past few years and try to capture as many images as possible throughout a range of behaviors; and one of who was highly visible, vocal and colorful; an old friend, the “Cypress Song” and the Prothonotary Warbler.
The Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is considered the “jewel” of the swamp by many bird observers and avian photographers. A vocal songster, the Prothonotary is a medium-sized warbler with brilliant yellowish-orange upper parts, head, neck, and chest, olive-green back, dark blue-gray wings and white under-tail coverts. The bill, eyes and feet are black. It is one of only two cavity nesters in the warbler family, with the other being the Lucy’s Warbler, which occupies some of the driest habitats in the southwestern United States.
I concentrated on many select watery habitats with dead trees and prime breeding/nesting territories throughout its range, but the bald cypress swamps of the southern, southeastern and the mid Atlantic states were the most productive. besides the bald cypress, other favorable habitats include swamp and bottomland woodlands consisting of tree species standing in and around still waters to include willows, sweet gum, willow oak, black gum, tupelo, elms, and river birch. On their wintering grounds in Mexico, the Central America’s and northern South America, the favored habitat is rich mangrove swamps, although the looming disappearance of these habitats may soon pose a serious threat to Prothonotary populations.
During the breeding season, nest’s are constructed with a foundation of mosses or liverwort and the cup itself is finished of plant down, rootlets, grape plants or cypress bark lined with sedges, tendrils, rootlets, grasses, leaves, petioles, poison ivy, and sometimes old fishing line. The nests are located in the low cavities of dead trees, usually just 2 feet above the waterline or in old downy woodpecker holes. “Hollows” in cypress knees are favored as well. One may find the Prothonotary warbler foraging for beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, mayflies, worms and spiders as favored foods throughout the year. They may also consume mollusks and isopods outside of the breeding season and may even supplement their diet with seeds, fruit and nectar. The Prothonotary warbler is considered endangered in Canada.
Finding the Prothonotary Warbler
“That’s easy” and they become quite common the farther south you look. However, as I mentioned above, find a stand of bald cypress around still standing water and you will most likely find this warbler. These areas are too numerous to fully cover each and every location but I will make note of a few of my favorites from Texas to the Mid Atlantic States. I’ll start in my home state of Texas and work north to my present residence in the south-central portion of Pennsylvania.
My first introduction to this little gem and “cypress songster” occurred just east of Houston and Baytown Texas along Interstate 10 and near the town of Wallisville. Situated near the banks of the Trinity, the Wallisville Lake Project was originally designed and authorized by Congress as a Corps of Engineers project for the purposes of navigation, salinity control, water supply, fish and wildlife enhancement, and recreation. The project, which protects the estuaries of the Trinity River system, consists of riparian bottom land forests, fresh and brackish water marshes, cypress swamps, and several natural lakes and rivers, and smaller streams and pools. Birds, such as colonial waders, shore birds, waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors call the project home for breeding, wintering, or temporary residence during migration. Mammals large and small forage and find shelter in the grasslands, forests, and swamps. Also, we must not overlook the largest reptile present, the American alligator.
The Wallisville Lake Project
The Wallisville Lake Project has two parks and two recreation areas for visitors. These include Cedar Hill Park, on the northeast bank of Lake Charlotte and is named appropriately for the large cedar trees throughout the park. To get to Cedar Hill from I-10 take the FM 563 exit and go north on FM 563 to Lake Charlotte Road. Turn left (west) onto Lake Charlotte Road. The park entrance is on the left just across from the Sherman family’s cemetery. The approximate three miles of gravelled trails with board walks out into the cypress swamp along the bank of Lake Charlotte are excellent for birding and small animal wildlife viewing.
Hugo Point Park, located on the west bank of Old River Lake, is a day use park only and facilities include a large pavilion, individual picnic tables, restrooms, playground, a two-lane boat ramp, parking for vehicles with or without trailers, and a handicap accessible trail out into the marsh with an accessible observation tower. To get to Hugo Point from I-10 take the FM 565 exit and go south on FM 565 to Gou Hole Road. Turn left onto Gou Hole Road and follow it out to the gate at the end of the public road. Turn left into the park. I know this area well as my in-laws live on Gou Hole road just a quarter-mile from the park.
The Trinity River Island Recreation Area is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The TRIRA is an island between the main stem of the Trinity River and the engineered navigation channel. Facilities include both covered and uncovered picnic tables, fishing access on both upstream and downstream sides of the dam, a two-lane boat ramp, life jacket loaner station, restrooms, trash cans, parking for regular and handicap access, and vehicles with trailers or RV’s, the project office complex with a Visitor Center, and all accessible walkways. The swampy cypress area along the entrance route (Lock & Dam Road) to your right into the area is an excellent place to find the Prothonotary Warbler. From the Houston area take the exit 806 off I-10 and follow the feeder road to the large brown USACE sign for Trinity River Island Recreation Area and turn right (south) through the pipe gate onto Lock & Dam Road.
A favorite of mine and a daily staple for both AM and PM visits is the JJ Mayes Wildlife Trace, a four mile all-weather road atop the levee along the west bank of the Trinity River. The Trace route allows visitors a close-up view of the marshes and river bank habitats and many of the wildlife species living within the boundaries of the Wallisville Project. The Trace is open seven days a week except Thanksgiving and Christmas from 6 AM to 6 PM. To reach this area, exit Interstate 10 eastbound just before the Trinity River Bridge. There are several boardwalk trails and observation platforms for wildlife and bird viewing. Taking a hard right onto the service road from the exit ramp will take you to another boardwalk leading to an observation platform overlooking a huge rookery of colonial water birds and Roseate Spoonbills.
The Wallisville Lake Project is a site partner of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and is a crucial habitat for both resident bird species and migrants from the tropics. Hurricane Ike hit this area hard and caused major damage, but as of the writing of this article, the area is recovering well and once again is fully open to visitors thanks to the hard work of the Corps, park staff and volunteers.
Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge
Another area and favorite just to the north of the Wallisville Lake Project and the Trinity River Island Recreation Area is the “Old and Lost River” and the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge located south of Liberty Texas. To reach this area, take FM 565 N from Interstate 10 to the village of Old River-Winfree and turn right onto FM 1409. Follow FM 1409/County Road 455 north to the intersection of County Road 417 and turn right and follow 417 into the refuge. There are trails and a launch for canoes and small electric-powered boats to explore a lovely cypress swamp. The area also includes a wonderful butterfly garden to enjoy numerous species during the prime months. Hummingbirds are a favorite here as well.
Caddo Lake State Park
We’ll travel a little farther northeast before heading back down to Interstate 10 and eastward into Louisiana and visit one of my favorite destinations for a wet and wonderful bald cypress wonderland. At only 484 acres, the Caddo Lake State Park located in Karnack Texas, and the Piney Woods region along the Texas and Louisiana border and within in Caddo Parish on the Louisiana side. The park offers a treasure trove of habitat diversity making it a much in demand home for a wide variety of flora and fauna. The combined Caddo Lake State Park and Wildlife Management Area consists of 8,129 acres lying within both Harrison and Marion counties in Texas.
One can explore the park and area through 2 ½ miles of interpretive hiking trails or by water with a canoe or small boat exploring roughly 25,000 acres of backwaters, slow-moving bayous, lakes and wetlands. I have done both over the past years and found a new adventure upon every visit. Caddo Lake and the State Park are a birding and bird photographer’s hot spot year round with over 225 species during the seasons.
Besides the abundant Prothonotary and Yellow-throated warblers, the colorful wood duck is prevalent and an accommodating draw to visitors and dedicated nature enthusiasts. Some of the common species that call the lake home; waterfowl include, the Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Anhinga, Wood Duck, Mallard, Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup. Common Wading birds include, Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Green Heron and the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Common Raptors include, the Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and the American Kestrel. Owls and Woodpeckers include, Barred Owl, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and my favorite the Pileated woodpecker.
The Songbird list is vast but I will mention a few to include, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Barn Swallow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Carolina Chickadee, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Northern Cardinal, Indigo Bunting, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle and the Brown-headed Cowbird. Wood Warblers include, the Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Pine Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-breasted Chat and of course the Prothonotary Warbler. This is just a sampling of the birds found in the area and does not include the “rare”, occasional or uncommon species again too numerous to list.
To reach Caddo Lake State Park and the Wildlife Management area, take Highway 59 north from Houston to the town of Marshall and then Highway 43, (Karnack Highway) north to the town of Karnack and the park entrance. From Texarkana, take Highway 59 south to the town of Jefferson and then Highway 43 south to the town of Karnack and the park.
From Houston, we’ll follow Interstate 10 east through the cities of Beaumont and Orange and cross the state line into Louisiana and continue towards and just past the city of Lake Charles. The state of Louisiana has abundance of bald cypress laden swamps; so many to explore; one could spend a lifetime doing so! I will concentrate on jus ta few favorites for this adventure and our pursuit of bald cypress and the Prothonotary Warbler. The first lies within the eastern confines and the Streeter’s Road section of the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge. Lacassine at 35,000 acres is a popular draw and the main attraction is known as “The Pool” which is a whopping 16,000 acre freshwater marsh providing a winter home for and managed to provide food for over 300,000 ducks and geese. For the Prothonotary Warbler, the cypress swamp of the Streeter’s road section of the refuge is “tops”. To reach this area, take Exit 38 from Interstate 10 and proceed south on LA 397 to the intersection of LA 14. Turn left onto LA 14 and travel east and south. Remain on LA 14 by turning left (east) again at its junction with LA 27. (which proceeds south) Continue to follow LA 14 east to its junction with LA 3056. Turn right and follow LA 3056 south to Streeter’s Road. Turn right on Streeter’s and follow it into the swamp. See Map Below:
Common bird species found in the Streeter’s road section include the Barred Owl, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher, Common Yellow-throat, Yellow-throated Warbler, Neotropic Cormorant, Loggerhead Shrike, White-eyed Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush, Painted Bunting, Red-shouldered Hawk, Inca Dove and many others. A wide selection of wading birds can also be found. Stay diligent near the wet areas as the American alligator resides here. These creatures are much faster than one would think and can be quite aggressive!
As I noted above in my introduction to Louisiana, the state has thousands of prime bald cypress habitats; way too many to even attempt to list. Two of my favorite locations farther north are located just northeast of the city of Monroe and include the Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the Chauvin Swamp tract. As a child and adolescent, I grew up spending summers with grandparents and relatives in both northern and southern Louisiana and I know these areas well. Both the Native American and Cajun cultures are steeped in my family and my love for Louisiana runs deep with many wonderful memories. There I developed my curiosity and fondness of owls.
The Creole Nature Trail
The Creole Nature Trail is a horseshoe-shaped loop running south from Sulphur and then back north to Lake Charles, Louisiana with Interstate 10 as the anchor and joining link. It’s roughly 180 miles of adventure through some of southern Louisiana’s huge coastal prairie and both fresh and saltwater (brackish) marshland habitats including Cheniere islands/ridges.
Cheniere (“shin-EAR” or “shane-YEAR”) is an expression translated as “oak grove” and originated from the early French settlers of southeast Louisiana. Cheniere’s are ancient, stranded woodlands that are supported by landforms that rise above the flat marshes. These “oak groves” represented some of the highest ground found in coastal Louisiana. The Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary located on LA 82, 8.5 miles west of Holly Beach (LA 27/LA 82 intersections) is that of a Cheniere habitat and is truly a worthy and highly recommended visit for the avid migratory bird enthusiast.
Besides Lacassine National Wildlife refuge and the Peveto Woods sanctuary, the Creole Nature Trail includes the “wild” wonders of three additional state and national wildlife refuges including the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge at 9,621 acres and it’s lovely “Pintail” drive, the Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge at 74,000 acres with a five-mile wildlife drive located on LA 82, 31 miles east of Oak Grove and the largest national refuge on the Creole Trail, the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge at 124,511 acres.
Atchafalaya River Basin
Before we leave the state of Louisiana and proceed north and back to my home in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic States to further our exploration for the Prothonotary warbler, I want to provide a short introduction to the “heart and soul” of the Creole and Cajun Country wilderness, the Atchafalaya River Basin. Containing almost one million acres of America’s most significant bottomland hardwoods, swamps, bayous, and backwater lakes, the “Basin” is our nation’s largest river swamp system, beginning just south of the towns of Ferriday and Vidalia and east of Alexandria and continues south to the Louisiana Gulf coast.
The Atchafalaya National Heritage area consists of four regions including the Upper Atchafalaya Region, Between Two Rivers Region, the Bayou Teche Corridor Region and the Coastal Zone Region. The area is classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and birding Hotspot with more than 400 species listed throughout out the seasons. Whiskey Bay Road is a birding and bird photography haven for breeding Prothonotary and Swainson’s warblers along with the Painted Bunting and many others. The “Basin” is also a major wintering ground for Mississippi Flyway ducks and geese. The massive areas of bald cypress provides numerous rookery’s for hundreds of the large and small wading species.
We’ll continue east on Interstate 10 and pass through and beyond the city of Lafayette to cross the long and famous Atchafalaya Causeway and through a section of the “Between Two Rivers Region”. About 1/3 of the way across from the west or 2/3’s from the east, exit 121 will grant access to the Atchafalaya Basin Welcome Center. I highly suggest taking the time for a visit to this lovely facility. There you can explore a wealth of information and learn more about the history, culture, wildlife and natural resources of the area. The staff of the welcome center are friendly and hospitable while helping with maps, suggestions and driving directions or tour guides to further explore the area. One of the premier means of a “watery” Atchafalaya adventure is by boat and there are a selection of guides and outfitters who offer regularly scheduled and intimate private tours of the swamps bayous and backwater areas.
Look for more detailed information in upcoming Wildlife South articles on “Exploring the Upper Texas Coast”, Louisiana and the “The Creole Nature Trail” in the future.
Bald Cypress, Prothonotary Warblers and the Mid-Atlantic States
Over the past years and developing my interest, and what has now become a “passion and obsession” with observing, studying and photographing small birds, I began to follow the state and local birding mail list-serves in search of sightings and locations of interesting species. Warblers were high on my list with the “Song of the South”, the Prothonotary warbler near the top for my new-found home here in the Mid-Atlantic region. Call it a “sweet reminder” of my southern roots and a familiar tune from an old friend to shed a little welcoming comfort to my new surroundings.
And then there is the quest for the Bald Cypress; another old friend from the years past and my southern heritage. Like the pecan orchards near my Texas home, I had always considered them a tree of the south. I was surprised to find “stands” as far north as the states of Delaware and Maryland along with a few isolated swaths here and there. Geographically, the Trap Pond state Park in Delaware at 38.5211°N, 75.4777°W, supports the northern most stand of the Bald Cypress in the United States. However, ask that question of any “tried and true” Marylander and he or she will state that the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp County Sanctuary in Calvert County at 38.5025°N, 76.5983°W holds that record. But do the math with the points of latitude and you will see just a slight variation in the location as far as “north” is concerned. These are almost directly across the Chesapeake Bay from each other if you draw a straight line. All in all, I’m tickled pink to be but a few short hours drive from either point. However, I deeply miss the Spanish Moss of the south! There is a sense of “nakedness” to the Bald Cypress without it.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
My first Mid-Atlantic reunion with my familiar yellow songster took place at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge near Dover and Smyrna Delaware and at the refuge’s Finis Pool. I had been following reports of sightings for several years but had struck out on each attempt to locate the birds reported. I began to wonder if the reports were even true or just cases of mistaken identities by beginning observers. But a couple of years back while photographing some flora and enjoying the solitude of the area, away from the refuge crowds during the early morning, I heard the familiar tune and looked up to see my old friend perched on a snag not twenty feet away, pretty as a peach and he allowed me the opportunity for some wonderful images. I would visit him and his mate again over the next few weeks and that would be the last time I was to find this species in that area. I have read and heard many reports of their presence since my initial encounter. I will keep looking and hoping! “Surely, they will return during my visits again”.
The Finis Pool is a fresh water swamp habitat and as stated above can often provide a location of solitude away from the busy areas of the refuge. Wood Ducks and Green Herons make up the popular draw along with the Barred Owl, Night Herons, Great Blue Herons, American Coots, Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler and others as residents. However, you will never know what you might find there. Perhaps even a Prothonotary Warbler! Finis is my favorite place on the refuge. It isn’t a true cypress swamp, but with its wooded and still water habitat attracts many of the swamp species. Mammals I have observed in the area include the Muskrat, Beaver and the Red Fox. Although the River Otter is listed on a refuge sign as present inhabitant, “I have never observed one during any of my many visits over the past years.”
For more information on Bombay Hook see my article on Wildlife South.
Trap Pond State Park
From Bombay Hook, We’ll travel farther south in the state of Delaware seeking the Prothonotary Warbler and Bald Cypress to near the city of Laurel in Sussex County and the Trap Pond State Park.
This 90 acre mill-pond was built back in the late 1700’s to power the saw-mill used to assist in the harvest and processing of the massive bald cypress of this once extensive swamp and wetland in Sussex County. The pond and surrounding farmland was purchased by the federal government in the 1930’s and the Civilian Conservation Corps began to develop the area for recreation. Trap Pond became a State Park in 1951 and one of the first in the state of Delaware. As I mentioned previously, Trap Pond hosts the northernmost natural stand of “second growth” Bald Cypress in the United States geographically speaking. These trees are now the “centerpiece” of this 3,652-acre state park.
The park hosts many activities including nature trails along with row-boat, kayak and canoe rentals to quietly paddle, explore and enjoy the mill-pond itself during the summer season. A highlight of the park is the Bald Cypress Nature Center; a place to learn about the history of the park. Birding and photography are a prized and popular activity here. Besides the breeding Prothonotary and other warblers, the species list can be interesting and provide many opportunities including sightings of the reclusive Pileated Woodpecker.
To reach the park, take US Route 13 south from Dover to the city of Laurel and then Delaware Route 24/Laurel Road east to the Rd 449/Trap Pond Road intersection and then south on 449 to the main park entrance.
The Great Cypress Swamp
One of my favorite “off the beaten path” locations to visit and look for the Prothonotary Warbler, bald cypress habitat and related swamp species is the Great Cypress Swamp in southern Delaware. Both Delaware and Maryland share a portion of this area with the headwaters of the famous Pocomoke River lying within the Maryland portion just below the Delaware state line.
Once a 50,000 to 60,000 plus acre tract of swamp and wetland habitat dominated by Atlantic white cedar and bald cypress; the Great Cypress Swamp of today hosts roughly 11,000 acres; 1000 of which is situated in Maryland and the remainder in Delaware. The Great Cypress Swamp represents the largest contiguous acreage holding of Delaware Wild Lands Corporation, and perhaps the largest private single owner contiguous forest land on the Delmarva Peninsula.
After the initial acquisition, Delaware Wild Lands had investigated numerous management strategies that would protect, preserve, restore, and enhance the natural attributes of the Great Cypress Swamp including conversion of agricultural lands to plantings of bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar; water control structures in drainage ditches; and limited wetlands restoration projects. Since the beginning projects, other organizations such as Vision Forestry working with The Conservation Fund and the State of Maryland have been involved in further improvement and conservation efforts along with Delaware Wild Lands.
My term, “off the beaten path” denotes the lack of the normal refuge crowds; and the greater restriction of access the area enhances that term even farther. The area now is mostly private with numerous landowners. However the unpaved and sometimes muddy Hudson road grants access to several forest types and wetland habitats within a short distance and the lack of traffic permits pulling off to the side of the road and allowing wildlife viewing, bird observation and photography as an easy and safe chore.
Following Hudson Road to the south and across the Maryland State line; and then a left turn to the east on Swamp Road (also unpaved), will allow following along the headwaters of the Pocomoke River and even further discovery. It’s a wonderful place to spend a lazy afternoon, at a snail’s pace, in a peaceful solitude scoping the tree canopy for the hint of life. And there is much to find! I have experienced many prosperous days in this area for birding and photography adventures.
To access the area from Milford Delaware, follow US 113/DuPont Road south to the town of Selbyville and the intersection of Delaware Route 54. Take 54/Cypress Road to the west and Hudson Road.
The state of Maryland will be our final destination and perhaps my favorite for the Mid-Atlantic region. But, I will toss in a “bonus” at the end of this chapter. I consider Maryland’s eastern shore somewhat a second home and Dorchester County the center of my attention. I was introduced to the area first by friends and then later and most recently through my own exploration. It’s funny how one can discover prime birding and photography locations that the locals completely overlook. Just pick a seldom traveled unimproved road or trail leading into one of the many swamps and become your own Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo or Juan Ponce de Leon. I differ from some of my photography friends in that I seldom explore an area just to capture everything I find but instead set a goal for a specific species or subject rather it be a bird or a springtime wildflower. It’s far more fun, interesting and challenging that way!
Cambridge Maryland is normally the base of my adventures and the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is the centerpiece. However, the refuge’s “Wildlife Drive” is far from the top of my list for wildlife viewing, birding and avian photography. I find the drive itself more favorable for “people watching” and the weekend crowds of hikers, joggers, bicyclists, and casual family visitors seem to far out number the birds and wildlife within close viewing range of the roadway on many occasions. There is normally a variety of wildlife to observe, but high-powered spotting scopes seem to be more appropriate. The drive can be productive during weekday visits and even more so with the chill of winter in the air.
The true treasures of “Blackwater” lay within its surrounding areas and away from the popular routes of travel for the weekend crowds. Many of the adventures can take place off the roadside next to private properties surrounding the refuge. Here we can find spotty swaths of the bald cypress and the Prothonotary Warbler. Like a lot of avian photographers, I have a trove of “secret spots” that I will not share with the general public and even fellow birders or photographers, but I will share two locations that are well-known as birding “hotspots” and important areas, but still will present the visitor a sense of solitude with minimal human traffic. Both are east of the refuge by a short distance of about 15 minutes.
Kraft Neck Road
Winding from Steele Neck Road (east) to Elliot Island Road/County Hwy 192 (west), this sandy and sometimes muddy affair is very popular with the serious birding crowd as well as the casual observer and is listed as a “hotspot” for many eastern shore species. It traverses hardwood forests, pine plantings, cultivated fields and swampy habitats with a spotty presence of bald cypress and other wetland flora. It is a “sure-find” for the Prothonotary Warbler in the suitable areas. Kraft Neck road has become a regular stop on my list of Dorchester County haunts over the past five years.
Along with the Prothonotary Warbler, the numerous other common avian species found along Kraft Neck Road include the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, American Goldfinch, Barred Owl, Eastern Screech Owl and more. During the migrations, Kraft Neck Road can present wonderful variety transient birds en route to their northern breeding grounds or southern wintering locations
During the winter, or after any heavy spring rains, Kraft Neck Road is not for the faint of heart, as it can become quite treacherous. Snow and ice require extremely careful navigation and ruts in the road from logging trucks during muddy conditions can challenge even the best of drivers with four-wheel drive. During extended dry periods, the road is quite easy to negotiate with most vehicles. Spring, summer and early fall mean mosquitoes and biting flies that seem immune to most repellents. I remember slowly driving the road with hundreds of the little tent–winged flies in tow, all waiting for me to stop and take their chance at me. The funny thing, is that the swampy areas tend to see less of these annoying and painful little critters.
The fastest way to reach Kraft Neck Road; is to Follow US Route 50 (Ocean Gateway) south from Cambridge and take the exit for Maryland 331 and follow it west into the town of Vienna. Take a left on Race Street and then a right onto Market Street; which will turn into County Road 192 (Elliot Island Road). Follow County Road 192 south for several miles and turn right onto Kraft Neck Road.
Remember, all of the property along Kraft Neck Road is privately owned and posted. So please do not trespass and ruin a good thing.
Decoursey Bridge Road
Another of my “dedicated” stops, and normally my first of the morning, is the area near the “Decoursey Bridge” along Decoursey Bridge Road. The swamp just to the east and north side of the bridge can be one of the most productive areas for finding the Prothonotary warbler along with other swamp related species. Normally the light, a half hour after sunrise, holds a lovely warmth and is absolutely perfect for morning photography or viewing the many birds that call the swamp home.
You will find the many species Kraft Neck Road has to offer, with the addition of waterfowl and wading birds near the open bay at the bridge itself. Decoursey Bridge Road is lightly traveled throughout the day and pulling off to the side in most places to park and setup any equipment is an easy and safe chore. As with many roads through marshy or swampy areas on the eastern shore, use prudence when pulling off to side for parking and be certain that the ground can support the weight of your vehicle. Sinking into the soft ground and getting stuck can be a quite expensive experience.
It is here that I experienced a Prothonotary literally beating and killing his meal before consuming it. This little guy must have an Eastern Bluebird as his relative. I remember watching our local bluebirds beat meal-worms to “smithereens” before consuming them. Quite an amusing behavior , as the image sequence below suggests.
To reach the Decoursey Bridge and Decoursey Bridge Road, Follow US Route 50 (Ocean Gateway) south through Cambridge and shortly after passing the intersection for Maryland Route 16 (Church Creek and the Blackwater Refuge turnoff), turn right at the next light onto Bucktown Road. Proceed south and past the Cambridge Airport for a few miles until you reach Decoursey Bridge Road. Turn left and follow the road to the bridge and nearby swamp.
A Bonus Adventure
Francis Beidler Forest – South Carolina
Since I promised a bonus for the end of the Maryland chapter, I want to take us south again to the state of South Carolina and the Francis Beidler Forest. Wildlife South editor and founder, Joe Kegley has presented a wonderful introduction to this popular destination through our nature and travel online magazine. For the Bald Cypress and Prothonotary Warbler, the Francis Beidler Forest is second to none in permitting one an up close and personal exposure to these majestic trees and this lovely bird along with many other swamp species present; all from the safety and security of an elevated boardwalk through this beautiful sanctuary managed by Audubon Society. Below are links to the Wildlife South article and video devoted to the forest and a second video with footage of the Prothonotary Warbler and song.
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