Deal Island WMA

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp will guide us through the beautiful marshlands of Deal Island.

Route 13 in Somerset County is like most major highways on Delmarva. The scenery is OK, but nothing terribly exciting exists along the road between the soybean fields and small towns. If you never turned off Route 13 towards the Chesapeake in the summer, you might think this is all Somerset County has to offer. You won't see highway signs advertising the giant expanse of unspoiled marsh just a few miles west of Princess Anne, Maryland, teeming with thousands of herons and egrets foraging in the shallow creeks for minnows to feed their young.

There are no billboards instructing you to peer into the creeks and ditches that border the gravel roads of Deal Island Wildlife Management Area, where you can spy blue crabs and Diamondback Terrapins. You might see a sign or two directing you towards Chance or Wenona, but there's not much to tell you about the crab shanties and harbors you'll discover in these historic waterman's villages.

Before leaving Princess Anne to make the turn onto Route 363 towards Deal Island, take note of the transition from the sounds of small town life and the bustling traffic of Route 13 to wild, open marsh country. Within a 10-minute span, you'll leave the noise of cars and tractor trailers speeding down the highway between the tall pines that border the road, to what appears to be a flat grassland with a very distant horizon mostly absent of vertical structure and artificial sound.

The grass you're seeing is primarily that of Smooth and Saltmeadow cordgrass, both of the Genus Spartina. It dominates every square-inch of mud available above the low-tide mark. Very few plants can tolerate the daily fluctuations of tidal waters that vary from slightly fresh to slightly salty. Spartina thrives here. It grows in dense colonies in the open land between the creeks, and provides habitat for marsh periwinkles, ribbed mussels and fiddler crabs.

The tidal creeks and guts between the Spartina fields are unsuitable to many aquatic and semi-aquatic animals, but just perfect for a few. Most fish, crustaceans and aquatic reptiles and invertebrates prefer their water either fresh or salty. Some, such as the critters you'll find at Deal Island, are happiest in brackish water habitat.

To spend a little time observing the local wildlife, drive down to the Deal Island Wildlife Management Area (or WMA for short). Delmarva's WMAs are some of the most interesting places to explore, but they don't always pop up at the top of travel websites or brochures. By their design, WMAs are for wildlife conservation first and human recreation second, so they lack some of the infrastructure you'll find at more civilized state and county parks.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the sportsmen and women who have paid for the establishment of WMAs through hunting license fees and federal taxes on guns and ammunition. The federal aid is derived from the Pittman-Robertson Act, signed into law in 1937 at a time when some North American species nearly became extinct due to overhunting and habitat loss. The taxes collected by the Act are distributed to each state for wildlife conservation, and have been hugely successful in the re-establishment of populations of deer, ducks and turkeys.

Deal Island Wildlife Management Area is around 13,000 acres and is accessible on both sides of Route 363, which runs right through the middle of the vast open marsh. There are several posted gravel roads that take you into the heart of the marsh, and most gates should be open in June. Some get blocked off during hunting season.

From the road, there are several gated hiking trails that seem to go on forever into the horizon. There is no shade or cover here, so bring your sunscreen. You'll also want to dress for the seasonal insects that look at humans as giant bags of tasty, nutrient-rich blood.

If you have a bike built for off road trails, you can cycle here, too, and try to outrun the bugs. The paths don't loop back, so check out the trail maps on the Deal Island WMA website and plan how far you want to go, because you'll have to travel that same distance back to your car. Deal Island is also amazing for exploring by canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboard. There are several boat ramps with small parking areas on and around the WMA.

In June, you are guaranteed to see many species of our most charismatic marsh birds, the herons and egrets. Although they come in different sizes and colors, all herons and egrets have long legs in proportion to their bodies. This helps the bird prowl in the shallow water for fish, frogs, snakes, crabs and just about any living thing they can swallow. Heron and egret beaks are spear-shaped, which helps them slice through the water to grab, and sometimes pierce, their prey. One thing that differentiates herons and egrets from other long-legged birds, such as ibises and cranes, is that they fly with their necks retracted, not stretched out.

At Deal Island Wildlife Management Area, you have a chance to see all nine of our heron and egret species. One of our most famous Delmarva icons is the Great Blue Heron, our largest species which stands at just under 4 feet tall and has a wingspan of 6 feet. From the Great Blue, we'll go largest to smallest: next is the all-white Great Egret, just slightly smaller than the Great Blue; then the Tricolored Heron, with its white belly and gray and brown upper side; next are the similar-sized Snowy Egret, white with dark legs and bright yellow feet, and the Little Blue Heron, powdery-blue as an adult, but confusingly white as an immature bird; then our smallest white egret, the Cattle Egret, which is native to Africa but arrived in the U.S. in the 1940s and rapidly spread throughout the southern states; and finally the Green Heron, which stands at just 18 inches tall and has a greenish back and rufous-colored neck. We also have two primarily nocturnal herons, the Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, which can be seen feeding and flying at dawn and dusk. All breed in or near Deal Island Wildlife Management Area, and depend upon the bountiful marshes and creeks for food to raise their young.

If you spend your time heron watching late in the afternoon, continue on your trip to the end of Route 363 at Wenona for a simply stunning sunset with the historic commercial harbor at your back. Soaking up the sounds of the water lapping against the boats while the herons and egrets return to their evening roosts as the sun goes down on the Chesapeake is a Delmarva memory you won't soon forget.

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Deal Island WMA