Wood Duck Territory Near Easton Maryland

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp will tell us about wood ducks and other wildlife seen around Easton, Maryland.

Easton is perfectly placed for exploring the rivers, creeks and islands found in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay. Just a few miles from the historic downtown, you can sail, paddle or motor along the Tred Avon, Miles and Wye Rivers. Island refuges provide protected habitat for birds and other wildlife that depend on Chesapeake waters to survive and raise young.

One island well worth exploring lies about a 30-minute drive north of Easton. The Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area features more than 2,400 acres of island managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for outdoor recreation, agriculture and wildlife habitat. A major emphasis at Wye Island is providing habitat for wintering ducks, geese and swans.

For 300 years prior to becoming a DNR-managed property, Wye Island was privately owned and managed for tobacco and wheat farming. One of the island's most prominent former owners was William Paca, third governor of Maryland and one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Governor Paca once owned half of the island north of Dividing Creek. The southern half of the island was owned by Charles Beale Bordley, who gave up his prosperous law career to devote his life to making Wye Island a totally self-sufficient farm, complete with vineyards, orchards, and his own brewery.

Over time, the island was divided and sold into parcels. We're fortunate that the State of Maryland purchased 87% of Wye Island in the 1970's to protect it from residential development. Today, you can explore Wye Island's history and nature by kayak or bike, or by hiking the Ferry Point Trail and Schoolhouse Woods Trail. Each trail is just a little more than a mile long. The Schoolhouse Woods Trail features one of the largest tracts of old growth forest on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

One wild resident of Wye Island has its own history connected to the former abundance of old trees on Delmarva. The Wood Duck is one of the most stunningly beautiful ducks on the planet. As with most ducks, males are more ornate than females. Male Wood Ducks have an iridescent green and purple head broken by a bright red eye and crisp, white stripes. The male's chest is burgundy with white flecks that fades into a white belly. Female Wood Ducks also have an elegant appearance, with a gray-brown head and white comet-shaped stripe trailing behind the eye. Both sexes feature a stylish pompadour-like crest on their heads.

Wood Ducks are one of the few ducks that are at ease in the trees. They are equipped with strong claws on their webbed feet for gripping tree bark and branches. They live in swampy woods and along the edge of creeks and rivers, where they have historically nested in tree cavities. Nest openings can be as small as 4 inches diameter, and cavity depths can range from 2 to 15 feet deep.

The female Wood Duck lines the nest with downy feathers she plucks from her own breast. Just one day after hatching, the mother duck will call to her babies from outside the nest. The ducklings will use their clawed feet to climb out of the nest cavity and jump down from heights over 50 feet without injury. They will quickly make their way to the water, where they will begin feeding on seeds, fruits, and insects.

In the early 1900s, Wood Ducks were threatened with extinction due to unregulated hunting and the loss of nest sites from the cutting of large trees. Legal protection and an extremely popular nest box program have helped the Wood Duck recover. Wood Duck nest boxes are a now a familiar site on many Delmarva waterways.

After a few hours exploring Wye Island, you can visit another wildlife preserve near Easton with a very successful Wood Duck nest box program. The Pickering Creek Audubon Center is a 400-acre working farm that features a variety of habitats including mature hardwood forest, Chesapeake wetlands, meadows, and 270 acres of "best management practice" agriculture, all along a tidal creek. Pickering Creek is managed through a successful partnership between Audubon Maryland-DC and the Chesapeake Audubon Society, a chapter of the National Audubon Society. Pickering Creek is free and open every day from sunrise to sunset for hikes through the woods and along the creek. More than 180 species of birds have been recorded at the site, which is also home to the federally-protected Delmarva Fox Squirrel.

Just 10 miles from Easton you'll find historic St. Michael's, where famed abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass once lived and worked as a U.S. Marshall. Our final island of this adventure is one that almost disappeared, but has recently been re-established and is now a model of environmental restoration. Poplar Island, located in the Chesapeake Bay just northwest of Tilghman, was once 1,000 acres across and supported a thriving community of about 100 inhabitants in the mid-1800s. The island once served as a vacation retreat for Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Over time, the island residents moved away as erosion deteriorated its landmass. By the early 1990's, Poplar Island had been reduced from 1,000 acres to fewer than 10 consisting of tiny islands barely breaking the surface of the bay.

In 1994, a partnership between the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Port Administration, and the Maryland Environmental Service developed plans to restore the island using dredge material from the Baltimore Harbor. Today, thanks to this impressive restoration project, Poplar Island is now holding at more than 1,000 acres. It provides critical nesting habitat for terns, egrets, and Diamondback Terrapins, and feeding grounds for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. Poplar Island is not open for public day use, but tours can be arranged through the Maryland Environmental Service.

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