When you need to escape the partisan tension, media blather and traffic gridlock in the capital, head east. Just across the Bay Bridge, there’s an oasis where the only sounds are the soft honks of geese, where the roads are traffic-free, where the vistas are of open water and the pace of life is laid back and worry free.
Welcome to Rock Hall and the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Bordered by the Chesapeake Bay, this corner of Kent County is a perfect place to relax, refresh and save your sanity.
Rock Hall is a tiny waterman’s village. Everyone knows everybody, even if you’ve just arrived. If your B&B, motel or inn is not on the waterfront, you can probably see a boat dock from your window. The views and fresh air coming from the Bay inspire you to explore the village on foot. It’s so small that driving makes no sense. You’ll find no chain stores here. Everything is locally owned by entrepreneurs who love what they do. They stock unique gifts, housewares, and all sorts of “I didn’t realize I needed this” items. The food scene is predictably skewed towards seafood, but there’s a great coffee shop and bakery, good pasta and even a restaurant serving Austrian entrees — good hearty meals for a cold night. For evening entertainment, check the schedule for The Mainstay. It’s a nationally recognized treasure for intimate musical performances of jazz, classical, acoustic, and vocal artists.
The big outdoor draw for this winter escape is Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. The 2,200-acre island that’s under the care of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay. Located on the migratory Atlantic Flyway, it’s something like an I-95 for birds flying from Canada and other northern locations to points south. It’s a haven for migrating waterfowl and songbirds, as well as being the home for non-migrating birds and all sorts of forest and waterside creatures.
Eastern Neck is a bonanza for birders. At least 33 different species of birds use the refuge, with as many as 55,000 birds winging in every season. The most impressive are the Tundra Swans. They trek from Alaska to the Eastern Shore every winter, with each flock staying for a few days to rest and feed before continuing further south. Their distinguishing feature is their coal-black beak. The flocks of any species at the refuge can be huge. It’s not unusual for five or six thousand geese, swans or ducks to lift off at once in an awesome display.
You’re almost guaranteed to spot bald eagles, which are permanent residents of the refuge. Winter is their mating and egg-laying time, so the majestic birds spend a lot of time soaring above the marshes and woods.
With five wheelchair accessible trails or boardwalks in the refuge, spotting the birds is easy. Pick up a bird checklist and map of the refuge at the Visitor Center. The center also sells guidebooks and outdoor-oriented toys for kids. Only one trail is longer than a mile, and some have viewing platforms. Keep a sharp eye out for land-based critters like deer, foxes, raccoons, muskrats and wild turkey. Dogs are welcome but must be kept on leashes.
The guided monthly Winter Bird Walk series is very popular with experienced and beginning birdwatchers, photographers, and those who just enjoy an interesting outdoor experience. The free walks fill up quickly, and there is always a waiting list. (410-639-7160 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
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