The small group huddled in the corner of the barn, cold, vulnerable, and frightened at every sound. They were waiting for darkness, the nearly total darkness of a cloudy night and a new moon. It might be tonight. The barn door creaked open. Relief, when they saw it was their leader and savior! They noticed her calm and determined demeanor as they gathered up their meagre possessions and followed her into the frosty night. She had done this before and was confident she could do it again. She had never lost a passenger, guiding them through the tidal wetlands and forests of Maryland, into Delaware and Pennsylvania, to freedom in the north. She was Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad and this was Dorchester County in the year 1851.
She was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, and escaped from slavery to Philadelphia 1849. Over the next several years she risked life and limb returning to the Eastern Shore on multiple occasions to lead her family and others to the same freedom she enjoyed. Her first-hand knowledge of this land with its tidal marshes, creeks, and dirt roads was key to her success. Blackwater occupies much of this same land today and has become one of my favorite birding and photography sites.
The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is 12 miles south of Cambridge, Maryland and was founded in 1933 primarily as a stopover site for migrating birds and a winter home for waterfowl. www.fws.gov/blackwater/ It occupies 28,000 acres of tidal marsh and mixed hardwood and loblolly forests. Wildlife Drive is a 5 mile road, winding through the mixed habitats with multiple pullover sites to get out of your car and explore on foot. Just remember to bring fly dope in the spring and summer seasons. I have a modest Blackwater life-list of 85 species of birds, including the passerines, Barn Swallow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-winged Blackbirds galore, Common Yellowthroat, and Brown Creeper.
Although the passerines are great, the stars of the refuge are the eagles and the seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds. This site has one of the highest concentrations of breeding Bald Eagles on the East Coast with many photo-ops of perching birds and overhead flight shots. Also watch out for the low-flying Northern Harriers hunting over the marsh, and in the spring and summer check out the fishing and nesting Osprey.
Part of Wildlife Drive is on top of a dike, with the brackish water and wide vista of the Little Blackwater River on your left and the freshwater impoundment ponds on your right. I like to drive along this section very slowly, with both windows down, and the camera ready to sneak a close shot of the waterfowl or wading birds.
There have been 20 species of ducks recorded here. I visited the refuge early this January and found only a few. I think there had not been enough cold weather and freezing up north to force them to the south and open water. In addition to some Shovelers and Pintails there were the ubiquitous Mallards, much underrated for their own beauty, at least for the male.
As I drove along the dike last week I saw a peculiar long white line on the far shore of the river, probably a mile away. I was deciding whether it was tidal foam, gulls, Tundra Swans, or Snow Geese, when it rose up and formed a tremendous flock of at least several thousand Snow Geese, identified by their black-tipped wings, visible even at that distance. Unforgettable! Even on a slow day Blackwater gives up a memorable sight.
I would be remiss in not also mentioning the thousands of Canada Geese and fewer white Tundra Swans, sprinkled throughout the marsh like salt and pepper.
As I walked the Marsh Edge Trail and Woods Trail looking for birds, I imagined I may be on the same paths Harriet Tubman used for her far more important trek; like Moses, leading her small groups to the Promised Land of freedom.
“When I found I had crossed that line into freedom, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came up like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.”
Harriet Tubman, 1849
You can visit the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument near Blackwater NWR, created in 2013. www.nps.gov/hatu