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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Chesapeake Bay

By Deane Winegar

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Chesapeake Bay > The Eastern Shore: Maryland > Nanticoke River

Nanticoke River

[Fig. 21] Traditionally, public attention and funding is directed toward cleaning up heavily polluted waterways rather than protecting those that are still fairly pristine. However, that approach results in neglect and even abuse of those lakes, rivers, and streams that have relatively good water quality.Click here for a new window with a large version of this map.

Of the many Chesapeake Bay tributaries, only four have been singled out as "best-chance waterways" by the Maryland/District of Columbia chapter of The Nature Conservancy. These four—the Nanticoke River, Sideling Hill Creek, Nassawango Creek, and Nanjemoy Creek—have the best chance by far of sustaining a rich natural diversity and exceptional water quality.

The streams are very different from one another. Nanjemoy Creek, which supports a fascinating and often noisy blue heron rookery, empties into the Potomac River below Washington, DC, in Charles County. Sideling Hill Creek is a trout stream in the western Maryland mountains. Nassawango Creek, location of the beautiful Nassawango Creek Cypress Swamp Preserve, empties into the Pocomoke River in Worcester County in the southeastern corner of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The Nanticoke flows southwestward from its headwaters in Delaware to Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay, providing a natural boundary between the counties of Dorchester and Wicomico.

The 710,000-acre watershed of the Nanticoke drains a third of Delaware’s land surface, then a huge chunk of the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland on its 50-mile journey to the Chesapeake Bay. The black duck, the canvasback, and the blue-winged teal that sail in for landings, then stretch their wings or dive for food are doing much as ducks have done for centuries on the river. In addition to the ducks and other wildfowl that find refuge or nesting territory here, the river has also sheltered wildlife such as the muskrat, beaver, red fox, white-tailed deer, and raccoon for thousands of years.

Humans have also benefited from the riches of the Nanticoke over the millennia. Anthropologists have discovered artifacts indicating that humans were in the area in ancient times, beginning in the Middle Archaic period around 5,500 B.C. Careful excavation of archeological sites is ongoing. The river takes its name from the Nanticoke Indians, who fished its water and hunted its banks. This tribe was large, even feared, at the time Captain John Smith came up the Chesapeake Bay.

Among some 50 tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, the Nanticoke is one of the most pristine. Some 38 percent of the watershed is forested, including the largest unbroken pine forest on the Delmarva peninsula. Woods of loblolly pine, sweetgum, red maple, red cedar, and a variety of oaks stretch for miles, harboring birds such as vireos and thrushes that need unfragmented forests to survive. Huge, gnarled baldcypress trees (Taxodium distichum) emerging from the water make up one of the northernmost stands of its kind on the East Coast.

In addition to the extensive forests, the Nanticoke watershed includes thousands of acres of freshwater wetlands along the streams and salt marshes, and then becomes a brackish estuary influenced by tides between Dorchester and Wicomico counties. In fact, the Nanticoke contains nearly a third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands.

The variety and size of habitat, the lack of development, and the temperate climate translate into diversity of species. The river supports healthy populations of striped bass (rockfish), which come far upriver in May to spawn, in addition to sea trout, largemouth bass, yellow perch, pickerel, and catfish.

The wetlands are wintering grounds for a large percentage of the various species of migratory waterfowl that use the Atlantic Flyway such as redhead ducks and green-winged teal. Spring nesters include a vast array of ducks such as the gadwall, wood duck, and mallard, as well as many other waterfowl and songbirds of marshes and woodlands.

The Nanticoke watershed also protects 120 rare and threatened species of plants and animals. Among this astounding number of imperiled life forms are plants with descriptive, even amusing names, such as box huckleberry (Gaylussacia brachycera), seaside alder (Alnus maritima), spreading pogonia orchid (Cleistes divaricata), Parker’s pipewort (Eriocaulon parkeri), and reversed bladderwort (Utricularia resupinata).

Delmarva fox squirrels (Sciurus niger cinereus), peregrine falcons (Falco perigrinus), black rails (Laterallus jamaicensis), and bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucophalus) are important species that find refuge in the Nanticoke’s upland forests and wetlands.

Maryland’s portion of the Nanticoke River is too wide to be good for canoeing or kayaking. However, several tributaries offer fine waters for quiet, shady paddles. See Idylwild Wildlife Management Area, for information on Marshyhope Creek, which flows through parts of western Caroline and Dorchester counties on its way to the Nanticoke. In Wicomico County, Plum Creek enters the Nanticoke about 3 miles west of the Delaware line. About 1 mile downriver from Sharptown, Chicone Creek enters just above where US 50 crosses the river at Vienna. In addition to these creeks, four others on the Wicomico County side of the river are recommended to paddlers. The creeks are, from north to south, Barren Creek, Rewastico Creek, Quantico Creek, and Wetipquin Creek.

Boat landings are on Barren Creek at Mardela Springs and on Wetipquin Creek at Tyaskin. Accessing the other creeks can be difficult. Many stretches of the tributaries have segmented public and private holdings. Contact the county tourism offices, the state Department of Natural Resources, or the Maryland/DC Chapter of The Nature Conservancy For more information.

To a boater, the lovely meanders of the Nanticoke River may appear much as they did when Christopher Columbus explored them in 1608. However, important changes have occurred, just as they have throughout the Chesapeake. In the last 50 years, half of the marshes at the mouth of the river have been lost to rising sea levels and sedimentation, which have also done their share to wipe out most oyster reefs. Crabbing, clamming, and striped bass fishing have taken a hit from pollution and disease.

The nontidal wetlands of the upper river are also hurting because of poor agricultural practices and bulldozers operating in the streambeds. Several conservation-minded organizations, including the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance at Tyaskin, work with private citizens, industry, government, and educators to protect the river. The health of the Nanticoke watershed is a priority in a program of The Nature Conservancy called Campaign for the Chesapeake Rivers.

Despite its problems, the river and the land it empties remain a haven to creatures of wing, fin, and fur. The river’s rich history is fodder for campfire stories of Indians, pirates, tall ships, steamboats, slave runners and the underground railroad. Its deep woods and dark waters are a focal point for students of the environment; lure to hunter, boater, canoeist, and angler; and solace for those who simply need to get away.

Nanticoke Wildlife Management Area

[Fig. 21(1)] This 1,700-acre marshy area spreads along the tidal Nanticoke River and Quantico Creek. A picturesque trail leads from the parking lot onto a peninsula where nature photographers and wildlife observers can find osprey, herons, ducks, geese, and songbirds, and can perhaps catch a glimpse of a pair of bald eagles that nest near Quantico Creek. March through June is the best time to catch sight of them as they carry fish in their talons to their nestlings.Biologists have released wild turkeys back into the Nanticoke Wildlife Management Area. This popular game bird, which was once native here before unregulated hunting took its toll, is regaining a foothold. Hikers, fishermen, and hunters may also spot large nest boxes placed over the marsh in an attempt to lure barn owls. These flat-faced raptors suffer from loss of habitat and from the gradual decline in the number of barns, their favorite nesting site.Check the information board at the entrance for hunting and fishing seasons and regulations. The area is managed for mourning dove, cottontail rabbit, bobwhite quail, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, woodcock, and waterfowl. Hikers should wear bright clothing during these hunting seasons. Largemouth bass, striped bass (rockfish), catfish, and perch may be caught from the bank or from boats. Trappers may apply for yearly leases. Biting insects make repellent necessary spring through fall.

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