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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Chesapeake Bay

By Deane Winegar

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Chesapeake Bay > Southern Maryland > Patuxent River

Patuxent River

[Fig. 11] With its headwaters at Parr’s Ridge where Carroll, Howard, Frederick, and Montgomery counties meet, and its mouth some 110 languid miles to the southeast at Solomons on the Chesapeake Bay, the Patuxent River is the longest river entirely within the state of Maryland. The watershed of this State Scenic River drains one-tenth of the state, including the southern end of the Washington, DC, and Baltimore suburban corridor.Click here for a new window with a large version of this map.

The Patuxent has become important as a demonstration area for showing how strategies to control nutrients and pollution might apply to coastal areas elsewhere. Some 6,700 acres of wetlands, mostly in the coastal plain in the middle portion of the river, naturally filter the Patuxent’s water. These lands also attract birds and wildlife in tremendous numbers and variety. Several preserves, parks, and sanctuaries make excellent use of the Patuxent’s ecosystem for research and/or recreation. Because of environmentally sensitive areas, permission is required to enter some sites. Although the Patuxent reaches well above Southern Maryland into Central Maryland (subject of the next section of this book), all of the sites of interest along the river are covered here for the sake of consistency.

Bowen Wildlife Management Area

[Fig. 11(20)] Named for Harry L. Bowen, who sold this 330-acre tidal marsh to the state for $1 in 1955, Bowen Wildlife Management Area provides a refuge for migrating and wintering waterfowl that is priceless. Buffleheads, wood ducks, lesser scaup, American wigeon, and black ducks are just a few of the ducks that wildlife observers might see here. Mammals that make use of the marsh habitat include minks, muskrats, and river otters. Because of the wet terrain, Bowen is accessible only by boat. Hunters traditionally use push boats to search for elusive sora and Virginia rails that feed among the river grasses. In fact, waterfowl hunting is a popular pursuit. Free permits for use of the permanent blinds are available from the Myrtle Grove Wildlife Office. White perch, catfish, carp, and rockfish lure anglers to the area. Crabbers and trappers also use the marsh.Bowen is not just for those who hunt, trap, crab, or fish. Equipped with a canoe and a free afternoon, anyone who enjoys observing wildlife in a river tidal wetland will have fun poking about Bowen’s many creeks.

Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary

[Fig. 11(21)] The 1,678 acres of Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary were set aside as a refuge for Canada geese. Beginning in 1932, conservationist Edward Merkle began an attempt to reintroduce geese to the area. From a few breeding pairs in 1932, the flocks have gradually increased to include an estimated 10,000 wintering geese—the largest population on the western bay. A visitor center provides information about Edward Merkle, Canada geese, and Chesapeake Bay wildlife. The 5 miles of marked trails and gardens in the sanctuary are open daily, year-round.

Jug Bay

[Fig. 11] Jug Bay is the name of a bulge of the Patuxent River just north of the point where Calvert, Anne Arundel, and Prince Georges counties meet. The bay is surrounded with one of the largest tidal freshwater wetlands on the East Coast. Tidal fresh water is water that rises and falls with the tides but is not salty. The habitat provides conditions favorable to spawning white perch and developing rockfish (striped bass) and other species.Jug Bay’s location on the Atlantic Flyway makes it perfect for the more than 200 species of birds that have been identified here. Bald eagles, huge flocks of tundra swans, Canada geese, and green-winged teal find protection here from winter winds. Bird watchers here have sighted the peregrine falcon, loggerhead shrike, Swainson’s thrush, mourning warbler, and dark-eyed junco, to mention a few.The lush vegetation of tidal wetlands is the envy of many who try to establish water gardens in their yards. Rose mallow (Hibiscus coccineus) displays its huge crimson blossoms. Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) has pretty heart-shaped leaves and blue summer blooms. Adding summer color is a yellow pond lily called spatterdock (Nuphar luteum), with heart-shaped leaves that rise above the water at low tide. All plant life is dominated by wild rice (Zizania aquatica), a valuable food source for many seed-eating birds. Wild rice grows as high as a basketball hoop, waving its shimmering gold fronds in late summer breezes.Some 25,000 waterfowl are estimated to feed on the rice and on seed-bearing plants such as Walter’s millet (Echinochloa walteri) and dotted smartweed (Polygonum punctatum) during winter months. The ripening of these seeds coincides perfectly with the fall migration of waterfowl, bobolinks, sora rails, red-winged blackbirds, and many other birds. Several endangered plants such as downy bushclover (Lespedeza) and smooth tick trefoil (Desmodium) also are suited to the wetland habitat.Where the Piscataway Indians once hunted and gathered, two sanctuaries, a natural area, and a county park provide protection for and access to this bird watchers’ paradise.

Patuxent River Park and Jug Bay Natural Area

Patuxent River Park and Jug Bay Natural Area comprise 2,000 acres of tidal freshwater wetlands. The park has a visitor center, nature study area, and 8 miles of hiking trails. Call ahead to rent a canoe, which is probably the best way to get close to waterfowl. A boardwalk and an observation tower that rises above the tops of the wild rice marsh provide another way to view wildlife and birds. Don’t forget binoculars.The park is also the starting point for the 4-mile Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Driving Tour, which extends south across Mattaponi Creek to the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary. Allow extra time to take advantage of the observation towers and pull-offs along the way. The tour is open on Sundays only.

Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary

[Fig. 11(22)] On the Patuxent River where Anne Arundel County operates this 640-acre sanctuary, sweeping expanses of wild rice, cattail, and other aquatic plants spread as far as the eye can see. The wetlands support a rich variety of wildlife, including invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and more than 250 species of birds.Seven miles of boardwalks and trails give visitors an intimate look at various habitats, which include—in addition to wetlands—hardwood forests, nontidal wetlands, agricultural fields, streams, and seasonal ponds. An observation deck overlooks the wetlands and the wide Patuxent. Osprey and occasional bald eagles soar above the water. Fast-flying ducks move to and fro between feeding and resting areas. Muskrats and beavers occasionally make appearances. Several varieties of turtles and snakes may also reveal their presence to patient observers in wildlife observation blinds.In 1991, the sanctuary became part of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Naturalists study water quality, rare plants, and plant succession at Jug Bay. Amphibians, turtles, songbirds and fish populations are also subjects of interest. Nature tours, canoe trips, and winter bird walks give interpreters the opportunity to explain some of their research, ranging from the intricacies of tidal freshwater wetland plants to fluctuations in migratory bird populations. Jug Bay has given up evidence of continuous human habitation for the past 8,000 years. During colonial times, ships involved in the lucrative tobacco trade came up the Patuxent to Bristol Landing, just north of Jug Bay. Displayed at the visitor center are Indian projectile points, axe heads, and artifacts from colonial times that have been uncovered at the sanctuary.

Patuxent Research Refuge

This national wildlife refuge lies along the Patuxent River between the metropolitan areas of Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland. Created primarily for research, the refuge is perhaps best known for discovering the horrific consequences of the use of DDT as a pesticide. Rachel Carson based her influential book, Silent Spring, on the researchers’ findings that DDT in the food chain of birds caused their eggs to become thin-shelled. Eggs would break, resulting in an alarming decline of bald eagles, peregrine falcons, ospreys, and many other birds.Researchers use records from long-term monitoring of migratory birds to detect population trends. Work at the refuge has also helped dwindling populations of Mississippi sandhill cranes to recover. Fortunately, the interests of the public are not forgotten at Patuxent Research Refuge. Parts of the refuge are geared to inform visitors about ongoing projects. Visitors are treated to the rare sight of captive colonies of endangered whooping cranes. By studying the cranes, researchers hope to find ways to help save them from extinction. Refuge exhibits describe rescue efforts for other wildlife such as wolves, sea otters, and condors. A state-of-the-art visitor center emphasizes the scientific bent of the refuge with stunning arrays of lights and sounds, interactive displays, moving scenery, and replicas of wildlife in meticulous detail. Allow at least an hour for the Wisdom of Wildness exhibit hall and the gift shop. Near the visitor center is Redington Lake and the 1.4-mile Cash Lake Trail. The refuge has a total of nearly 4 miles of trails. The North Tract of the refuge has watchable wildlife at wetlands, including a 3-acre open pond with two nesting islands and 20 acres of forested wetlands. Fishing, birding, photography, jogging, horseback riding, and bicycling are allowed in selected areas.

Patuxent River State Park

[Fig. 11(23)] This 6,648-acre undeveloped park encompasses 12 linear miles of the Patuxent River valley in Howard and Montgomery counties between MD 27 and MD 97, north of Gaithersburg. Highlights include an Environmental Study Area, self-guided nature trail, trout stream, and hunting opportunities.

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