Birding at Patuxent Research Refuge North Tract

Killdeer on Merganser Pond
Killdeer on One of the Little Islands on Merganser Pond

Over the past year, Jim and I have been gradually exploring birding spots in central Maryland where we live. Birds can of course be found just about anywhere, including your backyard, roadsides and area parking lots. But birds need food, cover, places to nest and water, so spots where these needs are met in abundance are going to be hot spots where you are likely to find more birds. In my immediate area, one of the best spots for finding birds is Patuxent Research Refuge which straddles Anne Arundel and Prince Georges Counties (just about mid-way between DC and Baltimore.) If you live in this area or are visiting and want to get in some birding, it is a great place to try.

Patuxent Research Refuge is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System but is a little different because its focus is on research. The refuge has 12,841 acres and is broken up into three sections, the South Tract, where you will find a very nice visitor’s center, lakes and five miles of trails; the Central Tract which is where the research is done and which is closed to the public; and the North Tract which has twenty miles of trails and roads linking up a lake, river and multiple small ponds and marshes. Our favorite section to visit is North Tract, not only because it is a quick fifteen minute drive from our home but because it is such a great place to go birding with a variety of habitats.

I first got onto Patuxent as a birding spot through eBird because, while there are other places with more checklists of birds submitted, the checklists at Patuxent are often very rich with a variety of birds. We had gotten hooked on visiting nearby Howard County parks, open areas and environmental locations and so hadn’t gotten around to visiting Patuxent, but a friend gave us a little nudge and we made our first visit in mid-March, just a little over a month ago. We’ve been back every weekend since.

Birding By Car -- Merganser Pond
Birding By Car at Merganser Pond

In March, the weather here in Maryland was pretty miserable, being cold, grey and wet every weekend. But North Tract is actually a great place to go birding in bad weather. North Tract has 8,100 acres of land, with a two-lane (well, mostly two-lane) road called Wildlife Loop going through a good swath of it. If the weather is horrible and you are not up to hiking in sleet and snow and cold temps, you can drive the loop in your car, pulling off at various spots to check out the birds you find along the way. When birds are near the road, your car can act as a blind. When you do want to get out and explore an area along the road, you can always quickly get back in your car whenever you are ready to warm up and and get out of the damp.

When the weather was bad, we were usually among very few other visitors, typically fishermen, a few birders and the very hardiest of joggers, so we really felt like we had the place to ourselves. Now that the days are getting warmer and sunnier, there are more people around, but so far, it still hasn’t been crowded in the least, as there is a lot of area to spread out.

Common Yellowthroat We Found Near Lake Allen
A Common Yellowthroat We Found Near Lake Allen

In recent weeks, we’ve been seeing more birders and have had very positive experiences. The folks who have been coming to Patuxent for a while, know where to look and have been very sharing in pointing us to spots where we can find new and interesting spring birds and we’ve tried to return the favor when we’ve discovered something interesting. We’ve also started exploring more of the walking trails now that icy fingers and toes are no longer a danger.

Lately we’ve been getting over to Patuxent a little after 8am when they open and squeak out just as they close at 4pm. You can’t bird all of it in one day, but you can cover a lot of territory if you are moving along Wildlife Loop in your car. You never really know which areas will be active on any given day, so moving around like this gives you options if one area is quiet and you want to move on to try and find something more active. If you are driving the loop, after you check in, you can either go left toward Lake Allen or right toward the ponds.

Mallards at Lake Allen
Mallards at Lake Allen (Jim Waterman)

One cold wet weekend we actually were the only visitors for a period of time and drove down to the far left end of the road (which isn’t actually a full connecting loop) to Lake Allen. This small lake is sometimes very quiet, although usually with fishermen scattered around it, but this particular day in early April, we were the only humans in sight and the bird activity was wild. Three Caspian Terns were flying over the lake fishing, along with a Great Blue Heron, an Osprey and scores of Tree Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Watching them all flying over the water and hunting in their own ways was an amazing experience. At other times we’ve found Common Yellowthroat and Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Kinglets and Eastern Phoebes in damp areas around the lake, as well as lots of Canada Geese, Mallards and other ducks. You’ll often see Bald Eagles or hawks overhead.

American Kestrel Scoping Out the Fields of Tipton Airport
American Kestrel Scoping Out the Fields of Tipton Airport

The section of the road that leads to Lake Allen seems pretty unassuming, but you’ll find birds along the way if you pay attention. We’ve seen a Hermit Thrush and Eastern Towhees, as well as numerous more common birds like Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-Throated Sparrows and Field Sparrows. One day we watched an American Kestrel hunting the adjoining fields of Tipton Airport. He would fly out from one of the tall trees on the edge of the airport property just on the other side of the fence to hunt the open area and then would return to the trees to scope out the area for his next foray. Note: Lake Allen itself is sometimes closed when the folks at nearby Fort Meade are shooting in the area. (This portion of the refuge used to belong to the military and still has the base as a near neighbor.)

Retracing your steps back to the Contact Station, the right portion of Wildlife Loop road is longer and has quite a few stops along the way. The first time we visited Patuxent, they had just done a controlled burn of a field near the beginning of this part of the road. While it might not have looked like much to us, the birds thought it was quite wonderful. This field was mobbed with Red-Winged Blackbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and ten Golden Shafted Northern Flickers that flew back and forth across the field revealing their golden under-wings beautifully with each wing beat. That day, we learned that it pays to pay attention to disturbed areas that have the potential to catch the eyes of birds. Stop, pause and give it a few minutes just to see what turns up.

Solitary Sandpiper at Merganser Pond
Solitary Sandpiper at Merganser Pond

The first big stop along this section of the road is Merganser Pond. Some days we’ve stopped here to see nothing more than a few sleepy Canada Geese and a Mallard or two. Other days have been full of activity. One time we saw dozens of Tree Swallows, who had just arrived from their migration, engaging in a mesmerizing dance of flight over the pond. Another time we watched the quick mating of two Killdeer. Just last weekend we saw two Solitary Sandpipers and a Wilson’s Snipe, a Killdeer and a family of Mallards (with seven darling little balls of fluff trailing mom around.)

Prairie Warbler Near Merganser Pond
Prairie Warbler Near Merganser Pond

There is a short gravel road just to the right of the pond. The first time we visited in March, we drove the length of it and didn’t see any activity. But the past couple of times we’ve visited Patuxent, we’ve walked the road and continued around the trail that widely circles the pond. On the roadway two weeks ago, we were hearing this amazing bird song with notes that went up and up and up. We didn’t know what we were hearing but a pair of friendly fellow-birders who had been tracking the bird, a Prairie Warbler, helped us identify and locate him. We went back this past weekend and found him singing yet again.

The road on this section is several miles long; driving slowly, you’ll see all kinds of interesting birds along the way. Eventually you pass through an open area with power lines, an area where we’ve sometimes seen sparrows and raptors and other times found the place to be quiet.

The American Bittern Blends Into the Brush
The American Bittern Blends Into the Brush

After you pass the power lines, the road gets rougher with lots of pot holes that my husband and I refer to as speed holes because they keep you moving slowly the way speed bumps do. In the month that we’ve been visiting, we’ve found a lot of wet areas on either side of the road. Again, to humans, they might not look like much but birds find them to be great places. On one visit we were startled to see an American Bittern in one of these areas. Although he was out in the open, he was so well camouflaged that we almost missed him . . . twice!

Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher Building a Nest
Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher Building a Nest

We watched Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers building a nest near one of these wet areas last weekend and got a quick peek at a Scarlet Tanger. We’ve seen Red-Bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers in the woodlands along the roadway.

New Marsh
New Marsh

Nearer to the far end of the road are two more little ponds, New Marsh and Cattail Pond and then Bailey Bridge Marsh. These can get ducks and geese and Pied-Billed Grebes. In early April, the swallows and Eastern Phoebes were busy at New Marsh. There also is a bit of the moving river near that end of the road where we’ve seen American Coots.

Bald Eagle Near the End of Wildlife Loop
Bald Eagle Near the End of Wildlife Loop

We often see Bald Eagles down near at the very end of the road. (There are quite a few dead snags there where we’ve several times seen one sitting; other times they will be soaring overhead.) While Bald Eagles have gotten more common, it is still always amazing to see them.

View of Little Patuxent River Along River Trail
View of Little Patuxent River Along River Trail

There are also quite a few hiking trails in North Tract. So far, in addition to the trail around Merganser Pond, we’ve tried the short River Trail that starts at the Contact Center’s parking lot, on a quest for warblers. This short trail gives you a view of the river and winds you through the woods.

This Prothonotary Warbler Didn't Want to Pose
This Prothonotary Warbler Didn’t Want to Pose

We explored this trail for the first time last weekend and while the beginning of the trail was quiet, once we got onto the loop end, there was quite a lot of activity, including Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, American Redstarts, Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers and a Swamp Sparrow just to prove that warblers aren’t everything. We happened to met another little group of birders there who were also checking out the warblers. They told us they had also seen a Louisiana Waterthrush in this section just a little while earlier, something we hope to find on our next visit!

Merganser Trail
Merganser Trail

We have more trails to discover and we are looking forward to exploring the refuge in more seasons. But so far, we have really been loving this refuge. It is a great spot for birding!

Nancie

2 thoughts on “Birding at Patuxent Research Refuge North Tract”

    1. It really is very cool. One kind of backwards advantage is that it doesn’t have picnic tables or ball fields or boats to rent, so I suspect that keeps the numbers of visitors down a bit. (Jim and I tried to visit Centennial Lake over in Howard county the Saturday before last and it was insanely busy with no place to park and packed with people. Centennial has all of those things so I suspect it draws more people.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *