Where the Wild Things Are
Sites Featuring Creatures Great and Small Are Just a Short Car Ride Away
Becoming one with nature likely is not a high priority to those on Capitol Hill, save a brisk walk through Upper Senate Park and an occasional gray squirrel sighting.
However, while all things nature might take a back seat to pending legislation and committee hearings, that doesn’t mean it’s not a priority at all.
Washington, D.C., has the cherry blossoms and the National Zoo, but for those city dwellers who crave a getaway and some quality time with Mother Nature (minus the touristy crowds), relief is just a car ride away.
One of the great things about the District is the easy accessibility to other areas — Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, for instance. Within the three states are myriad nature offerings, from national parks to aquariums to wildlife refuges. The following places are just a few highlights of
where one can go to leave the fast-paced city life behind — for a few hours, anyway.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
2591 Whitehall Neck Road
Smyrna, DE 19977
A little more than two hours from the District lies about 16,000 acres of flat terrain, with tidal salt marsh making up approximately four-fifths of the land.
The place is Delaware’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1937 and has one of the largest expanses of nearly unaltered tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region. And with fresh water pools, timbered swamps and more than 1,000 acres of agricultural lands, there are plenty of places for wildlife to thrive.
Tidal salt marsh allows a natural habitat for birds and mammals and is “some of the most valuable wildlife habitat in Delaware,” according to the refuge’s brochure. Bombay Hook primarily is a refuge and breeding ground for migrating birds and other wildlife.
Fall and spring offer the best opportunity to view migratory birds, and October and November is when waterfowl populations are at their peak — according to the Web site, more than 150,000 ducks and geese use the refuge at this time. The protection and conservation of waterfowl at Bombay Hook greatly has increased over the years, mainly because of the loss of extensive surrounding marshland to urban and industrial development. The highest concentration of shorebirds is during May, when the horseshoe crabs are laying eggs along the Delaware Bay shore. The eggs and invertebrates in the tidal marshes give the shorebirds the necessary energy to complete their migration north.
Mammals also are found at the refuge and can be spotted year-round. The most common sightings are of white-tailed deer, beaver, muskrat, red fox, river otter, woodchuck and opossum.
As an added bonus to all Bombay Hook has to offer, the Allee House, an 18th-century brick farmhouse that is on the National Register of Historic Places, also is on the refuge. It is open from 1 to 4 p.m. on weekends in the spring and fall.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
2145 Key Wallace Drive
Cambridge, MD 21613
Just a short drive past the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is an easy option for those in the D.C. area looking to spot some bald eagles or Delmarva fox squirrels.
The Delmarva fox squirrels, so named because they’re found only on the Delmarva Peninsula (which is made up of parts of DELaware, MARyland and VirginiA), are larger and more silver than the common gray squirrel, and have bushier tails. On a recent visit, one cleverly escaped photograph attempts and bounded along Wildlife Drive, which can be toured by automobile, bicycle or on foot. Delmarva fox squirrels have been protected as an endangered species since 1967. The loss of suitable woodland habitat is the major factor in their decline, and there are programs in place at Blackwater “to restore and protect forest habitats that are essential for the long-term viability of the species,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mallards, Canada geese, tundra swans and other waterfowl can be spotted along Wildlife Drive. Also, more than 85 species of birds breed in the refuge woodlands and surrounding habitat.
Perhaps the most engaging sight is that of the bald eagle, which is a fairly common occurrence at Blackwater, as it’s the “center of the greatest nesting density of bald eagles in the eastern United States north of Florida,” according to the FWS. The national symbol was downgraded from an endangered species to a threatened status in 1994. And soon enough visitors will have even better chances of spotting bald eagles at Blackwater, as two eaglets were born at the beginning of the month.
National Aquarium in Baltimore
501 East Pratt St.
Baltimore, MD 21202
Want to see a giant pacific octopus play with a Mr. Potato Head? Or lay eyes on the most poisonous animal in the world? If the answer is “yes,” then your destination is the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
Serving as the anchor to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the aquarium features approximately 16,500 specimens and more than 660 species of animals. Visitors can lose themselves for hours, wandering the numerous exhibits and absorbing the abundance of information on those who call the aquarium home.
Three main exhibits currently are on display at the aquarium. “Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes” features “the highly adaptive animals in wild Australia,” such as the pig-nosed turtle, zebra finch and Johnston’s freshwater crocodile, that “have survived over millions of years in a land of drought, fire, and flood,” according to the aquarium’s Web site.
“Frogs! A Chorus of Colors” invites visitors to take the time to appreciate the “beauty and elegance” of these amphibians, as the Web site states it “is often overlooked.” This exhibit features a wide variety of frogs, including the poison dart frog, which is the most poisonous animal in the world (the golden poison dart frog is so toxic, it can kill 20,000 mice or 10 people); the waxy monkey frog, which differs from other frog species in its preference for hot, dry conditions (it recycles water in its kidneys and rubs itself down with a waxy, hence its name, secretion to limit water loss); and the fire-bellied toad, which, when disturbed, throw its legs into the air revealing a red “fire belly” to startle the intruder. If the predator isn’t scared away, the toad secretes toxins, making it an unappetizing meal. And, speaking of meals, wild populations of frogs with declining numbers can’t keep up with increasing human consumption — Americans alone import 1.25 million pounds of frog legs each year, according to the Web site.
The third main attraction is the Dolphin Amphitheater, which allows visitors to see how dolphins learn and develop. If you’d like to see “Play! The Dolphin Show” while visiting, be sure to purchase the ticket option that includes the show plus regular aquarium admission (it’s worthwhile, as it costs only a few dollars more).
Some tips before heading to the Inner Harbor: Visit during off-peak hours to try to avoid large crowds; check the Web site for any discount options; buy tickets in advance if possible; and consider making a weekend out of it, exploring the nearby shops and sightseeing opportunities.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
4005 Sandpiper Road
Virginia Beach, VA 23456
A weekend trip to Virginia Beach easily could include a stop at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, as it’s located just about 15 miles south.
Established in 1938, the refuge attracts about 100,000 visitors annually. Made up of more than 9,000 acres, with 75 percent being marshlands, Back Bay offers multiple habitats for wildlife, and the “edges between major habitats, such as between land and sea, are places where wildlife is most active,” according to the Web site.
At the refuge, more than 300 species of birds have been spotted, and during the annual peak (usually in December and January), about 10,000 snow geese and a large variety of ducks and waterfowl visit Back Bay. Threatened and endangered species also call the refuge home, such as loggerhead sea turtles, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and piping plovers.
Rare orchids and carnivorous plants bloom in the marsh and in ditches along dikes come springtime, and the summer brings about marsh hibiscus along the marsh edges.
With such a variety of habitats, the refuge sees some non-native species, such as nutria, feral horses and pigs, competing with native species for food and cover. Nutria, a semiaquatic rodent native to South America, have a high reproductive capacity. As stated on the Web site, nutria damage dikes through burrowing activity; pigs uproot valuable marsh vegetation; and horses trample plants and litter the area with their droppings.
Hours, fees, pet rules, and restricted activities and areas all are available on the Web site.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
8231 Beach Road
Chincoteague Island, VA 23336
Perhaps most well-known for the “Chincoteague Ponies,” the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge along the Atlantic Flyway is one of the top five shorebird migratory staging areas in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and one of the most visited refuges in the country.
Descendants of colonial horses brought to Assateague Island in the 17th century, the ponies have adapted to their environment and are split into two herds — a fence along the Virginia/Maryland state line separates the herds, with Maryland’s being owned by the National Park Service, and Virginia’s by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co.
The Annual Pony Penning and Auction, held the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, is a tradition where the fire company rounds up the entire herd for the event.
But ponies are not the only thing Chincoteague has to offer. The refuge is home to about 30 mammal species (including white-tailed and sika deer, red fox, harbor seals and the Virginia opossum) and more than 300 bird species (including a variety of waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, waterbirds, gulls and many others), in addition to various aquatic species, reptiles and amphibians.
There are multiple trails at Chincoteague, many of which are foot and bicycle trials. The Wildlife Loop, just more than 3 miles around a moist soil management unit, always is open to walkers and bikers, but vehicles are permitted to drive it only from 3 p.m. to dusk, according to the Web site.
Toms Cove Beach, managed by the NPS, is open year-round for walking, birding, shell collecting and other activities. During the summer beach season, the NPS provides lifeguards, law enforcement and first aid care.
Crabbing, clamming, fishing and hunting are allowed on the refuge, although there are specific areas for these activities, and permits might be necessary. Swans Cove and Assateague Channel are the best places to go crabbing, and Toms Cove is where one should dig for clams. For the most up-to-date information on fishing and hunting, check the refuge Web site.