At the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the Chester River, lies more than 2,000 acres of protected island habitat, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, south of Rock Hall in Kent County, is a nature-lover’s respite, a place to connect with the natural landscape.
Deceptively simple, several trails and boardwalks meander through low marshland, open grassland, and upland forest, bordering the mouth of the Chester River, where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay. But despite its natural candor, the area is an important part of the complex environment necessary for migratory bird populations.
Indeed, it was the local waterfowl that spurred the movement to create a refuge on the 2,285-acre island.
History of the Refuge
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, archeological finds indicate the island was populated by prehistoric Native Americans, whose descendants used the island for hunting and gathering. Ceramic pots, stone tools, mounds of oyster shells, and arrowheads have been discovered, highlighting the native way of life before the arrival of Captain John Smith in the early 1600s.
While visitors can hike these areas and may chance at discovering an artifact, rangers ask that any finds are left in place and hikers contact refuge staff to report the location of the find.
Early settlers of Eastern Neck were Colonel Joseph Wickes and his partner Thomas Hynson. Wickes raised tobacco on the land and shipped it from the island, and in 1675, New Yarmouth was settled as the county seat, just north of the island, which prospered until 1696 when the government moved to Chestertown.
The island itself was owned by WIckes’ heirs until 1902 when the island diversified into small family farms and sharecroppers, and in the 1920s became a popular hunting retreat because of its proximity to the growing cities of Annapolis and Baltimore.
In the ‘50s, a developer stepped in, bought the land, and divided it into lots for a subdivision. At that point, the FWS stepped in to protect the large populations of migratory birds and local wildlife that would be affected by the change in habitat. Between 1962 and 1967, FWS acquired the land and designated it an official refuge.
Recreation at Eastern Neck
Today, visitors to the island come to appreciate the diversity and natural beauty of Eastern Neck. Bird watching, photography, and exploring the land are popular past times. Nature enthusiasts are sure to spot iconic Eastern Shore birds like the Mute Swan, the Great Blue Heron, the osprey and bald eagles, and also seasonal species like the Tundra Swan, Common Goldeneyes, and several species of woodpeckers.
The iNaturalist website provides comprehensive descriptions and photos of bird and bug species identified on the island for reference and identification while out on the trail at: www.inaturalist.org/places/eastern-neck-national-wildlife-refuge.
There are nearly nine miles of trails, roads, and boardwalks for exploring and spotting wildlife, like Delmarva Fox Squirrels or red foxes on the island.
Take the Bayview Butterfly Trail and wander the half-mile loop through grasslands, where many species of butterflies can be spotted during summer months. For a longer, more challenging hike, take the forested Boxes Point Trail, a favorite location for winter waterfowl and one of the best places to find bald eagles.
Visitors can also spend some time on the boardwalks. Tundra Swan Boardwalk is a short, accessible area perfect for watching the flocks of migratory swans, or for fishing and crabbing in the summertime. Tubby Cove Boardwalk offers views of the Bay and a viewing/ photography blind.
A paddling trail also is available for kayaking and canoeing. Paddlers can circumvent the island for views of the marsh, as well as restoration sites and historic landmarks. There are two launching locations — Bogles Wharf and Ingleside Recreation Area. Fishing and crabbing also is allowed in these areas.
Plan Your Visit
The refuge visitor contact station is staffed by volunteers who can direct visitors toward trails where wildlife is most likely to be found, and advise novice adventurers on seasonal sightings.
Travelers should check the website for trail closures or weather warnings. At time of publication, the Boxes Point Trail was closed for nesting bald eagles. And to protect wildlife like the eagles, all visitors are asked to stay on designated trails.
Hunting is allowed seasonally with the proper permits and licenses, and the refuge sponsors an annual youth spring turkey hunt. A youth fishing event also takes place every spring for kids 15-years-old and younger, that is free and open to the public.
The refuge is quite far from any stores or resources, so be sure to bring water, insect repellent, and sunscreen.
For more information on Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/Eastern_Neck. The website offers trail maps, brochures, and birding identification lists. Learn about the FWS partnerships and conservation efforts at www.fws.gov/refuge/Eastern_Neck/what_we_do/conservation.html and find information on volunteering at www.friendsofeasternneck.org.