While zipping through the Eastern Shore city of Cambridge on the way to the ocean, most folks have no idea that just to the south are tidal marshes so scenic and vast that they have been dubbed the "Everglades of Maryland."
Indeed, southern Dorchester County looks more like Florida than the Mid-Atlantic. And like the Sunshine State, the region is home to a high concentration of nesting bald eagles, which will be celebrated Saturday during the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge's popular eagle festival.
"It is enormously well-attended," Blackwater volunteer Peggy Tillier said of the annual festival, which draws more than 1,500 people for a day of eagle-watching, live bird displays and Native American music. For children, the festival includes educational programs about eagles, an endangered-species puppet show and craft making.
Bald eagles, numbering as many as 200, are among the many migratory birds that can be seen and heard fall through spring in the swampy 23,000-acre refuge, which is the primary destination for visitors to the area - and a birdwatcher's paradise.
Established in 1933, the refuge (2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, 410-228-2677, black water.fws.gov) attracts waterfowl such as tundra swans, Canada and snow geese and more than 20 species of ducks that come to Blackwater to escape colder climates.
March is a good month to visit, after the worst of winter and before the birds head back north - and before biting insects appear. (Protective clothing and insect repellent are recommended from mid-April to late September.)
Birds that make Blackwater their year-round home include some of the bald eagles, plus great blue herons, owls, towhees, nuthatches and wild turkeys. Among the non-winged creatures living in the refuge are sika dear, an Asian species introduced to the area in 1916, and the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, a larger relative of the common gray squirrel.
Visitors also get a good look at the region's unique geography. A five-mile roadway and bike trail (Wildlife Drive) takes you along a manmade dike just above the waters of the extensive marshy estuary fed by the Choptank River to the north. Floating logs can look, for an instant, like alligators.
Hiking trails provide an even closer look at the topography and plant life of this marsh ecosystem where salt and freshwater meet. The 1/3 -mile Marsh Edge Trail starts in a dry, wooded area of mostly loblolly pines (the Eastern Shore is the northernmost region for these trees, which are favorite perching and nesting spots of bald eagles) and goes through an increasingly wet "transition zone," leading to a marshland of cattails and bulrushes and, finally, open water. In the distance is Barbados Island, where a pair of eagles has nested since 1975.
For canoeists, there are three paddling trails. The refuge will conduct a bird-watching canoe trip May 7.
More of scenic southern Dorchester County can be enjoyed by driving south from the refuge along Route 335, which has been designated by the state as the Wildlife Corridor. The road winds through miles of marshland and small towns, ending on desolate Hooper Island on the Chesapeake Bay.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is open dawn to dusk every day. Visitor center hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. The eagle festival is 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Fees for the drive/bike trail (waived for the eagle festival) are $3 for vehicles, $1 for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Where to visit
Most beachgoers driving along Cambridge's busy commercial strip of U.S. 50 miss not only the nearby marshes but also most of Cambridge itself. There are dozens of historic sites in the old part of town, which dates to 1684.
A walking-tour map, available from a kiosk at the corner of High and Church streets, guides you to such sites as the birthplace of Maryland Gov. Phillips Lee Goldsborough; the 22-room, 1912 home of Levi Phillips, founder of the Phillips seafood packing company; and the historic African-American neighborhood along Pine Street.
Maryland's commercial fishing history is on display at the Richardson Maritime Museum (Locust and High streets, 410-221-1871, www.richardson museum.org), which includes models of merchant vessels such as Chesapeake Bay skipjacks, bugeyes and pungys.
Where to shop
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge's bookstore offers literature on animals of the area, plus souvenirs such as T-shirts and mugs.
In Cambridge, you can find unique gift items, some made by local artists (check out Dawn M. Tarr's bowling pins, hand-painted to look like people) at the Alternative Gift Gallery (533 Poplar St., 410-228-0360, www. alternativegiftgallery.com). Cambridge shopping options also include several antiques stores (Bay Country Antiques, 415 Dorchester Ave., 410-228-5296, is one), and the Mexican Store (Race and Pleasant streets, 410-228-8926), where you can sample the Eastern Shore's Latino culture.
Where to eat