Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge visitor center offers enhanced experience

(Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
September 29, 2014|By Karen Nitkin | For The Baltimore Sun

On a low-humidity puffy-cloud summer day, 8-year-old Zach Green of Gaithersburg rode a bicycle along the 5-mile Wildlife Drive in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge with his mother, Becky Green, and his grandmother, Andrea Adler, who lives in Bethesda.

The three stopped at the first observation site along the drive, propped their bikes on kickstands and began walking up a short boardwalk to the spot where two sets of binoculars were available for searching the marshy grasses and slow-moving Blackwater River. Though they were at the beginning of the bike ride, the family was already pleased with the adventure.

"It's a beautiful spot," said Adler. "A hidden gem," agreed her daughter.

"I saw this bird in the water," Zach announced.

Speaking almost in unison, his mother and grandmother asked him to tell what kind of bird he had seen.

"I don't know," said Zach.

"Yes you do," said his mother and grandmother, again speaking virtually in stereo.

"A blue heron," said Zach.

The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, about a two-hour drive from Baltimore, is a stunning 28,000-acre expanse of grass, water and sky, alive with geese, ducks, osprey, heron and other wildlife. From November to March, when the waterfowl are migrating, it's not unusual to see thousands of geese at a time, said Michele Whitbeck, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee who coordinates volunteers for Blackwater.

The wildlife refuge is also one of the top eagle-watching destinations on the East Coast, and it's a family-friendly place to walk, bicycle, and canoe or kayak.

A recent renovation of the visitors center added parking space, a new wing, a wall of windows and interactive exhibits, making it a destination in its own right. A geothermal heating system also has been added, said Ray Paterra, visitor services manager for Blackwater, adding that solar panels will be installed soon.

For three years during the renovation, the visitors center was in smaller temporary housing elsewhere on the refuge. The expanded visitors center opened in December, but the exhibits were not completed until the end of July.

The building renovation and parking lot expansion cost about $1.5 million, said Paterra; the exhibits cost about $350,000, and the geothermal system had a price tag of about $450,000. Funding came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Friends of Blackwater NWR, the Maryland Heritage Area Authority and federal highway funds, which were administered by the state, said Paterra.

The new wing has multipurpose rooms that can hold about 125 people for presentations and speakers. It was heavily used during Blackwater's annual Eagle Festival held in March, said Whitbeck.

One new exhibit shows the three habitats of the refuge — forest, marsh, and shallow open water. Another shows how Blackwater protects and keeps track of endangered Delmarva fox squirrels. Other exhibits detail the work that's done to preserve habitats, despite challenges including invasive plants and rising sea levels. There's also a mirror, surrounded by suggestions of what visitors can do to help, such as recycling, planting trees and reducing fossil-fuel use.

When guests walk into the renovated building, they see four large banners hanging in the breezeway, giving information about the refuge, its history, and how it fits into the larger national system. Straight ahead is the centerpiece, a large wall of windows that looks out across the yellow-green of late-summer grasses and the shimmering gray-blue of river. Also visible is a bustling butterfly and insect garden.

"In the fall and winter, we can see the ducks and geese flocking," says Whitbeck. "It's really a great view."

To the right is the gift shop and bookstore run by the Friends of Blackwater NWR, a nonprofit that raises money for the refuge. A majestic stuffed bald eagle is flanked by two television screens, one showing a live video of an osprey nest and the other showing a live feed of Bald Eagle nest. (Both of the feeds can be accessed online, at http://www.friendsofblackwater.org/camcentral.html.) Upstairs is another great view, plus other stuffed waterfowl.

"We walked through [the center] and we thought it was interesting," said Regina Good, who lives in Federalsburg and was visiting the center for the first time with her five children: Destiny, 12; Cambri, 10; Alexa, 7; Kierra, 3; and Dakota, 13 months. The children enjoyed the butterfly garden, and the family was hoping to see an eagle, she said.

Blackwater is part of a national system of wildlife refuges that dates to 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt established a Federal Bird Reservation on Florida's Pelican Island. Today, the refuge system has 560 locations in all 50 states, with more than 150 million protected acres. Blackwater dates to January 1933, when it became part of an Atlantic Flyway of national wildlife refuges providing resting spots for migrating waterfowl. At the time, it had just 8,000 acres, the exhibits explain.

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