Is the Water Really Black at Blackwater NWR?
Black Vultures Peering Over Button's Creek

Is the Water Really Black at Blackwater NWR?

Black Vultures, Blackwater NWR

One of several very special wildlife reserves on the Delaware and Maryland peninsula, Blackwater Wildlife Reserve has slowly grown to be my favorite nature getaway. My view is probably biased by the fact that I really enjoy kayaking, and Blackwater has thousands of acres of water to paddle around. Just two hours from the Washington DC area, I am not shy about packing up my (wife’s) 14’ kayak and heading for the eastern shore just in time to arrive at Blackwater as the sun is rising. The light never lets me down at Blackwater. And regardless of the time of year I’m always able to get an interesting view of wading birds and migratory waterfowl.

The Light

Blackwater NWR’s water levels may be rising and that impacts the availability of the reserve’s tidal marshes. At the same time, the higher water levels provide for an excellent kayaking playground. If you can get on the water at first light you are in for a real treat. There’s just something about golden hour at Blackwater. I just want to park my kayak in one of the reserves many small coves and enjoy watching how the sunlight changes the scene in front of me.

Perhaps it’s obvious from the images I’ve gathered at Blackwater, but early morning light is my favorite. I can’t get enough of it. I just want to park my kayak in one of the reserve’s many small coves and enjoy watching how the sunlight changes the scene in front of me. It’s very therapeutic and no surprise that every few weeks or so my mind is back in planning mode trying to figure how to squeeze in another trip to Blackwater.

Blackwater's Loblolly Pine Trees

But why is does the light always get such a hold on my attention? Certainly I only drive down to Blackwater in good weather and that’s a factor. But it has to be more than that. I know this is a little crazy, but might it be something with the light reflected from the water? Might the darker hue of the water absorb certain wavelengths of light before it’s reflected on to the scene that so captures me? Theoretically all those tannins from vegetation decay that make the water so dark might make it absorb more light. I mean the water really is tea colored and it’s creepy that you can’t see the bottom of Button’s Creek when you are in a spot that’s only a few feet deep. I actually don’t care why and if you’re reading this, let me know if the light at Blackwater does something for you as well.

The Wildlife

As you paddle along the gentle waterways of Blackwater, you might get that feeling that you’re being watched. Well trust me if you haven’t visited yet. It’s the Bald Eagles and they are watching. At times it’s as if every turnof Mill Cove and Button’s Creek has an Eagle perched in a tree.

During the winter, Blackwater hosts over 150 bald eagles and if you don’t spot one on Wildlife Drive then you need to text less on your phone and look out the window more. In December, bald eagles begin nesting in tall loblolly pine trees. Eggs are laid around mid-January to late February,and the eagle pair will return to their large nests every breeding season until the nests are blown down or disturbed.


Bald Eagle, Loblolly Pine, Blackwater NWR

I guess I must be really lucky with the times I visit, but kayaking at Blackwater has been like having a little patch of the Serengeti to myself. It’s almost like there is a different nature scene every 10-minutes of paddling. There’s a different wading bird, maybe a raptor, perhaps some waterfowl, or even turkey on the shoreline at every turn of Buttons Creek.

As with this White Egret looking for its morning meal, I was able to set anchor and watch the bird do its work without disruption for what must have been an hour. I had her all to my own. I just got lost in that Egret’s world. Wade, stalk, wait, wait, wait, strike! Over and over again, the bird working the shore line, never seeming to be worried that I was just yards away watching from my kayak.

Great Egret, Blackwater NWR

The Migration

Blackwater is a major stopping point along the Atlantic flyway, fall, winter and spring. Visit during January and the discordant sound of thousands of snow geese taking flight at the same time might put you on your heels. It’s disorienting but beautiful at the same time.

Snow Geese, Blackwater NWR

Upwards of 35,000 geese and 15,000 ducks can be seen at the refuge in the winter. Blackwater was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. Bring your bird book if you come in the winter. Trust me, there will be species of ducks that you didn’t know existed. And seeing the Snow Geese and Tundra Swan is nothing but a pleasure.

Hooded Merganser, Blackwater NWR

Be Back Soon

It’s not like Blackwater is just around the corner from my Gaithersburg, Maryland, home and rising from a warm bed for the 2 hour pre-dawn drive isn’t the easiest thing. I’ve already gone on too much about the light, but it’s worth getting out of bed in the middle of the night for. The wildlife won’t let you down, at least if you’re willing to paddle around a bit. Surely Wildlife Drive has its share of birds, especially in the winter, but there’s something special about having all that water to yourself as the sun rises in the east.

And if you don’t believe me and don’t see it in the images I collected there, you just show up 15-minutes before sunrise and you tell me that you don’t feel the same way

Pano, sunrise, Blackwater NWR
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