Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Northeast Region
2145 Key Wallace Dr
Cambridge, MD 21613
(410) 228-2677

About Us

Blackwater March. Credit: Bob Quinn

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary for birds migrating along the critical migration highway called the Atlantic Flyway. Blackwater Refuge is located on Maryland's scenic Eastern Shore (location map), which is just 12 miles south of Cambridge, and consists of over 25,000 acres of freshwater impoundments, brackish tidal wetlands, open fields, and mixed evergreen and deciduous forests. Blackwater is one of over 540 units in the National Wildlife Refuge System and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior. View the Blackwater NWR brochure and map (1.4MB PDF).

Value of the Refuge

Blackwater Refuge contains one-third of Maryland's tidal wetlands, which makes it an ecologically important area within the state. These wetlands also provide storm protection to lower Dorchester County, including the town of Cambridge. Blackwater Refuge is recognized as a "Wetlands of International Importance" by the Ramsar Convention and was named a priority wetland in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. In addition, Blackwater Refuge has been designated as an Internationally Important Bird Area.

Blackwater is currently home to the largest remaining natural population of endangered Delmarva fox squirrels and is also home to the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast, north of Florida.

The Refuge has been referred to as the "Everglades of the North," and has been called one of the "Last Great Places" by the Nature Conservancy.

Natural History

The Refuge is fed by the Blackwater River and the Little Blackwater River, both of which flow through three local swamps: the Gum, the Kentuck, and the Moneystump. Due to its location, Blackwater Refuge is an important stop along the Atlantic Flyway (a migratory bird route that stretches from Canada to Florida).

Little Blackwater River meets Blackwater River on Marsh Edge Trail. Credit: Lisa Mayo

Blackwater Refuge is an estuarine marshland ecosystem and is known for its brackish tidal marshes and majestic loblolly pine trees (the loblolly is a southern pine that is accustomed to coastal conditions and reaches its northern limit just north of Blackwater). The drier marsh meadows at Blackwater are dominated by saltmeadow cordgrass and saltmarsh cordgrass, while the wetter marshes are frequented by Olney three-square. Olney three-square is the most dominant marsh plant at the Refuge and is a favorite of geese, muskrats, and, unfortunately, the destructive nutria.

In addition to marshland, Blackwater Refuge also holds smaller areas of mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, managed freshwater impoundments, and managed cropland. The freshwater impoundments and cropland are carefully maintained by Refuge management and help increase the diversity of food and wildlife at the Refuge.

Living in the marshlands and forests of Blackwater are many forms of unique and interesting wildlife. In addition to over 250 species of birds, Blackwater also boasts 35 species of reptiles and amphibians, tens of thousands of geese and ducks during the peak migration periods, and many resident mammals including whitetail deer, sika deer (an Asian elk), foxes, otters, and raccoons. In addition, Blackwater Refuge is frequented by three recovering species: the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, the American bald eagle, and the migrant peregrine falcon. The bald eagle population is a source of great pride at Blackwater Refuge and is often the top attraction for many visitors.

Blackwater Refuge is part of the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which is comprised of Martin NWR, Eastern Neck NWR, Susquehanna NWR and the Barren Island, Watts Island, Garrett Island, Bishops Head, and Spring Island Divisions.

Note: For the protection of the wildlife, only Blackwater and Eastern Neck are open to the public.

Human History

Muskrat. Credit: Sid Keiser

Before becoming a refuge, Blackwater's land was once managed as a fur farm, and muskrat and nutria (a non-native species introduced from South America) were once trapped at the Refuge. The USFWS has worked hard to remove the nutria from Refuge property because of the animal's destructive overeating of wetland plants. In addition to trapping, the land at Blackwater also shows signs of past timbering and farming.

Blackwater Refuge has also played a role in Native American and African American historical happenings. Nause and Waiwash were the names of two Nanticoke Indian ancestral villages that were based in Dorchester County, Maryland -- the home of Blackwater Refuge. The Nause-Waiwash Indian tribe now consists of over 250 descendants of the original Nanticoke Indians from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The tribe has restored their Longhouse at the corner of Maple Dam Road and Greenbriar Road, half a mile from the Refuge, which is adjacent to Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area. In Fishing Bay are Guinea and Chance islands, the ancestral home of the Nause-Waiwash Indian tribe who still make annual visits there.

Also, the region is steeped in Civil War and civil rights history; nearby Bucktown is the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, one of the conductors of the Underground Railroad. Tubman took many slaves to freedom in Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario, Canada. Blackwater Refuge is believed to be a former hiding place for escaped slaves who were traveling on the Underground Railroad.


Last updated: September 30, 2010