The National Wildlife Refuge system is a network of public lands set aside specifically for the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants. National Wildlife Refuges contain a priceless gift — the heritage of a wild United States. Wild lands and the perpetuation of diverse and abundant wildlife are an essential part of U.S. life.
The system provides habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, more than 1,000 species of fish and countless species of invertebrates and plants. More than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals are protected on wildlife refuges. Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stepping stones while they fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes.
Refuges are great for people, too. About 98 percent of the land in the National Wildlife Refuge system is open to the public for wildlife-dependent education and recreation. There is at least one national wildlife refuge in every state and territory and within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas.
Refuges are open throughout the year, but fall is an especially good time to visit. National Wildlife Refuge Week is Oct. 9–15. Refuges will be offering special programs, tours, guided wildlife walks, exhibits, live animals, crafts and children’s activities.
Here is a list of refuges in the region:
- Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, DE, protects one of the largest remaining tidal salt marshes in the mid-Atlantic region. Located on Delaware’s coast, it’s mostly marsh, but also includes freshwater impoundments and upland habitats managed for migratory birds and other wildlife.
- Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Milton, DE, is situated along western Delaware Bay’s marshes, where it protects more than 10,000 acres of wetlands, uplands and forest that are home to a variety of native birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants.
- Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, MD, features a diversity of plants and animals in its three major habitats: forest, marsh and shallow water. It contains one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands that are not only critical to migrating waterfowl but provide storm protection to lower Dorchester County. The refuge is home to the largest remaining natural population of Delmarva peninsula fox squirrels and one of the largest breeding populations of American bald eagles on the East Coast.
- Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Rock Hall, MD, is a 2,285-acre island that provides habitat and grasses for thousands of wintering waterfowl, including tundra swans. Its habitats include a brackish marsh, natural ponds, upland forest and grasslands. More than 240 bird species visit the refuge, which is home to small mammals and other wildlife.
- Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, MD, along the Patuxent and Little Patuxent rivers between the District of Columbia and Baltimore, consists of three areas, but only two, the National Wildlife Visitor Center and North Tract, are open for visitor activities such as hunting; fishing; wildlife watching and photography; and educational programs. Its forest, meadow and wetland habitats support a diversity of wildlife.
- John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum is a green respite nestled in the urban setting of Philadelphia. Its healthy and productive expanses of freshwater tidal marsh, open waters, mud flats and woodlands support hundreds of wildlife and plants species native to the Delaware Estuary, that breed, rear their young, rest during migration or live there year-round.
- Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach includes a thin strip of barrier island coastline typical of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as upland areas on the west bank of Back Bay. Habitats include beach, dunes, woodlands, agricultural fields and emergent freshwater marshes. Thousands of tundra swans, snow and Canada geese, and a large variety of ducks visit the refuge during the fall/winter migration. The refuge also provides habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the loggerhead sea turtle and piping plover as well as recently recovered species like the brown pelican and bald eagle.
- Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Chincoteague, VA, includes more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh and maritime forest. Established to provide habitat for migratory birds, today it provides habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds and songbirds as well as other species of wildlife and plants. Recreational activities include fishing; hunting; wildlife photography and observation; interpretation; and environmental education.
- Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, located in Cape Charles, VA, at the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, is one of the most important avian migration funnels in North America. Each fall, the refuge provides critical stopover areas for millions of songbirds and monarch butterflies and thousands of raptors stopping to rest and eat before continuing their voyage south. Favorable weather patterns push migrating species through the area in waves.
- Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, 18 miles south of the District of Columbia, is adjacent to a rapidly growing metropolitan area where habitat is constantly altered. It provides wildlife relatively remote upland forests and freshwater marshes extending into the Potomac River. It is home to more than 211 bird species, more than 200 plant species, 31 mammal species and 40 species of reptiles and amphibians. The refuge’s Great Marsh, a 207-acre tidal freshwater marsh is home to one of Virginia’s largest breeding great blue heron colonies.
- Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge, VA, provides a sanctuary of 325 acres of upland forest and freshwater tidal marsh for migrating birds, wintering waterfowl and a variety of mammals such as white-tailed deer, beavers, red fox, raccoons and gray squirrels. The refuge is accessible by boat only.
- Great Dismal Swamp in Suffolk, VA, is the largest intact remnant of a vast habitat that once covered more than one million acres of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. With more than 111,200 acres of seasonally flooded wetland forest and the 3,100 acre Lake Drummond at its center, the refuge contains some of the most important wildlife habitat in the mid-Atlantic region. Recreational activities include hiking, bicycling, nature photography, wildlife observation, hunting, fishing and boating.
- James River National Wildlife Refuge in Hopewell, VA, offers important breeding and roosting habitat for resident and migrating eagles. In addition, the 4,325-acre refuge supports hundreds of native plant and animal species in its forests, wetlands and grasslands. Low-salinity waters coupled with mature forest shorelines support fish-eating birds such as osprey, herons and cormorants. Seven anadromous fish species are found in the James River next to the refuge: alewife, American shad, Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass, blueback herring, yellow perch and hickory shad. Reservations are required 72 hours in advance of visit.
- Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge, VA at the confluence of the Potomac and Occoquan rivers, is a 1-square-mile oasis in an urban setting for migrating birds and city residents seeking a quiet escape from development. Diverse grasslands and marshes attract songbirds, raptors, waterfowl and butterflies that depend on meadows and open water for their food, nesting sites and a place to rest. People find respite as they hike trails and watch wildlife.
- Presquile National Wildlife Refuge in Chester, VA, is an important stopover site for migratory birds traveling up and down the Atlantic Flyway. In addition, the 1,329-acre island provides protected breeding habitat for state-listed threatened and endangered species, as well as many neotropical migrating bird species. Hundreds of native plant and animal species thrive in the isolated wetlands, forests and grasslands. Seven anadromous fish species are found in the adjacent James River. Reservations are required.
- Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex near Warsaw, VA, attracts shorebirds, neotropical migrant songbirds, raptors and marsh birds that rely on the river’s corridors during spring and fall migrations. Refuge staff are restoring native grasslands and riparian forests along the river and tributary streams to provide more habitat. Management will focus on such species as bald eagles; forest-interior dwelling species such as the wood thrush and scarlet tanager; and grassland-nesting birds such as the grasshopper sparrow and northern bobwhite.
- Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Davis, WV, is a patchwork of 23 wetland types, including bogs, shrub swamps and wet meadows. At about 8,500 acres, this is the largest wetland complex in West Virginia and a regionally significant wetland complex within the southern Appalachians. It has 31 miles of roads and trails for walking, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Twenty-three miles are open for bicycling; 22 miles for horseback riding. Activities include wildlife watching; photography; environmental education and interpretation; and hunting and fishing.
For information about the National Wildlife Refuge system, call 800-344-WILD or visit fws.gov/refuges/.