Birding at Patuxent Research Refuge North Tract

Last Updated on October 9, 2020 by Nancie

Killdeer on One of the Little Islands on Patuxent North Tract's Merganser Pond
Killdeer on One of the Little Islands on Merganser Pond

One of our favorite ways to spend time is birding at Patuxent Research Refuge’s North Tract. Over the past year, Jim and I have been gradually exploring birding spots here in central Maryland. Birds can be found just about anywhere, including your backyard, roadsides and area parking lots. But birds need food, cover, places to nest and water. So spots where these needs are met in abundance are hot spots where you are likely to find more birds.

In our immediate area, one of the best is Patuxent Research Refuge. The refuge straddles Anne Arundel and Prince Georges Counties about mid-way between DC and Baltimore.) If you live in this area or are visiting and want to get in some birding, it is a great place to go birding.

Patuxent Research Refuge

Patuxent Research Refuge is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System but is a little different because its focus is on research. The refuge has 12,841 acres. It is broken up into three sections. South Tract is where you will find a very nice visitor’s center, lakes and five miles of trails. The Central Tract  is where the research is done. It is closed to the public.

North Tract has twenty miles of trails and roads linking up a lake, river and multiple small ponds and marshes. This is our favorite section to visit, not only because it is a quick fifteen minute drive from home but because it is such a great place to go birding at a variety of habitats.

eBird Checklists Point the Way

I first got onto Patuxent Research Refuge as a birding spot through eBird. While there are other places with more bird checklists submitted, those at Patuxent are often very rich in bird variety.

We had gotten hooked on visiting nearby Howard County parks, open areas and environmental locations and so hadn’t gotten around to visiting Patuxent. But a friend gave us a little nudge and we made our first visit in mid-March, just a little over a month ago. We’ve been back every weekend since.

Birding from the car at Patuxent's Merganser Pond
Birding By Car at Merganser Pond

Birding By Car on Miserable Days

In March, the Maryland’s weather was pretty miserable. It was cold, grey and wet every weekend. But Patuxent North Tract is actually a great place to go birding in bad weather. North Tract has 8,100 acres of land, with a two-lane (well, mostly two-lane) road called Wildlife Loop going through a good swath of it.

If the weather is horrible and you are not up to hiking in sleet, snow and cold temps, drive Wildlife Loop in your car. Pull off at various spots to check out birds along the way.

When birds are near the road, your car acts as a blind. You can still get out and explore along the road. But, you can also quickly get back in your car when you are ready to warm up and and get out of the damp. And now that icy fingers and toes are no longer a danger, we’ve also started exploring more of the walking trails.

When the weather was bad, we were usually among very few other visitors. These were typically fishermen, a few birders and the very hardiest of joggers. So we really felt like we had the place to ourselves. Now that days are getting warmer and sunnier, there are more people around. But it still isn’t crowded in the least, as there is a lot of area to spread out.

Common Yellowthroat We Found Near Patuxent's Lake Allen
Common Yellowthroat Seen Near Lake Allen

Meeting Fellow Birders at Patuxent

In recent weeks, we’ve been seeing more birders and have had very positive experiences. Birders who have come to Patuxent for a while know where to look and have been very generous in pointing us to spots to find interesting spring birds. We’ve tried to return the favor when we’ve discovered something interesting.

Patuxent North Tract Routes

Lately we’ve gotten to Patuxent a little after their 8am opening and squeak out just as they close at 4pm. You can’t bird all of it in one day, but you can cover a lot of territory moving along Wildlife Loop by car. You never really know which areas will be active on any given day, so travelling this way gives you options if one area is quiet and you want to move on to look for more activity.

Wildlife Loop isn’t actually a full connected loop you can drive. So if you are driving, after you check in, you can either go left toward Lake Allen or right toward the ponds.

Check the bulletin board when you check in at the Contact Station before you decide where to go at North Tract. When Lake Allen is closed, there will be a notice there. On those days, you can still drive the road toward the lake up until the turnoff or instead just go to the right toward the ponds.

Mallards at Lake Allen at Patuxent Research Refuge
Mallards at Lake Allen (Jim Waterman)

Wildlife Loop to Lake Allen

One cold wet weekend we were the only visitors for a period of time. We drove down to the far left end of Wildlife Loop to Lake Allen. This small lake is sometimes very quiet, although usually has fishermen scattered around its edges. But this particular day in early April, we were the only humans in sight.

Birds at Patuxent North Tract’s Lake Allen

The bird activity on this day was wild. Three Caspian Terns were flying over the lake fishing, along with a Great Blue Heron, an Osprey and scores of Tree Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Watching them all flying over the water and hunting in their own ways was an amazing experience.

At other times we’ve found Common Yellowthroat and Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Kinglets and Eastern Phoebes in damp areas around the lake, as well as lots of Canada Geese, Mallards and other ducks. You’ll often see Bald Eagles or hawks overhead.

American Kestrel Scoping Out the Fields of Tipton Airport
American Kestrel Scoping Out the Fields of Tipton Airport

Birds Along the Road to Lake Allen

The section of Wildlife Loop that leads to Lake Allen seems pretty unassuming, but you’ll find birds along the way if you pay attention. We’ve seen a Hermit Thrush and Eastern Towhees, as well as numerous more common birds like Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-Throated Sparrows and Field Sparrows.

One day we watched an American Kestrel hunting the adjoining fields of Tipton Airport. He would fly out from one of the tall trees on the edge of the airport property just on the other side of the fence to hunt the open area.  Then he would return to the trees to scope out the area for his next foray.

Note: Lake Allen itself is sometimes closed when the folks at nearby Fort Meade are shooting in the area. (This portion of the refuge used to belong to the military and still has the base as a near neighbor.)

Wildlife Loop To Merganser Pond

Retracing your route back to the Contact Station, the right portion of Wildlife Loop road is longer. It has quite a few good birding stops along the way.

Fields Along Wildlife Loop Road

The first time we visited Patuxent North Tract, they had just done a controlled burn of a field near the beginning of this section of road. While it might not have looked like much to us, the birds thought it was quite wonderful. This field was mobbed with Red-Winged Blackbirds, Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows.

Ten Golden Shafted Northern Flickers flew back and forth across the field revealing golden under-wings beautifully with each wing beat. That day, we learned that it pays to pay attention to disturbed areas that have the potential to catch the birds’ eyes. Stop, pause and give it a few minutes just to see what turns up.

Solitary Sandpiper at Patuxent North Tract's Merganser Pond
Solitary Sandpiper at Merganser Pond

Patuxent North Tract’s Merganser Pond

The first big stop along this section of the road is Merganser Pond. Some days we’ve stopped here to see nothing more than a few sleepy Canada Geese and a Mallard or two. Other days are full of activity.

One time we saw dozens of Tree Swallows, who had just arrived from their migration, engaging in a mesmerizing dance of flight over the pond. Another time we watched the quick mating of two Killdeer.

Just last weekend we saw two Solitary Sandpipers, a Wilson’s Snipe and a Killdeer. A family of Mallards included seven darling little balls of fluff trailing mom around.

Prairie Warbler Singing Near Patuxent's Merganser Pond
Prairie Warbler Singing Near Merganser Pond

Gravel Road Near Merganser Pond

There is a short gravel road just to the right of the pond. The first time we visited in March, we drove the length of it and didn’t see any activity. But the past couple of times, we walked the road and then continued around the Merganser Trail that widely circles the pond.

On the roadway two weeks ago, we were hearing this amazing bird song with notes that went up and up and up. We didn’t know what we were hearing but a pair of friendly fellow-birders who had been tracking the bird, a Prairie Warbler, helped us identify and locate him. We went back this past weekend and found him singing yet again.

Continuing Along Patuxent’s Wildlife Loop

The next section of Wildlife Loop is several miles long. Driving slowly, you’ll see all kinds of interesting birds along the way. What you see varies by season and day. Eventually you pass through an open area with power lines. Here, we’ve sometimes seen sparrows and raptors. Other times the place is quiet.

The American Bittern Blends Into the Brush at Patuxent Research Refuge
The American Bittern Blends Into the Brush

Wet Areas Along the Road

After you pass the power lines, the road gets rougher with lots of pot holes. My husband and I refer to these as speed holes because they keep you moving slowly the way speed bumps do. In the month that we’ve been visiting, we’ve found a lot of wet areas on either side of the road. Again, to humans, they might not look like much but birds find them to be great places.

On one visit we were startled to see an American Bittern in one of these areas. Although he was out in the open, he was so well camouflaged that we almost missed him . . . twice!

Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher Building a Nest
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher Building a Nest

We watched Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers building a nest near one of these wet areas last weekend and got a quick peek at a Scarlet Tanger. We’ve seen Red-Bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers in the woodlands along the roadway.

Patuxent's New Marsh
New Marsh

North Tract’s Marshes and Ponds

Nearer to the far end of Wildlife Loop are two more little ponds, New Marsh and Cattail Pond and then Bailey Bridge Marsh. These can get ducks and geese and Pied-Billed Grebes.

In early April, swallows and Eastern Phoebes were busy at New Marsh. There also is a bit of the moving river near that end of the road on the right where we’ve seen American Coots.

Bald Eagle Near the End of Wildlife Loop
Bald Eagle Near the End of Wildlife Loop

We often see Bald Eagles down near at the very end of the road. (There are quite a few dead snags there where we’ve several times seen one sitting. Other times were soaring overhead.) While Bald Eagles have gotten more common, it is still always amazing to see them.

A View of The Little Patuxent River from Patuxent North Tract's River Trail
A View of The Little Patuxent River from the River Trail

Patuxent North Tract Hiking Trails

There are also quite a few hiking trails in North Tract. So far, in addition to the trail around Merganser Pond, we’ve tried the short River Trail that starts at the Contact Center’s parking lot, on a quest for warblers. This short trail gives you a view of the river and winds you through the woods.

This Prothonotary Warbler Didn't Want to Pose
This Prothonotary Warbler Didn’t Want to Pose

We explored this trail for the first time last weekend. While the beginning of the trail was quiet, once we got onto trail’s loop end, there was quite a lot of activity, including Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, American Redstarts, Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers and a Swamp Sparrow just to prove that warblers aren’t everything.

We happened to met another little group of birders there who were also checking out the warblers. They told us they had also seen a Louisiana Waterthrush in this section just a little while earlier, something we hope to find on our next visit!

Merganser Trail
Merganser Trail

We have more trails to discover and we are looking forward to exploring the refuge in more seasons. But so far, we have really been loving this refuge. It is a great spot for birding!

More Trails at Patuxent North Tract

Since I originally wrote this post three years ago, we’ve walked more of the trails. The Telegraph Road trail is a nice hike that is largely shaded on hot days. If there has been a lot of rain, there can be a lot of wet areas along the trail that can yield interesting birds. Because it is not a loop, we take two cars when we hike this trail and park one at each end.

The trail out to Blue Heron Pond is a longer hike because you need to hike out and then back. But the pond is lovely. Ironically when we did that trail we saw a Green Heron at the pond rather than a Great Blue Heron.

If you want a shorter walk, try Pine Trail. It starts at an old church grave yard and then parallels Wildlife Loop for a short way. It doesn’t seem like much, but we’ve seen some interesting random birds there at times, especially around the old grave yard.

Patuxent Research Refuge Website


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2 thoughts on “Birding at Patuxent Research Refuge North Tract

    1. It really is very cool. One kind of backwards advantage is that it doesn’t have picnic tables or ball fields or boats to rent, so I suspect that keeps the numbers of visitors down a bit. (Jim and I tried to visit Centennial Lake over in Howard county the Saturday before last and it was insanely busy with no place to park and packed with people. Centennial has all of those things so I suspect it draws more people.)

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