Favorite birding locations with links to the MOS website Birder’s Guide to Maryland and DCL
Black Hill Regional Park
Black Hill Regional Park, with 1,580 acres, is one of the showcases of the Montgomery County Parks system. The centerpiece of the park is the 505-acre Little Seneca Lake, which was created as a drinking water reservoir in the 1980s. The lake has three major northward-facing arms that correspond to the three major streams that feed the lake: from west to east, these are Ten Mile Creek, Cabin Branch, and Little Seneca Creek.
Blue Mash Nature Trail
The Blue Mash Nature Trail, near Laytonsville in Montgomery County, lies in the buffer area of the former Oaks Landfill, which closed in 1997. After the landfill closed, the Montgomery County Department of Public Works and Transportation worked with staff from the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, an advisory commission, and members of the local community to plan the trail. The Department of Public Works and Transportation opened the Nature Trail and an adjoining mixed-use trail (for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders) in 2001. The area open for public use occupies about 245 acres. The natural-surfaced Nature Trail, 1.6 miles long, has proven consistently birdy, with a nice mixture of habitats and a corresponding variety of birds. Additional habitat can be viewed from the 2.75-mile mixed-use trail. Because of the diverse habitat, including two ponds, fields, thickets, and both young and mature woods, many different families of birds can be seen, including songbirds, flycatchers, waterfowl, shorebirds, herons, and raptors. The Nature Trail is a level, circuit-route trail which conveniently begins and ends at the parking lot off Zion Road. A separate parking area for the mixed-use trail is located off Olney-Laytonsville Road.
McKee-Beshers (Hughes Hollow) Wildlife Area
Located near the Potomac River in western Montgomery County, McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area is a 2,000-acre state-owned hunting area featuring a mixture of woodlands, fields, wooded bottomlands, and managed wetland impoundments. The area known as Hughes Hollow is the section of the WMA adjacent to the largest impoundment; it lies near the junction of Hughes Road with Hunting Quarter Road.
Little Bennett Regional Park
There is nothing “little” about Little Bennett Regional Park. At 3,700 acres, it is the largest of Montgomery’s county-owned parks. The park is located in northern Montgomery County, abutting the border with Frederick County. The park is located in the valley of the Little Bennett Creek and includes numerous tributary streams. Little Bennett Regional Park features a wide variety of habitats, including riparian woodlands, ridge-top forest, open fields, hedgerows, and wetlands. There is an alder shrub swamp that holds alder thickets, black willow, white turtlehead, cardinal flower, and native orchids; numerous natural and man-made vernal pools with a full complement of breeding amphibians; dry herb-dominated open canopy uplands; pristine skunk cabbage seeps; and extensive areas of rich floodplain. The park has some of the highest quality streams in the county.
Meadowside and Lake Frank
Meadowside Nature Center and its trail systems covers almost 500 acres within the larger (1,800 acre) Rock Creek Regional Park, managed by Montgomery County Parks. Meadowside Nature Center and nearby Lake Frank present the lush streamside habitats typical of the Maryland Piedmont. (Note: Do not confuse this county park with the similarly named Rock Creek Park, a National Park Service property located in Washington, DC.
Rock Creek & Lake Needwood
Lake Needwood, located northeast of Rockville in Montgomery County, is in Rock Creek Regional Park, operated by Montgomery County Parks. (Note: Do not confuse this county park with the similarly named Rock Creek Park, a National Park Service property located in Washington, DC.
The 75-acre freshwater Lake Needwood was formed by damming Rock Creek. The lake is surrounded by deciduous woods, and the majority of habitat here is representative of Piedmont wooded stream valleys. There are also some fields and overgrown meadows. Shorebird habitat appears in a few places along the lake shore, when the lake water level is naturally low, or when the lake is drawn down for silt removal. Foot-trails follow the lake shore; some trails are hilly and most are natural-surfaced. It is not possible to circle the entire lake on foot, because the trail system is interrupted at the north end of the lake by Needwood Road.
C & O Canal Locks – Pennyfield, Violette’s, and Riley’s
The stretch of the C&O Canal in Montgomery County that contains Pennyfield Lock, Violette’s Lock, and Riley’s Lock offers a rich diversity of habitat, including the Potomac River, flooded portions of the C&O canal, and adjacent woodlands, impoundments, and marshes that provide varied birding opportunities for migrating, nesting and over-wintering birds. Violette’s Lock itself is the #1 eBird hotspot in Montgomery County, with over 270 species reported, and Riley’s Lock and Pennyfield Lock are not far behind.
Seneca Creek State Park
Seneca Creek State Park encompasses 6,300 acres spanning 14 miles in the Seneca Creek valley, arcing through western Montgomery County from I-270 all the way to the Potomac River. The park has several distinct sections within this large expanse. There is an extensive trail system within the two larger sections, Clopper Lake and Schaefer’s Farm, as well as longer-distance trails linking the various sections of the park.
Lois Green Conservation Park
The Lois Y. Green Conservation Park (aka Green Farm Conservation Park) consists of a 200-acre parcel that Mrs. Green gave to Montgomery County Parks in 1975, plus an additional dedicated stream buffer area of 50 acres. When Mrs. Green donated the park, she specifically directed that the park was to “be used as an open space, for parkland, and for recreation in such a manner as to evidence the conservation of soil, water, woods, and wildlife… and shall be maintained essentially in its natural condition…” Today the Park is a remarkable oasis in a highly developed area of Montgomery County. The expanse of the park’s grasslands, topography, tree-lined stream, large ponds, wetlands, and woodlands create a feeling of respite and retreat.
Wheaton Regional Park & Brookside Gardens
Wheaton Regional Park, managed by Montgomery County, is an extremely popular 539-acre park with extensive deciduous woods, hedgerows, open fields, and several small ponds, of which the largest is Pine Lake. The park, fairly hilly in parts, has excellent habitat diversity. There are three main areas of the park, named for the roads from which they are accessed: Glenallan (includes Brookside Gardens, Brookside Nature Center, Wheaton Riding Stables, and an extensive trail system), Shorefield (includes Pine Lake and trails as well as picnic shelters, a miniature train and a carousel), and Orebaugh (primarily sports fields and associated structures). Most birders will want to visit the Glenallan and Shorefield areas.
Blockhouse Point Conservation Park
Blockhouse Point Conservation Park is named for the Civil War fortification built on a cliff that lies within its boundaries. The “blockhouse” served as an observation post and signal station for the Union forces patrolling the banks of the Potomac River. Situated between River Road and the C&O Canal, this 670-acre wooded tract, laced with several springs and streams, is a generally infrequently birded area. Aside from some initial traffic noise and the occasional distractions of dog-walkers or horse riders, it can be a pleasant, productive place to spend an hour birding.
Directions: From 1-495, take exit 39, River Road, toward Potomac. At 3.3 miles you will cross Falls Road; another 5.1 miles will bring you to Pennyfield Road. Continue another 1.2 miles and watch for a brown sign on the left marking the entrance to a gravel parking lot. It’s easy to miss the unmarked lot on this curving, fast-paced road.
A good way to sample the upland forest is to take the equestrian trail just beyond the lot for a short distance, look and listen for woodland birds, and then return to the main path. The equestrian path on the right is a good choice, for the deciduous woods in spring often hold vireos, tanagers, and warblers while a stand of old pines (about 200 feet into the woods on the right) attracts mixed flocks of foraging winter birds.
If you have just an hour or so to bird, simply walk down the wide petroleum pipeline cut–a minuscule section of the 5,349-mile pipeline that begins in Texas and ends in New York–descending from the lot. This graveled roadway of some 2,500 feet leads directly to the canal but does not cross it, so there is no access to the towpath from this side.
On spring mornings, check the large oaks and tulip poplars near the parking lot. As the sun hits the trees, you may find such delights as Pine and Palm Warblers and other migrants. If you begin your walk in early April, you will almost certainly hear the ringing notes of a Louisiana Waterthrush along the creek that begins about a third of the way down the pipeline cut on the left. As you reach the end of the path and come to the canal, check the large white oak and smaller sycamores on the right, consistently good in spring for warblers, tanagers, and orioles. Then look across the canal at the towpath; chances are you’ll find fellow birders with binoculars focused on the very same birds.
By early summer, the persistent buzzy trills of nesting Worm-eating Warblers coming from the upland woods on the right will tempt you to enter the woods in search of this voice-thrower. Recent breeding bird surveys indicate the rich bird life in summer includes Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Acadian Flycatchers, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, Wood Thrushes, Northern Parulas, Kentucky Warblers, Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and Indigo Buntings. As summer progresses, you may have to be content with birding by ear.
In winter, large trees on both sides of the cut should hold most of the expected woodpeckers–Red-bellied, Pileated, Downy, Hairy, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Northern Flicker–as well as White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and Golden-crowned Kinglets. The grassy areas bordering the gravel path are usually mowed and usually birdless, but piles of weathered logs and weedy patches close to the woods provide cover for Carolina Wrens, Song and White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos. As you continue along the cut and reach more level terrain, look above the creek on the left for a moss-covered rocky outcrop dotted with mountain laurel. A Winter Wren or two is likely to be nearby.
In all seasons, keep glancing skyward for raptors: This open expanse is good for spotting Broad-winged Hawks in spring and fall migration and Red-tailed Hawks and both vultures throughout the year. Infrequently, a Great Horned or Barred Owl will put in a surprise appearance.
The “Blockhouse Point” cliff, where traces of the old fort remain, can be reached from here via the almost invisible path to your right, but it’s a steep scramble and the path is often overgrown. Retrace your steps to the parking lot. — Linda Friedland
Click here for the eBird hotspot for Blockhouse Point.
RedGate Park is a former golf course that opened as a park in the summer of 2019. Its 131 acres include many habitats—woods, marshy areas, several ponds, and lots of high grass/tangles for the winter sparrows. From August 2019 to March 2020, birders recorded 158 species!
The City of Rockville launched a new website in March 2021 to get input on RedGate’s future (https://engagerockville.com/redgate-park). The survey is active until April 16, 2021. For those who bird at RedGate, now is your chance to “plan the future of RedGate Park.”
The park is birdy in all seasons. In the winter of 2020, the park hosted a nesting Great Horned Owl, and one young owl fledged. There was also a nesting Red-tailed Hawk. Birders have seen Merlin, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Barred Owl. We even had a few visits from Pine Siskins in fall 2020.
If you enjoy watching sparrows, RedGate is a must-visit. There are multiple sparrow habitats, and birders have recorded Chipping, Song, White-throated, White-crowned, Field, Fox, Vesper, Grasshopper, Lincoln’s, Swamp, Savannah, and American Tree Sparrow. A few just pass through during migration, like Vesper, Grasshopper, and Lincoln’s, but many of the others can be seen throughout the fall and winter and some into early spring.
Spring migration brings many species of warblers, swallows, orioles, as well as Common Nighthawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Least Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, and sometimes a rare visit from an Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, Eastern Meadowlark, Yellow-throated Warbler, and even a Connecticut Warbler in fall 2020.
Both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles nest in the park, as do Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows, Brown Thrashers, Yellow Warblers, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Kingbirds, Great Crested Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireos, Warbling Vireos, Eastern Phoebes, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Blue Grosbeaks, among others.
Year-round residents and visitors include Northern Mockingbird, woodpeckers (Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flicker), Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Chickadee, and Chipping Sparrows, which often are seen in high numbers.
There are several birdy areas of the park. Near the parking lot, there are two large ponds. You can often find sparrows, Great Blue Herons, and both kinglets flitting around the edges during the winter months. In summer, you can see Orchard Orioles, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Barn Swallows, and Eastern Kingbirds.
The former driving range, which has patches of high grasses and bushes along the edges, is a great place to see a variety of sparrows during migration. Eastern Meadowlark and Wilson’s Snipe have also been spotted here. And at the far end of the driving range is where the Connecticut Warbler stayed for a couple of weeks in fall 2020.
Past the driving range is a marsh pond, where Tree Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Blue Grosbeaks can be seen in summer. Toward the back of the pond, close to the woods, is a small indentation in the land some folks call the natural amphitheater. Here you can find sparrows and bluebirds in winter. Occasionally, birds of prey fly nearby.
The park is open sunrise to sunset 7 days a week. There are no bathroom facilities. The address is 14500 Avery Rd, Rockville, MD 20853. Several Ride-on buses—48, 49, and 52—stop on the corner of Norbeck and Avery roads.
Rachel Carson Conservation Park, Bookeville, MD – Originally written for the Birder’s Guide to Montgomery County in 2008
It is fitting that this park was named for biologist and author Rachel Carson (1907-64) who wrote her final and most influential work, Silent Spring, here in Montgomery County. Published in 1962, the book sounded a clarion call that ultimately resulted in the founding of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the banning of the persistent, toxic pesticide DDT, and the passage of significant national environmental legislation. A long-time county resident, Carson left a portion of her property wild — as she stated in a letter to a friend — “for the birds and frogs.”
M-NCPPC and Montgomery County Parks designated this 648-acre tract as a conservation park on two accounts: first to preserve its exemplary natural communities and populations of rare plants and animals, and second, to protect its unique archeological and historical resources. The park thus offers a wide variety of natural habitats and historical sites for birders, naturalists, and history buffs alike to explore.
The park contains impressive stands of mature upland chestnut oak forest as well as rich bottomland forests, old fields, hedgerows, small ponds, and the picturesque Hawlings River. The large quartz outcrops in the park provided early Native Americans with a source of raw material for stone tools. Later, enslaved people used these same rock outcrops as hiding spots as they fled north via the Underground Railroad.
The Hawlings River once powered two mills. Remnants of the earliest –in operation from 1769 to 1900– can be found east of Zion Road. A second mill, just west of Georgia Avenue, operated from 1840 to 1926, and parts of its old dam are still visible.
The park contains 6 miles of trails used by equestrians and hikers. Trails are generally good but can be muddy after rain. Rubber boots can be helpful in crossing the stream, as there are no bridges and the Hawlings River is just wide enough to make a dry crossing difficult without them.
From 1-495, take exit 31A, Georgia Avenue (Route 97), drive north 10.3 miles to the town of Olney, and turn left onto Route 108. Continue approximately 2.5 miles and turn right onto Zion Road. Proceed 2.6 miles and cross a one-lane bridge, keeping alert for fast-moving cars. Continue another half-mile and look for the park’s sign on the right. There is a parking area and kiosk with a park map and other information. Suggested walks begin at this point.
From 1-270, take exit 8, Shady Grove Road, east. Proceed 3.5 miles and turn right onto Muncaster Mill Road. At 0.25 mile, turn left onto Muncaster Road. Go 3.5 miles to the end of Muncaster Road and turn right onto Route 108. In less than 50 yards, turn left onto Brookville Road. Drive 0.5 mile to the first stop sign, Zion Road, and turn left. Proceed 2.1 miles to a one-lane bridge, and follow directions as above.
Area (a): Begin birding from the parking lot focusing on the old fields, hedgerows, and wood edges along the mowed paths and gravel road. Mixed habitats offer good birding throughout the year.
Common spring and summer species include Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Indigo Bunting, Red- winged Blackbird, and Baltimore Oriole. Look over the open fields for soaring Red- tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks and Black and Turkey Vultures, all of which nest in the park.
In fall and winter, walk along the wood edge and hedgerows looking for sparrows, including Field, Song, White-throated, and Dark-eyed Junco, as well as occasional American Tree, Fox, and White-crowned Sparrows.
The small stream and wet woods along the gravel driveway attract birds looking to bathe. Several trails lead from the meadow to the rest of the park. Most go through mature woods, and a number of circular walks are possible. Like most woods, they are best in the morning.
All the locally common forest birds can be found here. In drier upland areas, watch for Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager. Along streams and bottomlands, expect Wood Thrush and Louisiana Waterthrush. Common species throughout the forested areas include Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Pileated, Hairy, Downy, and Red-bellied Woodpecker, as well as Northern Flicker and White breasted Nuthatch.
An additional attraction for birders is the large pond visible from Zion Road adjacent to the park. This pond is on private property and should be viewed from the roadside and only from outside the fence. The waterfowl-watching opportunities are covered in more detail in the Duck Ponds site description
Area (b): One of my favorite destinations is about 1.5 miles round trip to a pond that sits across the Hawlings River. There are two ways to get there. The first usually requires knee-high waterproof boots to get across the river, the other doesn’t. Either route will take one to two hours. Both offer similar woodland birds.
The boot-wearing route: From the main parking area, walk counterclockwise around the meadow about 150 yards and take the first right turn onto the Rachel Carson Greenway trail. Follow this trail about 0.5 mile and go right at the next two intersections. This will take you to the river. The pond and associated open areas are on the other side; you will need to find the best place to cross.
The dry route requires a short drive: Turn left out of the parking area onto Zion Road and go about 0.5 mile where you will see a dirt pull-off on the left side of the road. Carefully pull completely off the road; this spot can get muddy after a rain. From here, walk south on Zion Road for about a quarter mile. The birding along the road can be very good, but exercise caution –the road is very winding, has no shoulders, and cars drive fast. Traffic is generally heavy during weekday commuting hours and light on weekend mornings.
About 150 yards beyond the one-lane bridge, take the trail to the left. It winds uphill through second growth and then down through open woods, good for Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested and Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and an occasional Northern Parula.
After about a third of a mile, the forest opens into a clearing. This secluded area of old field, swamp, and a small lily-covered pond is one of the best wildlife-watching places I’ve ever found. The overgrown field will likely produce Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Yellowthroat, Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, and Indigo Bunting. As you approach the pond, you may flush a Belted Kingfisher or Green or Great Blue Heron. Mallards and Canada Geese nest here each year.
Despite the pond’s small size, you could scare up a Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, or Ring-necked Duck from late fall to early spring. This is a great place to linger a while and see what comes to you.
A visit to the pond and adjacent stream just before dusk will likely offer views of beavers, muskrats, and, if you’re really lucky, a mink or even a river otter. River otters scat — about a half-inch in diameter and composed of fish scales and crayfish parts — can usually be found along the pond edge. If you walk out at dusk, don’t be surprised to see an owl cross your path. Great Horned, Barred, and Screech Owl all nest here.
Area (c): An additional spot worth checking is near the Hawlings River Bridge on Sundown Road. From the parking area, drive north on Zion Road to the intersection with Sundown, turn left, and proceed about a mile to the bridge. Park just past the bridge, being careful to pull as far off the road as possible — people like to drive fast here too!
The old-field and tree-lined stream on the south side of the road is park property. There are no trails, but the overgrown field area is accessible by walking back up the road about 150 yards. This is a good spot to find Willow Flycatcher, Belted Kingfisher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow Warbler, and Grasshopper Sparrow. The north side of Sundown Road is private property. The many dead trees on the far woods’ edge are worth scanning for woodpeckers.–Rob Gibbs
Back Roads of Western Montgomery County – Originally written for the Birder’s Guide to Montgomery County
The western portion of Montgomery County consists primarily of large tracts of forested and agricultural land. A series of paved and unpaved roads cross this area, running some 10.7 miles from the intersection of River Road and Sycamore Landing Road to White’s Ferry. This route roughly parallels the Potomac River and the C&O Canal, although both are visible only at Edward’s Ferry and White’s Ferry.
The roads are easily navigated except in heavy rain or snow. Still, as you travel this route, there are a few precautions to keep in mind. First, although the primary road is River Road, its name changes several times on the way to White’s Ferry before it eventually changes back to River Road. Second, the entire stretch is a series of narrow two-lane roads without convenient pull-offs, so when pulling over make sure that visibility is good in both directions. Finally, there are no facilities until you get to White’s Ferry. However, armed with a full tank of gas, a scope, supplies of water and snacks, and a spirit of adventure, you should be rewarded with an enjoyable country ride and good birds. Western Montgomery County has also produced birds that are difficult to find elsewhere in the county: Sandhill Cranes, Lapland Longspurs, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and Dickcissels have all made appearances in recent years.
0.0 miles: Set your trip odometer at the intersection of Sycamore Landing Road and River Road. (See McKee-Beshers WMA map.) Head west on River Road.
0.0 to 0.2 miles: On your right is a small hillside of dense bushes and saplings. Look and listen for Gray Catbirds, Indigo Buntings, Brown Thrashers, and Eastern Towhees. Above this is an overgrown pasture: Listen for Prairie Warblers. In August and September check the telephone wires for Tree and Rough-winged Swallows. The area at 0.2 miles can be productive for Bank Swallows.
1.75 miles: There is an entrance to a turf farm on your left; this is private property and should not be entered. Turn sharply right as River Road continues but changes its name to Mt. Nebo Road.
2.1 miles: At the driveway on the left I have pulled in very early in the morning in early spring and heard Wild Turkeys calling on more than one location. Keep an eye out for this elusive game bird throughout your trip.
3.1 miles: Stop where safe and listen for both Eastern Meadowlarks and Grasshopper Sparrows from May to September.
3.3 miles: Mt. Nebo Road now becomes West Offutt Road.
3.8 miles: Start checking the fields on both sides of the road for Eastern Bluebirds and the roadside weedy scrub for Savannah Sparrows (winter months). An occasional Vesper Sparrow may be seen here in the spring/summer time.
4.25 miles: West Offutt dead-ends at a T-intersection and stop sign. Turn left onto Edward’s Ferry Road. Approach this intersection slowly, on the lookout for raptors (especially Cooper’s Hawk) in nearby trees. Examine the nearby pine trees for Golden-crowned Kinglets. For the next mile, look for woodpeckers in the wooded area on your left, Red-tailed Hawks over the open fields, and swallows on the wires.
4.8 miles: It is worth pulling over here just beyond the driveway on your right. Scan the trees (cedar and deciduous) and brushy areas on the opposite side of the road (especially in the winter months. Possible species to be seen here include Cedar Waxwing, Purple Finch, and sparrows–White-crowned, Fox, White-throated and American Tree have all appeared here in the past.
5.3 miles: There is a stop sign at a three-way intersection. Turn left at the “Park Entrance/Edward’s Ferry”sign and park in the lot on the right. (Do not block the boat ramp). Here you have access to the C&O Canal towpath, where you can take a short walk to look for seasonal specialties. In spring and early summer listen for flycatchers and warblers, in the winter months for Barred and Great Horned owls. Use your scope to scan the Potomac River for ducks, Osprey, eagles, and swallows. Exit Edward’s Ferry and return to Edward’s Ferry Road.
5.6 miles: Turn left. This is the fourth and final name change–welcome back to River Road! From here to White’s Ferry, the road is unpaved and can be very dusty in dry weather. For the next half-mile, look and listen for American Redstart, Wood Thrush, and Wild Turkey in spring and summer. In winter, this stretch is good for Hermit Thrush.
6.3 miles: An underground gas line (marked above by poles) crosses the road. Check the secondary growth at the edges of the fields on both sides of the road for Eastern Towhees and Brown Thrashers. For the next mile, listen for American Woodcocks, often heard “peenting” and seen displaying on warm evenings (especially those with a full moon) from mid-January to April. The fields on the right can be good for sparrows during winter months.6.7 miles: A one-lane bridge crosses over a creek known as Broad Run. It is worth pulling over here and stopping for ten minutes anytime of year. This can be a good location for Eastern Phoebes and Louisiana Waterthrushes.
7.0 miles: Turn left to stay on River Road; (Elmer School Road goes to the right), watching for small potholes for the next 0.1 mile. There is a small farm pond on the left with very limited visibility and an even smaller pond on the right (close to the road) that sometimes has good possibilities.
7.1 miles: The road makes a 90-degree turn to the right; the Fairbanks Farm is on your left. Look for White-crowned Sparrows near the driveway during the appropriate months. During shorebird migration (March-May and July-August), if the field on your left is flooded, it can hold Least Sandpipers and both yellowlegs.
7.2 miles: The field on your right is good for displaying American Woodcocks. Listen here for Great Horned Owls.
7.5 to 7.75 miles: Look in the small trees at the road’s edge for winter sparrows, including White-crowned, White-throated, Fox (February and March) and American Tree.
7.75 miles to White’s Ferry: The final three miles take you through an agricultural area that can be the most rewarding section of the trip in all seasons. On your left you will see the J.T. Patton Turf Farms; on your right are other private farm fields where crops rotate between corn and soybeans. Small wooded areas separate the crop fields. Both sides of the road are private property; do not enter the fields or farm driveways and do all birding strictly from the side of the road. The road is not heavily trafficked, but please park carefully, allowing room for other cars–and large trucks travelling to and from the turf farms–to pass.
7.75 to 8.75 miles: Scan the farm fields and the turf farm. Look for perched Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks along the tree lines and, during the summer months, American Kestrels on the power lines. Northern Harriers are possible from late August through May, especially over the fields on your right.
January to March is a good time to look for gulls; most of the time you will find Ring-billed, but an occasional Herring, Laughing, or Bonaparte’s can show up in migration. Check the bushes and small trees at the edge of the road on your right for migrating Palm Warblers, as well as Savannah and Vesper Sparrows. The turf farm fields can be productive for shorebirds. Killdeer are likely almost any time (unless the winter is very cold or snowy). During migration you may find American Golden-Plover (September to November) as well as Pectoral Sandpiper (March to mid-May, and rarely, late July to October). Buff-breasted Sandpiper seems to make an appearance every two or three years. During spring and fall migration, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpipers are likely. Killdeer usually breed nearby. From December to March, scope the turf farm fields for Horned Larks and American Pipits, especially after the fields have been plowed and manured. Occasionally a Lapland Longspur can be found among the Horned Larks.
9.1 to 9.2 miles: Check the wooded areas for sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Eastern Towhees, and Brown Thrashers.
9.4 miles: A partially overgrown drive is on the right. During the summer months, check the edges of both sides of the drive for breeding White-eyed Vireos and Yellow-breasted Chats.
9.8 to 10.0 miles: Be on the lookout for a resident Red-tailed Hawk.
10.4 miles: River Road bends to the right and continues 0.3 mile to White’s Ferry. Here you will find a small convenience store (open April to October) and portable toilets. Once again you can access the C&O Canal towpath and the Potomac River (scan for Bald Eagles in winter). Should you wish to continue your explorations into Virginia, a car ferry can transport you across the Potomac.
To return to “suburban” Montgomery County, you may either:
1) Continue on White’s Ferry Road for approximately 6.5 miles to Poolesville; White’s Ferry Road becomes Rt. 107 in Poolesville and then runs into Rt. 28 towards Rockville. (Poolesville has many amenities).
2) Retrace your steps to Sycamore Landing Road. Helpful hint: If you choose to follow the directions in reverse on your return trip every turn will be a RIGHT- hand turn. The only exception is at the entrance to Edward’s Ferry Park; here, make a left-hand turn onto Edward’s Ferry Road. 3) For the truly adventurous, pull up your phone’s map app and explore some of the other back roads of western Montgomery County. -Jim Green
C & O Canal – Sites in Montgomery County (Excluding Pennyfield, Violettes and Riley lock areas)
Running for 184 miles between Georgetown in the District of Columbia and Cumberland in Allegany County, this vestige of the Industrial Revolution and westward U.S. expansion is now one of the mid-Atlantic’s most scenic and well-used parks. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and adjoining towpath parallel the Potomac River, offering a natural flyway for both water and land birds. Consequently, the C&O Canal is a perennial favorite of birders, with each one swearing that his or her chosen stretch is the best during migration.
Montgomery County’s portion of this narrow but beautiful park runs for a mere 35 miles, from the DC/Maryland line just upstream from Chain Bridge to the Frederick County line at the mouth of the Monocacy River. The canal’s “birdy” appeal is enhanced by its relative closeness to centers of population, straightforward auto access, adequate (if sometimes oversubscribed) parking, lack of entry fee (except at Great Falls Park), and hard-packed surface that provides generally easy walking or biking. (Choosing the Billy Goat Trail as an alternative to the towpath offers a much greater hiking challenge and is recommended only for those in good physical condition and wearing proper footwear.)
With the mighty Potomac alongside and usually visible, the towpath is bordered by a continuous line of trees and can always offer something of interest. If there is a downside to birding here, it is that finding certain habitats-such as grassy or overgrown fields-requires one to move inland out of the park. Also, the towpath can be extremely muddy after rains and dangerously slippery following snow and ice. The park is always open except during periods following flood damage, which unfortunately occurs on a regular but unpredictable basis.
This site guide treats the C&O Canal in Montgomery County as a number of separate sections, each of a size suitable for a half day or full day of birding. On some of the longer sections, the use of two cars, one parked at the intended destination, can avoid a hike back to the starting point. A bicycle offers a convenient mode of transportation, particularly on the upper sections beyond Sycamore Landing.
As with all birding, the hours just after dawn and just before sunset provide the greatest number and variety of birds, especially in the warmer months. Birding along the towpath in an upstream direction is recommended, because it puts the morning sun at one’s back. Although the canal actually runs roughly southeast to northwest, this guide will use “north” or “upstream” to denote movement away from Washington and “south” or “downstream” to indicate the direction towards Washington. Small wooden mile markers, which measure distances from the beginning of the canal in Georgetown at Milepost (MP) 0.0, are on your left as you go upstream – but they can be missed, especially if you’re a speedy cyclist. Locations in the text are often given in terms of these distances. (Intermediate mileages, such as MP 27.4, are estimates; do not expect to see wooden stakes at these points!)
Section I. Chain Bridge (MP 4.2) to Carderock (MP I 0.4) -6.2 miles
- a) Clara Barton Parkway just north of Chain Bridge. Parking area beside roadway. Walk up onto north side of bridge and take steps leading down to towpath.
- b) Ridge Road in Brookmont. From intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Sangamore Road, take MacArthur 0.2 mile west. Turn left onto Maryland Avenue and proceed to Ridge Road then follow Ridge to 61st Street. Park by roadside and take steep path down to pedestrian footbridge over canal to towpath just south of Lock 5 at MP 5.
- c) Lock 6, MP 5.4. Clara Barton Parkway, accessible inbound only.* Not accessible 2:30-7:00 p.m. weekdays, when parkway is outbound only. Lot 6 is located just after the parkway widens from two lanes to four. Twelve-space parking lot.
- d) MacArthur Boulevard at Walhonding Road, opposite Sycamore Store. Small parking area on MacArthur. Steep path down to footbridge (okay for bikes) and across canal at approximately MP 6.4.
- e) Lock 7. Clara Barton Parkway, accessible inbound only. Eight parking spots. Heavy traffic and noisy but close to lock and towpath at MP 7.0.
- f) MacArthur Boulevard, between locks 7 and 8. Small parking lot on west side of MacArthur at south end of single-lane bridge between Glen Echo and Cabin John, just north of Wilson Lane. Trail leads down to steep wooden steps under parkway and across footbridge over canal to towpath.
- g) Lock 8. Clara Barton Parkway, accessible inbound only*. Small parking area well off parkway. Long steep path down to canal at MP 8.4. Lockhouse is used as an education center by the Potomac Conservancy in season. Lock 8 is also accessible from MacArthur. Park in lot for stores at corner of MacArthur and Seven Locks. Walk down 77th St, under the CB Parkway and then left to canal.
- h) Lock 10. Clara Barton Parkway, accessible inbound only.* Small parking lot by parkway. Quick access to lock and towpath at MP 8.8. Ideal for bike access.
- i) Carderock Recreation Area. Take Clara Barton Parkway outbound from 1-495 for 0.8 mile, exit at Carderock off-ramp, and follow signs to Carderock. After road goes under canal, turn left at stop sign and park in lot. Or turn right and make an immediate left into main parking lot. There is another parking lot 0.4 mile farther up road, with a short trail to towpath at MP 10.8.
*Traffic outbound from DC can turn around to head inbound at Cabin John or Carderock exits; no turnaround at Glen Echo exit.
Amenities: Decent restrooms at Carderock parking lots. Portable toilet at Lock 8. No food facilities.
Birding notes: The first half-mile of the canal north of Chain Bridge is in the District of Columbia. There is access to the river (still in DC) along a partly paved, cracking road at MP 4.5. The vegetation is low here and inhabited by Song Sparrows and Indigo Buntings. The woods between the canal and the river have had breeding Yellow-throated Warblers, and a singing Mourning Warbler was once found here in late May. Prothonotary Warbler breeds in the wet area just downstream of Chain Bridge and in the wet woods above Fletcher’s Boathouse at MP 3.1 (both are DC locations).
The river above Chain Bridge is rocky and is a favored fishing site for people, Great Blue Herons, and Black-crowned Night-Herons. The canal, which is filled with water throughout this section, has numerous Canada Geese and Mallards, with a few Wood Ducks and American Black Ducks. A more exotic duck may turn up once in a while, and Belted Kingfisher makes an occasional appearance. Northern Rough-winged Swallows, which nest in crevices between the stones below Chain Bridge and along the wall below Canal Road downstream in DC, are regular in spring and summer. In recent years, Cliff Swallows have bred under some of the roadway arches along the Clara Barton Parkway.
The best bet for water birds is in the river just below the Little Falls Dam, upstream of Lock 6 at MP 5.5. Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed Gulls are usually present, but a bigger attraction is the diving ducks-Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, and Ring-necked in particular-that can be seen on occasion in winter. The slack water above the dam often holds many Common Mergansers in late winter, and Red-breasted Merganser and flocks of Lesser Scaup have been spotted here too. Set up your scope beside the big pump house, and after you’ve scoped the river, check the overgrown grass and small trees around you for sparrows and other perching birds.
Bonaparte’s Gulls can be seen in good numbers in late March-early May, both here and further upstream, and Caspian Terns in late April/early May. Double-crested Cormorants are usually numerous in the warmer months in rocky sections of the river. The county’s (and Maryland Piedmont’s) only nesting colony of Double-crested Cormorants is on an island in the river roughly at MP 8. Look for the mile marker and walk down to the water’s edge. The cormorants return by the end of March and viewing is best then, when unobstructed by leaves. This stretch of the canal also has nesting Prothonotary Warblers. About 30 yards south of Lock 11 (MP 9.0), an inconspicuous trail wanders in a generally upstream direction toward the river opposite Plummer’s Island, from which Barred Owls can often be heard calling during the day. Working north, you will eventually come to the Beltway Bridge (MP 9.2). This is the Seven Locks stretch, and the elevation rises fairly steeply. Traffic noise makes it almost impossible to hear bird song within a quarter-mile of either side of the bridge. Rock Pigeons roost under the bridge. Just north of the bridge, Louisiana Waterthrush breeds along the stream that rushes from the canal down to the Potomac and Yellow-throated Warbler may breed here too.
A pair of Peregrine Falcon have been present on the American Legion Bridge at least since 2006-apparently the first breeding pair in the county since the 1940s. You can follow a track down by the south side of the bridge, all the way to the river to view them. A nesting box was placed on the bridge and is used by the falcons during the breeding season.
The rich, moist woods between the canal and river, up to the Carderock parking lots, are home to Acadian Flycatchers and Northern Parulas in summer, and Great Crested Flycatchers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are common. In winter, as is true all along the canal, you will meet small flocks of chickadees and titmice, mixed in with Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and the occasional White-breasted Nuthatch. (Red-breasted Nuthatch is rare, due to a dearth of pine trees.) Migrant birds are somewhat easier to see in the trees on the far (east) side of the canal than in the thick woods.
When the water level in the canal is low and mud is exposed, look for Solitary Sandpipers during migration. They can be almost invisible until they fly.
As an alternative to continuing along the towpath to Carderock, look for a blue-blazed trail (part of the Billy Goat Trail) that leads down to the river and then curves upstream to reach the lower Carderock parking lot. This trail is reached by a short walk toward the river from a point just opposite the remnants of Lock 14 at approximately MP 9.9. The trail can be slippery and has one rocky stream crossing, but early in the day it can afford close views of birds by the river before they are spooked by fishermen. Spotted Sandpipers can be abundant in migration on the rocks and on the riverbank. In winter, look for Common Loon and grebes (Pied-billed or Horned, with the hope of Eared).
Indigo Bunting is particularly common during migration, and orioles of both species can be seen and heard in tall trees along the river. Eastern Kingbirds are everywhere, Northern Parulas are common nesters, and swallows stream by during April and May. If you get here early enough, you may see Common Nighthawks mopping up after a hard night of insect catching.
Section 2. Carderock (MP I 0.4) to Great Falls (MP 14.3) -3.9 miles
- i) Carderock Recreation Area. Take Clara Barton Parkway outbound 0.8 mile from 1-495, exit at Carderock off-ramp, and follow signs to Carderock. After road goes under canal, turn left at stop sign and park in lot. Or, turn right and make an immediate left into main parking lot. There is another parking lot 0.4 mile farther up road, with a short trail to towpath at MP 10.8.
- j) MacArthur Boulevard just north of Brickyard Road. From a small gravel area, a short path and footbridge lead to the canal at about MP 11.5. Park carefully, since parking is prohibited along much of MacArthur. To avoid a ticket, it is safest to park on the suburban street that parallels MacArthur; get there by driving up Brickyard and making consecutive left turns at Stable Lane and Masters Drive.
- k) Old Angler’s Inn. MacArthur Boulevard 1.1 miles north of the end of Clara Barton Parkway. Three parking lots across from Old Angler’s Inn; they fill up quickly on weekends and holidays. A service road bridge crosses canal to towpath at MP 12.3. Obey “No Parking” signs along MacArthur; police often ticket here. Do not park in the Inn’s private lot.
1) Great Falls National Park (U.S. fee area). Winding, 1.2-mile entrance road (many deer, 15 mph speed limit sometimes strictly enforced) begins at intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Falls Road; this is 1.1 miles north of Old Angler’s Inn on MacArthur, or two miles south of the intersection of Falls and River Roads in Potomac. Despite extensive parking lots, all spaces can be filled by noon on busy spring and summer weekends; park is then temporarily closed to additional visitors.
Amenities: Public telephones and excellent restrooms at both Carderock and Great Falls. Great Falls has a small food concession; open daily in summer, 100 yards north of the visitor center in the Great Falls Tavern, which also has a small museum and bookshop. The Old Angler’s Inn has a nice but pricey restaurant, best reserved for special occasions such as a 25-warbler-species day on the canal. Potomac Village, at the intersection of River and Falls Roads, has supermarkets, gas stations, pharmacies, and restaurants.
Birding notes: Were it not for the extreme popularity of this stretch of the canal-with canoeists, kayakers, rock climbers, falls watchers, and droves of plain old tourists in summer-this would undoubtedly be the finest birding area close to the Federal City. Some of us think it still may be! If you avoid weekends spring through fall and/ or start early in the morning, you will be impressed by the resident and migrant bird life along this four-mile section of the canal and on the adjacent river. At the main picnic area in Carderock, just south of the entrance road, an hour spent birding the trees around the edges of the big lawn during spring migration will pay many dividends. Most of the warblers may be Yellow-rumped warblers, but more than 20 other warbler species have been seen here, including Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Bay-breasted, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, and Blackburnian. Warbling Vireos and Baltimore Orioles are regulars in the big sycamore trees overhanging the river. Over the river migrate all the eastern swallows, including Bank Swallows, Purple Martins, and Chimney Swifts. Watch for them perched on saplings or bushes on small islands in the river. Overhead look for Bald Eagles, Ospreys, Black and Turkey vultures, and Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks. On a April or September day, you may see Broad-winged Hawks on the move. Double-crested Cormorants and gulls – look for Bonaparte’s in April -coast over the river or bob along on the surface.
Just above the first restroom area in Carderock, you have a choice of following a small trail to the towpath or cutting down to the river and taking the blue-blazed trail-a relatively easy walk. Downstream lies the area described in Section 1. If you go upstream, you will traverse dry woods where thrushes-mostly Wood Thrush and an occasional Swainson’s or Veery-and Ovenbirds should be seen or heard. When you come to a set of rocks favored by apprentice rock-climbers, you can cut back to the northernmost Carderock parking lot and the towpath or continue on the blue-blazed trail until it intersects with the towpath at about MP 11.1. Acadian and Great Crested flycatchers and Eastern Wood-Pewees are common in spring and summer along this section; Least and Yellow-bellied flycatchers have been seen in spring migration but should not be expected.
Above MP 11, the towpath runs along a high escarpment above the river. You can look at the treetops here for a better view of the birds- Yellow-throated Warbler is regular-or across the canal to a spot where a small stream joins it and Louisiana Waterthrushes can reliably be found in spring and early summer. They are usually on territory by early April. Northern Waterthrush is a migrant only; it is more likely to be found in May (and heard more often than seen) down towards the river.
At MP 11.5 you will see the wooden footbridge and the trail to MacArthur Boulevard (access point j). This, too, is a good area for migrants. One hundred yards upstream from the footbridge is an area where Barred Owls sometimes roost; they are seen less often since their large nest tree fell in a storm. Nevertheless, they can still occasionally be seen by day on both sides of the canal. Continuing upstream, the canal broadens considerably. Great Blue and Green Herons fish patiently from snags and fallen logs along the far side, and Pileated Woodpeckers can be seen dashing overhead or calling loudly from the woods. (The entire canal is excellent for woodpeckers, but Pileateds are distinctly more common from Great Falls downstream to Chain Bridge than they are farther up the river.)
Just past the Barred Owl area, look for the beginning of the Billy Goat Trail descending into the woods on your left. This branch of the blue-blazed trail runs for 1.4 miles through the woods and eventually rejoins the towpath just below Old Angler’s Inn. It is moderately demanding, especially when conditions are wet and the river is high, as a number of rocky areas may have to be climbed. But the surroundings are magnificent and you have an opportunity to sit on a rock by the river, catch your breath, and scan the waters and the skies. If you elect to stay on the towpath and work your way upstream, you will notice a marshy pond on the far side of the canal at around MP 12. Prothonotary Warbler may be seen and heard here in the summer.
At Old Angler’s Inn (access point k), numerous kayakers and canoeists can be seen carrying their craft down to a calm put-in point by the river. This area is almost always a hive of human activity; move through with all deliberate speed. The towpath was totally destroyed here in the 1996 flood but has been beautifully reconstructed and the canal rewatered.
Just north of the small parking lot nearest the canal, reached by a steep set of steps, is the beginning of the Berm (or “Berma”) Road, which you can use as an alternative to the towpath as a route toward Great Falls. It runs through deep woods and can be superb for warblers and vireos during migration. The Berm Road connects back to the towpath via a small bridge at about MP 13.8.
The extensive wooded area to the north and east of the Berm Road has a number of attractive, but steep, trails to explore; ask for a detailed trail map at the visitor center in the Great Falls Tavern. A characteristic breeding bird of this area is Worm-eating Warbler.
If you elect to follow the towpath northwards to Great Falls, you will quickly come upon Widewater, where the Canal was constructed over an ancient channel of the Potomac River. The water here is very deep as well as wide, but it does not seem to attract many birds apart from Cormorants or an occasional Great Blue Heron. As you proceed north, you will notice that the vegetation on the berm (right) side is dominated by smaller trees such as arborvitae. This is not a particularly birdy area, but the landscape is astonishingly lovely and views skyward are unimpeded, so watch for raptors and swallows. Resist the temptation to detour on the Billy Goat Trail where you see the sign at about MP 12.7; this trail can best be described as “rugged” and is not recommended for birders.
A little farther upstream, the towpath used to deteriorate into a narrow path and rocky jumble. The Park Service greatly improved this section and no longer do you have to heft your bike for 20-30 yards. Soon you arrive at the Six Locks area, where in winter, berry-loving birds such as American Robins and Cedar Waxwings are found. This is also one of many good places along the canal to catch a glimpse of Winter Wren in the colder months. Unfortunately, this skulker does not start singing its ethereal song until shortly before moving north in April. Listen for its double-noted call and look for it down low among tree roots.
At MP 13.8 you will see the northern terminus of the Billy Goat Trail. Just downstream, the wooden footbridge linking the towpath to the Berm Road crosses the canal. Between this point and Great Falls Tavern, 0.5 mile ahead, the elevation rises steeply. To your left at MP 14.1, just above Lock 17, you will see a very popular trail leading to the edge of the Falls; you wouldn’t believe how many people use this trail spring through fall. It is not usually notable for birds, but you can enjoy the view of the river in flood from this vantage point. Vultures are often in view.
The best birding in the vicinity of Great Falls is north of the tavern (visitor center) and is described in Section 3.
Section 3. Great Falls (MP 14.3) to Pennyfield Lock (MP 19.6)-5.3 miles
1) Great Falls National Park (U.S. fee area). Winding, 1.2-mile entrance road (many deer, 15 mph speed limit sometimes strictly enforced) begins at intersection of MacArthur and Falls Road; this is 1.1 miles north of Old Angler’s Inn on MacArthur, or 2 miles south of the intersection of Falls and River Roads in Potomac. Despite extensive parking lots, all spaces can be filled by noon on busy summer weekends; park is then temporarily closed to additional visitors.
- m) Swain’s Lock. Off River Road, 2.2 miles northwest of Potomac Village. One-half mile beyond traffic light at Piney Meetinghouse Road, turn left on Swain’s Lock Road (signs are rather inconspicuous). Very small parking lot at end of narrow access road often fills up early in the day.
Section 6. Sycamore Landing (MP 27.2) to Edward’s Ferry (MP 30.8)-3.6 miles
- q) Sycamore Landing. Off River Road, 13.0 miles northwest of Potomac Village. Drive 4.1 miles beyond Riley’s Lock Road to Sycamore Landing Road. Turn left and proceed 0.8 mile to parking lot adjacent to canal at very end of road.
- r) Edward’s Ferry. From Poolesville, take Willard Road south 0.6 mile, turn right on Westerly Road, and continue 1.4 miles to intersection with Edward’s Ferry Road. Turn left and proceed 2.5 miles to end of Edward’s Ferry Road, cross at lock, and park in small lot by canal. Lot may be crowded with boat trailers in summer.
Amenities: No food services or restrooms in this section. Boat ramp at Edward’s Ferry.
Birding notes: This is a wonderful birding area, though few birders use it. Winter Wren is almost a sure thing in the canal bed near the path leading from the Sycamore Landing parking lot to the towpath. Look for Hairy Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (winter) in the trees between the towpath and the river. Birding trips have sometimes seen Barred Owls during the day; they nest and roost in the large sycamores along the river.
Northeast from MP 28 lies the Summit Hall Turf Farm, formerly an accessible birding location noted for “grasspipers” in fall and American Pipits and assorted sparrows in winter. It is possible to set up a scope on the towpath and look east over the large expanse of manicured turf, hoping for a Buff-breasted Sandpiper or American Golden-Plover in August or September, Horned Lark in November, or American Pipit in January. In any event, birders should keep a weather eye out for sandpipers and smaller birds when walking the towpath in this vicinity. Interesting shorebirds are still seen every year. At the very least, Killdeer should be seen and heard. In wet weather, pools of water that form in parts of the Turf Farm may attract ducks and geese in winter or Solitary and other sandpipers during migration. American Kestrels quarter this area, too. Red-shouldered Hawks nest nearby and are often seen and heard. The Turf Farm is private, and birders should not set foot on the property.
Above MP 29 one loses sight of the turf farm on the right and the river disappears to the left. The next mile is an excellent birding area, as trees arch over the towpath, blocking the sun. The canal bed is overgrown by weeds and small trees, and the wetter areas host Louisiana Waterthrushes, Prothonotary Warblers, and Northern Waterthrushes (in migration). Look for Canada Warbler during migration in areas of low saplings. The best birding areas in this stretch are more easily and quickly reached by working downstream from Edwards Ferry.
Section 7. Edward’s Ferry (MP 30.8) via White’s Ferry and Dickerson to Monocacy Aqueduct (MP 42.2)-11.4 miles
- r) Edward’s Ferry. From Poolesville, take Willard Road south 0.6 mile, turn right on Westerly Road, and continue 1.4 miles to intersection with Edward’s Ferry Road. Turn left and proceed 2.5 miles to end of Edward’s Ferry Road, cross at lock, and park in small lot by canal. Lot may be crowded with boat trailers in summer.
- s) White’s Ferry. From Poolesville, proceed west on White’s Ferry Road 6.3 miles to White’s Ferry. Park in very large lot on right side of road, avoiding traffic waiting for ferry to Virginia. Access to towpath is a little behind you. Alternatively, drive north on “old” River Road (gravel surface and occasionally bumpy) 5.3 miles from Edward’s Ferry, or 10.4 miles from Sycamore Landing Road.
- t) Dickerson Conservation Park. From Poolesville, take White’s Ferry Road west 3.5 miles to Martinsburg Road. Turn right and proceed 2.5 miles to park sign on left. Parking lot is 0.9 mile down road, just short of canal. Alternatively, from 1-270, take exit 6B, Route 28, west about 18 miles, through Darnestown and Beallsville. Some 2.2 miles past Beallsville Road (Route 109), Route 28 makes a sharp right turn (yellow blinking light) and Martinsburg Road goes off to the left. Turn onto Martinsburg Rd. In about two miles you will see the park sign on right. Proceed as above.
- u) Monocacy Aqueduct. From 1-270, take exit 6B, Route 28, west through Darnestown and Beallsville to the small town of Dickerson. After passing the stop sign at Mount Ephraim Road, drive 0.3 mile and turn left on Mouth of Monocacy Road. Proceed 1.4 miles, keeping left at fork, to parking lot just south of handsomely reconstructed aqueduct over Monocacy River, the dividing line between Montgomery and Frederick counties.
Amenities: Small store and outside public telephone at White’s Ferry; store open from April to October, generally from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, with longer hours on weekends. Store also rents canoes. Many picnic tables down by the ferry landing-technically for store patrons only, so buy something there if you want to picnic. Substantial toilets/washrooms (summer only) and two portable toilets in the parking lot at White’s Ferry and one at Monocacy Aqueduct. Just one picnic table in Dickerson Conservation Park. There is also a portable toilet in the Marble Quarry campsite at MP 38.2. Poolesville, six miles away, has fast food, groceries, and several gas stations.
Birding notes: Few Montgomery birders regularly work the canal in these “northern” parts, particularly the Edward’s Ferry (MP 30.8) to Dickerson Conservation Park (MP 40) stretch, where the access points are a long way apart, far from a main road, and tricky to find without good directions and/or a map. Yet there are many advantages in doing so. Travelers are few and far between, even in the busy spring and summer months. The scenery is gorgeous and the birds much the same as those at the more popular birding stretches to the south. A bicycle is the ideal way to explore these parts. The river is never far away in this section, though sometimes out of direct view, and should be checked for ducks, loons, and grebes in the cooler months. Warblers, vireos, and flycatchers can be numerous during migration. The only disadvantage of these happy facts is that you are unlikely to run across a fellow birder to assist with an ID unless you take a birding buddy along with you.
The canal bed is generally overgrown with small trees, bushes, and/or weeds in this section (apart from a two-mile stretch above Dickerson, which is watered). Alder Flycatcher has been found (in migration only) in swampier areas along this stretch, together with the nesting Acadian and occasional migrant Least Flycatcher in the woods. Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireos are regular in the more extensively wooded stretches, together with the more common Red-eyed Vireo, a customary breeder. Louisiana and Northern Waterthrushes (the latter migrant only) frequent the streams and swampy areas, respectively. Prothonotary Warbler nests in wetter areas, and in the woods, there are American Redstarts and Black-and-white Warblers. Barred and Great Horned owls are quite common, and may be seen occasionally in the daylight hours.
The towpath near Whites Ferry can be very good for migrant thrushes, including Grey-cheeked. The fields inland from Edward’s Ferry and White’s Ferry are worth visiting in March and April for displaying American Woodcock after dusk.
White’s Ferry (MP 35.5) is an interesting, if busy, place to stop for a snack or breather. It also offers an easy opportunity to do some birding in the Lucketts area of Loudoun County, VA. Drive onto the “General Jubal Early” for a quick and inexpensive ferry crossing. (The name is due for change, as the original memorializes a Confederate officer.) The ferry runs year-round except in times of exceptionally fast river flow. If you stand on the ramp for smaller boats and look down the river you can see an extensive Great Blue Heron rookery on an island in the river, where Great Egrets sometimes summer.
Back on the towpath and above White’s Ferry, starting just before MP 37, there is a slow-moving side channel of the river just to your left that looks like a medium-sized pond; watch for Great Blue and Green herons. At MP 39.2 a historical marker tells you that White’s Ford used to be nearby-Confederate forces used it several times to cross the river during the Civil War-but the modern traveler can see no trace of it.
Dickerson Conservation Park (MP 39.6), just a little further along, is an interesting area. The overgrown fields on either side of the access road to the parking lot from Martinsburg Road harbor Prairie Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat in summer and sparrows in winter. Red-shouldered Hawks nest nearby and have been seen and heard at all times of the year. The canal upstream from this little park is watered almost all the way to Lock 27 at MP 41.5, and this is a good stretch to look for Belted Kingfisher and assorted woodpeckers in the many dead trees. This stretch is also quite open (and hot in summer) and there are White-eyed Vireos and Eastern Towhees in the low bushes. Red-headed Woodpeckers seem commoner here than they are downstream.
Just before you come upon the warm-water discharge from the power plant at about MP 40.5 (and the fascinating white-water slalom course electricity company engineers built for Olympic kayakers), there is a swampy area in the canal that can hold Green Heron and both Waterthrushes. In these open areas, Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows swoop for insects, and you have a chance to look up for hawks and vultures-and maybe an eagle. The more wooded and shady parts of the towpath have a remarkably large number of Acadian Flycatchers in spring and summer, while the sunnier areas abound with the song of Indigo Buntings. An Acadian Flycatcher nest with young was once found overhanging the towpath at MP 38.5. Warbling Vireos obligingly warble in large trees, particularly sycamores, along the riverbank. Look for Rusty Blackbird from November through April in wet and muddy areas of the canal. Downstream of the power plant in colder winters, look for waterfowl taking advantage of the warm-water discharge from the plant’s electricity generators. Note, however, that it is not always easy to get a close view of the river unless you are much farther downstream than the kayak course. If you leave the towpath, beware of poison ivy, stinging nettles, ticks, and unpredictable holes in the ground. Upstream of the power plant, the river is clearly visible on your left and there is a steep rock cliff on your right; the view is unbeatable. Breeding Louisiana Waterthrushes are obvious here in April and May. Just after you pass MP 42 you will see the Monocacy Aqueduct, magnificently refurbished. Beyond it lies Frederick County, with its own set of ornithological challenges and opportunities! – Michael Bowen