An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

September 13, 2008

From War to Wildlife

The Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge occupies a strategic location on the extreme southern tip of the Delmarva peninsula. During World War II, Fort Custis was established here and bunkers were built that housed 16" guns to protect the mouth of the Chesapeake. After the war it became Cape Charles Air Force Base and radar towers were built for use during the Cold War. In 1984 all of this was turned over U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the refuge to protect an equally strategic piece of real estate for the natural world, especially the avian world. Literally millions of neo-tropical songbirds, waterfowl and raptors come through this place yearly. The geography of the Delmarva peninsula funnels all these birds southward in the fall where they wait until climatic conditions are right to cross the Chesapeake Bay.

For most of my life I have driven by this place at least a dozen times a year and have never stopped. We are usually more interested in where we are going, or in getting home to stop, and besides the car is full of dogs and one or two people who don't enjoy traipsing through wilderness. This past August I was temporarily childless, wifeless and dogless and decided to stop.

The refuge is a mixture of ecosystems that include forests, meadows, freshwater ponds, salt marshes and creeks. There is a very nice visitor center just past the Cheasapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and makes a good stop for people who would like to stretch their legs for a break during road trips. Around the center are the only cultivated areas and these are meant to showcase some of the native plants and to attract butterflies. Exotic Lantana and native Joe Pye were both present.

The only real trail leads from the back of the Visitors Center through an open field that is inhabited by too many non-native species. Although there are several native Lespedezas, I think this one looks more like one of the Asian species.

The Lespedeza was still behaving itself and had not taken over large areas (yet). One of the worst challenges that the refuge faces is in trying to get control of the Fennel and Japanese Honeysuckle. There is apparently an eradication program in place, which is a good thing because these two thugs were everywhere.

There were a number of native vines also present, and they seemed to be holding their own against the foreigners. I felt that if I stood still long enough I would soon be covered by one or more of them. This is Wisteria frutescens reblooming as is its habit.
World War II may be over, but an older struggle was still going on between the Virginia Creeper and the Trumpet Vine.
One of the worst weeds in my own garden is this Passion Vine, it comes up through everything.
Sweet Autumn Clematis was doing its part to choke out some poor shrub.
I have no idea what type of flower these are, but they were very pretty and tall with large leaves. Perhaps some sort of Sunflower.

Native Muhlenbergia was beginning to bloom...
... as was the Sumac.

The female Wax Myrtles were berrying-up and will be needed for some of those birds to make it across the bay.

I did not see much wild fauna as it was the hottest part of the day, but that did not seem to deter this turtle. I would have taken a picture of the 5' black snake that suprised me and nearly made we wet myself, but I was too busy running the other way. A truly wild cherry.
The only part of the base that is still visible are the two massive bunkers that housed the guns. Their tops have been completely and thickly covered by vegetation. On one of them you can climb up to a good view of the woods, marsh and the Atlantic beyond.

Next week the refuge will be one of the hosts for a few of the events during The Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival.

Finally, for those of you who like to know where this place is, here is an image compliments of NASA.


  1. Hiya Les,

    I caught this post fresh from the oven it seems.

    What a wonderful outing again. Thank you for taking such trouble in presenting it.

    I liked the top bunker best: such nice clean lines in all that greenery. I have to confess to a liking for going under motorways when I can find an underpass.

    It gave me the shivers to read about your meeting up with a black snake. Reminded me of the rattlers slithering under our garden chairs in Corning. I still get nightmares.

    That Japanese honeysuckle looks pretty to me. Does it have the usual lonicera scent?

    I am wondering how Maydreamsgardens is making out in all that heavy weather.And all the other Texas bloggers. Is that stuff coming your way?

  2. Great post! We stopped there this summer on our way to Chincoteague. We also were there on the hottest part of the day and the walk from the Visitor Center to the bunkers was nasty humid. But they view we had from top of it made it all worth.

  3. Hi Les, What a wonderful post today. I've never been there before which is a shame since I've lived here for 20 years now. :) I love all the native vegetation growing wildly. I have Sweet Autumn Clematis in my garden & it is a rampant grower. I have to really chop it down every year to keep it in line. Thanks for the tour.

  4. It all looks pretty neat. Were you really afraid of a black snake?:)

  5. Wonderful post...I love learning about the parks and national wildlife refuge centers around the country. It seems that there are too many aggressive exotics in most of them. Thanks for the great tour,


  6. I've always wanted to stop there, and never have - I'm always with somebody else, or one the way somewhere and in a hurry. Looks like a cool place to ramble around.

    Thanks for your nice thoughts on my recent post. BTW, I like to drink as well as garden, too, but am trying to avoid taking in calories in liquid form these days, hence the compensatory behavior in the form of gardening!

  7. Hi, Les--Sorry I'm catching your posting so late. Like Racquel and Jeff, I've never visited despite living so close, so now I've added it to my list of things to do. I love that little sunflower. Our honeysuckle is reblooming, too--it drives me crazy, but I love the scent. Thanks yet again for taking us on one of your trips!

  8. What a lovely place to go walking with a camera. It's a pleasure to see areas like this set aside to preserve so we can enjoy them and hopefully the next generations too.

    Browsing thru older posts I was interested to read about the abelia. After googling it, I find it isn't hardy in my 5a. Nice plant.

  9. Les, what a gorgeous refuge and an interesting history. I especially liked your micro/macro imaging on it as it gives the full perspective. It must have been exciting spotting the turtle. I feel like I can almost hear the squelch of my wellies besides yours. Great tour!

  10. Joco,
    Under the bunker there was an open room, black as pitch. I used my flash on the camera to see what was in it. The honeysuckle is so fragrant you can smell it in the car with the windows closed as you speed by.

    Thanks for stopping by again. I hope you had a good time on the Shore.

    We are fortunate that there are a lot of places near us that still contain some wildness.

    Yes I was afraid. I get that reaction whenever I see one unexpectedly, even if it is harmless. One of my duties at work is chief serpent wrangler, but I don't like to be surprised by them.

    I think this place had as many exotics as natives.

    Thanks for visiting and you are welcome too.

    Better late than never. Circumstances kept us close to home this summer, which was fine with us.

    If you can find the Abelia, I would highly reccomend it.

    I think the history of the place made it that much more interesting.


  11. This is very interesting. I'm one of those who likes to see where it is so thanks for sharing that. I can see how it would be a strategic point.

    I don't like Passion vine either.

    It looks very lush there. I'm sure it's fertile as all get out!

  12. I'll put this on my list for that future trip I plan to make to Virginia to do some genealogical research. Thanks. That "sunflower" looks interesting. Could it be Inula racemosa or a relative?