The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center is located in Laurel, Md – about midway between Baltimore and Washington, DC. There are about 13000 acres in Patuxent divided into 3 distinct areas. Both the Patuxent River and the Little Patuxent River run through the research center. Patuxent is adjacent to the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (also known as "BARC" or on some signage as the "National Agricultural Research Center") on an additional 13000 acres in Beltsville, Maryland, and together they form a uniquely large mass of natural and agricultural land in the midst of the highly developed Eastern seaboard of the USA.
The Patuxent Wildlife Refuge north tract was built on the retired land of a local military base and is still actively used for some military training. To get there you pass the buildings surrounded by white boulders and barbed wire, drive between a junk yard and a baseball field, over about one mile of gravel road to the Ranger’s Station. Unless you know it is there you may think you are lost. To be allowed to go any further you have to sign a waiver that you understand deadly munitions may still be about and that you must STAY ON THE TRAILS. You have to tell the ranger where you are going and why and when you will be back. The little station is rustic, with a bathroom that constantly malfunctions and an aquarium of native fish plus warning photos of poison ivy and old posters from the 80s. The rangers are friendly but serious. This is where I come for solitude and some real nature time. There are also guided walks with extremely knowledgably volunteers occasionally scheduled that I like to attend. Schedules are available online and the URL is listed at the bottom of this W/U. Other common uses of this area include gun safety training, licensed hunting, skeet shooting and fishing. There is also a private airport very near by that unfortunately sends noisy planes directly overhead.
So, let’s walk….off we go to my favorite refuge. It’s a lovely little walk with wildflowers, toads, frogs, snakes and birds to a little bank overlooking the river. In the space of 10 minutes we move from the gravel parking lot to wildness (except for those planes overhead). There is a field of Virginia Blue Bells in early spring that lights up hundreds and hundreds of feet on the opposite bank in early Spring. We pass through swampy areas where skunk cabbage thrive. Wooden decking has been installed for the us to tread upon so our feet won’t get wet and we won’t damage the wetlands’ flora. Indian Pipe, Oxalis, Hepatica, Colt’s Foot and Spring Beauty all grow on this bank. A little way off there is a little hill that has a unique sunny orientation with other wildflowers that like more light. Birds are everywhere and Spring Peepers! Old tree snags are left to rot in place so the woodpeckers are happy. There is a wonderful little niche in front of several dead trees where we can sit. Deer are a problem in this area in general; there are way too many of them. Within Patuxent they have inbred enough to produce some notable pie-bald (nearly white but not albino) specimens. Those are rare but their normal colored cousins are not.
When we want a longer walk we can go the other direction on a moderate 3 mile loop through an old growth forest with paths wide enough to run Rosie (who is allowed, on a lease). We probably won’t see another human on these trails and Rosie is good company.
There are also long roads for biking that are fun and a horse trail if you are fortunate enough to have a horse. Cars are even allowed at very low speed but there is no place to pull off and remember even if biking STAY ON THE TRAILS. 20 miles of wooded road is waiting to be explored but there are few trails out here away from the Ranger’s Station. Occasionally there are interesting man made things seen in the distance but we can’t explore there.
If we leave the north track and drive 15 minutes off campus (less distance “as the crow flies”) we can visit the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge south tract. This is a glitzy, busy place. A life size brass sculpture of a Timber Wolf Family greets you at the door of the visitor's center. Carefully maintained gardens cluster around the building. Administrators and other “Important People” work here. “Public Relations” happens here. Parties and “Gala Fund Raisers” are held here. It can get downright overcrowded some days. We must be prepared to be excluded from any given path on any given day because waterfowl are nesting and it has been cordoned off. Despite the glitz, this place is still about the animals.
There is a museum showing the habitat of endangered species, such as the sea otter and the whooping crane. Displays are arranged as tableaus made up of critters in their natural habitat and artifacts with information about the environment. They are separated by tall walls of frosted glass. This gives a great overall effect. The walls are not as high as the vaulted ceiling and each species’ display is walled in with frosted glass on 3 sides. The room is large but feels intimate.
There are classrooms where most of the south side track’s educational programs take place using slide shows and lectures instead of outdoor participation. They are also fun and informative. There is a gift shop with animal related books and toys. There is a paved circular walk and a fishing dock on the largest lake that are both accessible to wheelchairs. There are other walk paths on this side too, going through woods, around lakes and ponds. They are well maintained, easy little hikes and usually busy but still quite beautiful.
Birds bring me here; they are everywhere, even more than on the north track. Double Crested Coramonts, Bluebirds, Cliff Swallows, Swamp Sparrows, cow birds,…ducks, geese. Someone is usually available to help identify unknown birds. An electric trolley runs on weekends in areas where walking is not allowed because of ongoing research projects. There is always an enthusiastic volunteer guide pointing out the “beaver baffles”. Beavers like to damn up running water so the artificial lakes’ drainage areas must be protected from the beaver’s enthusiasm. The guides point out the alternating rows of mown and unmown meadows maintained this way in order to provide different habitats for different critters. The entrance and exit road is divided into 2 widely separated lanes so the forest will grow together overhead. This encourages birds that need large uninterrupted areas of forest for nesting to come here. They are more vulnerable around perimeters where forest meets meadow and avoid them. Patuxent strives for a continuous forest canopy. There are small deer “exclosures” around rare plants. Large areas are “exclosed” to study what would grow naturally if the deer problem were solved. The guides will point out when we move from old growth forest to pine areas.
Between the north and the south tracts is the research area called the "Central Track". Serious scientific work is done here. The Whooping Crane was brought back from near extinction over the last 30 years because of this place. Whooper eggs are incubated by more common Sand Cranes to induce more Whooper whooping and more Whooper eggs for more Sand Cranes to incubate. Genetic diversity is emphasized as is reintroduction to the wild. Whoopers are taught to migrate following a light plane. Baby Whoppers are “puppet fed” by a hidden person with an adult whooper head/neck puppet so the they don’t become acclimated to humans. Bald Eagles have also benefited directly from research done here. Early research on DDT’s effect on egg shell fragility was conducted here. Other current research includes bird banding and seasonal migration tracking. Amphibians are counted. Wetlands are evaluated. Man’s impact on nature is studied. The effects of lead, mercury, PCB on wildlife are current studies. There is a staff of 170 scientists and support personel here. Non staff scientists also use the site for their work. The Smithsonian Institution is currently studying Dung Beatle Fauna here. Another “outsider’ is studying dragon flies and another the insects on milk weed. The buildings here are old brick and it all looks very academic, like a college campus. Tours can be scheduled but must be booked ahead of time.
The 3 areas are together are generally known as “Patuxent”. There have been many changes of leadership but the land has been in the care of one federal agency or another since the 1930s and has always had a focus on wildlife. The 3 areas are all contiguous with one other but each has a distinctly different “feel” to it. This differentiation is enhanced by the fact that visitors must leave Patuxent and drive back outside to go from one tract to another. I’m very fond of the whole place.
The official webpage:
http://tinyurl.com/24a66 (my favorite spot)