Marylanders love our wild birds. We can boast of a fantastic network of protected land and water in our parks and refuges that provide habitat to more than 450 species that have been tallied statewide. For decades, our Department of Natural Resources has worked closely with federal and local government agencies and conservation partner organizations to ensure a bright future for birds in Maryland.
1 Baltimore Oriole
What bird is more appropriate to begin Maryland’s top 10 than the Baltimore Oriole?
After a six-month hiatus in its southern wintering grounds, this bright orange member of the blackbird family returns to Maryland at the beginning of April just in time for opening day. Their remarkable color makes them a real “hit” with both novice and seasoned birdwatchers.
Ornithologists named the bird after the coat-of-arms of Lord Baltimore which exudes a Halloween orange seen in few other birds. In 1947, Maryland declared the Baltimore Oriole the official state bird and in 1954 its major league baseball team adopted the same name. Because its parks and green spaces are favorite nesting spots for this readily seen bird, the choice was a good one for Baltimore residents.
Lovers of sweet treats, orioles can also be lured to backyards for easy viewing. Grape jelly, orange halves, and sugar water are favorites. While their primary summer target is insects, they will also feast on berries, fruits and nectar — especially in spring and fall.
Although populations have declined by about 42 percent since 1966, Maryland is still graced by our flaming orange-and-black state bird from April to September. Check them out in Baltimore’s urban parks during the annual Baltimore Birding Weekend. If the other Orioles are in town, enjoy the best seats in baseball at Camden Yards, too!
With thoughtful stewardship from our Maryland Department of Natural Resources and conservation partners, this feathered Maryland icon will continue to have a bright future in the Free State.
Maryland is lucky to be home to the highest breeding concentration of Ospreys in the world. Every March this enduring symbol of the Chesapeake returns from its wintering grounds ranging from the Gulf Coast to the southern tip of South America.
Decimated by the pesticide DDT in the 1970s, the Osprey was down to fewer than 1,500 breeding pairs on the entire East Coast by 1975. Today, the Chesapeake Bay boasts an estimated 10,000 nesting pairs of Osprey each summer. The birds have been one of the fastest species to recover from poisoning from DDT— banned in 1972. The Osprey is unique in that it is the only member of its family. It is not a true hawk, nor falcon, nor vulture.
With some of the hardy birds flying from Alaska to Chile and back, the Osprey has one of the longest spring and fall migration routes of any bird species. Perhaps more impressive is the bird’s ability to catch anything from flounder to sunfish. Spike-like scales on the osprey’s hook-shaped claws enable them to easily snatch their hapless quarry from the water. Studies have shown that Ospreys can catch a fish at least once out of every 4 dives, with some birds having as high as a 70% success rate. Very few Maryland anglers have catch rates that good!
Most people recognize Ospreys by their conspicuous stick nests built on channel markers or highway signs and the numerous platforms residents have constructed along our coastal marshes.
Happy in both fresh or saltwater, Ospreys will usually mate and lay eggs by the end of April. Offspring take about two months to fledge before making their marathon migration south in late September. The mature birds can be identified in flight by their eye band evolved to eliminate glare (football players have to apply theirs).
Today and for the foreseeable future, Marylanders will continue to know the Osprey as an essential fixture of the Chesapeake.
3 Bald Eagle
Our national bird is a great success story, and Maryland has played a major role in the comeback of this resplendent raptor. Removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007 and from the Maryland list of threatened and endangered species in 2010, the species is now fully recovered from shooting and pesticide poisoning and is found year-round all over Maryland and around the Chesapeake.
In the early ‘90s, people flocked to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge to see what was an East Coast ground zero for this recovering species. While still abundant there and along Chesapeake and coastal bays shorelines, Bald Eagles have repopulated every corner of the state.
Majestic in its appearance, it is not always so majestic in habits. The shifty birds often feed on carrion, including dead fish, and they steal food from Ospreys, Great Blue Herons, and other birds. Nonetheless, Bald Eagles can be a powerful predator, snatching sitting ducks, terrapins, muskrats, and fish from the water.
In Maryland, courting begins as early as October and building and repair of their massive nests takes place soon after. Clutches of one to three eggs are laid in late January to March with hatching in April and fledging in May or June. Nesting success in Maryland is one of the highest in North America at about 70 percent.
Because these slow-to-mature birds do not have a white head and tail until about age 5, they are often overlooked or dismissed as vultures when sporting the patchy white and dark brown bodies as juveniles. For birders, their long, flat wings and large heads distinguish them from their smaller vulture brethren.
With one of the highest Bald Eagle populations in the lower 48, Maryland is the place to go to watch these magnificent symbols of our country and its natural heritage.
4 Great Blue Heron
This aptly named blue and impressive heron is known to residents of Maryland and its visitors for its beauty and year-round entertainment. Seeing a Great Blue Heron against a tidal marsh with its regal reflection in the bay waters is one of the most memorable images you’ll find in Chesapeake country.
Common and widespread, Great Blue Herons can be seen almost anywhere in Maryland where there is water and an ample supply of fish, frogs, snakes and even rodents and birds!
The largest heron in North America, they are often seen standing silently or foraging by the water’s edge or flying high overhead with their characteristic slow wingbeats. With its variable diet it is able to spend the winter farther north than most herons, even in areas where waters freeze.
The Chesapeake Conservancy has a popular webcam displaying a breeding colony in Ocean Pines near Isle of Wight Bay behind Ocean City. In Maryland, Great Blue Herons breed in colonies with others of the same species. Females are known for their building skills while males mostly just supply the needed sticks. Lovers of wildlife in the state are lucky to have this majestic species all year long.
5 Prothonotary Warbler
Maryland is often called America in Miniature and the Prothonotary Warbler is the quintessential ambassador of the southern part of that moniker.
In Southern Maryland, along the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, and in the nation’s northernmost cypress swamps on the Eastern Shore, this flashy yellow bird puts on a show every spring and summer.
These lemon-colored birds got their name from 18th-century Louisiana Creoles who thought the birds plumage resembled the golden robes of the prothonotaries—Catholic church officials who advised the Pope.
A denizen of lowland woods and nester in tree cavities in standing water, this wondrous warbler has benefitted from conservationists who have helped stem their decline by installing bird houses in deep, wet woods and tributaries. When available, Prothonotary Warblers will often use old woodpecker nests but can also excavate their own hole in rotten trees.
One of the best places to see them is in the forested tributaries of the Pocomoke River on the Lower Eastern Shore where their aggressive, no-nonsense behavior along the creeks in spring and early summer give searchers for this hard-to-see bird some face-to-face looks. Here, the cacophony of “tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet” is a nature-lover’s Beethoven as males set up territories.
In winter, this insect-eating bird heads south to tropical lowland woods and mangrove swamps where insects remain plentiful. These sassy swamp songbirds feed by gleaning insects among foliage, and sometimes even hop about on floating driftwood peeping into crevices. They occasionally forage by winding their way up the trunks of trees like a nuthatch.
Yellow is the essential color of the spring swamps along Maryland’s southern flank.
6 Black Skimmer
Black Skimmers and their buoyant flight, loud calls, and dramatic fishing are much beloved by the thousands of vacationing visitors who flock to Ocean City and Assateague Island each summer.
The beak of this unusual-looking bird, with the underside of its lower mandible substantially longer than the upper, has a purpose: the bird skims across the water’s surface with an open bill, snapping it shut when it contacts a fish. Strictly coastal in most areas of North America, Black Skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and islands in Maryland’s coastal bays.
Unlike most birds, their eyes have vertical pupils, narrowed to slits to cut the glare of water and white sand. Flocks in flight may turn in unison, with synchronized beats of their long wings. Skimmers find food by touch, not by sight, and unlike other terns often forage in late evening or at night when waters may be calmer and more fish may be close to surface.
In Maryland, Black Skimmers nest on predator-free sandbars or islands in the bays near the Atlantic Ocean. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources and conservation partners have gone to great lengths in recent years to protect this species through island creation and rebuilding, monitoring, and public education.
7 Common Raven
With the state’s favorite NFL team as its namesake and Baltimore’s connection to literary giant Edgar Allan Poe, how could the Raven not be a top 10 Maryland bird?
Just as the Baltimore Ravens have advanced since their inception as an NFL team in 1996, so have Common Ravens mounted a comeback in the U.S. and in Maryland where the birds have been expanding their range east from Garrett County all the way to Baltimore and the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
Previously considered an agricultural pest in the U.S., Common Ravens disappeared from much of the East and Midwest before 1900. Today, the stigma is gone and visitors and Marylanders alike have come to love the wacky flight displays and raucous calls and croaks of these highly intelligent birds.
A remarkably adaptable scavenger and predator, it can survive all seasons including extreme heat and cold. Unlike most birds, two ravens will sometimes cooperate to flush out prey. The majority of their diet is animal matter, including beetles, caterpillars, rodents, lizards, frogs, and eggs of other birds.
A lover of hills and mountains, these large members of the crow family can live in a very wide array of habitats, from tundra above the Arctic Circle to hot desert areas of the southwest. In Maryland, they tend to prefer forested country with cliffs or tall buildings for nesting.
Bird watchers are fond of the birds’ courtship display whereby the male soars, swoops, and tumbles in mid-air. Pairs soar high in the air together then touch bills and preen each other’s feathers when perched. Courtship begins early for these birds in Maryland—usually in February.
While ravens in Maryland don’t bleed purple like their fans do, they are fun to watch, just like our favorite football team.
8 Brown Pelican
Brown Pelicans are a summer staple along Maryland’s Atlantic coast and in the southern Chesapeake Bay. But this wasn’t always the case.
Brown Pelican populations plummeted in the 1940s primarily due to the use of the pesticide DDT. It was ingested by pelicans and scores of other birds eating contaminated fish, which caused the birds to lay eggs with shells so thin they broke during incubation. The Brown Pelican was listed as an endangered species in 1970, and DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.
Following these protective measures, the pelican population began to recover and move further north. Although they did not historically nest in Maryland, Brown Pelicans started nesting in the Chesapeake Bay in 1987. Today, thousands of Brown Pelicans migrate north in April to nest in both the Coastal Bays and the Chesapeake near Smith Island -- the furthest north these birds currently breed and raise young on the East Coast.
Still, anyone south of Kent Narrows can enjoy the playful antics of non-breeding juveniles all summer long. Their unique size and shape make them an easy bird to identify and a favorite of outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
For centuries, Redheads have been a winter favorite of Maryland waterfowl watchers and hunters, as well as a popular subject for decoy carvers.
Prized by both sportsmen and birders, this duck can be seen in any Maryland county in fall, winter, and early spring. While Redheads have seen a sharper population decline than most ducks, they remain a staple for outdoorsmen and women in the Free State. Content in both fresh and saltwater, these dazzling ducks are aptly named with brilliant red heads, black breasts, and gray bodies.
Redheads are just one of more than 35 waterfowl species that spend the winter months in Maryland. For thousands of years, ducks, geese and swans have migrated to our Chesapeake and coastal bays each winter to feed on aquatic vegetation and invertebrates in our mostly ice-free estuaries. They forage by diving in shallow water for submerged plants. Most species, including Redheads, return north to breed after the spring thaw.
Good places to see Redheads in Maryland are at Deal Island, West Ocean City, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Loch Raven Reservoir, Deep Creek Lake and Rocky Gap State Park.
10 Chimney Swift
Every spring, birders in Maryland’s big cities and small towns rejoice at the return of the little "cigar with wings," the aerial acrobats known as Chimney Swifts. They reappear in city skies after flying thousands of miles from northwestern South America, where they pass the time during winter before returning to their breeding grounds in the mid-eastern U.S. and southern Canada.
These little birds choose the brick and concrete of the urban landscape over more natural surfaces for nesting. This is precisely why ornithologists included the word "chimney" in their name. Even their tiny feet are designed for perching on vertical surfaces rather the horizontal branches.
While urban Chimney Swifts are dependent upon city structures for nesting, they need green spaces and open water for hunting insects. Marylanders enjoy watching them feeding over city parks -- some of the best swift-watching is over Baltimore's reservoirs, such as Lake Montebello and Lake Roland. Indeed, if it weren't for our pesky flies, mosquitoes, and beetles, our beloved Maryland swifts would likely relocate to more fertile bug-hunting grounds.
For visitors and Marylanders alike traversing the state’s urban landscape, these small insect-devouring machines will continue to fill the skies with their delightful ballet of flight.
11 Scarlet Tanager
For many birdwatchers and lovers, Scarlet Tanagers are the Holy Grail of the avian world.
A spring and summer resident of large, mature, deciduous forests, male Scarlet Tanagers seem almost too bright and exotic for Maryland woodlands. While still somewhat common in unbroken Maryland forests in summer, they often remain out of sight as they forage in the leafy upper branches.
However, in spring when Scarlet Tanagers have just arrived from their winter home just east of the Andes in South America, they can more readily be seen out in the open as they search for insects in parks or gardens. The well-known “chick-burr” call of this tanager is a proven diagnostic tool known to birdwatchers.
These beautiful ruby-red birds with jet-black wings feed mainly on large insects, including caterpillars, beetles, wasps, and aphids. They also enjoy spiders, snails, worms, and millipedes and occasionally wild fruits and berries.
Although habitat loss has harmed this bird in both its summer and winter ranges as large forest blocks become smaller and more fragmented, Scarlet Tanagers can be discovered in many of Maryland’s wooded parks and forests with abundant hardwood trees.
With any luck, nature lovers will find these wondrous creatures doing what they’ve done for centuries high in Maryland’s forested landscapes.
12 Tundra Swan
This majestic bird and Maryland’s only native swan is enjoyed in every county in the state from November through March.
While these white swans with a black beak breed every summer in coastal areas in the northern tundra, they are winter fixtures in Maryland as they feed in farm fields and frolic in ponds, rivers and bays. These long-distance migrants have adapted better than other ducks and geese to the nation’s changing landscape.
Sometimes called the Whistling Swan due to its in-flight call, this doting species flies south with young for the first and sometimes second winter. In summer the Tundra Swan’s diet mainly consists of stems, seeds, and roots of aquatic plants and a few small invertebrates. In other seasons, it eats grain in harvested fields of corn, barley, and soybean.
Every season in Maryland has its own wonders but the annual allure of the Tundra Swan always makes winters feel a little warmer.