It is home to deer, osprey, bald eagles, owls, fox, song birds, snakes, turtles, and beavers. And it is just like home to nature lovers, birdwatchers, hikers, and fishermen.
Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and used as the headquarters of the Maryland Conservation Corp, is a hidden gem in Upper Marlboro; it can be found just off US 301, minutes from Washington, D.C.
“It’s a really great place to connect with wildlife, nature, and serenity because you’ll see very few people while you’re here,” said Rachel Werderits, a park ranger and assistant crew supervisor for the Maryland Conservation Corp, “It’s a really great way to just disconnect.”
Walk inside the understated visitor center doors and be surprised by the picturesque views from the floor-to-ceiling windows that line the longest wall facing an expanse of trees and fields. Just beyond those trees lies the Patuxent River. Stools and a bar-height, free floating counter grace the glass-covered wall. Atop the counter rests several sets of binoculars and a variety of bird-watching manuals.
The serenity of the surroundings is deafening.
But beyond the bird-watching stations lies evidence of school-age programs the rangers often lead. Hands-on activities include a sandbox game to identify tracks, a wingspan guide of different birds (feel free to see how your wingspan stacks up), water quality testing, macroinvertebrate lessons, and an area where guests can even touch the animals under ranger supervision.
Rosalie, a one-eyed screech owl, watches over the center from her perch. Merkle’s Rosalie is named after Rosalie Edge, who created the first raptor sanctuary in the United States. The owl is one of the Conservation Corps’ Scales and Tales Ambassadors.
The ambassadors go on trips to schools, parks, and events to educate children and adults about respecting animals, their needs, and their habitats.
“Everyone really likes the diamondback terrapin because he’s the mascot of Maryland, so it’s neat to see him in real life with his really pretty coloration,” Werderits said.
The rangers do not have a way to rehabilitate injured animals at the sanctuary—a common question. But, as Werderits said, “a bunch of our animals came to us because they were injured. So, a lot of our Scales and Tales ambassadors are injured in one way or another that came to us from rehabbers.”
And just outside the ambassadors’ home (the visitor center) is 1,900 acres to explore, which includes four hiking trails that range in length and difficulty.
“Mounds tail is my personal favorite,” Werderits said, “because it sees the most elevation changes and it takes you through a couple of neat features. You cross over a stream and it takes you past some old relics of what the grounds used to be.”
Poplar Springs touts an award-winning poplar tree that is 116 feet tall and 17 feet around. “It’s absolutely massive,” she said.
The 1.2-mile Paw Paw Trail is an easy, flat trail that is stroller-friendly for families with little ones.
A one-way driving tour starts in neighboring Patuxent River Park and ends in Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary. The road is open on Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. “It hugs the Patuxent, so it’s pretty cool, you’re certain to see osprey this time of year,” she said.
All of this land was sold (some was donated) in 1970 to the state by Edgar Merkle, who dedicated his land to improving the geese population and habitat. While there are more visitors in the summer because of the nicer weather, the geese tend to flock in numbers to the sanctuary from October to February.
Stop by and visit at 11704 Fenno Road, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772. The sanctuary grounds are open sunrise to sunset every day, the visitor center is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day and on weekend from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year, and admission is free.