Birding Howard County, Maryland

Gorman Stream Valley Natural Resource Area Detailed Information

The Middle Patuxent River between US 29 on the west and Murray Hill Road on the east is one of the county's premier birding sites—and one of the least visited. The habitats found along both sides of the river are highly varied, ranging from bottomlands and upland deciduous forest to a hemlock grove on a north-facing steep, rocky cliff overlooking the river.

Because the official name is lengthy (and the land is not officially a park), this site guide will refer to the entire area as Gorman NRA; section names used will be Gorman–Eden Brook (North) and Gorman–Kindler (South). Sections are described below.

Gorman–Kindler (South)

GPS: Eden Brook N39 09 59.0 W76 52 28.2
Kindler Road N39 09 38.5 W76 52 48.5

Habitat: The main feature of Gorman South is the river. Along the western third of the area, the trees are typical of river bottomlands, capable of surviving occasional flooding. In the central section, the main type of forest is upland deciduous, but there is also a hemlock grove on the cool, rocky slopes that rise abruptly from the river. Farther east, a drier deciduous forest is dominated by beech and oak. East of the power line cut, the mature forest is again dominated by tulip poplars.

Layout: Gorman South is mostly wooded, entirely undeveloped, and contains no active recreational facilities. Access is from three points: Old Columbia Road on the west, Murray Hill Road on the east, and the Kindler Road dead end, which lies closer to the west end and is the most frequently used. Parking is available at all three locations. A foot trail marked with orange tape runs the entire length of the river from Old Columbia Road to Murray Hill Road (2.5 miles). A description of the trail on the south side, as traversed from west to east (downstream), follows.

Starting from Old Columbia Road the trail follows the river closely, but shortly enters a section where the trail rises 20 feet and cuts along a slope slanting steeply down to the river. After about a quarter-mile, the trail passes a large rock adjacent to the river and reaches the floodplain. For the next mile, the trail lies along a sewer line. It is flat and level, crossing an occasional stream. The loose soil, often a silt almost the consistency of fine sand (except when it is raining!), is characteristic of river bottomlands. The access at Kindler Road lies midway along this section at the end of an old road leading a quarter-mile uphill to the parking area. The point at which the old road crossed the river to connect with present-day Eden Brook Drive is marked by the foundations of a bridge. The bridge was washed out in the floods resulting from Hurricane Agnes in 1972. This intersection consistently produces a variety of birds, drawn by the opening in the forest and the close proximity of the river. As the trail continues downstream, shortly look for a swampy area a few feet south of the trail (away from the river). The swamp was once dammed by beavers (the dam comes and goes). The area floods in spring and usually retains some water through the summer. Just over a mile from the western end of the trail (at an "S" curve of the river), the bottomlands on the south side of the river disappear abruptly, and the trail climbs 50 feet in elevation to the top of the first of the palisades along this side of the river. At this point, the park is at its narrowest, and the trail is hemmed in between a precipitous drop to the river and a housing development. Hemlock trees grow on the steep, shady, rock-strewn slopes, providing a feeling of coolness even in the summer. The trail follows the river, albeit well above the level of the water, for another quarter-mile, until it descends to cross a stream. On the east side, a large hemlock grove rises sharply from the stream. The trail cuts through the hemlocks on its way to the top of the rise. At this point a horse trail enters from the right (south), leading from the horse center on Gorman Road. This section is Columbia Association (CA) property; occasionally, horseback riders will pass. The trail turns to the left through hemlocks for a short distance, then continues through upland deciduous forest. About 1 2/3 miles from Old Columbia Road, the trail crosses another stream and connects with additional horse trails heading either north (toward the river) or south (uphill along the stream). These trails can be followed to extend your walk, although some of them lead to posted private property. The foot trail, marked with orange tape, continues straight, crossing several other horse trails and another stream, until it emerges from the forest into a power line cut about two miles from Old Columbia Road. Fences mark the boundary between the park and private land (posted No Trespassing). The trail follows the fence east under the power lines, then turns north along the utility access road; 45 feet north of the utility pylon, the trail plunges back into a climax forest with magnificent trees and emerges at Murray Hill Road. Here there is roadside parking for a few cars just as there is on Old Columbia Road. Near the trail at this end there is a wonderful rock ledge with a view of the river 30 feet below. It is a welcome and shady resting point in warm weather.

If entering from Murray Hill Road, be aware that there are two trails leaving from the roadside parking area. The lower one leads to the right, dead ending at the river. It does not continue west. The main trail leaves from the upper end of the parking area, and heads south, paralleling the road, for a short while.

In order to reach Gorman North (the Eden Brook section), walk north on Murray Hill Road to the entrance on a section of CA paved trail. (See description below).

Since the Gorman South trail is oriented essentially east to west, the rising or setting sun can make for difficult birding, particularly when trying to identify a backlit warbler at the top of a tree! This is especially true in the western half of the area, along the floodplain. Because the trail follows the twists and bends of the river, the rising sun is not always a problem on an eastbound trip. Farther east, where the woods are deeper, the angle of the sun becomes less important.

The area under the power line cut is owned by BGE; periodically they cut and clear woody vegetation from beneath the lines. This may have a dramatic effect on what birds are present. Also, depending on how recently the area has been cut, it may be possible to walk south as much as a half mile along the alley between the fence (posted with No Trespassing signs) and the forest edge. Usually, dense brambles make this alley impassible.

Best Time to Visit: The park is used primarily by trout fisherman (the river is stocked) and local residents; there is never much, if any, traffic along the foot paths. This is particularly true in the eastern section, beyond the river bottom.

Birding: Although this area has been county parkland and CA open space for many years, few birders are familiar with it. Nonetheless, Gorman South has much to offer, particularly during spring migration. Moreover, because the eastern half is so little used, it is easy to forget the suburbs that are adjacent to it and to imagine oneself deep in the woods far from the crowds.

Of particular note for birders is the spectacular assembly of thrushes that are usually present during the last weeks of April and the first weeks of May. Hermit Thrushes in April are followed by large numbers of Wood Thrushes (both resident and migrant), Swainson's Thrushes, and Veeries. Gray-Cheeked Thrushes are regular visitors. The best thrush area is between the power line cut and the hemlock groves. Warblers can be found during periods of migration on the edges of the power line cut, and along the river bottomlands, especially east and west of Kindler Road at the river.

Breeding birds include Louisiana Waterthrushes and Acadian Flycatchers along the river and at any stream crossing, and Scarlet Tanagers, Ovenbirds, and Wood Thrushes throughout the upland forest. Baltimore Orioles nest regularly along the river near Old Columbia Road. Red-shouldered Hawks can be heard and seen flying overhead, Barred Owls are resident along the river, and Red-tailed Hawks patrol the power line cut. Deer have reduced the understory, as in much of Howard County, so that birds such as Kentucky, Hooded, and Black-and-white warblers are no longer easily found and may no longer nest in this location.

The sloping remnant paved section of Kindler Road provides easy access to the level central section. The opening at the river is a concentration point for passerines. Olive-sided Flycatcher and Least Flycatcher have both been seen here. During migration periods, walk west (upstream) as far as the second utility right-of-way, as this is a favorite spot for a variety of warblers, then double back to the Kindler trail. Continue east, watching for activity in the small swampy area on the south side of the trail. At appropriate times, Wood Ducks loaf there, Wilson's Warblers have been seen, Louisiana Waterthrushes sing, and an occasional Lincoln's Sparrow is present. A Prothonotary Warbler has been tallied along the river in undergrowth farther east.

Even in winter, this is a worthwhile walk, particularly along the river bottom. Winter Wrens can be found most winters, though they tend to work the riverbanks making them hard to see from the path. Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds winter here, too, along with an occasional Hermit Thrush. The upland woods of the eastern half of this section offer few wintering birds.

Highlights: The concentration of thrushes during spring migration, especially among the hemlocks, makes this an attractive place to visit. The palisades, too, offer a unique sight in Howard County.

Handicapped Access: The only portion of Gorman South where there is some limited access is on the dead end paved stub of Kindler Road. Fallen trees have squeezed the old road to a narrow path where the old road hits the level river bottomland, and the asphalt is all but gone from there to the river. The slope from the parking area to the river is moderate. All other trails are inaccessible.

Deer Hunts: Much of the land under the power lines on the east side of the Gorman section is privately owned, and "No Trespassing" signs are posted on the fence marking the boundary between the privately held land and the publicly accessible lands. During the fall, this land is often leased for deer hunting.

Gorman–Eden Brook (North)

Habitat: The habitat along the north side of the river between Old Columbia Road and Murray Hill Road includes floodplain in the west; mature upland deciduous forest along the paved CA paths, an often-productive sediment pond and small wetlands in the central area; as well as open areas, edge habitat, and scrub along the power lines in the east.

Layout: Gorman North can be divided into three distinct parts. The westernmost portion lies between Old Columbia Road and a ridge just east of Eden Brook Drive. It is mainly floodplain with an unpaved trail along the river. The central part is CA open space with a paved path accessible from multiple points. The eastern third of this north side extends to Murray Hill Road; it features open areas under the power lines with numerous thickets. Parking is available at the south end of Eden Brook Drive; at several points in Kings Contrivance where the CA path system is accessible; and (during the off-season only) in the parking lot for the community pool at the intersection of Murray Hill Road and Vollmerhausen Road. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, park south of the bridge along Murray Hill Road.

Because there is private property on the north side of the river along Old Columbia Road, it is not possible to begin at that location. Enter the park from the southernmost end of Eden Brook Drive, where it is possible to park near the gate. Walk several hundred yards downhill along the paved road remnant to the river. Be sure to check the small stand of pines on the east side of the road just below the barricade as you begin your descent. The old road meets the river where a bridge used to connect to Kindler Road until it was washed out in 1972 by Hurricane Agnes. A trail runs west (upstream) along the river bottomlands crossing two utility rights-of-way (they can be birded). Double back to Eden Brook after exploring side trails in this section. The unpaved path continues east, downstream, along the river for another quarter-mile, until the bottomland is crowded out by a high rocky ridge rising out of the river. The path slants up to the top of the ridge and circles around to join the paved CA path system at a tot lot.

From here, paved paths can be followed east. Access to these paths can be found from Broadcloth Way, Red Cravat Court, Water Lily Way, or New Grace Mews in the village of Kings Contrivance. The path passes near a sediment pond and marshy area where Green Herons and Belted Kingfishers can often be found in the summer, Solitary and Spotted sandpipers in migration, and an occasional Winter Wren in winter. The rising sun first illuminates the line of trees on the west side of the pond, making an enticing spot for migrating warblers during spring migration. (The closest access to this pond is from Water Lily Way.) Farther east, the path descends to run along the river, and then rises back up to the ridge top at about 1.0 miles from Eden Brook Drive. For the next half mile, the paved path continues through the upland deciduous forest, crosses a couple of streams, and emerges at the power line cut. In addition to the paved paths in this section, there are a couple of unpaved paths that cut off toward the river. One follows the sewer line south from the sediment pond. At the river, it continues downstream, rejoining the paved path along the riverbank. A second unpaved path cuts off from the ridge top just after the path rises from the river. It provides an attractive alternative route as it drops down toward the river, passing through several stands of laurel, then rising back to meet the paved path.

The easternmost half mile of path traverses the power line cut and then wanders out to Murray Hill Road. The power line cut provides a chance to scan the sky for passing raptors (Red-tailed Hawks frequent the towers on both sides of the river; Bald Eagles have also been seen here), while the stream that crosses the power line cut has extensive thickets that provide cover for wintering birds. A side path leads under the power lines south over the sharp escarpment to the river, where a small sheltered grassy area provides a favored wintering spot for a variety of sparrows and Eastern Towhees. Yellow-breasted Chats have nested in the tangles that cover the escarpment. (Bear in mind that BGE clears the power line cut on a periodic basis; afterwards, these areas are not nearly so productive until given a chance to regenerate. This area was last cut in January 2008.)

Best Time to Visit: The CA paved path system is heavily used—even early in the morning, particularly the sections around the pond. Portions that are away from the paved paths have much less pedestrian traffic. Early to mid-morning in the spring and fall and mornings in the winter are the best times.

Birding: In the western third, the river bottomland birds include Louisiana Waterthrush and Acadian Flycatchers in the spring and summer and Winter Wrens in the winter. The vicinity of the old bridge at the foot of Eden Brook is particularly attractive for birds in all seasons. The remaining paved road segment can be especially productive. Red-breasted Nuthatches are sometimes present in the mixed woods near the top of the hill. The scrub, vine-draped trees, and undergrowth all harbor migrants, especially when the early morning sun illuminates the west side of the road. A Connecticut Warbler was one of the special species spotted along this road one fall morning.

Among the best spots in the middle third of Gorman North is the pond off Water Lily Way. During spring and fall migrations, anything might appear. During early summer, the forested eastern portion often provides a delightful musical background of Ovenbird and Wood Thrush song.

The power line cut in the eastern third of this area provides edges between the forest and the grasses under the power lines. Like all such areas, this one attracts a variety of birds, especially the eastern edge, which has more extensive and denser thickets. Blue Grosbeak and Yellow-breasted Chat are among the specialties. At one time, Prairie Warblers were present in the small grove of pines, but the trees are gradually becoming less attractive to this species. The dry, infertile soil under the lines is interesting for flowers and butterflies with birdfoot violet a prize for the sharp-eyed. The small area at the base of the steep incline at the river's edge is sheltered, and so is a favorite for wintering sparrows. Field, Song, and Swamp sparrows are often present. Fox and American Tree sparrows have been found in the winter in this section. Unfortunately, the large patch of wild senna, which used to grow at the foot of the steep path and attracted rare late summer butterflies, has been bulldozed out of existence. Finally, the fifty yards of paved path closest to Murray Hill Road often harbor wintering sparrows. Fox and American Tree sparrows have been found here.

Highlights: The large pond and associated marshy areas near Water Lily Way; and the edges of the power line cut in the eastern part of this area are special spots. About one-quarter of a mile east of Eden Brook there is a sycamore with a trunk of an impressive diameter at the edge of a tributary.

Handicapped Access: The CA paved paths are readily accessible, but to get to most of the better birding locations from the parking areas requires going down (and back up) fairly steep descents. All the wooden bridges along the paved path are slippery when wet and should be navigated with caution!

© 2008