Just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, hidden about a mile back in the thick woods south of the Patuxent River, is a multimillion-dollar building that is one of the metropolitan area's best kept secrets.
The National Wildlife Visitor Center, on the southern border of Fort Meade, is suburban Maryland's answer to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It focuses on the endangered animals that make the 12,750-acre Patuxent Research Refuge their home and on what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the researchers at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in one corner of the refuge, are doing to save them.
The expansive $18 million visitor center building contains 13,000 square feet of hands-on, high-tech exhibit space with cutouts of researchers popping out of cardboard forests and video narratives about research on the endangered gray timber wolf and canvasback duck.
Trails and tram tours meander around the grounds and one of the center's lakes, where visitors can see many of the 130 bird species, ducks, deer and other creatures that inhabit the refuge.
However, even with video presentations, movies and baby birds hatching while tour groups watch, the center has attracted fewer than half of the 250,000 annual visitors Fish and Wildlife officials had predicted when it opened in 1994.
About 100,000 people visit annually, said center spokeswoman Nell Baldacchino. Another 50,000 a year take advantage of activities such as bird-watching, hiking, biking, hunting and fishing, which are available to the public on the northern tract of the refuge.
"We're definitely not well known," Baldacchino said, noting that recently the center has attracted a few more visitors who have said that new signs advertising the center on the parkway at the Powder Mill Road exits sparked their curiosity.
"We're trying for it not to be a well-kept secret," Baldacchino said. "We've got our brochures in a lot of hotels now. We have our brochures in the state highway welcome stations, and we even have an exhibit in one of them."
The 40,000-square-foot visitor center -- one of the Fish and Wildlife Service's largest -- is the only one in the country that teaches about wildlife research projects going on at the Patuxent center and nationwide.
Patuxent researchers work in the refuge's central portion, which is closed to the public. Scientists there were responsible for research that led to the banning pesticides such as DDT and operate the international bird-banding program that monitors several migratory species.
Researchers also study the effects of heavy metals on wildlife, raise and release endangered birds such as the bald eagle, whooping crane and California condor, and investigate the decline of wintering canvasback ducks on the Chesapeake Bay.
Visitors learn a little about each of those programs through the center's exhibits.
"Birds migrate to a lot of places, but they always know where to come back," said Christina Gray, 9, of Bowie, after she passed a map of the Western Hemisphere with tiny lights tracing the migratory patterns of four bird species. "It's cool."
"I like the kind of things with the buttons," said classmate Elisabeth Thorpe, also 9, experimenting with a display that makes cutouts of scientists, signs and tractors pop out of cutout fields and forests with the push of a button or the twist of a knob.
Displays in frosted-glass cases show endangered species. Others depict the mating rituals, birth and raising of whooping cranes, sea otters, canvasback ducks and timber wolves.
Members of Bowie Girl Scout Junior Troop 2386 who visited the center recently ran from one flashing display to another, throughout the exhibit, touching the video screens to hear about the animals on display or to explore the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center's Web site.
The girls also spent time at the observatory that overlooks Lake Redington behind the center.
Another group that toured recently had watched from the observatory as ducklings hatched in a nearby nest.
"It's a lot nicer than I thought it would be," said Phyllis Asztalos, a co-leader of the Girl Scout troop and a first-time visitor to the center. "It's just a nice place. You can just come with your family and check it out."
Pub Date: 5/14/98