For many people, getting back to nature at the beach means unfurling a blanket on the hot sand and watching the waves. Not for David Podlaseck of Bridgeville. To commune with nature, he likes to head to Cape Henlopen State Park. “I like to hike,” he says. “They’ve got a nice biking trail as well, and there’s lots to see and do, including bird-watching.”
Though Cape Henlopen is one of the best-known wildlife areas, it is certainly not the only one. The coast is pleasantly packed with places where you can soak in the flora and the fauna, as well as the sun. Here are a few to investigate this summer.
Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge
11978 Turkle Pond Road, Milton, 684-8419, fws.gov/northeast/primehook
Prime Hook is a variation of the original Dutch settlers’ name for the area, Priume Hoek, which means Plum Point. And beach plums still flourish in the refuge.
One of two national refuges in Delaware—Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County is the other—Prime Hook is a sanctuary for birds. In fact, it was established in 1963 following the passage of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. In fall, more than 100,000 snow geese and 80,000 ducks take a breather in the refuge.
“We have migrating shorebirds in the spring and migrating and wintering waterfowl in the winter,” says Bill Jones, manager of visitors’ services. Catch a glimpse via the seven-mile Prime Hook Creek, which is ideal for kayaks and canoes, or on the five miles of walking trails.
Mary Ann Benyo, who has a house on the beach in Prime Hook, frequently sees ospreys. Visits from turtles and rabbits are common.
Look for: Nesting bald eagles, migrating peregrine falcons, herons, egrets, ibis and American bitterns. There are 35 species of reptiles and amphibians, including frogs, salamanders and lizards, and there are 36 different mammals. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, which was reintroduced to the refuge in 1986.
“They’re not your typical squirrel,” Jones says. “They’re bigger and more silver-colored. If you see one, take some time and take note.” In the 10 years he’s worked at the refuge, Jones can count on one hand the times that he’s spotted one.
Wear bug spray. “At times there are clouds of mosquitoes,” Benyo says. “You can hear them hum. It’s impressive.”
Page 2: The Edward H. McCabe Preserve and Pemberton Forest Preserve
The Edward H. McCabe Preserve and Pemberton Forest Preserve
Milton, 654-4707, nature.org
In 1993 Constance P. McCabe donated land to the Delaware chapter of The Nature Conservancy to honor her husband’s memory. Those 143 acres are now a destination for nature lovers, who come by water and by land.
Boaters can start in Milton Memorial Park, then glide down the Broadkill River toward the preserve. Debark at the dock, then go exploring. For those coming by land, the head of a three-mile hiking trail is east of Milton along Sussex 257. There is a roadside parking area.
This is a true preserve, which means leave your pets, horses, ATVs and bikes at home, and don’t pick the plants.
To the west of Milton is Pemberton Forest Preserve, which features the 456-acre Pemberton Branch Tract and the newly opened 908-acre Ponders Tract, acquired in 2004 from the Glatfelter Pulpwood Co. Located on Del. 16, about two miles from its intersection with Del. 30, the area has nine miles of hiking and walking trails.
“We’ve been trying to bring the diversity back,” says Debbie Heaton, senior director of philanthropy for the Delaware Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “It was once a loblolly pine plantation, and now hardwood is springing up.”
Look for: In 1996 a five-acre area of the McCabe Preserve was planted with more than 2,000 native tree seedlings, including red and white oaks, green ash and black gum. Today it is an emerging forest that attracts migratory songbirds. The preserve also protects a swamp of Atlantic white cedar. To pinpoint a white cedar, look for a reddish-brown fibrous trunk and evergreen, scale-like leaves. You might spot great blue herons, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, Eastern bluebirds and Eastern towhees.
In Pemberton and Ponders, there are ring-billed gulls, downy woodpeckers, tufted titmouse, Carolina wrens and prairie warblers. In the meadow areas, osprey, bald eagles and sharpshin hawks like to hunt for prey. “As the forest changes and grows, the birds will change,” Heaton says.
Page 3: Cape Henlopen State Park
Cape Henlopen State Park
42 Cape Henlopen Drive , Lewes , 645-8983, destateparks.com
Given to the state by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1964, these beautiful parklands were once the home of Fort Miles, a World War II Army base. Watchtowers on the ocean shore are reminders of that era. Yet these lands have held historic significance long before the war. The cape is the gateway to the Delaware Bay and River, a maritime highway for commerce since Colonial times.
Over the decades the park has grown from 543 to 5,193 acres. It includes bay and ocean beaches, Gordons Pond and the Great Dune, which soars 80 feet above sea level. Other dunes pepper the pine forests, and there is a salt marsh on the park’s western boundary. A 3-mile trail loops the park. Walk it, or ride a bike.
Look for: Pitch pines, loblolly pines, brown-headed nuthatches and pine warblers. You might see deer. In the marshes, keep an eye out for egret and northern harrier, a type of hawk that feeds on field mice.
Page 4: James Farm Ecological Preserve
James Farm Ecological Preserve
Cedar Neck Road, Ocean View, 226-8105, inlandbays.org
James Farm encompasses only 150 acres, but the property has bragging rights to a variety of habitats, from its beach to its hardwood forest. The preserve has been managed by the Center for Inland Bays for the past 12 years.
Beachcombers can wade into the water from the sandy, shallow beach, which is a good place to find baitfish. The horseshoe crab spawning season peaks in May and June when the moon is full and there is a high tide. “It is something to see,” says Edward A. Lewandowski, executive director of the Center for Inland Bays. “The shoreline is littered with crabs, and water is foaming from all the activity. You can hear their shells clacking together.” It’s a primordial scene that transports viewers to prehistoric times.
At low tide, visitors can walk along the low marsh’s flats before moving to the high marsh, where plants are not subjected to as much routine flooding. The maritime forest gives way to a hardwood forest. Fields that were once plowed by the James family are in transition as the hardwood forest seeds them.
The Center for Inland Bays has created a 24-acre marsh enhancement program on the east side of the property. Known as Slough’s Gut Marsh, it was once a straight-line ditch created in the 1930s to drain stagnant water and control mosquitoes.
“We’ve returned some of the natural hydrology to that marsh and really brought in more species and diversity of species,” Lewandowski says.
Look for: In the marsh flats, you’ll find cord grass and glasswort, a native herb. Bayberry, marsh alder and salt marsh hay cover the high marsh. In the maritime forest, find loblolly pines and holly. In the hardwood forest, there’s southern red oak, hickory, sweet gum and sassafras. From the boardwalk beach crossing and three observation platforms, you might spy deer, ducks, foxes and amphibians.
Page 5: Assawoman Wildlife Area
Assawoman Wildlife Area
37604 Mulberry Landing Road, Frankford, 539-3160
Managed by the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife, Assawoman is a 3,100-acre area that extends into Little Assawoman Bay. The area was originally contiguous farmland that the owners lost during the Great Depression. Recreationalists can get their fill. There are crabbing piers, a boat ramp and a floating pier. You can hike, bike and ride horses. You’ll also find unspoiled places that seem far from civilization. The observation tower offers a birds-eye view of the area. There are roads to be hiked to each of the three fishing areas. Many visitors paddle up the Assawoman Canal or Miller Creek, which both lead to the bay.
Look for: Hirst’s panic grass, a knee-high grass that only exists in three known places in the world. You’ll need to wait for drier months to spot it, because it grows in ponds. Also catch bald eagles, waterfowl, shorebirds and pileated woodpeckers.