By Terry Rogers
Even long-time residents of Milford may be unaware that a large and unusual nature conservation area exists nearby. The Milford Neck Conservation area is not only unique in its animal migrations and diversity, but also in how the land is owned and preserved.
“Milford Neck Conservation Area is a block of more than 10,000 acres of land owned by the State of Delaware, The Nature Conservancy, Delaware Wild Lands, and private landowners,” said Kate Hackett, Executive Director of Delaware Wild Lands. “We work closely with the private landowners at Milford Neck because so many of their families have farmed these lands for generations. We want to improve both the environment and the economy.”
Milford Neck consists of undeveloped beaches with dunes, shifting shorelines, tidal marshes, island hammocks, swamp, upland forests and open farmland. Its coastline stretches from South Bowers to the Mispillion River. It is a prime habitat for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds that visit each year, many of whom feast on the eggs of horseshoe crabs that spawn on the bay shores. With more than 1,000 acres of coastal forest, it is the largest upland forest on the coast of Delaware.
“We’re seeing significant changes in the area due to erosion, storms and sea level rise, including the conversion of salt marsh to open water,” said Ms. Hackett. “When we compare historic aerial photographs to what we are seeing on the ground, the changes are significant. For this reason, we are partnering with the Nature Conservancy and the State of Delaware to determine what is causing the changes and to develop a protection strategy.”
Delaware Wild Lands began investing in this critical habitat in 1985 and now owns more than 3,400 acres. Today, Delaware Wild Lands is restoring diminishing freshwater wetlands and working with local farmers to keep coastal farmland productive by developing alternative crops that are salt-tolerant. These efforts make Milford Neck increasingly attractive to common and rare bird species such as the endangered Loggerhead Shrike sighted recently on Delaware Wild Lands’ holdings.
Since 1998, The Nature Conservancy has planted almost 160,000 hardwood trees as well as small clusters of native vegetation in what are known as habitat islands. The islands help shelter wildlife from weather and predators as well as attract birds that transport seeds needed to regenerate the forest. Migrant songbirds such as the Pine Warbler, Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak and Common Yellowthroat have been spotted in the area. Of special interest was the migration of Yellow-breasted Chat, a species considered to be of special concern.
“Big blocks of habitat can withstand hurricanes, straight-line winds and the small tornadoes that sometimes happen in Delaware,” John Graham, land steward for The Nature Conservancy said. Using grant funding, Ms. Hackett said the groups are developing a better scientific understanding of changes in the area and implementing a wetland restoration plan. Their goals include allowing for natural processes to occur, enhancing habitats, and assisting bayfront wetlands to tolerate storms and sea-level rise. The funding for this project is through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resilience Program.
Ms. Hackett said the organizations are deeply aware of the cultural heritage in the Milford Neck area. Their conservation efforts will take into consideration the needs of the agricultural community and the local farming history.
“We want to be good neighbors and make decisions that will not only benefit wildlife in the area, but improve the agricultural community that has existed here for generations.”