Tag Archives: Delaware

Making conservation history in the Delaware Basin

In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed into the Delaware Bay and proclaimed the area suitable for a settlement without ever setting foot on shore. He had good instincts.


Before Henry Hudson descended upon the river that would ultimately bear his name, he gave the Delaware Bay a favorable review. 

Today eight million people live in the Delaware River watershed and rely on the basin for clean water, jobs, food, and recreation. And they’re not alone. The watershed is 50 percent forested and encompasses more than a million acres of wetlands; it’s an ideal place for thousands of species of fish and wildlife to settle, too.

“We’re that middle spot: the southernmost extent of northern species ranges, the northernmost extent of southern species ranges, and the migration link between,” said John Parke, Stewardship Project Director for New Jersey Audubon. “It’s always amazing when I’m out in the field to see the diversity of people and communities here — from agriculture, to industry, to suburbs — and yet integrated throughout the whole area is this incredible diversity of wildlife as well.”


New Jersey Audubon’s John Parke speaks to farmers in Sussex County about how buffers are good for their land and water quality. Photo: Courtesy NJ Audubon

Parke had just come in from a day in the field showing agricultural landowners some of the conservation work NJ Audubon has supported for wildlife and people in the area. The first stop was a winery that installed a pollinator meadow that doubles as stormwater runoff control. Next was a livestock farm that had adopted prescribed grazing techniques that not only create habitat for declining grassland birds like bobolink, meadowlark, and savannah sparrows, but also reduce erosion to improve both soil and water quality.

“The idea was to show some of the conservation practices they could use on their own property, and then down the line, we can help them apply for funding to make it happen,” Parke said.


Bobolinks enjoying the pasture where a livestock farmer uses prescribed grazing techniques to create habitat for grassland birds. Photo: John Parke, NJ Audubon

For Parke, this outing was business as usual and a reflection of the ongoing coordination among partners in the basin to conserve and sustain the area’s natural resources. New Jersey Audubon is one of 130 members that make up the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, founded in 2012 to align partners involved in conservation and restoration, and the driving force behind passage of the 2016 Delaware River Basin Conservation Act.

It’s easy to understand why everyone wants to coordinate.

“Putting conservation on the ground in harmony with all those people takes a lot of organizations working together, and it takes buy in from communities as well,” Parke said.

It also takes funding. In early August, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation launched the $5 million Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund with federal appropriations administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The fund represents the first step in implementing a strategy developed by partners last winter with guidance from the Service to focus conservation on four key areas– clean water, habitat, recreation, and flow management.

“It’s a different way to conceive of partnership,” said Mike Slattery, the Service’s Delaware River Watershed Coordinator. He speaks from experience. Slattery is the Service’s former coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Program.

The Delaware program is modeled after partnerships like the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, which takes a non-regulatory approach to implementing provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act through collaborative habitat prioritization, restoration, and conservation. “It’s voluntary, incentive driven, and has a proven record of success,” Slattery said.

You don’t need to look far for proof. Partners have long been leveraging resources for collective impact in the Delaware River watershed. Parke’s work with agricultural producers leverages funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Haverford Residential Rain Garden Sign

A good sign for the Delaware River watershed. Photo: Pennsylvania Environmental Council

Susan Myerov, Watersheds Program Director for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, facilitates a partnership addressing stream health and stormwater management in greater Philadelphia that leverages funding from the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.

“Most of the places we work in are suburban communities with a lot of impervious cover where stream function is impaired,” Myerov said. “We partner with universities and watershed organizations to target areas where we can get the most bang for our buck through restoration and community education projects, like municipal rain gardens in the Cobbs Creek watershed.”

Jake McPherson, Regional Biologist for Ducks Unlimited, used North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds from the Service to conserve 1,082 acres of emergent and forested wetlands at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware.


Translation: Welcome home, ducks! Photo: Jake McPherson, Ducks Unlimited

All of them are submitting proposals for the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund, too.

“There’s an abundance of habitat and restoration work to be done in the watershed, and more funding means more opportunities,” McPherson said. And more opportunities mean more benefits.

“The Delaware River basin in an important corridor for migratory waterfowl, and our work focuses on supporting these species throughout their life cycles,” he said. “But there are public benefits that go well beyond habitat.”

For example, water storage, water quality, filtering of contaminants — and let’s not forget fun. “In Delaware, every resident lives within 30 miles of the coast,” McPherson pointed out. “Where do you think these people go for recreation?”

If Hudson were to sail into the Delaware Bay today, he’d be dodging fishing boats, kayaks, sunfish, yachts, and cargo ships. He would find its shores thoroughly settled by people with a stake in ensuring the basin remains a suitable place to live for generations.


Visitors enjoying nature right in southwest Philadelphia at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: USFWS

“Along the bay, you have all of these pristine capes, hooks, and wetlands in such close proximity to industrial and urban areas — just think of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge right in southwest Philadelphia,” Slattery said. “It’s easy to envision that with an all-hands-on-deck approach, we can achieve a significant degree of conservation and restoration here.”

The Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund is accepting proposals until Sept. 27.

Check out some of the other restoration efforts underway led by the Service and partners throughout the Delaware watershed:

Sometimes There’s Value in Getting a Little Mud on Your Shoes

Today we’re hearing from Brian Marsh, a biologist working at our Delaware Bay Estuary Project office. Brian’s work focuses on land and wetland restoration; however, he increasingly appreciates the value of projects working with students where the conservation value is harder to quantify.

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A flower fly on swamp sunflower at Caesar Rodney High School, Credit: Brian Marsh/USFWS

Habitat conservation today only means so much when we face a tomorrow where people don’t value the outdoors. When I work with students and teachers, I realize many of them don’t have the same relationship with the outdoors that I take for granted. Little things tip me off to the degree that some students are disconnected from nature.

For example…shoes.

Me, to a student wearing fancy kicks on planting day: “Why didn’t you bring in a different pair of shoes?”


Student, who doesn’t want to walk on mulch, grass, and most certainly not dirt: “Why would I have a different pair of shoes?”

To have only one pair of shoes and no mud shoes to play in? This student’s reality was so different from my own experience of only having muddy shoes at that age. Clean shoes were uncool.

I grew up on a farm, did landscaping jobs in high school and college, and have been doing restoration- oriented work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 2005. So, I thought using a shovel is about as basic a thing as can be. But I was wrong. Working with the students, I further realized that they had very different experiences than I did growing up, which shaped their perception of the outdoors and the foundation for the lessons I was about to teach. I was excited to talk about how native grass plants relate to larval pollinator populations, soil health, water quality, and bird habitat, but the students needed an intro lesson first. I realized I had to redefine my square one.


A commonly seen eastern pondhawk at Laurel High School, Credit: Brian Marsh/USFWS

Wow, the more time I spend with our younger generations the more I’m aware that connecting students to nature is “mission critical”.

Through environmental education, it’s our responsibility to work with teachers and administrators to understand the challenges they face so that we can  work to dispel the notion that all habitats are green, clean, and tidy. Some are messy, unkempt, and have brown plants. And yet, they are still perfectly good habitats. We forget that even habitat can be a radical idea to those who don’t think about it daily.

Habitat projects at schools take time, need to involve everyone, and need to be engaging to both students and school staff for them to be sustainable.

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Students need basic instruction but can really take hold of the idea of stewardship given the chance, Credit: Debbie Magnin

The Delaware Bay Estuary Project works with several schools throughout Delaware and we definitely see progress and reason for hope. Here are some examples…

Shue-Medil Middle School in Newark formed a team to create schoolyard habitat and make their school greener. Their monthly meetings are well attended by administrators, teachers, facilities staff, and students. They’re following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Guide. Team building and a supportive administration make all the difference at this school. The principal’s father is even helping by cutting nesting and bat box pieces out of cedar boards we provided and the students help make them.

A small private school in Georgetown, The Jefferson School, hired a full-time environmental education coordinator last year for their 109 students. They have a wall of boots at the back door. A little boy keeps his shovel in the principal’s office, which he collects daily to go dig outside in his free time. A state forest surrounds the school. Students work together to care for the school’s goats and chickens. Students play in an outdoor mud kitchen. Students are expected to be outside here!

In contrast in Wilmington, the Warner Elementary school’s building takes up almost every inch of their property, but they manage to have a garden and want to create habitat with us through their very dedicated student green team that already runs their recycling program.

Laurel Middle and High School is in rural Laurel Delaware and is bordered by a tributary with migratory fish runs. The Delaware Bay Estuary Project is gradually building a relationship with the school and their agribusiness teachers are stepping up to help with schoolyard habitat, including a one-acre meadow, four rain gardens, and riparian plantings in partnership with Delaware State Parks and NOAA.

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Storm water management and schoolyard habitat can go together well. This basin at Laurel High School has become a rain-garden in a high profile area, Credit: Brian Marsh/USFWS

Caesar Rodney School District has gone from having little interest in habitat to hiring a full-time environmental education specialist who has a lot of ideas and energy. The district is considering turning a property shared by a middle school, elementary school, and special-needs school into an ecocampus, which  will be a model for the district, state, and beyond! We’ve helped with creating schoolyard habitat at three of the schools in the district.

Delaware has an awesome community of organizations and federal and state partners looking to make inroads into schools to help restore connections to nature. Delaware is a small state and we should be able to move the needle here. The community has come together to form Delaware Children in Nature and the Delaware Association of Environmental Education, both of which the Delaware Bay Estuary Project is active in. More schools are showing interest. Momentum is growing because of motivated teachers, administrators, biologists willing to lend a hand and kindle a spark, and of course the students and their natural curiosity.

We have a challenge ahead of us to foster a conservation ethic but it’s an important one! I think everyone in conservation should take opportunities to work with kids to better understand the degree of disconnection to nature and the challenges it represents. And by kids I mean average students, not just the handful of kids at each school that are the outdoor loving, curious, science geeks that we can relate to.


The Delaware Bay Estuary Project is part of the Coastal Program, a habitat conservation program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that focuses on conserving the ecological integrity of beaches, bays, estuaries, and coastal watersheds. The Delaware Bay Estuary Project works through voluntary partnerships with a variety of public and private entities, such as private landowners, land trusts, municipalities, states, and other federal agencies, to enhance, restore, conserve, study, and monitor habitat for key federal trust wildlife resources in the Delaware River and Delmarva Peninsula ecosystems.


Saving the Horseshoe Crabs for the Birds

Sometime in mid-May, Beth Freiday hopes to see New Jersey’s bayside beaches turn a dusky olive color.

“At the peak of horseshoe crab spawning season, the beaches are almost green from the quantity of eggs and crabs covering the sand,” explains Freiday, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist based in New Jersey.

While green beaches are an interesting sight in their own right, it’s what they signify that Freiday cares about – an abundance of crab eggs for migratory shorebirds like the threatened rufa red knot to feast on during their stopover in the Delaware Bay.

The beaches along Delaware Bay are some of the most critically important stopover sites for migratory shorebirds, many of which are undergoing alarming declines. Without a jumbo snack of horseshoe crab eggs, these birds might not make it on their long-distance migration.

To help, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working at numerous sites along the Delaware Bay to restore beaches and improve conditions for spawning horseshoe crabs, thereby helping support migratory shorebirds.

Horseshoe crabs spawning in Delaware Photo credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Horseshoe crabs spawning in Delaware Photo credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Fortifying Beaches

At one such site, Freiday is coordinating a partnership with the American Littoral Society and others to restore a 1.5-mile stretch of New Jersey shoreline severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. These beaches saw a loss of 2 to 3 feet of sand, with the sand pushed so far above the high tide line that spawning crabs could no longer reach it.

To remedy this, the partners are trucking in sand from a local sand mine and moving it onto the beach with a bulldozer, using lightweight pieces of equipment to spread it. Work started at the end of March at Cooks and Kimbles Beaches in Cape May County and is expected to last until mid-April.

All told, approximately 12,000 cubic yards of sand will be spread across the two beaches, which together span 5.5 acres.

“We’re very careful of ecological and historical resources at the sites,” says Freiday, noting that the most environmentally appropriate methods are used for replacing the sand.

While Hurricane Sandy initially wiped out these beaches, Freiday says the problem is persistent.

“Since Sandy, we have had some destructive winter storms that move sand from the beach into the adjacent marsh,” she explains. “This leaves not enough sand on the beach for crabs to spawn, and the sand that is moved into the marsh is no longer accessible for crab spawning.”

It might be something to get used to with a changing climate. The mid-Atlantic Coast is expected to experience some of the fastest rates of sea-level rise in the United States, with more intense storms like Hurricane Sandy battering coastlines.

Restoring Cooks Beach in New Jersey Photo credit: Elizabeth Freiday

Restoring Cooks Beach in New Jersey Photo credit: Elizabeth Freiday

Connecting the Dots

Horseshoe crabs are not endangered, though they are under harvest restrictions in New Jersey and Delaware. They experienced a rapid decline from overharvesting in the 1990s. Then came Hurricane Sandy, which demolished 70 percent of New Jersey’s key horseshoe crab habitat.

Since horseshoe crabs don’t start breeding until at least 9 years of age, population increases might not be noticeable for a while. But the good news is they produce upwards of 100,000 eggs in a season – as long as they have access to the sand habitat they need.

Freiday’s team is planning to have all the sand spread and ready for spawning horseshoe crabs by April 15.

“We don’t know exactly when the horseshoe crabs will come up onto the beaches to lay eggs – it all depends on water temperature,” explains Freiday. “We usually estimate May 1, but this year the water is warmer so it could be sooner. We want to be ready.”

After the horseshoe crabs come in to lay eggs, the migratory shore birds will show up – hopefully by the thousands. And the tourists soon follow.

Ultimately, restoring these beaches will not just benefit horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds, but also the people who live, work and recreate here. Benefits to people include greater protection from storm surges, improved beach areas for public recreation, and the economic benefits of beach and wildlife-related ecotourism, valued at $522 million in New Jersey’s Cape May County alone.

Endangered rufa red knot at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Endangered rufa red knot at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Horseshoe crab eggs provide a vital food source for rufa red knot and other shorebirds Photo credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Horseshoe crab eggs provide a vital food source for rufa red knot and other shorebirds Photo credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

This restoration work is being funded by the Department of the Interior through the Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2013. Partners include the Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Littoral Society, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers. Additional work has been coordinated with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation NFWF and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.