Delaware’s Milford Neck landscape can be described as a mosaic of undeveloped beaches and dunes, shifting shorelines, vast tidal marshes, island hammocks, swamp, upland forests and open farmland. These lands are owned and managed by the State of Delaware, The Nature Conservancy, Delaware Wild Lands, private individuals and others. Together, these landowners conserve one of the First State’s most spectacular natural areas.
Milford Neck is prime habitat for more than a million migratory shorebirds that visit each spring to feed on eggs laid by horseshoe crabs that converge on Delaware Bay to spawn. The area also stands out for its forests. Though interrupted by scattered farms, this is the only remaining forested area greater than 1,000 acres on the entire coast of Delaware. It provides crucial habitat for species that require large, open tracts of forest for part or all of their life cycles.
To protect and build on what remains of these forests, the Conservancy has engaged in intensive restoration at the Milford Neck Nature Preserve since 1998. Efforts includes planting more than 159,000 hardwood tree seedlings interspersed with small clusters of diverse native vegetation and trees in what are called habitat islands. The islands include five varieties of oak, southern arrow wood, winterberry, persimmon and tulip tree.
These habitat islands shelter wildlife from weather and predators, and they attract birds that transport and deposit seeds needed to regenerate the forest. In recent years, the habitat islands have begun welcoming migrant songbird species, including Pine Warbler, Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Common Yellowthroat and Yellow-breasted Chat, a Species of Special Concern.
At Milford Neck, reforestation also provides another benefit: resiliency to flooding from coastal storms.
“Big blocks of habitat can withstand hurricanes, straight-line winds and the small tornadoes that sometimes happen in Delaware,” says John Graham, land steward for the Conservancy in Delaware. At Milford Neck, functioning forests also help control salinity in the water to promote development of healthy marshes that can stand up to floods.
We are also planning a major restoration of the marsh, where old ditches drained tidal areas and forest. Those alterations, combined with the impacts of several major storms and sea level rise, has transformed 500 acres of marsh to open water and has led to a significant reduction in forest cover that borders the marsh.
The damage has decreased the capacity of natural systems to attenuate floodwaters, prevent saltwater intrusion and diminish wind energy. The result is sustained flooding on roadways and in low-lying areas during storms, repeated damage to critical infrastructure and salt poisoning of soils.
We are working with our partners at the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife and Delaware Wild Lands to develop an optimized wetland restoration plan that allows for natural processes to occur; enhances habitat diversity, improves the ability of the bayfront wetlands to tolerate and respond to storm-driven inundation and sea level rise; and buffers important palustrine wetlands, upland forest, and agricultural lands from saltwater intrusion and inundation.
This plan will be the basis for future large-scale restoration efforts at Milford Neck. The project is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resilience Program.
Eastern Kent County, along the Delaware Bay
What’s At Stake
The diverse landscape at Milford Neck includes Delaware Bay beaches and dunes, tidal salt marshes, and upland forests interspersed with freshwater wooded wetlands. These habitats harbor an impressive diversity of reptiles, waterfowl, birds, small mammals, fish and amphibians, including green tree frogs, which are rare in Delaware.
During late spring and early summer, red knots and other shorebirds arrive to feed on eggs deposited by the world's largest population of spawning horseshoe crabs and take shelter among sand dunes. Black duck, a Species of Special Concern, represents one of many varieties of waterfowl inhabiting tidal marshes. Milford Neck woodlands support over 90 different species of resident and migratory species of birds, many of which are dependent upon large blocks of unbroken forested lands to survive.
Sea Level Rise, Hydrologic Alteration, Development, Habitat Fragmentation, Non-native Invasive Species
- 1990 – Acquired the land comprising its Milford Neck Nature Preserve and began developing plans to restore former agricultural fields into native coastal deciduous forest.
- 1998 – Included the preserve as part of the 10,000-acre Milford Neck Conservation Area with assistance from the Delaware Department of Fish & Wildlife and Delaware Wild Lands.
- 1999 – First enrollment of carefully selected farm fields into the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program.
- 2004 – First wetland restoration project.
- 2010 – Expansion of wetland restoration project work, again using funding and technical support from USFWS.
- 2012 – With funding from Delaware’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Projects Grant Program, took on another 60 acres of reforestation work bringing our total restoration project to 291 acres.
- 2014 – Initiated research to develop a wetland restoration plan for the Milford Neck Conservation Area in partnership with the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife and Delaware Wild Lands.
After more than two decades working at Milford Neck, the Conservancy’s reach has expanded to include 291 acres of reforestation and wetland restoration sites that are designed to reconnect habitat types across the nature preserve. Thanks to our partners, these sites have been planted with more than 159,000 native trees and shrubs. Our current focus is continuing to improve habitat across all reforestation and wetland restoration sites while working to ensure that non-native invasive plant species like Phragmites do not take over this unique and valuable natural landscape.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Conservation Reserve Program; USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program; USFWS Coastal Program, Delaware Bay Estuary Project; USFWS, Partners for Wildlife; National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; DE Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), Division of Soil and Water Conservation; DNREC, Natural Heritage Program; DNREC, Kent County Conservation District; AstraZeneca; GreenWatch Institute; Crestlea, Chesapeake; ERTHNXT; Gatewood, Inc.; Bailey’s Lawnmower; and many, many volunteers
See a slideshow illustrating damage to the Milford Neck Preserve.