Places We Protect

Edward H. McCabe Nature Preserve

Delaware

A short dock floats at the edge of the Broadkill River. The still surface of the water reflects the tall leafy green trees that line the river's edge.
Broadkill River Floating dock at TNC’s Edward H. McCabe Preserve. © TNC

The McCabe Nature Preserve offers opportunities to observe a variety of Delaware's ecosystems.

A note about visiting McCabe: Private parties at the McCabe Preserve are expressly prohibited. This is a privately-owned nature preserve and The Nature Conservancy reserves the right to restrict access to individuals and small groups who are actively using the trails and dock. Violators will be prosecuted.

Overview

Description

Donated to The Nature Conservancy in 1993 by Constance McCabe, the Edward H. McCabe Nature Preserve is TNC's most-visited public preserve in Delaware. It features a wide range of habitats found along the Broadkill River that harbor diverse plants and animals within a small area of the Delmarva Peninsula.

When Constance McCabe donated her family’s land to TNC, about 25 percent of the land was used for farming. Material dredged from the river channel had also been deposited in a five-acre clearing located on the property. Today, TNC manages the preserve as a natural area that is open for controlled public use.

Policy Update Regarding Dogs (June 2021): Please note, we are now allowing leashed dogs at the McCabe Preserve. Please be sure to bring waste bags to clean up after your dog and take your trash with you. Ticks can be found at McCabe in large numbers from the early spring to late fall—always check yourself and your dogs for ticks after being outdoors. Staying on the trail can help reduce exposure to ticks.

Access

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Hours

Open daily, from dawn to dusk.

Highlights

Hiking, birding; access by canoe or kayak via the Broadkill River.

Size

143 acres

Explore our work in Delaware

McCabe in Pictures

Explore the preserve's wide range of habitats.

Two plants, one with thin red flowers and the other dense purple blooms, grow on the banks of a wide river. Tall shoots of grass grow up around the flowers. White clouds are reflected on the water.
View from the end of a narrow floating dock with high metal sides. The dock leads to a path that disappears into a thick forest. Trees line the banks of the wide river that stretches to the horizon.
A wooden picnic table sits next to a wide river. The table is shaded by the tall trees that grow along the river bank. A sign in the background reads, Edward H. McCabe Preserve.
A raised wooden trail stretches into a forest. The trail is three boards wide. The trees bend over the trail shading it from the summer sun.
A small toad sits in the middle of a pile of pine needles. The toad is light brown with large dark brown spots ringed with white running along its back.
A honeybee gathers pollen from a yellow flower.
A common whitetail dragonfly perches on a withered plant. The dragonfly's body is dark brown. It has four translucent wings, each with a large brown marking.
A fuzzy yellow moth is nestled into the blossoms of a pink flower. The flower has multiple stems of five petal flowers.
A wide gravel path cuts through an open meadow. Tall white plastic tree tubes are evenly spaced across the meadow protecting young oak saplings. A mature forest grows at the edge of the meadow.
An oak sapling grows through the top of a tall plastic tube meant to reduce browsing by deer. A red ladybug sits on one of the leaves.

Visit

  • What to Do

    While a roadside parking area provides access to hiking trails located on the preserve, arriving by canoe is the way to go for adventurous visitors. Two miles away in the historic town of Milton, explorers can put in their canoes and meander down the Broadkill River before heading ashore.

    A floating dock provides access to the preserve from the river; please note, there is no parking available at or near the dock. The dock can be accessed overland by foot via a half mile hike through the preserve. The dock is open for use by non-motorized watercraft such as canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. Visitors can use the dock during normal preserve hours. Fishing and swimming from the dock or adjacent shorelines is prohibited. A picnic table is available for use near the dock; please take your trash with you.

    Canoeing along the Broadkill offers a unique perspective on this important river corridor. Keen eyes will pick out large-mouth bass, bluegill and, in the spring, migrating river herring as these surface-feeding fish seek out insects. The majestic great blue heron, with its pale blue-gray color, sharp bill, long legs and six-foot wing span, is hard to miss as it glides above the river. In spring and early summer, watch for the golden head and breast of the prothonotary warbler perching on riverbank tree limbs.

  • What to See

    The preserve provides habitat for more than 100 species of birds. Its combination of hardwood forest, old fields, tidal freshwater and forested wetlands and agricultural fields attracts a diversity of migrant and nesting birds including waterfowl, raptors and songbirds.

    Adjacent to the open water of the Broadkill River, emergent tidal marshes are regularly flooded, creating diverse habitats dominated by flowering herbs and sedges including marshmallow, arrow arum, pickerel weed, broad-leaved arrowhead and tear-thumb. 

    Further from the river’s edge, marsh transitions into scrub-shrub wetlands that feature swamp rose, arrow-wood, buttonbush, common alder and globally-rare seaside alder.

    Just inland from the tidal marsh and associated wetlands, stands of red maple, blackgum and loblolly pine survive the oxygen-depleted swamp soils by growing on mounded hummocks. Long-prized and logged for its durability, Atlantic white cedar is identified by its reddish brown, fibrous trunk, conical crown and evergreen scale-like leaves. The swamp understory harbors fragrant bayberry bushes and spectacular spring-blooming wild azaleas.

    Upland forests of various ages comprise much of the preserve and provide insight into the history of McCabe. Like many in Delmarva, these upland forests were logged to make way for farms following European settlement.

  • Peak Times

    The highlight of the avian year is the spring passage of colorful migratory Neotropical songbirds, including a variety of warblers and thrushes, on their way north. May is the best month to witness this phenomenon. Songbirds pass through the area again in September and early October.

    During the summer, several species nest and raise young. In winter, Great Horned and Screech Owls call after dark and waterfowl search the riverside wetlands for food.

    Keep an eye on the ground as well, as eastern box turtles are commonly seen foraging for food along the trails.

    During warmer months, the wildflower meadow comes alive with colorful blooms that are enjoyed by monarch and tiger swallowtail butterflies, among others.

  • Citizen Science: iNaturalist

    We are creating a citizen science database of all kinds of life—from lichens to ants, mushrooms to plants, birds to mammals and everything in between for our preserves in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

    TNC's roots began with local citizens and scientists concerned about special places and species. That legacy continues today. Across our lands, we are utilizing iNaturalist—a digital platform that gives users an opportunity to share and discuss their findings.

    Our 14 preserve projects in iNaturalist currently have 2,709 observations of 1,219 species made by 47 observers. Of the 14 preserve projects, nine have observations recorded; help us increase that number and our understanding of the species—good and bad, native as well as invasive—that can be found on TNC lands across the state. This information can also help guide and inform our conservation staff's management and monitoring decisions.

  • Preserve Guidelines

    While visiting the McCabe preserve, please DO:

    • Take precautions against ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers and sunburn.
    • Wear sturdy footwear.
    • Tuck pant legs into socks/shoes.
    • Apply insect repellant and sun protection.
    • Bring drinking water.
    • Watch for poison ivy.
    • Stay on marked trails.
    • Remove all litter. This is a “carry-in carry-out” preserve. (Don’t forget bags for dog waste if you’re bringing Fido)
    • Keep your dogs leashed and clean up after them.
    • Enjoy nature.

    DO NOT:

    • Dispose of trash or other waste, including biodegradable materials.
    • Feed or disturb wildlife.
    • Release animals or introduce plants.
    • Hunt, trap, fish, dig, pick or remove plants, animals or other artifacts from the preserve.
    • Bring motorized vehicles, ATVs, bicycles or horses.Bring alcohol or firearms.
    • Camp, make fires or have cookouts.
    • Smoke.
    • Trespass on private property adjacent to the preserve.
    • Have parties or play loud music.
    • Swim in the river.
  • Visitor Resources

Reforesting McCabe

TNC's efforts to restore McCabe's forests began in earnest in 1996 when staff and volunteers planted a five-acre field with more than 2,000 native tree seedlings. In 2019, an opportunity arose to transform 39 acres of former farmland into native forest, pursuing a long-term vision that included planting 11,700 shrubs and native trees.

Five people carrying large canvas bags plant tree seedlings in an open field.
A man kneels on the ground to secure a white tube around a newly planted tree sapling. A woman in a purple jacket watches from behind him.
Rows of tall white plastic tubes fill an open field. Shorter cardboard tree shelters fill in the rows between the tubes.
Rows of tall white plastic tubes fill an open field. Leaves on thin branches poke up through the tops of the tubes.
The green leaves of an oak sapling stick out above the top of a white projective tree tube.

Over the years, TNC has engaged in restoring McCabe's forests to create wildlife habitat, including for migratory and resident birds, and to promote storage and filtering of water moving into the Broadkill River from nearby agricultural fields.

From 1993 until 2018, TNC leased 39 acres of farm fields on the preserve to local farmers who grew soy and corn in the sandy soil. In 2019, an opportunity arose to transform those farmlands into native forest thanks to funding made available as part of an agreement between the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Purdue Foods to mitigate wastewater issues emerging from the company’s Georgetown plant. This made it possible for TNC to pursue a long-term vision for the property that included planting 11,700 shrubs and native trees including black oak, red oak, pin oak, swamp white oak, white oak, chestnut oak, chokeberry, persimmon, dogwood and black cherry.

By Fall 2020, after two summers of growth, some of the trees had reached 6 feet in height. Birds and other wildlife are much more common throughout the former corn and soybean fields, too. The native plants and wildflowers that have grown up on their own between the trees provide seeds and attract insects for the birds to eat. There are little holes throughout the fields, indicating that small burrowing mammals are moving into the reclaimed farm fields as well. This likely explains why we’re seeing more hawks in the older trees along the field edges.

Our experiment of using 4-foot biodegradable tree tubes and smaller 18” cardboard tree shelters has shown us that the larger tubes were well worth the extra cost. Most of the trees that were protected by the tubes are two to three times taller than those that were protected only with the small compostable shelters. This could be due to a variety of factors, including better protection from deer and from cold and wind during winter and spring.

On the northeastern field near our barn we’ve had to battle an explosion of sweetgum trees that threatened to overtake a portion of the field. Mowing between the rows throughout the summer remains important to suppress competing vegetation. In many areas, native warm-season grasses and other native trees including loblolly pine and American holly have grown in on their own, often making up for trees that we planted that have since died. The bluebirds and blue grosbeaks enjoy perching on the tree tubes. And in the summer flycatchers such as Eastern kingbirds are using the fields for catching grasshoppers and flies.

TNC has also added a quarter-mile crushed-stone walking path to the reforestation area, which reveals progress of the tree growth and features Eastern Bluebirds commonly seen along the edges of the fields. Improvements to the trail include a bridge built across an agricultural ditch and piping installed underneath recycled asphalt millings across the natural drainage. These upgrades make the path easier to use throughout the year and enhance accessibility for visitors who may have difficulty walking on uneven surfaces.

A volunteer records data in a reforestation plot.
Data Collection A Nature Conservancy Intern, Tessa Hayman, gathers data on seedling survivorship. © Brooke Cherry

Volunteer at McCabe

Become a preserve monitor! Assist with monitoring McCabe Preserve on a regular basis (approximately 4-6 visits per year) to assess the condition and needs of the preserve and keep us informed of any issues. Preserve monitors are also asked to help remove smaller branches from trails and pick up litter. Volunteers are also needed at the McCabe P...

Become a preserve monitor! Assist with monitoring McCabe Preserve on a regular basis (approximately 4-6 visits per year) to assess the condition and needs of the preserve and keep us informed of any issues. Preserve monitors are also asked to help remove smaller branches from trails and pick up litter. Volunteers are also needed at the McCabe Preserve’s 39-acre reforestation site to help stake up trees and cut back encroaching vegetation. Contact devolunteer@tnc.org for more information about becoming a preserve monitor.

Group volunteer events are occassionaly held at McCabe Preserve; these events will be listed on our Events page and on Facebook.

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