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.

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.

Ecosystem Variety

Several distinct habitat types are found along the Broadkill River and within the preserve including tidal marsh, scrub-shrub wetlands and upland forest.

Adjacent to the open water of the river, emergent tidal marshes are regularly flooded, creating diverse habitats dominatedby 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 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.

In May and June, bird watchers with a keen eye can see colorful migratory neo-tropical birds including a variety of warblers and thrushes. 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.

Access

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Park in the designated parking area. Dogs are not permitted at this preserve.

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 this region

Reforesting McCabe

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. These efforts began in earnest in 1996 when TNC staff and volunteers planted the five-acre field of dredged material with more than 2,000 native red and white oak, green ash and black gum seedlings to buffer sensitive wetland habitat from polluted runoff. A native wildflower meadow, also planted in 2016, attracts pollinators like monarch butterflies and Eastern bluebirds.

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.

TNC 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. Recent 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.

Fall 2020 Update

After two summers of growth, some of the trees are now 6 feet tall. 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 for the birds to eat and also attract insects which provide more food. 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 the fall we brought in brush cutters to cut down the sweetgum saplings. 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.

To view a list of birds that you can see at the McCabe Preserve, download the McCabe Preserve Birding Checklist.

Plan your Visit

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 even better access to the river. The publicly accessible 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.

Birding

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.

The highlight of the avian year is the passage of migratory songbirds on their way north in the spring. 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.

Canoeing the Broadkill River

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.

Hiking the McCabe Nature Preserve

Hiking around the preserve reveals upland forests, swamp forests, tidal marsh and scrub-shrub wetlands, and a restoration area. Plus, a native meadow planted in spring 2016 attracts pollinators like monarch butterflies and Eastern bluebirds.

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.
Edward H. McCabe Preserve
Enjoy opportunities to observe Delaware ecosystems, including tidal marshes, upland forests and Atlantic white cedar swamp.

Edward H. McCabe Nature Preserve The Nature Conservancy’s most-visited publicly accessible preserve in Delaware.

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.
  • Leave pets at home.
  • Enjoy nature.

Please DO NOT:

  • Bring your dogs. 
  • Feed or disturb wildlife.
  • 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 firearmss
  • Camp, make fires or smoke.
  • Swim in the river.

VOLUNTEER

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 FacebookPlease note at this time, our group volunteer events are paused due to COVID-19 safety precautions.

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