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. Healthy, 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.