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Wildlife Area Spotlights

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EAGLES NEST Wildlife Area | By Eric Ludwig

WATER, WATER everywhere! That’s the first thing DNREC’s Division of Fish & Wildlife biologists noticed when they set foot on the recently-acquired Eastburn Tract of the Eagles Nest Wildlife Area north of Smyrna. This 200-acre property, located in southern New Castle County, was acquired by the Division in 2016 to provide recreation opportunities while also protecting the unique and rapidly declining coastal plain pond habitat that it contains. Once acquired, however, it didn’t take biologists long to discover the tremendous wetland restoration potential the property held.

At the time it was acquired, the property consisted of roughly 60 acres of mixed hardwood forest, 130 acres of agricultural land and 10 acres of fencerows and powerline rights of way. Several large drainage ditches ran parallel to the field edges and served to catch rainwater runoff coming from the agricultural fields. While these ditches served to make much of the property dry enough to permit farming, they also enabled sediment, nutrient and pesticide transport pathways to flow into nearby streams and waterways.

To help reduce this runoff potential, the Division partnered with the Kent Conservation District to develop a wetland restoration plan that would continue to enable farming on most of the land, but also take out a few key acres of marginal cropland. This has created a series of wetlands that not only helps filter storm water runoff, but also provides wildlife habitat.

After careful evaluation of topography and soil types, three initial locations were selected for wetland restoration. These areas consisted of low-lying ground that was either seasonally inundated or showed signs of erosion – thus making them excellent candidates for low-cost but highly effective wetland restoration.

After the sites were determined, the Kent Conservation District equipment staff used a combination of bulldozers and excavators to create a series of interconnected shallow pools, swales and berms to create a natural filtration system that would capture rain water and runoff. This allowed time for sediments, nutrients and pesticides to settle out. Several water control structures were also installed in key locations that let Division staff adjust water levels within the wetlands. This helps to regulate the amount of time it takes water to travel through the system and allow water levels to be manipulated in order to promote or deter vegetation growth, depending on the desired species composition.

In addition to improving water quality, these constructed wetlands should also provide year-round habitat for a diverse group of wildlife species. Low water levels during the spring and summer will provide foraging habitat for wading birds and shorebirds, as well as a fish-free environment for breeding frog, toad and salamander species. Keeping water levels low during spring and summer will also promote vegetation growth which, in turn, will produce food for wintering waterfowl. This fall, once agricultural crops have been removed from the fields, water levels will be raised, increasing the size of the wetland pools and providing additional foraging opportunity for wintering waterfowl.

Wildlife enthusiasts will also benefit from these restoration projects as all of the created wetlands are within a short walk of the parking area located off Walker School Road and should provide excellent wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities.

Eric Ludwig is the Division of Fish & Wildlife’s New Castle County Regional Manager

LITTLE CREEK WILDLIFE AREA | By Bill Jones

Draped around the old fishing town that bears its name, the Little Creek Wildlife Area is just a short drive east of Dover. From its humble beginnings of 385 acres in 1957, the area has grown to approximately 4,825 acres of forests, meadows, crop fields, tidal marshes and impoundments used by many species of wildlife. The area stretches from Old Woman’s Gut north of Marshtown Road to Lewis Ditch south of Pickering Beach Road.

The biggest draw to the Little Creek Wildlife Area is the two brackish water impoundments. A joint waterfowl management/mosquito control venture was initiated in 1961 to “impound” approximately 600 acres of tidal marsh by constructing a dike just south of the Little River. The dike blocked daily tidal flow and the impoundment was seasonally filled with water using pumps on the Little River. Water was excluded during the summer months to allow vegetation to grow and to reduce mosquito breeding sites, with water pumped into to fill the impoundment by the fall for resting and wintering waterfowl. The Little Creek impoundment was joined by the 510 acre Mahon impoundment along Port Mahon Road on the north side of the Little River in 1966. The costly and limiting pumps have been replaced by modern water-control structures used to raise and lower water levels at strategic times during the year to manage for desired vegetation types and habitats for a variety of fish and wildlife species, while also minimizing mosquito production.

These impoundments have always been a bird-watching hotspot, and in the 1970s a still popular observation tower was constructed on the Little Creek impoundment to provide a vantage point to view the area’s abundant waterfowl and shorebirds. The combination of impoundments and Delaware Bay shoreline along Port Mahon Road provides excellent bird-watching opportunities throughout the year, and dirt roads traversing other sections of the wildlife area offer wildlife-watching and hiking opportunities through forested and upland habitats.

Fifteen waterfowl hunting blinds are maintained on the impoundments and are awarded through a daily lottery at the area’s checking station. There are also waterfowl jump shooting opportunities on certain portions of the area. Waterfowl, deer and upland game hunting opportunities are available, with some access managed through a daily lottery to fairly manage high hunter demand. More information on the variety of hunting opportunities at the Little Creek Wildlife Area can be found at the checking station or on wildlife area maps available at the division’s web site by navigating the wildlife icon to “Wildlife Area Maps.”

The Little Creek Wildlife Area is also home to the division’s Kent County Hunter Education Training Center where hunter and trapper education courses are offered throughout the year. Future plans call for building a new observation tower and a Delaware Bayshore Visitors Center highlighting all the area has to offer. A new boat ramp is also in the works that will provide access to the Little River and the Delaware Bay.

A Conservation Access Pass (CAP) is now needed for motor vehicles used to access wildlife areas, with the CAP providing revenues needed to manage and maintain wildlife areas. More information on the CAP, including how to obtain, costs and exemptions, can be prominently found on the division’s web page and Conservation Access Passes of this guide.

Even though the Little Creek Wildlife Area has “little” in its name, outdoor recreation opportunities and abundant wildlife are “big” attractions.

Bill Jones is the Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Kent County Regional Manager

Prime Hook Wildlife Area | By Rob Gano

The 662 acre state Prime Hook Wildlife Area adjoins over 11,000 acres of the federal Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Located at the end of Little Neck Road just off Route 1 north of Lewes, this small state wildlife area is a little hard to find and has an “identity crisis” by being overshadowed by its larger federal neighbor, but it is well worth visiting.

Prime Hook Wildlife Area was initially established in 1958 when the Delaware Board of Fish and Game Commissioners, the precursor to what is now the Division of Fish & Wildlife, acquired property along Prime Hook Creek. At the time, it was the only protected land along the lower Delaware Bay.

The area is special for its forests, freshwater wetlands and solitude. The forest habitat is characterized by an open understory with extremely large, mature white oak and tulip poplar trees towering over a dense stand of American holly. This is a unique and rare plant community that is truly worth seeing.

Over the last 20 years several wildlife habitat restoration projects have been conducted throughout the wildlife area. One of the most interesting of these is the planting of a series of hedgerows and food plots that in 2008 prompted the infamous “cross-sighting” due to the unintended alignment and visual appearance of a cross when viewed from the air. Another large project involved the reforestation of 29 acres by planting a variety of oak, water hickory, tulip popular and black gum trees in an abandoned agricultural field. Today, these trees have grown into a dense young forest, which in time will mirror the surrounding majestic mature woods.

As you venture into the Prime Hook Wildlife Area, you will find several small trails leading to the ten deer stands, with these informal trails offering hiking opportunities after hunting season as they wind through a variety of habitats, with some trails leading to the swamp along Prime Hook Creek. In addition to the sights and the sounds of a thriving songbird community sought by birdwatchers, you can hunt waterfowl from blinds using the joint state/federal hunting program. The area is open for squirrel and wild turkey hunting as well.

A Conservation Access Pass (CAP) is now needed for motor vehicles used to access wildlife areas, with the CAP providing revenues needed to manage and maintain wildlife areas. More information on the CAP can be found on the Division’s web page and Conservation Access Passes of this guide.

While the Prime Hook Wildlife Area is small and secluded, those attributes and the special habitats add to the appeal and make for a unique and enjoyable outdoor experience. Explore and find out for yourself.

Rob Gano is the Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Sussex County Regional Manager.