Delmarva’s Estuarine Research Reserves

by Jim Rapp

Now is a great time to visit the St. Jones Center for Estuarine Studies.

The Delmarva Peninsula is defined by water. By definition, a peninsula is a piece of land bordered on three sides by water, but connected on one side to the mainland. Most folks off the peninsula don't recognize the name "Delmarva," but almost everyone has a sense of place when they hear Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay, or Rehoboth Bay and Chincoteague Bay.

Bays, or estuaries, are magical places where rivers meet the ocean. Estuaries and the wetlands that surround them are home to unique plant and animal communities that have adapted to the mixture of fresh water draining from the land and the salty water of the sea.

Brackish-water estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet. Think of all the animals -- including humans -- that rely on estuaries for food, including fish, crabs, and oysters. Estuaries are nurseries for many young aquatic and semi-aquatic animals, and they serve as a critical link in the epic annual migrations of millions of waterfowl and shorebirds.

To protect more than one million acres of coastal land and water nationwide, Congress created the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Initially established in 1972 as "estuarine sanctuaries" under the Coastal Zone Management Act, the name was changed to "estuarine research reserves" in 1988.

Today, the reserve network consists of 28 coastal sites jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and the states in which they are located. NOAA provides federal funding and guidance, and a state agency or university manages each site with input from local partners.

The 28 reserves cover 1.3 million acres of land and water designated to protect and study these delicate ecosystems through stewardship, research, training and education. Delmarva is home to three components of the National Estuarine Research Reserves, one in Maryland and two in Delaware. Combined, these three reserves protect more than 12,000 acres of land and water.

In Maryland, the Monie Bay component of the Chesapeake Bay-Maryland Reserve is located near Deal Island in Somerset County. Monie Bay is one of three sites in Maryland that make up the Chesapeake reserve system, which was designated in 1985. The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, and one of the most productive bodies of water in the world.

The other two components in Maryland are the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Southern Maryland and Otter Point Creek near Baltimore. These three sites combined protect more than 6,200 acres and reflect the diversity of estuarine habitats found within the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake.

The Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve was designated in 1993, and is managed jointly by NOAA and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Two components make up the Delaware reserve -- more than 1,000 acres of freshwater wetlands and forest along Blackbird Creek in southern New Castle County, and more than 5,000 acres of salt marsh and Delaware Bay near the St. Jones River, located six miles southeast of Dover near Bowers Beach.

This is Jim Rapp and you're listening to the Delmarva Almanac. We're talking about the St. Jones Center for Estuarine Studies.

The center is located in the reserve, and is open to the public Monday through Friday. The St. Jones Center provides hiking trails, hands-on interactive exhibits, restoration demonstration areas and a variety of programs and volunteer opportunities. The Center also supports ongoing research and monitoring, field studies, citizen monitoring programs, and training opportunities for coastal decision makers.

The St. Jones Reserve features a two-mile nature trail, a part of the St. Jones Greenway, with a quarter-mile boardwalk over the salt marsh that connects the site with the adjacent Ted Harvey Wildlife Management Area. The trails are open from dawn to dusk seven days a week and are free of charge.

Horseshoe crab research is a primary focus at the St. Jones Reserve. Research efforts include horseshoe crab spawning assessments, considerations for horseshoe crabs during beach replenishment projects, and horseshoe crab egg availability to migratory shorebirds. The reserve also coordinates monitoring efforts on three beaches for the Annual Delaware Bay Horseshoe Crab Spawning Survey.

Spring and summer are great times to visit the St. Jones Reserve to witness horseshoe crab spawning. Along the Delaware Bay, spawning starts in spring and winds down later in the summer, with the peak usually around a new or full moon in late May. Eggs laid in the sand at this time are protected from the pounding surf, as the crabs are able to reach the high-tide line on the beach.

When its time to lay their tiny green eggs, thousands of large female horseshoe crabs can be seen along the bayshore near the St. Jones River, coupling with smaller males. Females scratch holes in the sand and deposit their sticky eggs, which the male then fertilizes in the nest. Over the course of several nights, one female can lay more than 100,000 eggs.

Around the same time in the spring, migrating shorebirds gorge themselves on up to 25,000 horseshoe crab eggs in one day. Over the course of two weeks, shorebirds known as Red Knots can double their weight, adding 10% more mass during each day of feasting on the protein-packed eggs.

Now is also a great time to visit the St. Jones Center for Estuarine Studies. Some of the same shorebird species that visit the Delaware Bayshore in the spring are returning as they fly south for the winter.

This month, you can also participate in National Estuaries Week, which will be observed September 17 to 24. You can help clean up the Delaware Bayshore and keep it safe for horseshoe crabs and shorebirds by volunteering during the 30th Annual Delaware Coastal Cleanup, scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, September 17. The cleanup spans 53 sites along the First State's 97 miles of Delaware Bay and Atlantic coast, including sites near the St. Jones River.

The scenic roads in and around the St. Jones Reserve are perfect for exploring by bicycle. If you want to explore the Dover and Kent County area by bike with 2,000 friends, register for the 30th annual Amish Country Bike Tour, held this year on September 10. Delaware's largest cycling event starts and stops at the historic Legislative Mall in Dover. Cyclists can choose routes between 15 and 100 miles long that wind through Amish farm country, complete with horse-drawn buggies and welcoming Amish stores found along the scenic and peaceful countryside.

Estuaries are best explored by kayak, canoe and stand-up paddleboard. If you want to participate in guided tours of Delmarva's coastal waters, check out the Delmarva Paddling Weekend, which will be held September 30 through October 2.

Information about visiting the St. Jones Reserve, as well as these cleanups, cycling and paddling events can be found on our website. Until next time, I hope this story inspires you to explore and learn more about Delmarva's many natural wonders.