Milford Neck Wildlife Area & Preserve

by Jim Rapp

Delmarva is truly blessed with exceptional wildlife watching opportunities, thanks in large part to our famous National Wildlife Refuges.

Birders and wildlife photographers the world over know our Peninsula from such places as Chincoteague, Blackwater and Bombay Hook. Delmarva's refuges form a network of lands and waters spared from development for the conservation and restoration of wildlife and the habitats that support them.

Famed conservationist Aldo Leopold taught that land is a community of life, and that love and respect for the land is an extension of ethics. Guided by Leopold's teachings, the public servants who manage our refuges seek to reflect that land ethic in their stewardship practices.

This stewardship ethic does not stop at the boundaries of our federally managed wildlife refuges. Dotted across Delmarva's landscape are hidden treasures managed for wildlife by state governments and not-for-profit organizations. Thousands of acres of state-managed lands are known as "wildlife areas" in Delaware and "wildlife management areas" in Maryland and Virginia. Lands managed by non-profits such as the Nature Conservancy and Delaware Wild Lands usually call these special places "preserves."

Several agencies in Delaware have been working cooperatively to manage and restore wildlife habitat in an area northeast of Milford, Delaware, known as "Milford Neck." The term neck refers to a narrow stretch of land, and Milford Neck stretches for 10,000 acres from Milford all the way to ten protected miles of Delaware Bayshore between Bombay Hook and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges.

The Milford Neck landscape can best be described as a patchwork of contiguous protected land that includes upland forests, wet woods, open fields, expansive marshes, and undeveloped dunes and beaches leading to the Delaware Bay. Milford Neck is a stellar example of cooperation between public and private agencies working together to protect one of the First State's most ecologically important zones. The lands are owned and managed by the State of Delaware, The Nature Conservancy, Delaware Wild Lands, and many private landowners.

To restore ecologically compromised marshes within the Milford Neck Conservation Area, partner agencies are working to heal the damage caused by old ditches that drain tidal marshes and forest. Combined with the impacts of major storms and sea level rise, ditches transform marsh to open water and deliver tree-killing salt water to the forest at the western edge of Milford Neck.

Intensive forest restoration at Milford Neck has included planting thousands of native hardwood trees and other vegetation that create "habitat islands." The islands include several species of oak, Southern Arrow-wood, and Persimmon. Birds attracted to the shelter provided by these islands feed on the fruits and seeds of the trees, which naturally aids in forest regeneration.

Due to the incredible habitat diversity on display here, Milford Neck has become one of Delaware's best birding areas. The Wildlife Area and Preserves have been recognized for their importance to songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl as an important stopover area during migration.

Several species of warbler sensitive to forest fragmentation find refuge in Milford Neck's forests during spring and summer. Milford Neck is the only remaining forested area greater than 1,000 acres on the Delaware Coast. Hooded Warbler, Kentucky Warbler and Worm-eating Warbler have all been documented in Milford Neck. Black-billed Cuckoos and Whip-poor-wills have also been found in the forests here.

The marshes of Milford Neck provide habitat for rails, including the elusive but fairly common Clapper Rail, and the incredibly hard-to-find Black Rail. The expansive shoreline of the Delaware Bay serves as resting and foraging habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl migrating along the North Atlantic Flyway. The bayshore at Milford Neck hosts more than a million migratory shorebirds that visit each spring to feed on eggs laid by horseshoe crabs.

Milford Neck is an important component of the new Delaware Bayshore Initiative, a collaborative effort to build on the Delaware Coast's reputation as a unique and beautiful natural resource. The Bayshore Initiative was created to help improve the coastal economy by encouraging more locals and visitors to enjoy it through activities such as birding, fishing, hunting, and boating.

You can explore the Milford Neck Wildlife Area from the intersection of Route 1 and Tub Mill Pond Road, which is close to Meding & Son Seafood, a popular restaurant with a giant gold propeller out front. Turn east from Meding & Son and you will find a small parking lot with public access about one mile down the road. Consult the current schedule of hunting seasons before hiking, and be advised that wildlife areas keep signage to a minimum, so it may be wise to pack a compass or GPS unit.

You can also drive along Big Stone Beach Road, which will take you through Milford Neck's coastal forest, marshes, and out to the Delaware Bayshore. If you're birding in the winter, keep your eyes open for Northern Harriers hunting over the open marsh. Harriers, also known as Marsh Hawks, are easy to spot from a distance. This large, slender hawk glides low over the marsh with its broad wings held up in the shape of the letter V.

It's pretty easy to distinguish male Harriers from females by their color and body size. Males are smaller than females, and have gray backs and white bellies, with black wingtips and a long, black-banded tail. Females and immature birds are brown above. Adult females have whitish undersides with brown streaks, while immature Harriers are buffy below with fewer streaks. Males, females and immature birds have a white patch at the base of the tail that can be seen in flight.

Northern Harriers have a flat, owl-like face and a small hooked bill. They fly low over the marsh when hunting, weaving to and fro as they watch and listen for small animals. Harriers are the most owl-like of hawks, and they rely on hearing as well as vision to capture their prey. The stiff facial feathers on their disk-shaped face help direct sound to their ears.

Northern Harriers mostly hunt small mammals and birds, but they can take bigger prey like muskrats and ducks. They are known to kill larger animals by drowning them in the waters of the marsh. When they're not flying, Northern Harriers can be found perched on short snags or old signposts in the open marsh.

Next time you're making a birding trip to Bombay Hook or Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges, add a tour through Milford Neck's Wildlife Area and Nature Preserves. You'll be amazed with the quality of the coastal habitat managed for wildlife by Delaware's state and non-profit conservation partners, and you'll be rewarded with an impressive species tally at the end of your trip.

Find out more: