Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge

by Jim Rapp

Spring wildlife watching on Delmarva really starts to heat up in early May. By now, most of our summer breeding birds have arrived and are nesting or raising young. Migration is in full swing, so shorebirds and songbirds that nest north of us are passing through to fuel up.

To experience spring on Delmarva at its finest, you must make a trip to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, located just a few minutes east of historic Milton, Delaware. Part of the Coastal Delaware National Wildlife Refuge Complex that includes Bombay Hook near Dover, Prime Hook encompasses more than 10,000 acres of salt and freshwater marsh, shallow impoundments and ponds, forested swamps and grassy fields. The refuge is a critical stopover along the Atlantic flyway, and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds pass through each year. This diversity of habitat is also important for birds that breed and raise young on Delmarva.

The name "Prime Hook" is a reminder that it was the Dutch who settled this region in the 17th century. Translated from the Dutch words for Plum Point, Prime Hook was named for the land's abundance of purple beach plums. These shrubs still thrive in the dunes along the Delaware bayshore, where many plants can't survive in the sandy soil and salt spray from the bay.

Before heading out to the Prime Hook beaches, check out the refuge visitor center at the end of Turkle Pond Road. I am pronouncing that name correctly -- Turkle, with a K, is just another way that some folks on Delmarva say the word "turtle." Turkle Pond is just one of many on the refuge that provides habitat for fish, frogs, and yes -- turkles.

If you drive slowly, one of the turkles you might spot crossing the road is the Eastern Box Turtle. Box turtles are terrestrial, unlike our aquatic turtles that you will find basking on a log in Prime Hook's ponds. They have a brightly colored high-domed shell, known as a carapace, and a hinged plastron on their underside. When frightened, the turtle can close the plastron by pulling the hinged sections up against the carapace, protecting the turtle's soft fleshy parts in a bony "box." This defense mechanism works pretty well against most animal threats, but is no match against a motor vehicle. Please drive carefully to protect our box turtles.

Another refuge resident has it's own special signs asking you to drive with care. When you cross over the refuge boundary, you'll notice posted warnings along the roadside that may make you do a double take. The signs state: "SLOW. Endangered Squirrel Crossing." Yes, Delmarva, we have our own endangered squirrels, at least for a while. The Delmarva Fox Squirrel is currently protected as a federally endangered species, but it has recently been proposed for removal from the endangered species list after nearly 50 years of conservation efforts by public and private land managers.

Delmarva fox squirrels are much larger than their more common cousin, the gray squirrel. Their fur coloration can be steel gray to silver-white, and they have a big, beautiful fluffy tail. They prefer quiet, older loblolly pine and hardwood forests with an open understory, and they spend much of their time foraging on the ground. By this time of year, females have probably given birth to a litter of one to six babies, which they'll care for until the little ones are weaned.

Historically, the Delmarva fox squirrel ranged throughout the Peninsula before populations declined in the mid-1900s due to unregulated hunting and the conversion of forest to farmland and housing developments. We're appreciative of Delmarva's National Wildlife Refuges, conservation biologists and private landowners who worked together to save the only animal I know with "Delmarva" in its name!

At the Visitor Center, you can choose several different trails to explore. Both the Boardwalk Trail and the Dike Trail are wheelchair-accessible and 1/2-mile long. From the Boardwalk Trail, you can view herons and egrets in the freshwater marsh. From the Dike Trail, you can hike out to a viewing deck that has expansive views of the marsh that leads to the Delaware Bay.

After exploring the trails near the Visitor Center, drive back along Turkle Pond Road to Broadkill Road and hang a left towards the beach. Broadkill -- another name that harkens back to Dutch settlement; the suffix "kill" is Dutch for "creek" -- runs just north of the river that bears the same name. The Broadkill River flows east-northeast from Milton before it bends and runs south for two miles, close and parallel to the bay shore, and then dumping into the Delaware Bay northwest of Lewes, Delaware.

Along Broadkill Road, you'll find a few spots on the shoulder where you can pull over to park safely and scan the marsh for wildlife. Binoculars and spotting scopes are very helpful here. Peering through your optics, you'll find many species of herons, egrets, shorebirds, and waterfowl on the shallow open water and mudflats.

One of the truly amazing spectacles you might witness from the side of Broadkill Road is that of Black Skimmers feeding on small fish and minnows on the open water. Black Skimmers are large waterbirds with a black back and cap and white bellies; long, pointed wings, and one of the most unusual bills in the bird world.

The Black Skimmer's large red and black bill is as thin as a steak knife, and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. When skimming for small fish, the bird glides in a straight line with it's lower mandible slicing the water. When it touches a fish, the upper bill snaps down in the blink of an eye, thus securing the skimmer's dinner. Black Skimmers are mostly active at dawn and dusk. Because they rely on touch when feeding, you may also find them skimming at night.

At the end of the road, you'll come to the community of Broadkill Beach. You can park in the designated areas, and scan the beach for shorebirds. Early May is a good time to catch the beginning of the shorebird feeding frenzy that follows the spawning of horseshoe crabs along the Delaware Bay beaches.

Find out more:
Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge