Volunteers are encouraged to assist with the Ashland Hawk Watch, which DelNature has been conducting since 2007. Photo by Joe Sebastiani
New Delaware Nature Society leader Jennifer Adkins is relying on plants, animals, a waterway, a high-tech tower and you
By Ken Mammarella
Jennifer Adkins brings a lot to her new job as executive director of the Delaware Nature Society. She has a background in environmental leadership (at American Rivers and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary), two degrees from the University of Delaware (in economics and environmental and energy policy) and experience with DelNature staff (on the Clean Water for Delaware campaign and the lower Christina and Brandywine Rivers Remediation, Restoration and Resilience plan.)
DelNature owns 617 acres and manages 1,924 across Delaware. The four biggest sites are Abbott’s Mill Nature Center near Milford, Ashland Nature Center near Hockessin, Coverdale Farm Preserve near Greenville and the DuPont Environmental Education Center, on the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge in Wilmington.
“The new executive director is a shepherd of the whole organization,” said Coverdale site manager Michele (Wales) Quinlan, one of three dozen DelNature staffers.
“Between the pandemic and the crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and social injustice, connecting with nature is more crucial than ever,” Adkins said. “I’ve come to believe the most important outcome of our work is not the rivers, forests or wetlands we restore, but the relationships we restore with them and each other in the process. I love that connectivity is so central to our mission, and that we have such unique and special places to offer people for building these connections.”
To build those connections, Adkins is relying on the staff, 200 volunteers, lots of flora and fauna, plus inanimate objects. Here are some of the most interesting (that includes you, too).
The Tower Is Listening
A Motus tower (“motus” is Latin for movement) at the DuPont Environmental Education Center listens 24/7 for animals with radio-tags. It has detected 135 tagged animals, including several rare birds and bats. DelNature is partnering with the University of Delaware and Delaware Audubon to track purple martins, America’s largest swallow. “This will help us identify the areas in which they spend most of their time,” DelNature says. “These high-value areas can then be protected.”
American beavers are masters at creating shallow pond habitats, but their dams can sometimes flood agricultural and residential land. At Abbott’s Mill, DelNature is partnering with the Sussex County Conservation District, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the Delaware Tax Ditch program to install “beaver deceivers” that allow beavers to construct their dams but maintain water levels behind the dam to a safe level.
Livestock Land Managers
Cows, sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys help manage the land regeneratively by eating what grows in pastures and fertilizing the land with their manure. Grazing by cows and sheep and browsing by goats limit seed production and encourage regrowth. Chickens and turkeys scratch the ground for food, opening the surface for air and water transfer. The birds also eat damaging insects and seeds — but don’t discriminate between “good and bad” insects and plants, the society says. “Eventually we will grow our animal-to-acreage ratio to eliminate the occasional needs to machine-mow the fields, leaving them the key stewards of Coverdale’s pasture land.”
Since 2010, DelNature staff have been trained how to set their managed lands on fire, and they do so regularly in a partnership with Delaware Department of Agriculture, the Delaware Forest Service and local environmental nonprofits. Such prescribed burns remove thatch buildup left from mowing, which leads to increased plant diversity and makes the meadows better resemble Mother Nature’s creations.
A Waterway-Based Byway
The Red Clay Valley Scenic Byway, with the Ashland Nature Center at its heart, is the first byway in the nation based around a watershed. “This unique model strengthens the communities’ ability to protect the water quality of Red Clay Creek by preserving the land in the watershed,” DelNature says. More than 90% of Delaware’s waterways are considered polluted — the highest percentage in the country.
At Coverdale Farm Preserve, DelNature has converted 80% of what were historically cool-season grass hayfields into more biologically diverse native upland meadows. The meadows provide habitat for a diversity of invertebrates, including pollinator insects; grassland nesting birds, such as field sparrows and common yellowthroats; and American kestrels (one of 700 species of greatest conservation need in the 2015 Delaware Wildlife Action Plan).
Rice to the Rescue
Wild rice is an annual marsh grass that helps filter the water, acts as a buffer to the land and provides food for wildlife at the DuPont Environmental Education Center. (People can eat it, too, with Minnesota lakes its most famed source. “Though wild rice mimics conventionally grown rice in many ways, it isn’t actually a true rice — it’s an aquatic grass, “thespruceeats.com says.) In the spring, look for chartreuse flower heads. By fall, stalks can reach 10 feet. “You can see it, enjoy it and understand why wetlands are valuable,” said John Harrod, DelNature’s director of outreach.
Sales of native plants occur every fall at Coverdale Farm Preserve. DelNature praises these plants for many reasons, including how they “are easy to grow and care for without using extra water or chemicals. Plus, their seeds, berries and leaves are great food for birds, butterflies and pollinating insects.” Committed residents can use native plants to create certified wildlife habitats, which provide food, shelter, water and places to raise young for native fauna.
These large, black-and-white birds winter in Central and South America and raise their young on great fishing in spots like the area surrounding the DuPont Environmental Education Center. This year, a pair has nested on the railroad bridge over the Christina River, and the best place to view the nest is the flyover entrance way to the nature center.
Since 2007, DelNature has partnered with Delaware Ornithological Society and Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Division for the Ashland Hawk Watch, which tallies their fall migration, September through November. Volunteers make sure the watch occurs daily, and visitors can watch and learn from the watchers. Hawk watches from around the western hemisphere depict how raptor populations fluctuate.
Replacements for Ash Trees
Ash trees (Fraxinus sp.) at Ashland Nature Center and Abbott’s Mill Nature Center died recently, due to the invasive and exotic emerald ash borer. In spring of 2022 volunteers planted 90 trees, including American sycamore, silver and red maple and black gum in the floodplain of the Red Clay Creek. “After surveying the dead trees at both sites, we decided to remove all trees that could possibly impact the trails and teaching area,” DelNature said.
A major effort involves acres of perennial plants at Coverdale Farm Preserve. “Whether in pastures, vegetable production fields, hedgerows or other arable locations on the farm, we are working to install and manage stable, year-round, living root systems below ground and year-round vegetation above ground.” Such systems reduce soil erosion, create habitat for wildlife, provide nearly year-round nutrition for livestock and increase the opportunity to sequester carbon below ground.
Anyone can help the society’s mission by buying and eating produce and other foods from the Market at Coverdale. The market focuses on food grown with environmental integrity, supports local small businesses, reduces food waste by using less-than-perfect produce and highlights seasonal eating. More concerned people can commit to becoming master naturalists through DelNature’s partnership program with the University of Delaware, which involves classes, field trips and an annual 40-hour project.
“We hope to create a citizenry that is fluent in Delaware’s environment, aware of the challenges facing it and willing to do something about it through volunteerism,” the society says of these stewards of nature.