The Call of the Wild
The local chapter of The Nature Conservancy has helped protect and preserve thousands of acres of wild lands in Delaware. And its mission continues.
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“Smell that,” he says. “Smell familiar? That’s bayberry. Southern bayberry is native to Delaware. This is the real deal. This is what they made candles out of back in the day.”
He grins. “Great food for birds. Lot of bang for your buck, packed with protein. Lot of birds out here feeding off this all winter long. Birds love these berries.”
Graham, land steward for the Delaware Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and his boss, Andy Manus, are guiding a visitor through a marsh in eastern Kent County. This former farmland is now part of the Milford Neck Preserve, 2,800 acres of undeveloped beaches and dunes, tidal marshlands, swamp and upland forest. The Nature Conservancy acquired the land in the early 1990s.
Wading through the marsh in hip boots, Graham and Manus are in their element as they describe their efforts to transform the land into a habitat for birds and wildlife. Manus points out a bird wheeling in the sky off to the east, and they quickly grab their binoculars and identify it as a northern harrier. Their speech is peppered with names like greater and lesser yellow-leg egret, Cooper’s hawk, swamp chestnut oak, sweetbay magnolia and, of course, the hated phragmites.
Graham stops at a stand of fenced-in saplings and bushes, a “habitat island” that he and Rick McCorkle of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designed and planted last April as part of the USFWS Coastal Program Cooperative Agreement through the Delaware Bay Estuary Project. The island, one of 10 he and McCorkle created, is a mix of rapidly growing trees like red maple, tulip poplar and willow oak, plus a few native shrubs. It prompts Graham to deliver a quick nature tutorial that highlights aviary digestive systems.
“Birds aren’t really adept at finding individual oak trees,” he says, “but they’re extraordinarily adept at finding these tightly-grouped collections of trees. They perch on them, they chase insects around. As these birds travel from the surrounding woods out to these habitat islands, they bring with them all the fruit, berries and nut seeds that they eat in the woods, and out they come from the opposite end of the bird. And so what happens is we’re getting more native plants into the local area by attracting the birds. Kind of like, you build it, they will come.”
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