Building Partnerships to Address Environmental Concerns

Pea Patch Island, located in the upper reach of the Delaware Estuary, emerged from the Delaware River in the late 1700’s as a mud bank, which reportedly grounded a ship full of peas, giving the island its name. In 1814, after the mud bank had grown and formed into an island, a military fort, Fort Delaware, was built to guard river access to New Castle, Wilmington, and Philadelphia. In the 1860’s the fort was used as a prison for Confederate soldiers. In the early 1900’s, the Army Corps of Engineers placed dredged material from the nearby shipping channel on the north end of the island, doubling the island’s size.

Today Pea Patch Island is a Delaware State Park, protected for its historical past and because it supports a large heron rookery. It is believed that herons, egrets, and ibises began nesting on the northern part of the island in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At that time, the population was estimated at 2,000 pairs of birds. Over time, small heronries on the mainland in Delaware and New Jersey were abandoned and the population on Pea Patch Island increased. At its peak, from 1989 through 1993, the population was estimated at 12,000 pairs of birds. Pea Patch Island heronry is the largest heronry north of Florida on the east coast.

The heronry is considered a wildlife resource of national significance due to its size and location. Concern for the sustainability of the heronry has grown over the past few years because the population of birds is declining on the island. Present population estimates are at 7,000 pairs. Research conducted during the last 5 years shows that nearly half of the chicks born on the island died before they were large enough to leave the nest. This research indicates that there may be a problem with the long term viability of the heron population on the island.

Click for Larger ImageIdentifying what may be affecting the bird population at Pea Patch Island involves looking at more than the immediate nesting habitat on the island. The herons that live on the island forage for food in the neighboring wetlands and open fields of Delaware and New Jersey. These areas are presently challenged by rapid land use changes: changes that alter the habitat and may eventually impact the birds.

In order to better manage this unique resource, a Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) is being developed. Working together, representatives from local, state and federal government agencies, nonprofit organizations, business and industry have identified a number of sources or concerns that may manifest themselves as problems or changes in the natural condition of the habitat that the birds utilize.

Publication of interest:

"Harbingers on the Wing" by Katharine C. Parsons - a feature article in the winter 1997 edition of Outdoor Delaware Magazine, gives a brief outline of the ecology and history of the Pea Patch Island Heronry. An additional article discusses how interested individuals, organizations and local governments are working to protect the Heronry and the resources that support it through a Special Area Management Plan.

Pea Patch Island Special Area Management Plan - July 1998

Pea Patch Island Special Area Management Plan Progress Report -
Three Years of Strategy Implementation, June 2001, Adobe Acrobat format

For more information on the Pea Patch Island SAMP please contact:

Susan Love

Delaware Coastal Programs
89 Kings Highway
Dover, DE 19901
Phone: (302)739-WAVE
Fax: (302) 739-2048

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