Friday, December 27, 2013

Industrial Strength Wildlands

The Lower Delaware River carves deeply into the shoreline from New Castle to Delaware City, even deeper, says local photographer Mikki Wilson-Bayard over the past decade. A lifelong resident and nature buff, Mikki has documented the ever-worsening erosion into Delaware's shoreline due to increasing frequency and intensity of coastal storms. We were walking historic New Castle's Battery Park through the post-industrial marshes in search of the snowy owls that have taken up winter quarters in this industrial area. One large snowy appeared suddenly and strafed the mudflats, creating quite an uproar with a hundred Canada geese resting on the flats. It flapped powerfully over the phragmites to perch on a factory building. A life bird for Mikke, we both cheered and did the obligatory dance!

Local birder and landscape photographer Mikki Wilson-Bayard.

This section of Delaware River shoreline is a mix of quaint historic towns, recovering wetlands, rotting wharves, and manufacturing plants. The oil refinery at Delaware City to the south marks the end of the down-river industrial zone that begins in New Jersey and ends within sight of our walk for winter birds. Beyond the refinery, the river widens and on both the New Jersey and Delaware shore, is protected by an immense system of National Wildlife Refuges. Invasive plants dominate the marshes and shrubby parklands. But the birds didn't seem to mind. We quickly identified over fifteen species before leaving the park for the trail, then added another dozen species shortly after we entered the marsh trail. Amidst the relics of an industrial past, the marsh sheltered great blue heron, mallards, coots, geese, a sharp-shinned hawk, and a marsh hawk (Northern harrier).

Several great blue herons sheltered in the marsh.

Two ring-billed gulls shelter inside a watchful flock of Canada geese.
A large male snowy owl powered down the shore, harassing this large resting flock,
keeping everyone on alert!

Shoreline erosion here is dramatic and sobering. Mikki talked about her project to document the loss of shoreline in the New Castle area. Rip-rap seawalls are being installed south of town. "There is no question this has everything to do with sea level rise," she said, "If anyone wants to dispute that, then they obviously don't live anywhere near the coast!"  The State of Delaware is taking climate change very seriously, and is wasting no time in debates or denial.

For urban families, parks like The Battery are important. Access to wildlife, the river, and open space is critical for industrial neighborhoods. The shoreline trail winds lazily through a post-industrial landscape overtaken by shrubby forest, vast marshes, and tidal guts. Relict pipelines, wharf cribs, piers, and odd collections of cement block and tires are part of what is now an enormous shoreline preservation project called "Living Shorelines" laid out and designed to soften the impact of incoming waves and provide valuable habitat for native mussels.

The view from Battery Park south to Delaware City to the massive refineries there.
In between, an equally massive shoreline restoration effort is underway.

Battery Park in historic New Castle affords urban families a beautiful riverside
experience in a landscape undergoing many changes.

As we walked along we discussed the merits of restoration in a highly impacted area. The viewshed certainly wasn't pristine, and it seemed that native and non-native flora competed for space with every step, with mostly non-native invasives winning. But we both agreed that the bigger picture was the shoreline itself, abused and battered over a century of industrial use, but resilient in a way that the wharves and factories hadn't been. The efforts of conservationists, many of them college students alongside construction workers, demonstrated a common concern for the larger problems climate change is bringing to the region.

What we were witnessing on this cold windy day in December was a transformation and a preparation to enhance and protect this vulnerable shore. Though the newly built rip-rap berms looked rough and out of place now, come summer students and workers will overlay the structure with soft fiber matting and plant native marsh grasses and mussels. With the refinery in sight, a post-carbon economy seemed out of the question for now, but where former industry had once captured and dominated the marshlands, there is now at least marsh and the possibility that with care and attention, this stretch of shoreline will recover.

A nice video from Rutgers explains the Living Shorelines concept:

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