Abbott’s Mill

Ian Stewart

The global Great Backyard Bird Count took place from February 16th to the 19th and was a huge success. Despite its misleading name, participants counted every bird they saw no matter how far they were from home, with more than 6,000 bird species recorded across the world from over 160,000 checklists! Delaware Nature Society played its part with 10 people joining Joe Sebastiani and Matt Babbitt on a bird-filled tour of Port Penn Wetlands, the Aquatic Resources Education Center, Bombay Hook NWR, and Port Mahon Road, finding over 50 species in the process including a rare Tree Swallow.

Although the global comparisons are fun, what’s really fascinating is to sift through the species and checklist totals from each US state ( The top 3 in terms of species seen were California (370), Texas (358) and Florida (288) with Delaware coming in 24th with a very respectable 145 species. The top 3 in terms of checklists submitted were again California and Texas (8,113 and 6,389 respectively) and New York (6,154) with Delaware coming in 37th with a decent 709.

DNS Members enjoying a duck extravaganza at Port Penn

But wait, I hear you cry! Surely this is unfair! California, Texas and Florida are all large states with extensive oceanic coastlines and inland water bodies and because of their southern latitude have resident tropical birds that we can only dream of. Furthermore, large parts of these states have mild or even warm winters so their birdlife gets supplemented by migrants that summered much further north. California, Texas and New York all contain huge numbers of people which presumably translates to lots of birders so it’s hardly a surprise that these 3 states produce the largest numbers of checklists.

I decided to see how Delaware fared during the GBBC once you take into account our small population (ranked 45th in the nation) and size (ranked just 49th!). To do this, I simply divided the number of species seen and checklists submitted from each state by their population (in millions) and size (total land area).

Sure enough, once you control for population size (as a crude estimate of the number of birders) we jump to second in the nation!

State Species per 1M persons
1. Alaska 158
2. Delaware 152
3. Wyoming 147
50. New York 9

And when you take into account our small size, Delaware recorded the second highest number of species in the country.

State Species per 1000 square miles
1. Rhode Island 74
2. Delaware 58
3. Connecticut 24
50. Alaska 0.2

The number of checklists is also an interesting statistic although obviously they aren’t all created equal. One checklist may summarize birds seen by a large group of experienced birders during an intense 6-hour search of a large, rural, mixed-habitat wildlife preserve while another could be birds seen at an urban backyard feeder by a relative novice during a 15 minute coffee break. Still, when you account for population size, we generated the third highest number of checklists in America.

State Checklists per 1M persons
1. Vermont 1503
2. Maine 918
3. Delaware 745
50. Nevada 119

And when you take into account our small size, Delaware produced the third highest number of checklists in the US!

State Checklists per 1000 square miles
1. New Jersey 325
2. Connecticut 292
3. Delaware 285
50. Alaska 1

Admittedly, trying to boil down differences between state bird lists based on just their size or population is simplistic. The dramatic differences between states in their habitat diversity and latitude and longitude means you are never comparing like with like. For example, birders in coastal states see large numbers of seabirds and shorebirds which are hard to find further inland. Freshwater lakes or marshes in the south will have more waterbirds than those in the frozen north. Plus, even though some states are huge a large proportion of their area is inhabited by very few people let alone birders, and so only a small proportion receives coverage. I’m sure there are many more bird-related differences between states you can think of yourself.

But it’s these exact same caveats that make Delaware such a fantastic place to live if you like birds! Because we are mid-latitude we get a sprinkling of unusual birds from further north plus a few rarities from further south. We have freshwater, seawater, estuaries, lakes and ponds, marshes, plowed fields and pasture, pine woods, deciduous woods, urban habitats, suburbs and a big open sky. This diversity of habitats was probably the main reason the Delaware GBBC produced such an amazing diversity of birds despite our small population and size. To all the Delaware birders who contributed to the GBBC (and you know who you are) I say well done! We’re in the Top 3!

If you want to continue to enjoy birds, why not come along on these upcoming DNS events and bird walks?

Dinner and Owls

February 28
Coverdale Farm

Led by Jim White and Courtney McKinley. Get close up looks at the rare Long-eared Owl, and search for other owls like Screech and Great Horned Owls. Dinner and an owl presentation are included too!

Frogs and Woodcocks

March 28
Coverdale Farm

Led by Jim White.Take a walk in the evening to find chorusing frogs and see the amazing display of the American Woodcock.

Tuesday Bird Walks (April/May)

8am, Middle Run Natural Area
Free, just meet in the parking lot

Thursday Bird Walks (April/May)

8am,Ashland Nature Center
Free, just meet in the parking lot


By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

Now that the Philadelphia Eagles have won the Super Bowl, local fans now have to find something else to do for the remainder of winter.  How about participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count!  Ashland and Abbott’s Mill Nature Centers will join birders from all over the world for this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count!  We invite you to join us on our field trip to find birds in Kent County, Delaware on Saturday, February 17, 8am to 4pm.  Meet at either Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford or Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin.  We will meet up and all go birding for the day together.  Call (302) 239-2334 if you would like to register.  $20 for DNS members and $30 for non-members.

Can’t get enough Eagles?? Join Matt Babbitt and Joe Sebastiani on Saturday, February 17, 8am-4pm for a Great Backyard Bird Count field trip where we are certain to see many Bald Eagles, waterfowl, wintering songbirds, and possibly some owls or other surprises. Call 302-239-2334 to register. $20/$30 DNS member/Non-member. Bald Eagle photo taken at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve, Avondale, PA by Joe Sebastiani

The GBBC is a worldwide citizen science effort to take a snapshot of bird distribution between February 16 and 19.  You can participate by looking for birds in your yard, or wherever you want to go including parks, wildlife refuges, the beach, etc.  Bird for at least 15 minutes, and enter your sightings.  Follow the link for the count above for directions on how to submit your findings.  Participate on your own anywhere you want to look for birds, or join our Delaware Nature Society trip to Kent County!

It was rather cold a few years back on the Great Backyard Bird Count, but it is always fun! Taken at Fort Dupont State Park by Joe Sebastiani.

Now, let me share a few statistics from the GBBC in 2017.  Worldwide, 6,285 species were found, which means well over half the 10,000 bird species on earth were seen within a 4-day period last February!  That is completely amazing to me.  Columbia took first place, where 1,042 species of birds were tallied.  This makes sense, since Columbia has the highest biodiversity of birds for any country.  The United States came in 7th place with 669 species.  In Delaware, observers found 147 species, and we placed 26th out of the 50 states.  Not too bad considering Delaware is a small state. 952 bird checklists were submitted here during the 4-day period, which is a lot of birding for our 3-county state over 4 days.  Click here to see the overall species list for last year’s GBBC in Delaware.  We’ll see how many species Delaware birders come up with this year, but my guess is that 147 species will be tough to beat.  Will we submit over 1,000 checklists?  It might be a nice target to surpass.

Watch your bird feeders and submit your sightings to the Great Backyard Bird Count, taking place February 16-19 this year. Red-bellied Woodpecker, Avondale, PA taken by Joe Sebastiani.

February is my least favorite month around here.  Football is over.  It is cold.  Nature is in a steady-state of ice, with wildlife waiting until the weather breaks. The first pitch of the baseball season is still a ways off.  For some outdoor fun, get out for the Great Backyard Bird Count and breathe some fresh air while you add to our knowledge of bird distribution.  Better yet, join me and Matt on the 17th.  Have fun!

By Matt Babbitt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

Paddling Abbott's Pond.

Paddling Abbott’s Pond.

Delaware Nature Society is excited to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, a hidden gem of southern Delaware nestled just 4 miles outside of Milford. Abbott’s encompasses 483 acres of towering upland forests, restored native meadows, pristine ponds fed by sinuous streams, mystic Atlantic white cedar swamps and bogs, dynamic saltmarsh and wetland preserves, and Delaware’s only preserved, working grist mill.

ABBOTT’S MILL: 1795 – 1963

Our story begins with the establishment of our namesake in 1795, when Mr. Nathan Willey bought a 20-acre pond and adjoining 7-acre property from Mr. Levon Poynter, to build a stone grist mill powered by an abreast shot water wheel.  A driving economic force of its time, the mill once burned down and was rebuilt in the early 1800’s, and also underwent an addition in 1905-06 to add roller mills to the existing stone mill operation, allowing for the full production of corn, wheat, barely, and oats. During this addition, the mill’s power source was changed from water wheel to water turbine and the Miller’s House was constructed as it stands today.

A few slices of Abbott's Mill history.

A few slices of Abbott’s Mill history.


Preceded by 14 previous owners, Mr. Ainsworth Abbott (pictured above) purchased Lakeview Mill, as he called it, in 1919. During his tenure, he had the foresight to install a new elevator system for mills created by a fellow Delawarean, Mr. Oliver Evans, which allowed Mr. Abbott to operate the mill singlehandedly. This brand new invention by Mr. Evans was the 3rd ever U.S. patent, and was also installed at Washington’s Mt. Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello. In October of 1963, after a long stint at the helm and simple life with his family in the non-electric Miller’s House, Ainsworth decided to hang up his hat and sell the mill facilities and properties to Howard and Frances Killen. The Killen’s, wishing to preserve its historic and cultural importance, decided a week later to sell the mill property to the then Delaware Board of Game & Fish Commissioners (Division of Fish & Wildlife now) in 3 phases: first selling the miller’s house in 1963, then the mill facilities in 1964, and then the pond and adjoining land in 1965.


The mill property went unused until 1975, when the 7-acre parcel along Johnson’s Branch and mill facilities were transferred to the Delaware’s Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs, with the intention of putting the mill and property to use for public recreation and education. In order to see this vision come to fruition, the mill facilities were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and an effort to restore the mill to preserved, working order began. The renovation project was a multi-year effort made possible by a funding partnership between the U.S. Department of the Interior, Delaware’s General Assembly, and the Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs. Construction work was done by Tappahanna Construction Company, a leader in historic restorations at the time, and included the building of a small classroom facility, which became our current Visitor Center through an addition in 1997.

The historic Abbott's Mill.

The historic Abbott’s Mill.


In 1980, the then Delaware Nature Education Society leased the Abbott’s Mill properties as its 3rd state-wide facility. Our Executive Director at the time, Mr. Norman G. Wilder, had been the head of Delaware’s Board of Game & Fish Commissioners (Division of Fish & Wildlife now) when the state originally purchased Abbott’s, and was therefore able to guide DNS to be the sole lessee. Educational programming by DNS began during the summer of 1980, with construction underway, by Mr. Mike and Susan Palmer, who lived on site and served as the Manager and Teacher Naturalist. Abbott’s Mill Nature Center was officially commissioned on June 7, 1981, as a lasting partnership between Delaware’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs, and DNS.

Let the environmental education programming begin!

Let the environmental education programming begin!


Over these past 35 years, the Nature Center has grown from its 27-acre humble beginnings to include 483-acres of conserved lands throughout Sussex County, including our surrounding Blair’s Pond Nature Preserve/5K Trail, our Isaacs and Isaacs-Greene Preserves, as well as our Marvel Saltmarsh Preserve in Slaughter Beach, Delaware. Robust environmental education and public visitation programs at Abbott’s have reached 188,500 Delmarva students and families since 2000, advancing DNS’s mission to improve our environment by connecting people to the natural world through education, advocacy, and conservation. Abbott’s Mill still runs to this day, with over 100 visitors joining our monthly public tours in 2015, and student groups exploring the history and engineering that keeps it alive. Our long held relationship with the Town of Slaughter Beach has flourished as well, through the continuation of our Annual Horseshoe Crab Volunteer Survey, educating hundreds of students and families about the Town’s seashore and saltmarsh habitats, erecting an Osprey tower at our Marvel Saltmarsh Preserve, and guiding the Town to become Delaware’s 3rd (83rd in the U.S.) Community Certified Wildlife Habitat. We have also had the pleasure of working with the Seaford School District over the past 3 years, establishing Certified Wildlife Habitats as teaching spaces at all 4 of their elementary schools, engaging students, teachers, school staff, and community members through the generosity of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office.

Scenes from the Delaware Nature Society's lands in Sussex County.

Scenes from the Delaware Nature Society’s lands in Sussex County.

abbott's blog 7

We hope you will join us in 2016 as we celebrate this momentous occasion at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center with 4 events throughout the year!

  • An inaugural “Meal at the Mill” , a farm-to-table style dinner featuring produce from DNS’s Coverdale Farm Preserve on Friday, October 14th
Abbott's Mill and Abbott's Pond Road in the fall.

Abbott’s Mill and Abbott’s Pond Road in the fall.

Alice Mohrman, Education Coordinator, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

Meet at the historic Abbott’s  Mill spillway to begin your stream adventure on the Boardwalk Trail!  As the September light filters through the canopy, it highlights the clear water of Johnson’s Branch which skims effortlessly around branches scattered across the sandy bottom.  A journey along the meandering boardwalk offers something for everyone.  The raised trail is accessible for strollers, wheel chairs and walkers with benches for quiet contemplation and observing natural marvels.

The crisp notes, Teakettle-Tea-kettle-Teakettle clearly resonate across the wooded undergrowth as two male Carolina Wrens establish their presence.  Nesting and feeding territories are actively defended year round by these wrens which use their scimitar-shaped bill to glean insects from crevices.

The Carolina Wren is easily attracted to your backyard using a suet feeder.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

The Carolina Wren is easily attracted to your backyard using a suet feeder. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Look streamside for brilliant orange-red seeds nestled inside fuchsia pods in the native perennial shrub American Strawberry Bush, also known as “Hearts-a bustin”.  Euonymus America  thrives in moist soil and partial shade,  has subtle green blooms in May and June and scarlet leaves in late Fall.

Heart's-a-Bursting is a type of native Euonymous that grows on the coastal plain of Delaware.  Photo by Alice Mohrman.

Heart’s-a-Bursting is a type of native Euonymous that grows on the coastal plain of Delaware. Photo by Alice Mohrman.

Closer to the ground,  spy the remains of Ariseama triphyllum or Jack-in-the –pulpit:   a heavy cluster of red berries bending on a steam.   This harbinger of spring in the Calla Family  is distinctive for the unusual hooded flower that  grows on a separate stalk from the leaves.  A native food source for birds and mammals, avoid touching  the red fruit, leaves and roots which are considered poisonous.

Do not eat the berries of this plant, or any other plant you aren't fully sure won't harm you.  Jack-in-the-pulpit is poisonous, and tasting the berry will give you a severe burning sensation.  Indians called the seed head "The Fireball" for good reason.  Photo by Alice Mohrman.

Do not eat the berries of this plant, or any other plant you aren’t fully sure won’t harm you. Jack-in-the-pulpit is poisonous, and tasting the berry will give you a severe burning sensation. Indians called the seed head “The Fireball” for good reason. Photo by Alice Mohrman.

Check out the shiny black-brown Whirligig Beetles (56 different species of the Family Gyrinidae) synchronizing their spinning on the water surface!  They trap a bubble of air under their front wings which serves as an oxygen tank when the beetle dives underwater.  According to  A Guide to Freshwater Invertebrates of North America, adult whirligig beetles “emit defensive secretions that repel predators”.  The author noted, after handling some species of beetles,  the secretions had a  “ripe apple” aroma.

Around the boardwalk bend, Common Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a slim deciduous native shrub dotted with numerous oval-shaped scarlet red berries, each individually attached to the twig by a stem.  In early spring, the scented yellow flowers appear before the leaves.  The berries are a valuable food source for wildlife, especially birds.  Spicebush is a host plant for the large greenish, “clown-eyed”, caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail which feeds on the leaves at night.  Late season caterpillars will overwinter camouflaged in their brown, leaf-like, chrysalis.

Right now, spicebush berries are fully ripe, and many species of birds will stop to eat them.  American Robin, Gray Catbird, Veery, Wood Thrush, and Red-eyed Vireo gorge on them.  Photo by Alice Mohrman.

Right now, spicebush berries are fully ripe, and many species of birds will stop to eat them. American Robin, Gray Catbird, Veery, Wood Thrush, and Red-eyed Vireo gorge on them. Photo by Alice Mohrman.

The Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on spicebush.  Their larva look like a small snake to scare prey away.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani.

The Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on spicebush. Their larva look like a small snake to scare prey away. Photo by Joe Sebastiani.

Stop by Abbott’s Mill Nature Center for a walk through our beautiful woodlands and boardwalk trail right now.  It will give you a good chance to step away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, and the ability to take a peek into the beauty of the natural areas near Milford.