Abbott’s Mill Nature Center

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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.

ABBOTT’S MILL RESORTED AND DECLARED A HISTORIC PLACE

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.

ABBOTT’S MILL NATURE CENTER COMMISSIONED – EDUCATION PROGRAMS BEGIN!

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!

ABBOTT’S MILL NATURE CENTER TODAY

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.

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

A summer paddling expedition in Abbott’s Pond led us upstream to discover the hidden treasures in the cool shade of Johnson’s Branch.

Abbott's Pond

Abbott’s Pond

Point west and follow the expansive water garden of green heart-shaped waxy leaves dotted with the stout yellow flowers.  This hardy, native perennial is spatterdock, Nuphar advena, also known as Yellow Water Lily.  Used in traditional medicine, and a favorite edible for muskrat and beaver, this plant colonizes shallow water where the thick roots anchor into the muddy bottom of the pond.  The bulb-shaped flowers are pollinated by beetles and produce seeds for a variety of waterfowl.

Spatterdock bloom.

Spatterdock bloom.

Ebony Jewelwing,  Calopteryx maculate, are the graceful, yet acrobatic damselfly companions that dance beside your canoe as you meander along the shore toward the narrows.  These  “perchers”  often wait  patiently on plants at the stream edge before taking a quick sojourn over the water to capture gnats and other small insects .  Look for the territorial males, sporting a blue-green thorax and abdomen with jet black wings, courting brownish females with a distinct white patch or “stigma” on the tip of each wing.

Ebony Jewelwing damselfly.

Ebony Jewelwing damselfly.

A distinct canopy of trees beyond the active beaver lodge offers interest and respite from the sun.  The Atlantic White Cedar, Chamaecyparis thyoides, is a towering, ram-rod straight sentinel growing  in the bog at the entrance to the stream.  An extremely rot resistant evergreen species, this cypress (not really a cedar) tree is  able to reach great heights while growing in poorly drained acidic soil!   Two of the tallest Atlantic White Cedars are found in Milford, DE and check in at an impressive  72 and 76 feet  (DE Big Trees).

Atlantic White Cedar on the edge of Abbott's Pond.

Atlantic White Cedar on the edge of Abbott’s Pond.

A Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea,  or Golden Swamp Warbler,  sings a loud, ringing version of  “zweet zweet zweet zweet zweet!” as we navigating the shallows, roots and branches.  A soft “psh-psh-psh” sound often brings these curious wood-warblers closer to view.  For nesting, this summer resident chooses a tree cavity, usually about 6 foot high, over or near water, to brood a large clutch with up to eight eggs.

The gorgeous Prothonotary Warbler gets its name from long-ago Roman Catholic clerks who wore bright yellow robes.

The gorgeous Prothonotary Warbler gets its name from long-ago Roman Catholic clerks who wore bright yellow robes.

Our sample of flora and fauna would not be complete without mentioning  Castor canandensis:  the beaver.  While working the night shift, these engineering animals constructed at least three structural barriers to for canoes.  We enjoyed the challenge of maneuvering  over, through and around these dams-which are not easy to deconstruct without heavy equipment!  After a beaver fells a tree, it trims off the large branches and drags it to the dam site.  The logs are forced into the mud with the wide trunk facing downstream.  The remaining braches and leaves, or crowns of the trees,  are positioned into the current to trap the silt and debris which widens the structure.  The beavers add  sticks, stones and mud to strengthen the dam, block the water flow and create a new wetland!

Beavers at their dam.

Beavers at their dam.

By Hazel Shinholt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Teacher/Naturalist

Warm weather is upon us and we see all kinds of insects scurrying about at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.  One of the insects you may have walked right by (maybe even walked on) and never noticed is the antlion.   Antlions are in the family Myrmeleontidae and order Neuroptera.  They undergo complete metamorphosis.  The larvae look nothing like the adult.  The adults have wings and can look similar to a damselfly. The most noticeable differences are that the antlion has longer antennae that are clubbed at the end and the vein pattern in their wings is different from the damselfly.  The adult antlion is nocturnal but the larval stage is very active during the day.

Antlion Larva showing its big grasping mouthparts that is uses to subdue small insects that fall into its funnel-shaped trap.

Antlion Larva showing its big grasping mouthparts that is uses to subdue small insects that fall into its funnel-shaped trap.

It is larval stage of the antlion that I find most fascinating!  Antlion larvae are ominous looking creatures. They are gray/brown in color, with an oval shaped body covered in bristles, have short legs and large mandibles.  We have many near our meadow habitat at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.

The Antlion larva waits for prey to drop into the bottom of the funnel-shaped trap, submerged in the sand.

The Antlion larva waits for prey to drop into the bottom of the funnel-shaped trap, submerged in the sand.

Antlion larvae dig a cone-shaped “pit” in loose sandy or dry soil (look for soil that looks like a rain drop hit it and left a cone-shaped impression in the soil).  The antlion buries itself in the bottom of the pit and waits for its next meal to arrive. Only part of its head is visible at the bottom of the pit.  When an ant or other small insect crawls near the edge of the trap, the loose soil gives way and the prey falls into the “pit of death.”    When the prey reaches the bottom, the antlion then grabs the prey with its strong mandibles and drags it under the soil.  It pierces the prey and feasts on the body fluid of the prey.  The antlion has no use for the carcass of the prey and flicks it out of the pit and the cycle begins again.