Fowler Beach primed for birds, wildlife

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service project leader Al Rizzo points out areas of Fowler Beach that will be restored to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., during a tour Friday morning. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service project leader Al Rizzo points out areas of Fowler Beach that will be restored to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., during a tour Friday morning. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

MILTON — It’s a blustery morning in southern Delaware. As a cluster of people gathers on a beach, small waves roll up on shore nearby, birds peck at the sand and rattling sounds echo from a large pipe stretching into the water.

On the surface, the beach may not seem remarkable. Although it extends out a few hundred feet, it’s relatively small. Surrounded by water on three sides, the beach juts out, almost like a miniscule Cape Henlopen.

But this ordinary beach, which hosted 20 or so reporters and wildlife experts Friday, did not exist just three weeks ago.

This is Fowler Beach at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. A victim of the big storms of years past, it had been swallowed up by the Delaware Bay.

Today, Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge is the site of a $38 million restoration project currently being undertaken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service restoration project leader Bart Wilson of Dover, from left, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and American Birding Association president Jeff Gordon of Delaware City discuss the advantages of the newly restored beachfront at Fowler Beach. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service restoration project leader Bart Wilson of Dover, from left, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and American Birding Association president Jeff Gordon of Delaware City discuss the advantages of the newly restored beachfront at Fowler Beach. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Friday, members of the media, wildlife observers and state and federal officials came out to witness the work being done. With money provided by Congress, Fish and Wildlife Service began restoring the beach area last month. Work on refuge marshes started in June.

Major storms, such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, have caused “catastrophic failures” along the shore at Prime Hook, said Al Rizzo, project leader for Prime Hook and Smyrna’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Saltwater has poured up over the beaches and flooded marshy areas, killing trees and harming the habitat.

About 4,000 acres of marsh have been washed away by storms.

Much of the area was blocked off from the water, but Sandy punched a hole through the barrier beach, impacting the space several miles inland.

“So what we’re putting back is about 30 miles of channel, which will distribute the tidal waters and also hopefully enhance our fishery,” Mr. Rizzo said.

Officials aim to create new mud flats and pools of water, with the goal of attracting all sorts of wildlife.

A look to the past

Prime Hook was developed in 1963, but planners are reaching back to before then for a vision of how to establish a suitable environment.

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control examined aerial photos from 1937 to determine what the area looked like before the refuge was formed. While architects and administrators would like to transform the marshes so they resemble the space before it was affected by humans, that’s impossible, since people have been farming, fishing and altering Delaware’s coastal area for centuries.

Still, officials are confident they can turn the refuge into a more natural territory, something that blends with nature and adapts to it, rather than forcing animals and plants to conform.

“Now we’re taking a more holistic ecosystem approach,” said Bart Wilson, the restoration project manager. “We want everything to benefit from it.”

Sen. Tom Carper, Del., tours the recently restored Fowler Beach coastline Friday morning. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Sen. Tom Carper, Del., tours the recently restored Fowler Beach coastline Friday morning. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

The entire project calls to mind “Back to the Future,” said tour group member U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., referencing the popular 1980s film. By the time the work is done, the area will bear a closer resemblance to its past self.

Friday’s trek included several stops along the beach, with frequent questions from observers. Wearing hard hats and mesh yellow jackets, visitors walked the several hundred feet from the road to the water’s edge, looking up and down the beach. Several people were visibly impressed by the project, especially when Mr. Rizzo explained the beach had not existed mere weeks ago.

More of the coast soon will be part of the newly expanded Fowler Beach. Once a popular hangout, especially for nature lovers, the beach has been devastated by major storms over the past eight years.

Among the creatures officials hope to see thriving in the marshes as a result of the work are crabs, fish and eels. Administrators also believe many species of birds dependent on marshes and dunes will settle in the area once the restoration is complete.

After the beach work is done, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to replace the oft-flooded road leading up to the beach with a boardwalk.

The process

Congress is requiring officials to have the beach project done by May and the marsh by October, but the shore work could be finished as early as March. Workers oversee the beach project 24/7, running a long dredging pipe from a boat well offshore to the beach.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service restoration project manager Bart Wilson of Dover, center, leads a team of officials onto an area that was not there three weeks ago at Fowler Beach. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service restoration project manager Bart Wilson of Dover, center, leads a team of officials onto an area that was not there three weeks ago at Fowler Beach. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

The pipe spits out sand, which eventually becomes part of the beach. In all, about 1.2 million to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand is expected to be used to form a long beach.

A screen is fitted on one end of the pipe to keep it from sucking up large rocks, animals or junk, but a few unintended items have been caught underwater. Several explosive shells have been sucked up and spit out on land, although — fortunately for everyone involved — none have been live.

Though dunes are often considered the best way to prevent a storm surge from flooding the land, planners are taking a different approach at Fowler Beach: wide, not high.

Because they do not have to worry about keeping nearby homes safe, the Fish and Wildlife Service can focus on what benefits nature. With the mostly flat beach, waves will rush up across the beach and into the marshes in the event of a large storm. The salt water will bring in sand and help replenish the marshes.

Although there is promise, the area still will need time to recover once the work is completed. It could take five years or more before it is fully populated by wildlife, Mr. Rizzo said.

Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, said he hopes seabirds like the common tern and shorebirds like the American oystercatcher will flock to the site soon.

The rehabilitation efforts are expected to increase the diversity of species gathered near the bay, which in turn provides greater stability to the ecosystem.

“Working with nature is always better than working against it,” Mr. Gordon said.

 

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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