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The Delaware Connection

To save a stream valley shared by two states seems an impossible dream, especially when the states are in the thickly populated eastern corridor. But that’s exactly what Pennsylvania and Delaware did. On the Pennsylvania side, in southeastern Chester County, the 1,253-acre White Clay Creek Preserve is the only preserve in the Pennsylvania state park system. In northwestern Delaware the 500-acre preserve is a small portion of the 3,320 acres Delaware calls the White Clay Creek State Park and Preserve.

Back in the 1950s, the E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company and the Delaware Water Company began buying property in the White Clay Creek Valley. DuPont planned to build a reservoir there, inundating about four square miles. But many citizens, labor groups and politicians banded together to stop the dam. They preferred to keep the scenic valley, cut into the rolling Piedmont terrain, in its natural state. In 1969 they formed the White Clay Watershed Association, but it took them until the mid-1970s to halt the dam.

Finally, in 1984, DuPont transferred the property to Pennsylvania and Delaware with the provision that it be managed by both states. Today six citizens from each state, appointed by each state’s Secretary of Natural Resources, form a Citizens Council and meet three or four times a year to discuss the management of the bi-state preserve.

I first learned about the preserve from Delaware citizen Dorothy Miller. Miller, a native of Windber, Pennsylvania and a Penn State graduate, is a retired chemist from DuPont. She is also one of the original conservationists who fought to save the valley.

“I got interested in birds when I moved to Newark, and one day when I was out [birding in the White Clay Creek Valley], someone said, ‘Isn’t this lovely–it’s a shame it will be under water soon.'”

That was all Miller needed to get moving. As the most visible and outspoken member of the White Clay Watershed Association, she quickly gained notoriety as a persistent advocate for the entire watershed.

Once the preserve was established, she and other members from Pennsylvania and Delaware decided to go after National Wild and Scenic River designation for White Clay Creek and its tributaries. Because the creek is “one of only a few relatively intact, unspoiled and ecologically functioning river systems” in the corridor between Philadelphia and Newark, Delaware, according to federal park service researchers, it was vital to protect as much of it as possible.

On October 24, 2000, sixteen years after they started, President Clinton signed the bill that gave 191 miles of White Clay Creek that designation. It covers almost 70,000 acres in both states that drain into the creek and tributaries and includes 38 historic places on the National Register. Although none of the waterway qualifies as wild under the program, 24 miles rank as scenic and the rest contains special recreational value.

“It was a hands across the border effort,” Miller said. “Everything was done by consensus. It’s been a nice experience to see cooperation on both sides.”

Miller gives special credit to municipal officials in both states and the scientists at Pennsylvania’s Stroud Water Research Center. In addition, politicians from both sides of the border and both parties shepherded the proposal through Congress.

The Wild and Scenic River designation means that no dams can be built in the area. Special reviews for any projects involving federal aid or permits will also be required. Furthermore, Miller believes that private landowners living along the creek will be proud of the designation and that pride will inspire some stewardship on their part.

Certainly the valley is well worth protecting as my husband Bruce and I discovered during two recent visits to the preserve. The first occurred on a bright winter day in early February when we walked several trails on the Pennsylvania side.

Because it is a preserve, not a park, the major emphasis is on conserving its natural resources so only low intensity use–hiking, bicycling, fishing, cross-country skiing, and horseback riding (the latter on the gravel roads that encircle the preserve)–is allowed.

The Pennsylvania side of the preserve also celebrates the valley’s rich historical heritage, beginning with the native Americans who lived there 12,000 years before the Lenape Chief Kekelappen sold it to William Penn in 1683. Although frequent flooding has obliterated all surface evidence of Opasiskink, a several-acre Native American settlement probably at the confluence of the middle and east branches of White Clay Creek, several stone buildings from European settlement in the eighteenth century have been preserved.

The Yeatman Mill House, the center of a prosperous, bustling milling and agricultural community during the 18th and 19th century, is probably the oldest house in the area. The London Tract Baptist Meeting House, built in 1729, now contains the preserve’s Nature Center. Across the street stands the double door Pennsylvania stone farmhouse of Dr. David Eaton, one of the area’s earliest settlers.

But our interest that winter day was in following the snow-covered trail along the middle and east branches of White Clay Creek, which was named for the white clay deposits found there. Those deposits, formed by the weather on the mineral feldspar, are part of the so-called Wissahickon Formation, metamorphic rocks 400 to 600 million years old that settlers used to build the stone structures in the preserve.

At first the creek is lined by sycamore trees, their mottled, white and greenish bark lovely even in winter, but later we stopped to admire a hillside of large tulip and American beech trees. We were also impressed by massive white oak trees along the trail. Once we surprised seven mallards floating serenely on the water. PIleated and red-bellied woodpeckers called, and we saw both a northern cardinal and northern mockingbird as we followed the beautiful winding trail beside the creek.

Eventually the trail straightened out because this section is part of an old railroad right-of-way that ran from Coatesville, Pennsylvania to Newark, Delaware and was known locally as the Pomeroy Railroad. A prickly hedge on one side was filled with eastern bluebirds, white-throated sparrows, Carolina chickadees, a Carolina wren, and tufted titmice. On the other side we saw what looked like a frozen cattail swamp.

Was that a beaver dam in the middle, we wondered?

In May we had our answer. We stood on a wooden platform overlooking the wetland with Dorothy Miller and her birding buddy Andy Urquhart. They told us that it had been formed recently by beaver.

“I’m delighted to have this wetland here,” Urquhart said. “It’s a whole new habitat for us.”

While the two eager birders scanned the wetland for resident green herons and Virginia rails, I looked down at the edge of the wetland and noticed a small turtle, prominently marked with orange on its head, nibbling the vegetation.

I could hardly believe my luck. It was the first hot, humid day of the year, and a federally endangered bog turtle had emerged from the muck to eat. Excitedly I pointed out my find to Bruce, who tried to immortalize the bog turtle on film, while Urquhart and Miller admitted that they had never seen a bog turtle in the wild. Although, Miller added, she had seen one in the Delaware Nature Center where it had been recovering from car injuries and then had been released back into the watershed.

The wetland harbored other creatures that day as well. A male bullfrog emitted a deep-throated jug-o’-rum. Two northern water snakes basked on the lodge that the beaver had built right up to the trail. An adult green heron opened its beak and vibrated its throat before walking carefully along the edge of the cattails probing for food. Eastern kingbirds snapped insects from the air overhead while red-winged blackbirds and common yellowthroats sang among the wetland plants.

But the birds along the creek in both Delaware and Pennsylvania were even more impressive. According to Miller, the recent checklist for the entire valley includes 198 species. She and Urquhart are especially pleased that it is the only place in Delaware to see cerulean warblers and one of the few places that American redstarts breed.

It is also the valley to see six vireo species, four of which breed there. Miller had promised to show me the nondescript gray and white warbling vireo that is partial to streams and sycamore trees. After much scanning with my binoculars, I saw it. I also heard its languid warble for which it is named. An added bonus was a close-up of the flashier yellow-throated vireo.

In that sycamore grove, we also watched a singing first year male orchard oriole, decked out in green and yellow with a signature black throat, a blue-gray gnatcatcher constructing a nest, and a flashy, orange and black Baltimore oriole. Earlier, on the Delaware side, we had added a white-eyed vireo and a red-eyed vireo to our vireo list. We had also spotted a veery skulking in the underbrush.

Veeries, it turns out, are common breeders on both sides of the border. A recent study by University of Delaware graduate student Kitt Heckscher has found that these spotted-thrushes, which prefer to nest in shrubby, moist woodlands, have found refuge from predators by building their nests in the bases of multiflora rosebushes. Yellow-breasted chats, the largest members of the warbler family, also like to nest amid the protective thorns.

With Miller and Urquhart, we retraced part of our winter walk along the creek and quickly added eastern wood pewee, yellow-breasted chat, and scarlet tanager to our bird list. We watched tree swallows mating on a nearby telephone wire while an American kestrel sat beside them.

We also admired a fine selection of the more than 600 wildflower and wetland plants that have been recorded at the preserve–Greek valerian, Virginia waterleaf, Solomon’s seal, sweet cicely, wild ginger, spring beauty, lesser celandine, celandine poppy, poison hemlock, wild geranium, pennycress, Indian strawberry, and troutlily.

We especially admired flowering trumpet honeysuckle, a high-climbing vine that hung from several trees along the stream. This brilliant native vine, also called coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), is often cultivated for its showy blossoms that bloom, more or less continually, from May until September. Its trumpet-shaped, nectar-producing flowers are a sweet magnet for hummingbirds and sphinx moths.

So thick was the vegetation that it blocked views of the stream we had so admired in the winter.

“We like this trail best in fall and winter,” Miller told us. “We get a nice sparrow migration in here. For the last couple years we have found Lincoln’s sparrows here.”

This was an excellent discovery because, according to McWilliams’s and Brauning’s The Birds of Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s sparrows are uncommon but regular migrants over most of the state. However, their silence during migration makes them difficult to observe. As trimmer, song sparrow look alikes, they also take diligence to identify, especially since they skulk through thickets, weeds, and bushes.

Later, I received an inventory of the wildlife and plants on the preserve and was impressed to learn that, so far, 55 grasses, 53 sedges and rushes, 95 trees and shrubs, 20 reptiles, 16 amphibians, 22 fishes, 28 wild mammals (not including the eastern cougar I mentioned in my March column), and 24 ferns and clubmosses have been found there.

Clearly, the idea of conserving an entire ecosystem, regardless of state lines, has given the citizens of Delaware and Pennsylvania a treasure they are eager to protect and expand.

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