Exploring Burton Island

Nature preserve trail teems with flora, fauna, and more than a few surprises.

Photographs and Story by Mark Nale
From the August 2018 issue

The white sand was soft underfoot

and the almost-glowing yellow blossoms of prickly pear cactus accented the otherwise sparse vegetation. A trio of glossy ibises left their perches in a scrubby pine tree, while an osprey soared overhead. Pines, black cherries, cedars and bayberries were scattered on both sides of the path — allowing glimpses of the bay between the trees.

This was my inaugural visit to Burton Island, and I was surprised to be walking through a sand-dune habitat this far from open ocean. As I soon learned, the 1.3-mile Burton Island Nature Preserve trail is full of surprises, including abundant wildlife and spectacular views.

In addition to dune habitat, the trail traverses a deciduous forest and a stand of loblolly pines, with views of open water and wide expanses of salt marsh. This variety is one of the trail’s strong suits — with the salt marsh a habitat most people rarely get to experience.

With help from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control acquired Burton Island in the fall of 1971. The price tag for the 250-acre addition to Delaware Seashore State Park was a hefty $1.9 million. However, thanks to forward-thinking people nearly five decades ago, the island was preserved as wildlife habitat and is open for public use.

“Burton Island is a perfect example of a nearly pristine maritime environment. It was a huge coup for the department to be able to pick up that resource in 1971,” says park Superintendent Doug Long. “It is a priceless piece of real estate with great views of the bay.”

The trail that I was walking has been a feature of the island since the 1980s. However, it was reborn in its current form after extensive work in 2008-09 to repair storm damage. The three main boardwalk sections were rebuilt with state-of-the-art materials, and an additional section of reinforced polypropylene boardwalk was also constructed to bridge a short marshy area near the beginning of the trail.

At the trailhead, a stone and earthen causeway lined with wooden posts leads across a section of Balders Pond. Indian River Marina can be seen in the distance to the south. According to Long, the causeway was constructed to keep the marina from silting in. However, the causeway’s construction was a “happy accident” that also provides easy walking access onto Burton Island.

Watch for wading birds, such as herons, egrets, willets and ibises on either side of the causeway, as well as waterfowl. Visitors could be greeted by a glossy ibis, yellow-crowned night heron, snowy and great egrets, mallards or even a surf scoter (a large sea duck that usually inhabits harbors and bays north of Delaware).

Although you might see mammals, reptiles and amphibians, by far the biggest wildlife attraction is the variety of birds that visit or live on the island. According to Cornell University’s eBird data, more than 200 species have been observed here. I walked the trail seven times during the last 12 months and saw different feathered friends each trip.

The “stem” of the lollipop-shaped trail takes you across a short boardwalk, through the dune habitat and to an intersection with the return loop. I usually take the right fork and walk the loop counter-clockwise. This fork leads across a 150-foot boardwalk with marsh grasses and some open water on both sides. The view to the north across the salt marsh is just spectacular.

On my first visit, a mixed flock of wading birds took to the air — herons and egrets. It was easy to see what attracted them, for hundreds of small crabs were scampering through the grasses and mud exposed by low tide.

The trail entered a wooded section where the path was carpeted with pine needles in places. A Carolina wren called from a greenbrier thicket, a pair of eastern kingbirds flew from tree to tree, and I spotted a yellow-crowned night heron perched on a dead snag. This was the first time I had ever seen a night heron.

The maritime forest opened into another marshy area, but I stayed high and dry on a 450-foot-long boardwalk. The trail meandered through another forested section and curved due east. Marsh pink — a small, neon-bright wildflower — brightens this grassy area. A deer that I startled crashed noisily through the brush.

As I walked through the third and final forested section, I spotted an osprey guarding its nest. Every turn in the trail offered something new to see. The terrain once again opened and a fourth boardwalk crossed a wetland. Just before the path intersected back with the stem of the “lollipop,” I photographed a barn swallow gathering mud for its nest and I discovered an egg-laying box turtle.

If there is one drawback to the Burton Island Trail, it would be the mosquitoes, deer flies, ticks and chiggers that can be found in mid to late summer. Signs warn about the ticks — both black-legged and lone star. “I hate to see families heading out there in the summer with shorts and flip-flops,” Long says.

Your best defense is to stay on the trail, wear appropriate clothing and use repellent. Even better, plan your visit for early spring or late fall.

“It is a refreshing hike that I love to take during the winter. There are no bugs and I almost always see a good variety of waterfowl,” notes Long, who calls Burton Island “one of the true gems of Delaware Seashore State Park.”

If you’re like me, after one visit you will heartily agree.

Eastern Oyster

Delaware’s wild oyster season opens in April, after the Chesapeake’s season closes, and ends when the state’s quota — as determined by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control — is reached. In Delaware Bay, the most common method of harvest is power dredging, in which a rake-like device is dragged over oyster beds behind a workboat. Each oyster license allows the harvesting of a limited number of the bivalves per season. (Watermen working private oyster grounds are subject to fewer restrictions.) Delaware oysters are sold to two different markets: shucking houses, where they are opened and the meat is placed into pint, quart and gallon containers; and to restaurants and retailers by the box or bag.

Blue Crab

Unlike Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay is open to crab dredging, making crabbing nearly a year-round operation for Delaware watermen. Crab dredging season opens in December and runs thru March. Boats pull a long-toothed apparatus that digs into the sandy or muddy bottom where the crustaceans hibernate for the winter. Because blue crabs build up fat reserves in the fall to help them survive the annual hibernation, dredged crabs are typically “heavy” and desirable. These crabs are marketed almost exclusively in New Jersey and New York. There is no catch limit for dredged crabs, though egg-bearing females and immature females must be released. When dredging season ends, there is a short gap before the start of “crab pot” season, when crabbers use baited cage-like traps to lure their catch. Crabs caught this way during the late spring, summer and fall supply the “basket market” for sale at crab houses and restaurants throughout the region and beyond; mature non-egg-bearing females, which are legal to harvest, are sold to picking houses on the shores of the Chesapeake where the meat is packaged for sale.  


Channeled and knobbed whelk, locally known as “conch” or “snails,” are caught by watermen using baited pots and are also caught by crab dredgers. Watermen targeting whelk with pots work near the mouth of the bay in the fall and spring. Conch will migrate offshore into the Atlantic as inshore water temperatures cool. Horseshoe crab meat is the primary bait used in this fishery. Both channeled and knobbed whelk are subject to a 6-inch minimum size limit but there is no daily catch limit. Whelks in the shell are sent to processing plants where the meat is extracted and shipped to Asian markets.

Rockfish (Striped Bass)

Along with other states in the Mid-Atlantic region, Delaware has adopted the Individual Transferable Quota system for “stripers.” Each waterman with a rockfish permit is allocated a catch quota, which is a percentage of Delaware’s quota as determined by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Watermen can buy and sell individual quotas for a particular year if they want to invest more in the fishery or if they don’t plan on participating. The primary methods of harvest in Delaware are gill net along with hook and line. New Jersey does not allow commercial harvest of stripers.

Horseshoe Crab

Delaware Bay has one of the highest populations of horseshoe crabs in the world. Until the 1950s, when demand dropped, millions of them were harvested from the bay to supplement livestock feed and for use in the fertilizer industry. With the expansion of the American eel and whelk fisheries in the 1990s, demand for these crabs as bait increased. Simultaneously there was an increase in demand for horseshoe crab blood for biomedical purposes, and the harvest of crabs again climbed into the millions. However, the increased pressure on the fishery, combined with environmentalists’ concerns, forced regulators to place restrictions on the harvest. The current quota for Delaware’s harvest is around 150,000 males (females must be released). Watermen can catch horseshoe crabs by using dredges and by picking them up on the beach.


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