A Birder's Guide to White Clay Creek State Park
Mark C. Keese and Gene K. Hess
Art Work by Martha Gordon
Friends of White Clay Creek State Park
In any literary endeavor, the quality of the finished product depends to a certain extent on the author's ability to stay focused on his/her purpose. When the final product is intended not merely to be read, but rather to be used routinely, the intended audience becomes inseparable from this purpose. Our target audience in writing this guide consists primarily of two groups: 1) beginning and casual local birders and 2) birders of any skill level who are not familiar with White Clay Creek State Park. This in no way precludes other groups from deriving benefit from the use of this guide.
For ease of use, we have divided the park into five geographic areas that reflect either natural divisions within the park, or represent areas that have historically been birded as distinct entities (see map below). Typically, it would be difficult to cover more than one geographic area in a two - three hour birding trip. Within each geographic area, we divide the year into four seasons: spring migration, summer breeding, fall migration, and winter. Many birders concentrate their effort on the migration periods, particularly spring migration when wave after wave of colorful neotropical songbirds pass through. We hope to convince the user of this guide that White Clay Creek State Park offers special birding opportunities in any season.
Within each geographic area by season account we do not attempt to exhaustively list all the species that might be encountered (see Appendices A and B for lists of common year-round residents and summer breeding visitors, respectively). Rather, we have selectively highlighted bird species based on several criteria: 1) how abundant (visible) is the species within that section of the park?, 2) is the section of the park the only (or best) place to see this species? (e.g., Swainson's Thrush along Thompson Station Rd.), 3) is the species noteworthy within a larger geographic setting? (e.g. Cerulean Warbler), and 4) the authors' subjective assessment of the species popularity or aesthetic appeal. Each geographic section begins with an overview of habitat and access points. Within each seasonal account, we give general habitat descriptions where appropriate to help you locate the birds, and detailed directions to areas of particular interest (e.g. the most reliable breeding location for hooded warbler). A note of caution. Breeding territories change from year to year. So in any given year a particular species may or may not be present in a specific location described in this guide. So if you don't find a particular species right away, keep looking. The hunt is 90% of the fun of birding!
Data from a volunteer wildlife sightings board created in 1998 and maintained at the Nature Center by the Friends of White Clay Creek State Park, the spring survey conducted by the Delmarva Ornithological Society, the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, and the personal records of the authors spanning, respectively, 6 years and 23 years were combined to support the accounts contained herein. Also, the anecdotes and recollections of Dorothy Miller and Frank Rawling were most useful in determining what information to include. Any errors or omissions rest solely with the authors.
Finally, we cannot stress strongly enough that this guide is not intended to be a field guide. You will find no color plates, no detailed descriptions of field marks or songs, no map showing the species' geographic distribution. Thus, you will still need to bring a traditional field guide with you to help identify the birds once you find them. We hope you will find this guide a useful tool in locating birds within White Clay Creek State Park, and will enjoy using it as much as we enjoyed writing it.
White Clay Creek State Park lies in the northwest corner of Delaware, near the Maryland and Pennsylvania state lines. It is within 1-2.5 hours of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. From the south, take I-95 north into Delaware to Exit 1B, Rt. 896 North. Follow Rt. 896 North through Newark. The main park entrance is 1.5 miles north of Fairfield Shopping Center (Super Fresh). From the North, take I-95 south to Exit 1B then follow the directions above.
The most heavily birded section of the park is the creek corridor, the area that runs north-south on either side of White Clay Creek. There are three primary locations to access this section of the park, all on the west side of the creek: at the intersection of Wedgewood and Creek Rds; at the Chambers House Nature Center; and at the parking lot on Chambers Rock Rd. The habitat is varied throughout this section. It is mostly deciduous hardwood forest between Wedgewood and Hopkins Rds., giving way to a mix of fields and hedgerows north of Hopkins Rd. A walk from one end to the other and back again is approximately 4-5 miles.
The creek corridor is an especially good place to bird during spring migration. The road and trails that follow the creek provide excellent views of the stream-side tree canopies used by migrating warblers and other passerines. The spring migration season lasts approximately two months and is initiated in mid-March by the arrival of Eastern Phoebes (particularly around the Nature Center). Later, small flocks of kinglets (both Ruby- and Golden-crowned) and Palm Warblers can be seen in the low branches of vegetation anywhere along the creek corridor. Osprey might be seen fishing up and down the creek during this time of year. The migration floodgates open in earnest during the first two weeks in May, and the creek corridor is the best place in the park to observe this remarkable phenomenon. Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Cape May, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Canada and Wilson warblers are all possibilities on any given day. All the breeding warbler species have arrived by this time as well. On 15 May 1999 the authors recorded 21 warbler species along the creek corridor, including Tennessee and Nashville warblers. Anywhere between Wedgewood Rd and the PA state line can be very productive; we recommend taking your time and getting out as often as you can during this time of year.
Also, this is the time of year to check the gravel and sand bars in the creek for migrating Spotted and Solitary sandpipers and the occasional Greater Yellowlegs.
During the summer breeding season, the creek corridor remains the best place in the park to see a large number of species during a casual walk. Most year-round residents can be found breeding along this stretch. Among migrant breeders, Northern Parula Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, Veery and Ovenbird are ubiquitous. In addition, along the creek Baltimore Oriole, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Eastern Kingbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler and Warbling Vireo are regular during this time of year. The latter is usually found along the loop trail between the Nature Center and Chambers Rock Rd. In some of the fields adjacent to the creek you may find a few Indigo Buntings, Yellow-breasted Chats or Prairie Warblers. In recent years both Pileated Woodpecker and Barred Owl have nested along the dirt road between Wedgewood Rd. and Hopkins Rd. Lastly, this section is the only place in the park to see Hooded Warbler and one of two where you can see Cerulean Warbler, two of White Clay Creek's specialty species. The most reliable spot for Cerulean Warbler is the first wooden bridge south of Hopkins Rd; however, any place along either side of the creek can be rewarding. Scan the tops of the tall trees (particularly sycamore) since these birds rarely come down low. The Hooded Warblers have traditionally bred up the hill from the first wooden bridge south of Hopkins Rd. Take the trail that climbs through the woods to the right after crossing the wooden bridge on Creek Rd. When the trail comes to a T, turn right, cross over a wooden bridge and start to listen. The song is a loud, distinct weet-a-weet-a-weet-e-o. Turn right at the next trail junction and follow the trail back down the hill through a stand of pines to Creek Rd.
During fall migration, the creek corridor is again the best location within the park for warblers migrating south for the winter. Numbers and diversity tend to be lower than in the spring, with Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green warblers being among the more common migrants. As in the spring, anywhere along the creek corridor can produce small to medium size flocks of migrating songbirds. Migrating sandpipers are seen less commonly in the fall than in the spring.
Winter along the creek corridor is a time to study the year-round residents. White-breasted Nuthatches are most easily seen and heard during winter, particularly around the Nature Center. Creek Rd. between Wedgewood and Hopkins Rds. affords one of the best opportunities to see 5 or even 6 species of woodpecker (Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated, as well as Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker). This last is a winter visitor only. The multiflora rose thickets throughout this area house large numbers of White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, as well as Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens. Occasionally, the keen observer is rewarded with a Winter Wren or a Brown Creeper. Cedar Waxwing flocks sometimes come to feed along the creek during this season.
Thompson Station Road/Park Headquarters:
This section can be accessed from one location, a small parking lot on Thompson Station Rd., just north of Chambers Rock Rd. The Park Headquarters is here, and the parking lot provides access to the closed (on weekends) portion of Thompson Station Rd and the David English Trail. The gated portion of Thompson Station Rd continues north through some excellent stands of deciduous hardwoods for about one mile. About a quarter mile north past the parking lot, there is a trail to the left that connects to a fisherman's trail that runs along the east bank of the creek. The David English Trail parallels the righthand side of Thompson Station Rd. for awhile, then veers right and winds up the hill towards some opens meadows and fields, before descending again into the woods to follow a small feeder stream back towards the parking lot. The entire loop is approximately two miles.
Thompson Station Road, just north of the park headquarters, is closed to traffic on weekends and provides an excellent place to bird at any time of the year. During spring migration it is by far the best places to see thrushes. A careful walk along the one mile gated portion of the road during early May will produce dozens of Wood Thrushes and Veery and often one or more Swainson's Thrushes. Ovenbirds are very common here as well, and it is probably the best place to try for Great-crested Flycatcher. The area around the gate at the northern end of the road is a good place to view migrating passerines; but please do not cross the bridge into the private driveway. Doubling back to the parking lot near headquarters, walk the David English Trail for field and edge species, including Blue-winged Warbler, Yellow Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Chipping and Field sparrows, Indigo Bunting, and Eastern Bluebird.
The parking lot at park HQ provides the easiest access to the woods on the east side of the creek (to the left of Thompson Station Rd). Check the ravines for breeding Louisiana Waterthrush, Acadian Flycatcher, and Kentucky Warbler. Gray Catbirds are extremely common breeders in this section of the park. The David English Trail is a good place for both Baltimore and Orchard Oriole. Common Yellowthroats, American Redstarts, and Red-eyed Vireos are also common. A Cerulean Warbler or two have been heard singing right around the parking lot and north along Thompson Station Rd. for each of the last five years. Black-and-White Warblers have been heard singing in these woods in mid-June, and there has been some evidence of breeding.
The twin ponds area along the David English Trail provides a good vantage point to observe migrating swallows in August, Broad-winged Hawks in September, and Red-tailed, Sharp-shinned and perhaps Cooper's hawks in October.
In winter woodpeckers and owls take center stage in this section of the park. Along the road just north of park HQ is the best place in the park to call up Eastern Screech, Great Horned, and Barred owls from a single location. The Great Horned and Barred owls may be gotten right at the parking lot; the Eastern Screech Owl usually requires a quarter mile walk up Thompson Station Rd. beyond the gate. The early morning hours before dawn tend to be best for getting these owls to respond. Along the David English Trail there are a lot of field edges and hedgerows that provide good habitat for wintering White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Fox Sparrow is a possibility as well.
The Possum Hill section of the park is south from the Park Headquarters along Thompson Station Rd. There are two access points to this area: a parking lot on Nine-Foot Rd. across from MBNA's Deerfield Golf Course and a parking lot in on the left from Paper Mill Rd. as one heads north past Milford Crossroads. Each provides a trailhead for one or two trails that loop through the woods. The orange trail loop that starts at the parking lot on Nine-Foot Rd. can be used to link with the David English Trail via a short connector that crosses Pleasant Hill Rd. The red trail loop from the other parking lot can be used to link with the Middle Run Natural Area (county-owned) (caution: this involves crossing the heavily-trafficked Paper Mill Rd). The Possum Hill section contains the highest quality deciduous hardwood forests in the park, along with many large, open fields and hedgerows and several ponds.
The tall, mature tree canopy in this area makes forest songbird viewing more difficult than along the creek, but vocalizations confirm that most of the migrant species that can be seen elsewhere in the park occur here. These woods are an excellent place to see Scarlet Tanagers. The fields are good locations for viewing the arrival of Blue-winged Warblers. In 1999, the authors heard a Grasshopper Sparrow in the field to the left of the parking lot by the Paper Mill Rd. entrance to this area. Walking the road from Thompson Station Rd. to Paper Mill Rd. can yield migrating hawks, particularly Sharp-shinned, Merlins, and even a Peregrine Falcon. The pond across from the parking lot on Nine-Foot Rd. has Spotted and Solitary sandpipers almost every spring, and one of us (MK) has had Willow Flycatcher in the thickets around the pond each year from 1997-1999.
Possum Hill contains several woodland tracts that are as good as any in the park for breeding migrant passerines such as Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and Louisiana Waterthrush. The woods across the field to the right along Nine-Foot Rd. is home to a Red-tailed Hawk. Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great and Cattle egrets can all be found sporadically at the pond across from the parking lot. The many large fields in this area offer the best opportunity to see Eastern Meadowlark, Wild Turkey, and Northern Bobwhite Quail, while also hosting large populations of Field and Chipping sparrows.
Raptors and swallows are the featured birds here during fall migration. Broad-winged Hawks can be seen circling over the fields in early September, with sightings of Sharp-shinned Hawks and all three species of falcons becoming more probable later in the fall. Fall 1999 included a rare Bald Eagle sighting. August produces large flocks of swallows, mostly Tree and Barn, pausing over the pond on Nine-Foot Rd. as they migrate south. Chimney Swifts and Common Nighthawks can be seen here as well.
Great Horned and Eastern Screech owls are most vocal during the winter and Possum Hill is a reliable location for hearing both. Great Horned Owl is best heard from the new parking lot on Nine-Foot Rd., Eastern Screech from the parking lot near Paper Mill Rd. Carefully checking the White-throated Sparrow flocks can yield Fox or White-crowned sparrows. Starting in late February and continuing through March, Possum Hill is the best place in the park to see the awesome aerial display of the American Woodcock. The entrance from Thompson Station Rd. is now gated at dusk. Thus, park in the pull-off by the gate (do not block the gate!) and walk down the concrete road. Where the brush on the left side of the road gives way to an open field, turn left and follow the edge of the field until you come to a trail that bears left through the brush. Walk in on that trail about 50 meters. Listen for their distinctive "peent" call. Be patient and quiet and you may be treated to an amazing flight display.
Carpenter Recreation Area:
The oldest part of White Clay Creek State Park, and the most heavily used for recreation (picnicking, frisbee golf etc...), is the Carpenter Recreation Area. The only road access is from Rt. 896, on the right, a couple miles north of Fairfield Shopping Center as one travels north from Newark. If coming from PA, it is on the left 0.7 mile south of Little Egypt Rd. Also, the area can be accessed on foot by taking any of the trails that lead west up the slope from Creek Rd. between Wedgewood and Hopkins Rds. Fields and hedgerows form the majority of the habitat, although there are a few good sections of deciduous hardwoods.
This section of the park is unfortunately overlooked by most birders visiting the park during spring migration. It does, however, offer some excellent birding opportunities. The expansive fields around the parking lot provide excellent vantage points for viewing migrating Broad-winged and Red-tailed hawks as well as Tree, Barn and Northern Rough-winged swallows. The wooded areas may harbor Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green warblers. The mix of habitats provides one of the best chances within the park to see good numbers of five species of flycatcher: Acadian, Great-crested, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, and Eastern Wood-Pewee. Brown Thrasher, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue-winged and Prairie warblers, Orchard Oriole and Rose-breasted Grosbeak are all more likely to be seen in Carpenter Recreation Area than almost any other location in the park. The Millstone Pond may have Wood Duck, Mallard, and Spotted Sandpiper on occasion.
Many of the species mentioned in the spring migration account remain to breed in this section of the park. Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue-winged and Prairie warblers and Orchard Oriole can all be seen and heard in the fields around the Millstone Pond. Barn Swallow, House Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Yellow and Northern Parula warblers, and Chipping and Field sparrows are other common breeding species. The large field south of Wedgewood Rd. is the only location in the park that the authors have seen Grasshopper Sparrow during the breeding season. The field is most easily accessed by driving down Wedgewood Rd. to Creek Rd. Park in one of the pull-outs on the corner and walk up the trail that leads into the woods from the southwest corner of the intersection. After a brief, fairly steep climb, the trail levels off. Follow the trail for another quarter of a mile to reach the eastern edge of the field. Scan the elevated vegetation of the field and listen for the insect-like song of this rare visitor to the park.
The best location for viewing hawk migration in the park is the Carpenter Recreation Area. From the parking lot, head north along the path to the left of the picnic area until reaching a ridge with a dirt road running east to west (perpendicular to the trail you're on). Here one has a mostly unobstructed view of the sky. On a good day in October Red-Tailed, Sharp-Shinned, and Cooper's Hawks can be seen, along with Merlin, American Kestrel, and even an occasional Peregrine Falcon. Small kettles of Broad-Winged Hawks can be seen right from the parking lot and surrounding fields any time in September, although mid-September is usually best.
The dense brush, hedgerows and fields in Carpenter Recreation Area provide ample cover for wintering songbirds. Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, White-throated Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco are all common in this section of the park. Eastern Towhee, Fox Sparrow and both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned kinglets may also be seen. From the picnic pavilion at the east end of the parking lot, walk out across the field staying to the right of the volleyball court. Follow the trail that descends steeply and enters the woods. White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Downy and Red-bellied woodpeckers are all common here. Following the left fork in the trail will lead to the Millstone Pond.
Judge Morris Estate:
This newly-acquired section of White Clay Creek State Park is bordered by Polly Drummond Hill Rd. on the west, Kirkwood Highway on the south, Upper Pike Creek Rd. on the east, and Old Coach Rd. on the north. It does not, as of yet, have an adequate road access. No parking lot currently exists, nor can one park alongside the roads that border this area.
Since it has been recently acquired, and there is no good access, this section of the park has not been birded sufficiently to provide detailed summaries for each season. However, casual birding by the authors suggests that the area is good for woodpeckers and should be similar to the woods west of the creek between Wedgewood and Hopkins Rds. for passerine songbirds.
(You may download a higher resolution image of this map by clicking here)
APPENDIX A: COMMON RESIDENT SPECIES
This list contains permanent residents of White Clay Creek State Park that may be encountered frequently throughout the year.
|Turkey Vulture||Carolina Chickadee|
|Canada Goose||Tufted Titmouse|
|Wood Duck||White-breasted Nuthatch|
|Red-tailed Hawk||Eastern Bluebird|
|Mourning Dove||American Robin|
|Eastern Screech Owl||Northern Mockingbird|
|Great Horned Owl||Song Sparrow|
|Red-bellied Woodpecker||Northern Cardinal|
|Downy Woodpecker||Red-winged Blackbird|
|Northern Flicker||Common Grackle|
|Belted Kingfisher||Brown-headed Cowbird|
|Blue Jay||House Finch|
|American Crow||American Goldfinch|
APPENDIX B: SUMMER BREEDING VISITORS
This list contains the most frequently encountered species that breed in the park but are not year-round residents.
|Eastern Wood Pewee||Gray Catbird|
|Acadian Flycatcher||Northern Parula Warbler|
|Eastern Kingbird||Yellow Warbler|
|White-eyed Vireo||American Redstart|
|Tree Swallow||Louisiana Waterthrush|
|Rough-winged Swallow||Common Yellowthroat|
|Barn Swallow||Scarlet Tanager|
|House Wren||Chipping Sparrow|
|Blue-gray Gnatcatcher||Indigo Bunting|
|Wood Thrush||Baltimore Oriole|
* Copyright, 2000, Friends of White Clay Creek State Park, Inc. Permission is granted to make single copies for personal use. All other rights are reserved.