Pea Patch Island, a 310-acre island just east of Delaware City, once was home to one of the largest and most diverse heron nesting areas on the East Coast. In 1993 the heronry hosted 12,000 pairs of nesting Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Yellow-Crowned Night Herons, Black-Crowned Night Herons, Tri-Colored Herons and Glossy Ibises. Pea Patch Island is an ideal nesting ground for these birds because of the types and arrangement of trees on the island, and its proximity to the rich food sources in the coastal marshes and agricultural areas Delaware and New Jersey.
The island’s location also posed some significant issues for the health of the heron nesting colony: among them, rapidly expanding suburban development and changes to habitat quality, agricultural pesticides and industrial contaminants, human disturbance and oil spills and other industrial accidents. Researchers in the 1990’s noticed issues with heron health (including lesions and low nestling survival) and had documented declines in the numbers of nesting birds (around 6,000 pairs by 1997). Because of its interconnectedness with the river and surrounding areas, a single cause of the declining health of the colony could not be identified.
The Pea Patch Island Heronry Region Special Area Management Plan was developed as a way to address the diverse range and complex nature of the issues affecting the health of the Pea Patch Island Heronry and its surrounding habitats. The development of this plan involved stakeholders from state, local and federal government agencies, universities, industry, citizens and not-for profit organizations. Participants in the planning process developed 28 strategies through a consensus building process. These strategies were finalized in the 1998 Pea Patch Island Heronry Region Special Area Management Plan. An Implementation team was formed when the planning process was complete; their job was to coordinate with each other, prioritize strategies and find resources to implement the actions outlined within the strategies. By June of 2001, 21 of the 28 strategies had been implemented. Projects conducted as part of the Pea Patch Island Heronry Region Special Area Management Plan are outlined in the 2001 Progress Report.
Today, the Pea Patch Island Heronry continues to be an active and important regional heron nesting colony, but continues to face similar challenges. Its population continues to be much reduced from the 12,000 pairs documented in the 1993, but the diversity of species continues to make Pea Patch Island one of the most unique and important bird nesting areas on the East Coast. Today, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Parks and Recreation continues to manage the Pea Patch Island Heronry as a Nature Preserve and entry to the area is strictly off limits. They also conduct weekly flight surveys, with the assistance of volunteers, during the nesting season to monitor and track population numbers.
For more information, contact the Delaware Coastal Programs at 302-739-9283.