To find the beach in a Delaware summer, follow the stampede. Carving your own niche, rewarding though it can be, takes research.
Seeking out the beaches’ wildlife is one way to avoid the crowds while making memories you’ll want to share.
Here are five places, in no particular order, to find life among the beaches and bays.
1. Seashore State Park, Burton Island Trail
This 1.5-mile trail tucked in the back of a state park offers plenty of wildlife and views over Rehoboth Bay. It’s an especially great place to find birds, including great blue herons, ospreys, egrets and the occasional bald eagle, says Andrew McGowan, an environmental scientist with the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays.
With parking just a few miles off the coastal highway — and only feet from the trailhead — this flat trail makes for a walk just about anyone can do. But, depending on your tolerance for insects, it may be one best made in the spring or fall. The trailhead, located behind a marina warehouse, can be a bit tricky to find.
2. Cape Henlopen State Park, The Point
In addition to its fascinating history in coastal defense during World War II, Cape Henlopen State Park offers some of the best birdwatching in the state. Matthew Bailey, a state biologist who specializes in birds, says the best viewing spot is near The Point, a small peninsula that juts into the ocean. Walk down to the bay side, especially during an outgoing tide, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a diverse gathering of shorebirds. Bring binoculars to get the best view.
The bird that may get the most attention, at least from birders, is the piping plover, which is endangered in Delaware. Look for black bands around their neck and on their foreheads. Their backs are the color of dry sand. You may see them tapping the sand with their feet, which is their way of searching the sand for the pinky nail-sized invertebrates they feed on, Bailey says.
Look for black skimmers flying inches above the water, their lower jaw skimming the surf, waiting to sense the slightest pressure. Brown pelicans arrive by late July, and by September visitors come in search of migrating hawks.
3. Seashore State Park, bayside kayak launch point off Savages Ditch Road
Every morning at 9:30 from Wednesday through Friday, a park naturalist leads a kayak tour in the bay. But it’s not really about the kayaking — it’s about a chance to see wildlife, says Laura Scharle, the interpretive site manager.
She said of one recent group, “They weren’t expecting to see that many kinds of birds. They weren’t expecting to see that many turtles. They were thrilled by it.”
Kayakers often find diamondback terrapins (so named for their shell patterns), horseshoe crabs, ribbed mussels and the occasional blue crab. Delaware’s bays are shallow, with an average depth of about three feet, and provide lots of places for small fish and crabs to hide.
Pre-registration is required (call 302-227-6991) and the cost is $35. There is also a Tuesday afternoon class for first-timers, which costs $25.
4. James Farm Ecological Preserve
A 10-minute drive from Bethany Beach, this 150-acre property is owned by Sussex County and managed by the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. With seven distinctive habitats, variety is the preserve’s calling card. McGowan, the center’s biologist, says the salt marsh and meadow are two examples of ecosystems that have been closely managed here.
Check out the osprey nest or find bayside horseshoe crabs, though their mating season winds up in late June. There is no charge for admission to the preserve.
If you’d like to get more involved, the center offers opportunities for volunteers, including periodic net surveys of marine wildlife, called “seining,” performed at 17 sites in and around southern Delaware’s three largest bays. These schedules vary, so your best bet is to contact Education and Outreach Coordinator Sally Boswell at email@example.com or 302-226-8105, ext. 103.
5. Assawoman Bay State Wildlife Area
Called the “forgotten bay,” Little Assawoman Bay has been protected from development, at least along its northern shores, by this preserve.
The preserve resembles a bay not so much as a bayou, said the center’s McGowan.
“It literally looks like you’re heading into the jungle,” he says.
Located between Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island, this wildlife area can be enjoyed on foot or from behind a windshield — its unpaved roads are driveable, McGowan says. Boating tours are available from a concessioner.