Wildlife Watching at Delaware Canal State Park
With its combination of shallow waterways, river islands, green spaces, and cliff faces, Delaware Canal State Park offers an abundance of habitats for birds and other wildlife.
At least 154 bird species call the Delaware Canal home.
Birds often sighted along the canal include:
Natural Lands Trust and Bucks County Audubon Society also participate in birding programs at Delaware Canal State Park.
The Giving Pond
A former sand and gravel quarry, Giving Pond is now a quiet, 50-acre body of water nestled between the Delaware River and the Delaware Canal. An ideal spot for paddling, fishing, birding, and more, the recreation area is a hidden gem and the newest addition to Delaware Canal State Park.
Acquired in 2002 and dedicated in 2003, it is a habitat progressing toward a more natural environment, which makes for an interesting opportunity to observe nature’s resiliency.
Giving Pond is open to non-powered boats and craft with electric motors only.
Hunting in the Giving Pond Recreational Area of Delaware Canal State Park is restricted to the use of archery equipment for deer during the appropriate seasons.
The Delaware River
At 330 miles in length, the Delaware is the longest, free-flowing river east of the Mississippi and serves as a major migration corridor for birds and fish like American shad.
Delaware Canal State Park maintains six public recreation areas with shoreline access to the river.
Of the many islands in the river, 11 are protected as the Delaware River Islands State Park Natural Area.
The 65-mile segment of the Lower Delaware River and selected tributaries are part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems. This designation recognizes free-flowing rivers with exceptional natural, recreational, historical, and cultural resources.
The Delaware River is the longest, undammed, free-flowing river east of the Mississippi. However, many of its tributaries, such as the Lehigh River, have been dammed for industrial, water retention, or flood control purposes.
The dam at the mouth of the Lehigh River is integral to the functioning of the Delaware Canal, as it provides the primary water source for the canal’s northern section.
Yet, dams inhibit the movement of migratory fish species, such as the American shad. Shad need to return to their birthplace in order to spawn. Obstructions such as dams cause declines of migratory fish species.
One way to help migratory fish overcome manmade obstacles is to build them a ladder. The shad ladder at Easton is an inclined series of water-filled chambers fish can navigate to pass over a dam.
Shad are attracted to the strong current created by the outflow at the bottom of the fish ladder, and swim into the first “step” of the ladder. The walls of the chamber are carefully designed to create a strong current of water that will lead the fish into the next chamber and a calm pool where a tired fish can rest without being washed back out of the ladder.
By swimming from chamber to chamber, the fish progress uphill and over the dam. When it passes through the final “step” of the ladder, it reenters the river above the dam and can continue upstream toward its spawning grounds.
Creating and maintaining structures such as the shad ladder has gone a long way toward restoring the indigenous shad population of the Delaware River and its tributaries. Fish ladders improve the natural diversity of our waterways and increase their recreational value as well.
The American shad (Alosa sapidissima) is the largest member of the herring family. Spawning adults commonly reach four to eight pounds. Female shad are called “roes” and males “bucks.”
An anadromous species, shad are born in freshwater, spend three to six years at sea and return to their natal waters to spawn.
Adult shad do not eat on their way to the spawning grounds. Unlike salmon, not all shad die after spawning and will eat on their return trip to the sea.
For centuries, there has been a dynamic interaction between the Delaware River and the people and cultures that have lived and worked in its basin. One of the best examples of this interaction is the story of the American shad. Because of its predictable migrations, shad have served as an important resource to many cultures throughout history.
The Lenni Lenape depended on shad as a staple of their diet. They grilled them on wooden racks, air dried, and smoked them. The shad was an important part of life for the early Moravians and other settlers in the Delaware Valley.
As human populations grew, pollution from sewage and industrial wastewater increased. By the early twentieth century, key fish populations of the Philadelphia waterfront had all but collapsed due to pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing.
Water pollution worsened during World War II. During 1946, the Delaware Estuary experienced a 20-mile zone of zero dissolved oxygen. Without dissolved oxygen to breathe, all migrating fish, including the American shad, were prevented from passing into their native spawning grounds.
During 1961, the Delaware River Basin Commission launched a pollution control effort which greatly improved water quality. Unfortunately, pollution was not the only barrier affecting American shad.
During the great canal building era of the 1830s, rivers were dammed to ensure water supplies for the canals. Two dams vital to the Delaware and Lehigh Canal system disrupted the shad migration up the Lehigh River, preventing the fish from reaching their spawning grounds.
To help the shad re-establish their native spawning grounds on the Lehigh River, while keeping the historic canal intact, park staff maintained two fish passageways since 1993. These “ladders” allow the fish to navigate upstream around the dams, and on to spawning grounds in the Lehigh River as far north as the Frances E. Walter Dam.
State Park Natural Areas
Pennsylvania state park natural areas are of unique scenic, geological, or ecological value. These areas are maintained in a natural condition by allowing physical and biological processes to operate, usually without human intervention.
Natural areas are set aside to provide locations for:
Scientific observation of natural systems
Protection of examples of typical and unique plant and animal communities
Protection of outstanding examples of natural interest and beauty
Delaware Canal State Park has two designated state park natural areas:
These areas contain threatened or endangered species and are unique natural environments.
Visitors are welcome to explore these areas, but are asked to abide by the old saying, “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”
Camping, hunting, and trapping are prohibited within a natural area, including the river islands.
Nockamixon Cliffs Natural Area
The Nockamixon Cliffs Natural Area forms sheer, north-facing cliffs that tower over 300 feet above the river. The shale cliffs are situated at a curve in the river, between Kintnersville and Narrowsville. Visible from both the Delaware River and New Jersey, these cliffs dominate the landscape of the entire area.
In places, series of rock shelves and deeply cut ravines containing seeps and rivulets provide habitat for a variety of forest and cliff plant communities. The rock appears to be bare in winter, but is well covered by vegetation in summer.
Due to their north-facing aspect, Nockamixon Cliffs receive little direct sunlight. This cool habitat supports an alpine-arctic plant community that is unusual to find this far south. Some of these plants are rare or endangered in Pennsylvania.
Directly across the Delaware River, an opposite set of circumstances occurs, creating habitat for unusually arid plants.
Nockamixon Cliffs began in the Triassic period when tall mountains to the northwest were heavily eroded and deposited red sand and mud in shallow lakes. Great pressure turned the sand and mud into red sandstone and shale that can still be found throughout the region. They are bright red and break easily into flakes and fragments.
Toward the end of the Triassic Period, molten magma from deep within the earth’s crust flowed into these beds of sedimentary rock. These “igneous intrusions” heated the surrounding sandstone and shale, changing them into tough, weather-resistant rock called hornfel.
During the Jurassic Period, the region was subjected to continuous erosion. While some other rock, such as the sandstone and shale were worn away, the hornfel resisted weathering, allowing the Nockamixon Cliffs to rise above the surrounding landscape.
The talus slope at the cliff base is covered by Dutchmen’s breeches during the spring. Wild columbine, rock cress, herb Robert, moss phlox, and harebell carpet the rock face well into summer.
The area is frequented by raptors and a variety of other birds, adding a dimension of wilderness to the general character of rugged, unspoiled beauty.
Due to the delicacy of the plant communities present in the Nockamixon Cliffs Natural Area, active recreational pursuits such as rock climbing, camping, and hunting are prohibited within its boundaries.
River Islands Natural Area
Both humans and wildlife use the undisturbed natural areas of the Delaware River Islands for rest and recreation. The Delaware River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the United States, is an important corridor for migrating birds; the islands provide safe stopovers through a rapidly developing area.
Publicly owned river islands also enhance recreational opportunities for paddlers and anglers. The islands are part of the water trail on the Delaware River. For more information about the sections of the water trail adjacent to the park or to order recreational river maps, visit the Delaware River Basin Commission.
Some river islands, such as Hendrick Island, were originally part of the main shoreline, but most islands grew individually from the river itself. Silt and stone left by glacial waters almost 10,000 years ago form the substrate of these islands.
Seeds were eventually deposited by wind, water, or wildlife. As plants grow on the islands, the roots bind the substrate materials together.
Although they are relatively stable, the size, shape, and location of the islands shift slightly with the movements of the river.
Delaware Canal State Park manages the Delaware River Islands Natural Area, which includes (from north to south):
With the exception of Hendrick Island, all the river islands are located near Raubsville and Kintnersville, in the northernmost 12 miles of the park.
The main island at Hendrick is designated as a Special Management Area due to archaeological significance.
While river islands are beautiful places to rest and fun to explore, please visit them with care. The islands are delicate environments, and provide important habitat for birds, other wildlife, and several rare plants. Camping and hunting is prohibited in the Delaware River Islands Natural Area.