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Petersburg State Forest, Delaware

Now known as Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Area, Petersburg Tract.

Introduction How to Get There Terrain and Ecosystems Trail Description Plants and Animals Stories In-Page Navigation, Arethusa Falls Page
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Petersburg State Forest, Delaware

Now known as Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Area, Petersburg Tract.

When I lived in Dover, Petersburg was the nearest publicly-owned forest. I used to go hunting there for squirrels, rabbits, and deer. In summer, when it was still daylight when I got out of work, I'd sometimes just go and sit in the woods for an hour or so. Even during the school year, once in a while I would indulge myself in a little drive through the woods in the evening.

Driving through the woods just for the heck of it was a rather expensive proposition. The day I got my driver's license, the only self-service gas station in Dover raised the price to thirty cents a gallon! Of course, being a high-school kid, I had no actual living expenses that my parents didn't take care of, so I could afford the luxury of driving my motorcycle thirty miles or so, once in a while.

Preparing to write this description, I've been looking at maps and satellite photos of the area. I don't know the place anymore. Even the name has changed. So, I'll just base this description on memory. As you read this, be aware that the place as I remember it no longer exists.

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How to Get There

Petersburg State Forest was located about ten miles southwest of my home in southwestern Dover. I'd go west on state route 10, wending through the towns of Camden and Wyoming before I got out into the country. In the unincorporated village of Petersburg, I'd take a left on one of the little roads leading into the state forest.

If I was wandering through, I'd take a little dirt road through the heart of the state forest and emerge on Sandtown Road, to make my way to Felton. From there, U.S. Route 13 would take me back home to Dover.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

Petersburg State Forest was mostly a hardwood forest of tulip poplar, oak, and maple, with a few stands of pine. Some of it was kept clear to encourage rabbit, quail, and pheasant populations. Some of it was rather swampy, and the whole area was criss-crossed by a network of drainage ditches to discourage mosquito populations.

Like most of Delaware, the area is nearly flat, and barely above sea level. The only thing like a hill in Petersburg State Forest was the piles of tailings beside the drainage ditches. The ditches themselves were between two and three feet deep, with just a little trickle of water flowing in the bottom. Thus, they formed a perfect place to watch for deer: A little hummock to hide behind, and a straight, clear view of the deer as they slowed down to negotiate the ditch.

The forests were thick with gray squirrels and a healthy population of deer. These would feed on the acorns much of the year, as well as the browse of leaves and twigs. Winters were mild, compared to what I've become used to here in New Hampshire, so the deer were healthy and big. There are coyotes in Delaware now, but in those days, the only check on the deer population was human hunters.

The open areas were covered by a variety of brush and grasses that provided food and cover for quail and a few pheasant. Each of these meadows was about fifty acres or so, bounded by a hedge of greenbrier and bushes whose species has escaped my memory. There was also a hedge between the road and the meadow. Rabbits lived along the edges of the meadows where they could take cover in the hedges.

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Trail Description

Petersburg State Forest was not a park, so there were no marked or maintained trails. There was a network of dirt roads, which were closed during deer season, but the only trails were the deer trails, widened and worn by the passage of human hunters.

My usual trek through the forest was a dirt road that wound from Fire Tower Road to Sandtown Road, about a mile through thick forest. This road rose slightly, maybe ten feet, until it crossed a drainage ditch, then descended again. At this drainage ditch was a game trail that went off in either direction into some thick old woods.

East of the road, the trail led to a swampy wood with more oak than tulip. This was my favorite place for hunting squirrels in the late season. West of the road was drier and mostly tulip poplar, and this was my place for deer and early-season squirrels.

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Plants and Animals

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things I remember seeing there, and some of the more interesting things I saw there. I was mostly focused on hunting when I went to Petersburg State Forest, so most of the plants and animals I recall are the game animals and the plants that affect the movements and concentration of game animals.

Mammals

  • Gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Larger and fatter than "wild-living" gray squirrels I've seen in most places. Suburban squirrels can be just as large and fat, but in the woods, most are not as big as the ones I saw in Delaware.
  • Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Delaware also has some of the largest raccoons I've seen. They are very strictly nocturnal, but I'd see them on my way to my deer stand, and their tracks were abundant along the drainage ditches.
  • Whitetailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Also larger in Delaware than in most places I've seen them.
  • Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). Not as common as the hunters would have liked, they could be found in the hedgerows around the open fields.
  • Star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata). They frequently tunnel along the margins of the drainage ditches. More than once, the soil collapsed under me as I climbed over an area weakened by a mole tunnel. And once, this collapse sent me and the very startled mole into the water together!
  • Little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus). Bats often accompanied me on the way back to my car after an evening hunt. More correctly, mosquitoes accompanied me, and the bats followed the mosquitoes.
  • Delmarva fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus). Until you see one, you will not believe that a squirrel can be so large. This extremely rare subspecies looks almost exaclty like a gray squirrel, maybe a little paler, but it's as big as a fox!

Birds

  • Bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus). Common in the open fields and meadows.
  • American woodcock (Scolopax minor). Not easily seen, but present. They like to flush when you get very close to them, for the startle effect.
  • Ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus). There was probably not a breeding population, but enough of the pen-raised birds released each year for "hunting season" would survive so that you could see pheasants all year long. This is another bird that likes to startle you, and being larger, they're much better at startling than woodcocks are.
  • Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). As I recall, they were rare enough that hunting was not allowed, but I saw them once in a while.
  • Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). I saw them hunting and eating squirrels several times.

Other Animals

  • Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix.). Very uncommon in the state, but I saw them a couple of times.
  • Whirligig beetles (species of the family Gyrinidae). Wherever the water in the ditches was more than a few inches deep, these shiny beetles would take up residence.
  • Water striders (Gerris sp.). Wherever the whirligig beetles didn't like the water, the water striders would live.

Trees

  • Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). Dominant in all but the swampiest hardwood areas.
  • Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor). Dominant in the wetter areas, present just about everywhere.
  • Pine (Pinus sp.). A few isolated stands among the hardwoods. They seem to perpetuate themselves, as their fallen needles render the soil too acidic for the hardwood seedlings to grow. I'm not sure of the species. As I recall, the needles were somewhat longer than those of the eastern white pine (P. strobus) we have here in New Hampshire, but that could be simple regional variation. However, I'm pretty sure they grew their needles in fascicles of three, while P. strobus has fascicles of five. Three needle fascicles would fit the long-leaf pine (P. palustris), but I don't think they grow as far north as Delaware. Must check on this the next time I'm in the area. These same pines are quite common in other parts of Delaware, but only in isolated stands in Petersburg State Forest.

Other Plants

  • Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) Its odd flowers can poke through the last ice and snow of winter, and its pale green leaves decorate the swamps until the first frost.
  • Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia). Common along the roadsides, but not in the forest.
  • Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia). Often marks the end of the trail. You can't get through where this living barbed wire takes hold.
  • Beggars lice (Hackelia virginiana). All too common in many small openings in the woods. Their bur-like seed pods, rows of little triangular packets, often accompanied me home, and my dog was hardly ever free of them.
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