Have you purchased your 2023-2024 Federal Duck Stamp? Nearly every penny of the 25 dollars you spend for a duck stamp goes toward habitat acquisition and improvements for waterfowl and the hundreds of other animal species that use wetlands for breeding, feeding, and as migration stopover points. Duck stamps aren’t just for hunters, purchasers get free admission to National Wildlife Refuges all over the United States. So do something good for conservation—stop by your local post office and get your Federal Duck Stamp.
Your Federal Duck Stamp is your admission ticket for entry into many of the country’s National Wildlife Refuges including Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Delaware Bay near Smyrna, Delaware.
Still not convinced that a Federal Duck Stamp is worth the money? Well then, follow along as we take a photo tour of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Numbers of southbound shorebirds are on the rise in the refuge’s saltwater marshes and freshwater pools, so we timed a visit earlier this week to coincide with a late-morning high tide.
This pair of Northern Bobwhite, a species now extirpated from the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed and the rest of Pennsylvania, escorted us into the refuge. At Bombay Hook, they don’t waste your money mowing grass. Instead, a mosaic of warm-season grasses and early successional growth creates ideal habitat for Northern Bobwhite and other wildlife.
Twice each day, high tide inundates mudflats in the saltwater tidal marshes at Bombay Hook prompting shorebirds to move into the four man-made freshwater pools. Birds there can often be observed at close range. The auto tour route through the refuge primarily follows a path atop the dikes that create these freshwater pools. Morning light is best when viewing birds on the freshwater side of the road, late-afternoon light is best for observing birds on the tidal saltwater side.
A Great Blue Heron at high tide on the edge of a tidal creek that borders Bombay Hook’s tour route at Raymond Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpipers stream into Raymond Pool to escape the rising tide in the salt marsh.
More Semipalmated Sandpipers and a single Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) arrive at Raymond Pool.
Two more Short-billed Dowitchers on the way in.
Recent rains have flooded some of the mudflats in Bombay Hook’s freshwater pools. During our visit, birds were often clustered in areas where bare ground was exposed or where water was shallow enough to feed. Here, Short-billed Dowitchers in the foreground wade in deeper water to probe the bottom while Semipalmated Sandpipers arrive to feed along the pool’s edge. Mallards, American Avocets, and egrets are gathered on the shore.
More Short-billed Dowitchers arriving to feed in Raymond Pool.
Hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers gathered in shallow water where mudflats are usually exposed during mid-summer in Raymond Pool.
Hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers, several Short-billed Dowitchers, and some Forster’s Terns (Sterna forsteri) crowd onto a mud bar at Bear Swamp Pool.
A zoomed-in view of the previous image showing a tightly packed crowd of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Forster’s Terns, and a Short-billed Dowitcher (upper left).
Short-billed Dowitchers wading to feed in the unusually high waters of Raymond Pool.
Short-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, and a Snowy Egret in Raymond Pool. A single Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) can been seen flying near the top of the flock of dowitchers just below the egret.
Zoomed-in view of a Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), the bird with white wing linings.
American Avocets probe the muddy bottom of Raymond Pool.
Among these Short-billed Dowitchers, the second bird from the bottom is a Dunlin. This sandpiper, still in breeding plumage, is a little bit early. Many migrating Dunlin linger at Bombay Hook into October and even November.
This Least Sandpiper found a nice little feeding area all to itself at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool
A Greater Yellowlegs at Bear Swamp Pool.
A Caspian Tern patrolling Raymond Pool.
The chattering notes of the Marsh Wren’s (Cistothorus palustris) song can be heard along the tour road wherever it borders tidal waters.
This dome-shaped Marsh Wren nest is supported by the stems of Saltwater Cordgrass (Sporobolus alterniflorus), a plant also known as Smooth Cordgrass. High tide licks at the roots of the cordgrass supporting the temporary domicile.
By far the most common dragonfly at Bombay Hook is the Seaside Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax berenice). It is our only dragonfly able to breed in saltwater. Seaside Dragonlets are in constant view along the impoundment dikes in the refuge.
Red-winged Blackbirds are still nesting at Bombay Hook, probably tending a second brood.
Look up! A migrating Bobolink passes over the dike at Shearness Pool.
Non-native Mute Swans and resident-type Canada Geese in the rain-swollen Shearness Pool.
A pair of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) as seen from the observation tower at Shearness Pool. Unlike gregarious Tundra and Mute Swans, pairs of Trumpeter Swans prefer to nest alone, one pair to a pond, lake, or sluggish stretch of river. The range of these enormous birds was restricted to western North America and their numbers were believed to be as low as 70 birds during the early twentieth century. An isolated population consisting of several thousand birds was discovered in a remote area of Alaska during the 1930s allowing conservation practices to protect and restore their numbers. Trumpeter Swans are slowly repopulating scattered east coast locations following recent re-introduction into suitable habitats in the Great Lakes region.
A Great Egret prowling Shearness Pool.
A Snowy Egret in Bear Swamp Pool.
Wood Ducks in Bear Swamp Pool.
A Bombay Hook N.W.R. specialty, a Black-necked Stilt and young at Bear Swamp Pool.
As the tide recedes, shorebirds leave the freshwater pools to begin feeding on the vast mudflats exposed within the saltwater marshes. Most birds are far from view, but that won’t stop a dedicated observer from finding other spectacular creatures on the bay side of the tour route road.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects a vast parcel of tidal salt marsh and an extensive network of tidal creeks. These areas are not only essential wildlife habitat, but are critical components for maintaining water quality in Delaware Bay and the Atlantic.
The shells of expired Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs were formerly widespread and common among the naturally occurring flotsam along the high tide line on Delaware Bay. We found just this one during our visit to Bombay Hook. Man has certainly decimated populations of this ancient crustacean during recent decades.
As the tide goes out, it’s a good time for a quick walk into the salt marsh on the boardwalk trail opposite Raymond Pool.
Among the Saltmarsh Cordgrass along the trail and on the banks of the tidal creek there, a visitor will find thousands and thousands of Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs (Minuca pugnax).
Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crabs and their extensive system of burrows help prevent the compaction of tidal soils and thus help maintain ideal conditions for the pure stands of Saltwater Cordgrass that trap sediments and sequester nutrients in coastal wetlands.
A male Atlantic Marsh Fiddler Crab peers from its den.
Herons and egrets including this Great Egret are quite fond of fiddler crabs. As the tide goes out, many will venture away from the freshwater pools into the salt marshes to find them.
A Green Heron seen just before descending into the cordgrass to find fiddler crabs for dinner.
A juvenile Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans crepitans) emerges from the cover of the cordgrass along a tidal creek to search for a meal.
Glossy Ibis leave their high-tide hiding place in Shearness Pool to head out into the tidal marshes for the afternoon.
Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and possibly other species feed on the mudflats exposed by low tide in the marshes opposite Shearness Pool.
An Osprey patrols the vast tidal areas opposite Shearness Pool.
No visit to Bombay Hook is complete without at least a quick loop through the upland habitats at the far end of the tour route.
Indigo Buntings nest in areas of successional growth and yes, that is a Spotted Lanternfly on the grape vine at the far right side of the image.
Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) are common nesting birds at Bombay Hook. This one was in shrubby growth along the dike at the north end of Shearness Pool.
These two native vines are widespread at Bombay Hook and are an excellent source of food for birds. The orange flowers of the Trumpet Vine are a hummingbird favorite and the Poison Ivy provides berries for numerous species of wintering birds.
The Pileated Woodpecker is one of the numerous birds that supplements its diet with Poison Ivy berries. The tree this individual is visiting is an American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), a species native to the Atlantic Coastal Plain in Delaware. The seed balls are a favorite winter food of goldfinches and siskins.
Finis Pool has no frontage on the tidal marsh but is still worth a visit. It lies along a spur road on the tour route and is located within a deciduous coastal plain forest. Check the waters there for basking turtles like this giant Northern Red-bellied Cooter (Pseudemys rubiventris) and much smaller Painted Turtle.
The White-tailed Deity is common along the road to Finis Pool.
Fowler’s Toads (Anaxyrus fowleri) breed in the vernal ponds found in the vicinity of Finis Pool and elsewhere throughout the refuge.
The National Wildlife Refuge System not only protects animal species, it sustains rare and unusual plants as well. This beauty is a Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum), a native wildflower of wet woods and swamps.
Just as quail led us into the refuge this morning, this Wild Turkey did us the courtesy of leading us to the way out in the afternoon.
We hope you’ve been convinced to visit Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge sometime soon. And we hope too that you’ll help fund additional conservation acquisitions and improvements by visiting your local post office and buying a Federal Duck Stamp.
It’s surprising how many millions of people travel the busy coastal routes of Delaware each year to leave the traffic congestion and hectic life of the northeast corridor behind to visit congested hectic shore towns like Rehobeth Beach, Bethany Beach, and Ocean City, Maryland. They call it a vacation, or a holiday, or a weekend, and it’s exhausting. What’s amazing is how many of them drive right by a breathtaking national treasure located along Delaware Bay just east of the city of Dover—and never know it. A short detour on your route will take you there. It’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, a quiet but spectacular place that draws few crowds of tourists, but lots of birds and other wildlife.
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is located just off Route 9, a lightly-traveled coastal road east of Dover, Delaware. Note the Big Bluestem and other warm season grasses in the background. Bombay Hook, like other refuges in the system, is managed for the benefit of the wildlife that relies upon it to survive. Within recent years, most of the mowed grass and tilled ground that once occurred here has been replaced by prairie grasses or successional growth, much to the delight of Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) and other species.
Let’s join Uncle Tyler Dyer and have a look around Bombay Hook. He’s got his duck stamp and he’s ready to go.
Uncle Ty’s current United States Fish and Wildlife Service Duck Stamp displayed on his dashboard is free admission to the tour road at Bombay Hook and other National Wildlife Refuges.
The refuge at Bombay Hook includes woodlands, grasslands, and man-made freshwater pools, but it is predominately a protectorate of thousands of acres of tidal salt marsh bordering and purifying the waters of Delaware Bay. These marshes are renowned wintering areas for an Atlantic population of Snow Goose known as the “Greater Snow Goose” (Anser caerulescens atlanticus). Witnessing thousands of these birds rising over the marsh and glowing in the amber light of a setting sun is an unforgettable experience.
Trails at various stops along the auto tour route lead to observation towers and other features. This boardwalk meanders into the salt marsh grasses and includes a viewing area alongside a tidal creek. Our visit coincided with a very high tide induced by east winds and a new moon.
During high tide, an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) seeks higher ground near the boardwalk and the wooded edge of the salt marsh.
As the tide rises, fast-flying shorebirds scramble from flooded mudflats in the salt marsh on the east side of the tour road.
When high tide arrives in the salt marshes, shorebirds and waterfowl often concentrate in the man-made freshwater pools on the west side of the tour road. Glaring afternoon sun is not the best for viewing birds located west of the road. For ideal light conditions, time your visit for a day when high tide occurs in the morning and recedes to low tide in the afternoon.
A view looking west into Shearness Pool, largest of the freshwater impoundments at Bombay Hook.
Bombay Hook has many secretive birds hiding in its wetlands, but they can often be located by the patient observer. Here, two Pied-billed Grebes feed in an opening among the vegetation in a freshwater pool.
One of Bombay Hook’s resident Bald Eagles patrols the wetlands.
American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) gather by the hundreds at Bombay Hook during the fall. A passing eagle will stir them into flight.
An American Avocet, a delicate wader with a peculiar upturned bill.
As soon as the tide begins receding, shorebirds and waterfowl like these Green-winged Teal begin dispersing into the salt marshes to feed on the exposed mudflats.
The woodlands and forested areas of the refuge host resident songbirds and can be attractive to migrating species like this Yellow-rumped Warbler.
For much of its course, the tour road at Bombay Hook is located atop the dike that creates the man-made freshwater pools on the western edge of the tidal salt marsh. If you drive slowly and make frequent stops to look and listen, you’ll notice an abundance of birds and other wildlife living along this border between two habitats. Here, a Swamp Sparrow has a look around.
Savannah Sparrows are common along the tour road where native grasses grow wild.
Bombay Hook is renowned for its rarities. One of the attractions during the late summer and autumn of 2021 was a group of Roseate Spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), vagrants from the southern states, seen here with Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula).
Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets at Bombay Hook.
Remember to go the Post Office and get your duck stamp. You’ll be supporting habitat acquisition and improvements for the wildlife we cherish. And if you get the chance, visit a National Wildlife Refuge. November can be a great time to go, it’s bug-free! Just take along your warmest clothing and plan to spend the day. You won’t regret it.