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.
Thoughts of October in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed bring to mind scenes of brilliant fall foliage adorning wooded hillsides and stream courses, frosty mornings bringing an end to the growing season, and geese and other birds flying south for the winter.
The autumn migration of birds spans a period equaling nearly half the calendar year. Shorebirds and Neotropical perching birds begin moving through as early as late July, just as daylight hours begin decreasing during the weeks following their peak at summer solstice in late June. During the darkest days of the year, those surrounding winter solstice in late December, the last of the southbound migrants, including some hawks, eagles, waterfowl, and gulls, may still be on the move.
The Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), a rodent-eating raptor of tundra, grassland, and marsh, is rare as a migrant and winter resident in the lower Susquehanna valley. It may arrive as late as January, if at all.
During October, there is a distinct change in the list of species an observer might find migrating through the lower Susquehanna valley. Reduced hours of daylight and plunges in temperatures—particularly frost and freeze events—impact the food sources available to birds. It is during October that we say goodbye to the Neotropical migrants and hello to those more hardy species that spend their winters in temperate climates like ours.
During several of the first days of October, two hundred Chimney Swifts remained in this roost until temperatures warmed from the low forties at daybreak to the upper fifties at mid-morning; then, at last, the flock ventured out in search of flying insects. When a population of birds loses its food supply or is unable to access it, that population must relocate or perish. Like other insectivorous birds, these swifts must move to warmer climes to be assured a sustained supply of the flying bugs they need to survive. Due to their specialized food source, they can be considered “specialist” feeders in comparison to species with more varied diets, the “generalists”. After returning to this chimney every evening for nearly two months, the swifts departed this roost on October 5 and did not return.
A Northern Parula lingers as an October migrant along the Susquehanna. This and other specialist feeders that survive almost entirely on insects found in the forest canopy are largely south of the Susquehanna watershed by the second week of October.
The Blackpoll Warbler is among the last of the insectivorous Neotropical warblers to pass through the riparian forests of the lower Susquehanna valley each fall. Through at least mid-October, it is regularly seen searching for crawling insects and larvae among the foliage and bark of Northern Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) trees near Conewago Falls. Most other warblers, particularly those that feed largely upon flying insects, are, by then, already gone.
The Blue-headed Vireo, another insectivore, is the last of the vireo species to pass through the valley. They linger only as long as there are leaves on the trees in which they feed.
Brown Creepers begin arriving in early October. They are specialist feeders, well-adapted to finding insect larvae and other invertebrates among the ridges and peeling bark of trees like this hackberry, even through the winter months.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets can be abundant migrants in October. They will often behave like cute little flycatchers, but quickly transition to picking insects and other invertebrates from foliage and bark as the weather turns frosty. Some may spend the winter here, particularly in the vicinity of stands of pines, which provide cover and some thermal protection during storms and bitter cold.
Beginning in early October, Golden-crowned Kinglets can be seen searching the forest wood for tiny invertebrates. They are the most commonly encountered kinglet in winter.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a woodpecker, is an October migrant that specializes in attracting small insects to tiny seeps of sap it creates by punching horizontal rows of shallow holes through the tree bark. Some remain for winter.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler arrives in force during October. It is the most likely of the warblers to be found here in winter. Yellow-rumped Warblers are generalists, feeding upon insects during the warmer months, but able to survive on berries and other foods in late fall and winter. Wild foods like these Poison Ivy berries are crucial for the survival of this and many other generalists.
American Robins are most familiar as hunters of earthworms on the suburban lawn, but they are generalist feeders that rely upon fruits like these Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) berries during their southbound migration in late October and early November each year. Robins remain for the winter in areas of the lower Susquehanna valley with ample berries for food and groves of mature pines for roosting.
Like other brown woodland thrushes, the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) is commonly seen scratching through organic matter on the moist forest floor in search of invertebrates. Unlike the other species, it is a cold-hardy generalist feeder, often seen eating berries during the southbound October migration. Small numbers of Hermit Thrushes spend the winter in the lower Susquehanna valley, particularly in habitats with a mix of wild foods.
Due to their feeding behavior, Cedar Waxwings can easily be mistaken for flycatchers during the nesting season, but by October they’ve transitioned to voracious consumers of small wild fruits. During the remainder of the year, flocks of waxwings wander widely in search of foods like this Fox Grape (Vitis labrusca). An abundance of cedar, holly, Poison Ivy, hackberry, bittersweet , hawthorn, wild grape, and other berries is essential to their survival during the colder months.
Red-breasted Nuthatches have moved south in large numbers during the fall of 2020. They were particularly common in the lower Susquehanna region during mid-October. Red-breasted Nuthatches can feed on invertebrates during warm weather, but get forced south from Canada in droves when the cone crops on coniferous trees fail to provide an adequate supply of seeds for the colder fall and winter seasons. In the absence of wild foods, these generalists will visit feeding stations stocked with suet and other provisions.
Purple Finches (Haemorhous purpureus) were unusually common as October migrants in 2020. They are often considered seed eaters during cold weather, but will readily consume small fruits like these berries on an invasive Mile-a-minute Weed (Persicaria perfoliata) vine. Purple Finches are quite fond of sunflower seeds at feeding stations, but often shy away if aggressive House Sparrows or House Finches are present.
The need for food and cover is critical for the survival of wildlife during the colder months. If you are a property steward, think about providing places for wildlife in the landscape. Mow less. Plant trees, particularly evergreens. Thickets are good—plant or protect fruit-bearing vines and shrubs, and allow herbaceous native plants to flower and produce seed. And if you’re putting out provisions for songbirds, keep the feeders clean. Remember, even small yards and gardens can provide a life-saving oasis for migrating and wintering birds. With a larger parcel of land, you can do even more.
GOT BERRIES? Common Winterbery (Ilex verticillata) is a native deciduous holly that looks its best in the winter, especially with snow on the ground. It’s slow-growing, and never needs pruning. Birds including bluebirds love the berries and you can plant it in wet ground, even along a stream, in a stormwater basin, or in a rain garden where your downspouts discharge. Because it’s a holly, you’ll need to plant a male and a female to get the berries. Full sun produces the best crop. Fall is a great time to plant, and many garden centers that sell holiday greenery still have winterberry shrubs for sale in November and December. Put a clump of these beauties in your landscape. Gorgeous!
They get a touch of it here, and a sparkle or two there. Maybe, for a couple of hours each day, the glorious life-giving glow of the sun finds an opening in the canopy to warm and nourish their leaves, then the rays of light creep away across the forest floor, and it’s shade for the remainder of the day.
The flowering plants which thrive in the understory of the Riparian Woodlands often escape much notice. They gather only a fraction of the daylight collected by species growing in full exposure to the sun. Yet, by season’s end, many produce showy flowers or nourishing fruits of great import to wildlife. While light may be sparingly rationed through the leaves of the tall trees overhead, moisture is nearly always assured in the damp soils of the riverside forest. For these plants, growth is slow, but continuous. And now, it’s show time.
So let’s take a late-summer stroll through the Riparian Woodlands of Conewago Falls, minus the face full of cobwebs, and have a look at some of the strikingly beautiful plants found living in the shadows.
Oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) is common on the interior and along the edges of Riparian Woodland. Specimens in deep shade flower less profusely and average less than half the height of the five feet tall inhabitants of edge environs.
Pale Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens pallida) is one of two species of native Impatiens found in the river floodplain. Both are known as Jewelweed. The stems and leaves of the indigenous Impatiens retain a great quantity of water, so life in filtered sunlight is essential to prevent desiccation. Contrary to popular folklore, extracts of Jewelweed plants are not effective treatments of Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) contact dermatitis.
Spotted Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis) is typically found in wetter soil than I. pallida. Both Jewelweeds develop popping capsules which help to distribute the seeds of these annual wildflowers. “Touch Me Not”, or you’ll be wearing tiny seeds.
Green-headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) grows to heights of eight feet in full sun, hence its alternate common name, Tall Coneflower. In deep shade, it may not exceed two feet in height. Floodplains are the prime domain of this perennial.
Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) normally flowers no earlier than late August. The bases of the leaves are continued onto the stem of the plant to form wings which extend downward along its length. This wildflower tolerates shade, but flowers more profusely along the woodland edge.
Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), or Great Blue Lobelia, is a magnificent wetland and moist woodland wildflower, usually attaining three feet in height and adorned with a plant-topping spike of blossoms. Invasive Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) can be seen here competing with this plant, resulting in a shorter, less productive Lobelia. Stiltgrass was not found in the Susquehanna River floodplain at Conewago Falls until sometime after 1997. It has spread to all areas of woodland shade, its tiny seeds being blown and translocated along roads, mowed lots, trails, and streams to quickly colonize and overtake new ground.
American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), a shrub of shaded woods, develops inflated capsules which easily float away during high water to distribute the seeds contained inside.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a shrub of wet soils which produces a strange spherical flower, followed by this globular seed cluster.
Common Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a colony-forming small tree which produces a fleshy fruit. It is the host plant for the caterpillars of the Zebra Swallowtail. The plant and the butterfly approach the northern limit of their geographic range at Conewago Falls.
Common Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a widespread understory shrub in wet floodplain soils. It is the host plant for the caterpillars of the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus).
Sweet Autumn Virgin’s Bower (Clematis terniflora) is an escape from cultivation which has recently naturalized in the edge areas of the Conewago Falls Riparian Woodlands. This vine is very showy when flowering and producing seed, but can be detrimental to some of the understory shrubs upon which it tends to climb.
Long, David; Ballentine, Noel H.; and Marks, James G., Jr. 1997. Treatment of Poison Ivy/Oak Allergic Contact Dermatitis With an Extract of Jewelweed.
American Journal of Contact Dermatitis. 8(3): pp. 150-153.
Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977.
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little, Brown and Company. Boston, Massachusetts.