Last Updated on May 29, 2023 by Nancie
Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful birding spot. Visiting the refuge for the first time was a great experience. The water in the pools was low, probably due to a recent drought, so this mid-October day was a time of shorebirds. Most of the winter ducks and the geese had not yet arrived.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Bombay Hook is on the western side of the Delaware Bay in Smyrna, near Dover, and is known for birding. Jim and I spent a Friday there exploring the refuge. Our original plan was to spend the weekend birding in Cape May New Jersey, which we did. But we decided to add a day to the trip to stop at Bombay Hook on the way and were glad we did. It turned out to be the highlight of the trip. We spent about six hours on the refuge before continuing south to take the Lewes-Cape May Ferry across the bay to Cape May in late afternoon.
About Bombay Hook
Jim and I arrived at the refuge at around 8:30. It opens a half hour before sunrise and closes a half hour after sunset. Entrance fees are just a few dollars (cash or check) or you can use your current Duck Stamp.
From the refuge website: “Stretching eight miles along Delaware Bay and covering 16,251 acres, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for wildlife. Four-fifths of the refuge is tidal salt marsh with a mix of cordgrass meadows, mud flats, tidal pools, rivers, creeks, and tidal streams. The upland area includes forests, freshwater impoundments, brushy and timbered swamps, and fields of herbaceous plants. This diversity of habitats is reflected in the diversity of animal life.”
“The refuge offers visitors a 12-mile wildlife drive, five walking trails (2 handicapped accessible), three observation towers, wildlife photography, hunting opportunities, a variety of nature and educational programs, and interpretative displays.”
The fall day when Jim and I went birding at Bombay Hook was clear but windy. Because about half of the Wildlife Drive portion of the refuge was closed for hunting that day, there was no entrance fee. Even with this more limited access, it was still well worth the visit. We saw some great birds, several of which were new to us.
The refuge’s Wildlife Drive runs from the visitor’s center around and/or along four pools: Raymond Pool, Shearness Pool, Bear Swamp Pool and Finis Pool. There are observation towers looking out over the first three. Due to the hunting, we were only able to bird along the first two pools. Many of the birds we saw from a distance so we were glad we had our scope along to get a closer look!
Our first stop was the observation tower at Raymond Pool, the smallest of the ponds and the first you come to along the drive. There was an easy short walk to the observation tower which gave us a nice view over the pond. With temperatures in the upper 40s and wind, it was cold up on the tower. Keep that in mind when visiting on cooler days: dress warm!
From this tower, we were able to immediately see the bird that we had come to Bombay Hook in search of: American Avocets. These beautiful and graceful looking large shorebirds were spread out over the pond. Some were in large groups sleeping/resting and others were moving around on the water, feeding. In breeding plumage, these birds are black, white and pink. Their fall colors are a striking black and white.
Marbled Godwits and More
Tucked within the flocks of sleepy avocets were a handful of Marbled Godwits. From a distance, even with their marbled brown coloring, you might not have even realized they were there, hidden among the black and white avocets. There were also a few Willets and a bunch of Short-Billed Dowitchers on the ponds.
Continuing along the drive, you can get a different lower perspective from the road’s raised ground along the pools. With so much open water close to the Wildlife Drive, this really was a good place for getting a nice view of a variety of shorebirds.
For example, later on Shearness Pool, we saw a pair of Black-Bellied Plovers in their winter plumage, as well as a couple Lesser Yellowlegs, a bunch of Semipalmated Plovers and a couple Least Sandpipers.
Shorebirds can be tricky to identify, especially in their typically less showy fall/winter colors. We prepared for our trip by working our way through the “Be a Better Birder: Shorebird Identification” online course.
This is an archived online course from The Cornell Lab of Ornothology and taught by Kevin McGowan. An identification-focused class, it really helps you to get your mind around this type of bird. It covers all forty-seven shorebirds found in the US and Canada. I highly recommend it, as well as any of Kevin McGowan’s Bird Academy courses. They are excellent.
By mid-day, we started to see flocks of Dunlins moving around over Bombay Hook’s pools and out over the marsh. Dunlins, yet another shorebird, fly together in coordinated murmurations that are amazing to watch. We didn’t get a video of the Dunlin flocks we saw, but BirdNote has a cool “Dance of the Dunlins” video on their site.
Murmurations like these can be about evading predators. BirdNote has an interesting story that touches on Dunlins and predators: Apparently with the banning of DDT, there are now more Peregrine Falcons on both coasts, so more danger for Dunlins. In response, they are spending more time in the air each day to avoid being eaten. We saw a couple Northern Harriers working the marshes near the pools, although we didn’t actually see the Dunlins being chased.
Also on the ponds were Mallards, some Black Ducks and Northern Shovelers. This was very early in duck season. We want to go back this winter and see how ducks like the pools then.
The bird that made the trip though was a Virginia Rail that we came across along the half mile long Bombay Hook’s Boardwalk Trail near Raymond Pool. This trail gives you a peek at the tidal salt marshes which cover wide parts of the refuge that lay beyond the auto trail.
The rail was just a few feet up a small stream that runs underneath the boardwalk. A movement caught my eye as we walked along the boardwalk where a rail was moving around on the ground next to the little trickle of water. The rail was amazingly cooperative and didn’t seem bothered by us. It was exciting to be able to get a look at a bird that is usually hiding in the reeds and grasses and often only heard.
While I was lucky to spot this rail, there are strategies to seeing these allusive birds. Birdwatching Daily’s article, “You Can Find Rails”, is full of useful information and advice for finding rails in general as well as tips for searching out specific rail species.
Future Birding at Bombay Hook
Jim and I plan to go back to Bombay Hook for move birding trips. Because the refuge sits in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway along which birds migrate, there are lots of possibilities here. It is known for songbird and shorebird migrations in spring and fall. The upcoming winter months also look interesting: in addition to a variety of ducks, large numbers of Snow Geese usually concentrate at the refuge during the winter. The Friends of Bombay Hook have a helpful virtual tour on their site to help you plan your birding.
On the next trip, we hope to check out the birds on the remaining two pools that we didn’t see on this first visit. Because it takes a couple hours for us to get there, Jim and I will check on closures before future birding trips. You can call the refuge itself, or you can find a calendar of closures on the Friends of Bombay Hook website. But even only having access to part of the refuge, it was a fun place to go birding.
Also See: Birding at Magee Marsh for another trip where we saw shorebirds.
For more ideas of where to go birding, the FWS article on Where the Birds Are has some great suggestions within the US National Refuge system.
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