Bombay Hook, A Wonder of Nature
Photography by Jim Flowers Jim Flowers | E-Mail | Posted 09-01-2011
Snow Geese on the Bombay Hook salt marsh
Black-necked Stilt in the Shearness Pool
"Without a doubt", Bombay Hook and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges are the prime attractions along the Delaware coast for observing wildlife. They both provide "anchor points" for the nature enthusiast to other areas of interest nearby. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is the flagship within this series of articles on "Exploring the Delaware Bay Coast" and in this article we'll explore the diversity of wildlife and the seasonal variations that make Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge so special.
Moving to the mid-Atlantic states from Texas back in 1987, I was interested in finding natural areas to explore and the state of Delaware was at the top of my list with its diverse coastal environment. In Texas I had to travel miles from the coast to observe significant changes in habitat from coastal prairie to forest and upland environments. Bombay Hook offers this diversity of habitat within only a few hundred yards. The Texas coast also seemed to have only two seasons: summer and a very mild winter (fall and spring were very short and hardly noticeable). The four seasons of the mid-Atlantic are exciting and each season brings a different scope of activity to observe, especially in relation to our natural world.
The Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is located roughly 4 miles east of the town of Smyrna, near the little village of Leipsic off Delaware Route 9. Whitehall Neck Road provides the main access to the refuge. The refuge lies along eight miles of the Delaware Bay coast and encompasses roughly 16,251 acres.
Four-fifths of the refuge consists of tidal salt marsh including a mix of cord grass meadows, mud flats, tidal pools, rivers, creeks, and tidal streams. The upland portion includes forests, freshwater impoundments, brushy and timbered swamps, and fields of herbaceous plants.
The diversity of habitats is reflected in the diversity of animal life. The refuge is managed for large numbers of waterfowl arriving in the fall, for migrating songbirds and shorebirds in the spring, and provides habitat for tall wading birds in the summer. Deer, red foxes, and beavers are found on the refuge, as well as many species of turtles, insects, non-poisonous snakes, frogs, and salamanders.
The refuge offers visitors a 12-mile auto tour, five walking trails (2 handicapped accessible), three observation towers, wildlife photography, hunting opportunities, a variety of nature and educational programs, and interpretative displays. (Bombay Hook USFW Website)
Greater Snow geese invade a Whitehall Neck Road farm
Bombay Hook has a small but very nice visitor's center located near the entrance just off Whitehall Neck Road. It includes a nature store, information desk, refuge displays and restrooms. Outside you will find a picnic shelter and parking.
Directions to the Visitor Center: (from the Delaware Birding trail website) (39°15'34.92"N 75°28'23.85"W) From Route 1 near Smyrna, take exit 114 (Smyrna-South exit). At the end of the ramp turn right (N) at the traffic light onto Route 13 North. Turn right (E) at the next light onto Road 12 (Smyrna-Leipsic Road). This road merges with Route 9 South in just less than 5 miles. Immediately after joining Route 9, turn left (E) onto Whitehall Neck Road which ends in 2.5 miles at the refuge headquarters area.
We'll begin our exploration of the refuge with our drive down Whitehall Neck road to the main entrance of the refuge. Be observant along this stretch of road (especially in the winter) as it travels past the various farms that line its path. It's not uncommon to spot birds such as the Horned Lark or an occasional Snow bunting in the harvested fields within viewing or photography range. If you enter the area before sunrise you might spot the headlamps in the surrounding fields of Goose hunters' setting their decoy spreads before manning their blinds or pits in anticipation of the early morning flights.
A winter Horned Lark along Whitehall Neck Road
The official refuge hours are from sunrise to sunset, however most of the time you will find the gate open to allow folks to photograph or just enjoy the beautiful dawn twilight, and sunrises over the marsh of the refuge not to mention the "Snow Goose Blastoff" from the impoundments that usually occurs near dawn. Remember to drive very slowly (under the posted speed limits) during these pre-dawn hours as many species of wildlife may be near or crossing the refuge roads.
The Auto Tour Route
From the visitor center we begin the auto tour route by continuing east on the gravel road to the "T" intersection where you will follow the tour directions and turn right onto the one-way road that will take you to the first areas of interest and through the rest of the refuge. The "Auto Tour" is your passport to the refuge and all areas of interest, parking areas for trails, and observation areas. Many photographers use their vehicle as a "hide" on this route. Remember that Bombay Hook is a fee area and there is a self pay honor system in effect with a pay station just past and to the right of the visitors center. I suggest purchasing a Federal Duck Stamp at your local post office before starting your trip. This will allow entrance to all refuges and will include all of the occupants of your vehicle while the stamp is in the vehicle and within the owner's possession. It's a mere $15.00 at present and all funds go to improving wildfowl habitat and our National Wildlife Refuge System.
Red Fox Kit travels a Bombay Hook Roadway
During the spring months, this first section of road can be ideal for spotting a Red Fox traversing the shoulder as there are several dens normally near this location although it's common to view these animals throughout the refuge. The Red Fox has become the most sought after mammal on the refuge for viewing and photography by refuge visitors especially hoping to catch a glimpse of their young (kits) frolicking along the Bombay Hook roadways. Please remember that these are "wild animals" and that they're not to be approached under any circumstances. DO NOT feed any animals on the refuge. If caught you will loose your entrance privileges and asked to leave the refuge property.
As we continue along the auto tour the first point of interest to your left will be the parking area for the Raymond Pool observation tower. The tower provides a wonderful view of the first major impoundment, the Raymond Pool. The tower is an excellent place for photography of the pool and mud flat inhabitants in the southwestern portion of that area. Snow Geese tend to congregate in this area and it's a great location to view study and photograph their behavior. The tower is a short easy walk from the parking area.
A short distance from the Raymond Pool tower parking area is the Saltmarsh Boardwalk trail. The parking area for the trail is on the right as you enter the first woodlot. The trail is an easy ½ mile walk from start to return and leads through a wooded area and the salt marsh to the Raymond gut of the Leipsic River. The trail was originally constructed by the Youth Conservation Corp in 1978 and is now maintained by refuge staff and volunteers. The trail has recently been improved and renovated. You can find detailed information on this trail from the US Fish and Wildllife Service's Bombay Hook NWR Trails page.
American Avocet in the Raymond Pool
The tour road proceeds and curves to the left and will follow along side the Raymond Pool to your left and the Raymond Gut of the Leipsic River and the bay salt marsh on the right. The Raymond Pool is one of the deeper impoundments of the refuge and will hold water longer than the other pools in the area during the drier seasons. However it still has plenty of shallow mudflats to attract wading birds. This pool is popular with the hundreds of American Avocets who stop at the refuge during the late summer and fall migration. Raymond will also hold the majority of Snow Geese who call the refuge home during the late fall and winter months. The tour road here offers outstanding opportunities for photography of the inhabitants of the pool. The Raymond gut and the marsh across from the Raymond pool are prime hunting grounds for the Northern Harrier and various hawks that are found within the refuge boundaries.
Sunrise Snow Geese and the setting Perigee Moon above the Raymond Pool
Marsh Wren near the Raymond Pool
While traveling along the Raymond Pool during the spring and summer months stop and listen for what I call the "Bombay Serenade". The Marsh Wren and the Common Yellowthroat Warbler perform duets throughout the day and the little Marsh Wren may sing well into the night. As you approach the end of the pool, check the thickening grasses for other bird species that call this area home. The Auto Tour will come to a "T" intersection and the tour will continue to the right and along the Shearness pool. Going to the left will take you to the Shearness Observation Tower and back to the visitor's center and the refuge exit
As you turn right to continue the Auto Tour, be sure to check the ditch immediately to your left for Ducks and other birds. It's very easy to overlook and is often a great and rewarding spot for close-up photography or just observing the inhabitants.
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