In a month, I reflect, the ponds here will be covered in white as thousands of snow geese make their winter migration south, pausing to rest in the pools and marshes of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on the Delaware River, about seven miles northeast of Dover. But now it’s early October. We’re standing, under a bright afternoon sun, at the top of an observation tower looking through binoculars out over Raymond Pool at dozens of Canada geese swimming by, honking incessantly. Occasionally, groups of about a half dozen take flight. In the foreground, American avocets, shorebirds with long upturned bills and spindly legs, thrust their beaks into the water looking for dinner.
Bombay Hook is 16,000 acres of marsh, ponds, swamps, woodlands and fields offering shelter to birds, fish, insects and mammals. Most of the environment is a tidal salt marsh, one of the largest on the East Coast. A 12-mile driving trail loops around four ponds teeming with shorebirds and waterfowl. Several short hiking trails off the auto route provide closer access and offer vantage points atop observation towers. None of the walks are strenuous, and the payoff is great bird watching.
That’s what makes this place special, says Tina Watson, an outdoor recreation planner for the refuge. “It has easy accessibility for people of all abilities, including two handicapped-accessible trails.”
My wife and I have made the trek to the refuge to observe birds and other wildlife and to hike on the marsh trails, an environment we love. We were also intrigued by the name. Bombay Hook is a mispronunciation of Bompies Hoeck (or Little-tree Point), the name the Dutch settlers gave the area, refuge volunteer Pat McElwee informs us at the visitors center.
After visiting Raymond Pool, we take the half-mile Boardwalk Trail loop, where we can get a good view of the salt marsh and breathe in the salty tang. Puffy white groundsel bushes in their autumn display compete for space with slender cord grasses on the banks of three brackish ponds. Wrens, warblers and chickadees dart among the bushes. The boardwalk runs parallel to a gut, or small tidal stream, where we see hermit crabs scurrying in the mud and dozens of holes where their brethren lie hidden.
Our longest walk is on the heavily wooded Parsons Point Trail, an easy one-mile hike through stands of elms, sweet gums, maples and oak. The trail ends at Shearness Pool, where the trees give way to grasses and marsh, a prime area for eagle nests. The trail is closed from November to June to protect the eagles’ nesting sites.
The automobile route provides views of all the refuge’s habitats. From our car, we see tidal marshes, fresh water ponds, grasslands and forests. At one point we stop for a better look at a brilliantly white snowy egret, with its long, curved neck, standing in the gut running through the salt marsh. Farther on, two double-crested cormorants are sitting atop a tree, identifiable by their orange faces and long black bodies.
Bombay Hook plays an important role in the migration patterns of many bird species. “It’s really a pivotal point on the Atlantic Flyway. We get an amazing number of shorebirds and waterfowl through here during peak seasons,” McElwee tells us.
Starting in October, migrating birds make their way south from Canada and the northern United States to spend time at Bombay Hook. In November, according to Watson, it’s possible to see more than 100,000 birds of various species at one time. She reels off a partial list: Canada geese, snow geese, pintails, black ducks, green-wing teals, sand pipers. Some will winter here, but most will stay until the weather turns cold and then head farther south. Then the process reverses itself as the birds return on their spring migration starting in March. By May, hermit crabs are laying thousands of eggs along the shores of the refuge; these are eagerly devoured by hungry migrating shorebirds.
On the day of our visit, Sandi and Larry Dinoff of Lancaster, Pa., visiting with their 5-year-old granddaughter, are getting a look at the early fall arrivals. Earlier that day, they had seen an American bittern, uncommon at Bombay Hook in the fall. It’s a thick-necked, almost heron-size bird that hides well in the marsh grasses. They also saw kingfishers, avocets and green-winged teals, the latter “a first of the season for us,” Sandi says.
Though Bombay Hook is a year-round bird watchers’ paradise, November offers the grandest show. During the month, the skies, marshes and ponds are alive with thousands of birds stopping to rest and feed on their long journey southward.
“A lot of our birds end up in Venezuela or Costa Rica for the winter,” McElwee says.
But they’ll be back again in the spring.
Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.
1706 N. DuPont Hwy., Dover
Newly opened hotel about 10 minutes from downtown. Rooms from $109.
228 N. State St.
Four rooms, each with private bath. Within walking distance of downtown historic sites. Rooms from $110
33 W. Loockerman St.
Serving American regional cuisine. Entrees start at $13.95.
9 E. Loockerman St.
Sandwiches, steaks and seafood. Entrees start at $10.
2591 Whitehall Neck Rd., Smyrna
Refuge open daily sunrise to sunset. Visitor center open Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round. Open Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March-May and September to mid-December. $4 per car.