When – 3rd and 10th July
Where – Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
During our John Heinz Wildlife Refuge a fellow (more experienced) birder suggested we visit Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. Unlike John Heinz, it is remote, located in the countryside. This, and the fact that it is a vast tidal marsh, enables several species of birds and small animals to thrive here. With our enthusiasm for birding quite high from recent successes, we visited Bombay Hook on successive weekends.
A single, unpaved road runs through the refuge. Vast sections of this road are along the many marshes here and it is quite common to just pull over alongside to bird watch or photograph. In some places, there are a few breakaway paths that lead to lookout towers that give a great overview of the marsh.
At this time of the year, in the summer, early mornings and late evenings are the best time for bird photography in wide open spaces. Once the sun gets higher up in the sky, blown highlights and heat haze are some of the problems one has to contend with. Since Bombay Hook is a short drive away from Philadelphia, only about an hour and a half, this allowed us to make early morning visits to the refuge, to get some photos in the soft warm light.
During both visits, we were impressed by the scale of the refuge’s ecosystem. Vast open marshland, teeming with small fish and snails and worms support a huge number of water birds. This photograph perhaps best represents the refuge – in one frame we have egrets, yellowlegs, herons and stilts.
Great Egrets are perhaps the commonest birds here, at least at this time of the year. They keep moving about the marshy plains in small groups. Every so often a few will swoop in from inaccessible areas of the refuge offering great opportunities to photograph them.
Snowy Egrets, distinguished from the Great Egrets by their smaller size, black beaks and yellow feet, are aplenty too.
Great Blue Herons, though fewer in number than the egrets are quite common as well. They seem to be more persistent hunters, and will spend longer on the marshes picking up fish and other critters.
In between the larger wading birds, smaller Lesser Yellowlegs dart about pecking at the shallow water and mud picking up worms and critters.
There are plenty of Avocets too. Their slender upward curved beaks are striking, you can’t miss them. This group of three gracefully flew in and started to swish about the shallow waters with their beaks to feed.
The Black-necked Stilt is a beautiful bird, with a spotless white body and deep black wings. It’s slender legs and narrow beak make a nice symmetry when in flight.
Glossy Ibises too visit the refuge. They are beautiful birds that glisten in the sun, but are deceptively difficult to photograph well. Most of my shots came out underexposed (I wasn’t quick enough to adjust the metering) and I had to pull the shadows in post which added noise. This one though came out quite clean.
Plovers like this Killdeer are abundant too. They tend to feed in big groups of about 10-12 individuals (called a season!). Maybe because of their smaller size, they typically feed around the edges of the marsh where the waters are shallower still and muddier, which sometimes brings them quite close to the drivable path.
With so many birds, and a rich ecosystem, raptors and vultures were bound to be around. Besides the omnipresent Turkey Vulture, we spotted Bald Eagles and a lone Golden Eagle too.
Although Bombay Hook is famous for water birds, it is home to a lot of other species too – marsh wrens, grosbeaks, blackbirds, terns and more. Starting late July (now), the concentration of such birds is expected to increase as more of them start their migration south. We’ll surely be making more trips to Bombay Hook.