Monday, May 22, 2006

Birds at Bombay Hook

On Saturday I went with DC Audubon out to Bombay Hook on the Delaware coast. Bombay Hook, part of the National Wildlife Refuge system, is the best birding spot that I have visited in the mid-Atlantic. The refuge consists of a series of fresh water impoundments, surrounded by woods, fields in various stages of growth, and tidal salt marshes and mudflats.

The diversity and quality of habitats in around Bombay Hook attracts many birds - and birders. Claudia Wilds, in her classic Finding Birds in the National Capital Area, states that "there must be few avid birders in these parts whose life lists have not been substantially lengthened by happily remembered expeditions" there. My own experiences would bear her comment out; in four trips I have seen sixteen life birds. These include beautiful American avocets and black-necked stilts, as well as the rare and declining red knots. On Saturday my one life bird was a clapper rail, which I identified not by sight but by its "clappering" call shortly after a few others saw two swim across a creek. (Yes, I do count heard birds for species that are hard to see.) Our Audubon group as a whole found over 100 species, remarkable for one of our field trips, and possibly a record for recent years.

As one might guess from the timing of our trip, the best reason to make a two-hour trip from Washington to the refuge is to see shorebirds. That mission was accomplished on Saturday as we saw sixteen species of shorebirds, from the tiniest semipalmated plovers to the chunky short-billed dowitchers and graceful willets. The mudflats were enlivened with colorful dunlin and ruddy turnstones; these two species put to lie their family's reputation for being dull and difficult to identify. I spotted one pectoral sandpiper among the other peeps at Shearness Pool; this bird stood out from the others by its more heavily streaked breast and prominent white stripes above the eye and along the back.

The woods and fields were full of songbirds. Blackpoll warblers sang everywhere, a sure sign of late May. A prothonotary warbler greeted us at the entrance to the boardwalk trail; a northern waterthrush skulked in the reeds of Bear Swamp. Graceful purple martins and barn swallows hawked insects around the visitors center. (I think that purple martins are among my favorite swallows, though they are also one that I see very rarely.) Finally, two characteristic birds of coastal salt marshes were present in good numbers: marsh wrens and seaside sparrows added their bubbling and hissing songs from among the reeds.

Port Mahon Road is the follow-up to Bombay Hook on the traditional spring birders' route. This is a good spot to pick up red knots, and sure enough, we saw two standing on a chunk of concrete with about thirty ruddy turnstones. More experienced birders with our group recalled years ago when numbers of red knot at the site equalled that of the turnstones and sanderlings that crowded the beach.

A few of us went on from Port Mahon Road to Little Creek and Pickering Beach. The birds there were pretty much the same as at the previous stops, with two exceptions. One was a northern harrier coursing over an old field. The second was a white-crowned sparrow that flew up from the side of a path and perched in full view, my first for the year.

I would highly recommend a visit to this refuge for anyone in the Mid-Atlantic or for any birder visiting the area. For directions to the refuge, see the FAQ on the refuge website. To learn what birds have been seen there recently, check the de-birds listserve (also available at