I thoroughly enjoyed my recent visit to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and I had every intention of returning. That being said, I did not expect to find myself back there before the end of the week. While I was discussing potential plans for Saturday with Miriam, she casually mentioned that she’d be interested in adding Northern Bobwhite to her life list and trying for the European vagrants visiting the First State. Despite the last minute nature of the scheme, I couldn’t really find an excuse not to sign on. Miriam only needed a few more birds before reaching the milestone of 200 species observed, and I was hoping to get additional views of the specialties and rarities from last weekend. The 3-hour, cross-state drive to Delaware is even shorter than our upstate Great Gray chase back in March, and what is summer vacation for if not crazy, spur of the moment expeditions?
We elected to sleep in relative to my previous predawn departure, hitting the road just before 8 AM. We were unable to avoid a few traffic jams along the way, but our journey south was fairly easy overall. As soon as we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge, we were treated to an adult Bald Eagle flying down the right shoulder of the road towards us. The low flying raptor provided the best views Miriam has ever had of an eagle to date, and she was understandably excited about the close encounter. I pulled over to put the Jeep’s top up as we approached the refuge, and although the flies were more manageable than last week we were still glad to have the protection of a roof. To Miriam’s delight, we heard Bobwhites calling from the fields while we paid the entry fee. Continuing along the auto route, I checked in with other birders who informed me that the Little Egret, Little Gull, and Ruff had all gone missing after being seen earlier in the morning. On the plus side, an out-of-place juvenile White Ibis was foraging nearby, and we discovered several flocks of American Avocets, one of Miriam’s most wanted birds.
I was frustrated by the absence of our rarer targets, but not so much as to give up on them. I led the charge to the Shearness Pool observation tower, which offered great views of the Little Egret’s favored foraging sites. While carefully panning through the scattered congregations of wading birds, I noticed an individual with streamer-like plumes flickering behind its head like a banner in the breeze. Dark lores were apparent in comparison to the bright yellow faces of the associated Snowies, and the bird seemed marginally taller and bigger billed. Despite the distance, I finally enjoyed the opportunity to watch the Little Egret in nature, in the moment. Miriam and I repeatedly traded places at the scope, admiring the graceful bird as it fed among its more common cousins.
We fought through the biting insects and made our way back to the parking lot, where I heard a Blue Grosbeak calling in the shrubs. The handsome male that eventually hopped up on an exposed branch was the lucky species to secure spot #200 on Miriam’s life list. Circling back to Raymond Pool, we found a pair of helpful birders who were nice enough to let us look at a far-off Ruff through their scope. There have actually been several distinct individuals identified among the yellowlegs, dowitchers, and other shorebirds at Bombay Hook over the past week, but this bird looked like it could’ve been the same one I saw on Sunday.
On the other hand, it seemed like my former nemesis was back to its old tricks after throwing me a bone last time. The Little Gull, previously so reliable at Raymond, had been evading us throughout the day. Our new friends informed us that the gull had been wandering around the refuge, flying to and from the vast tidal marshes east of the driving loops. They said they’d last seen it at Shearness, and some other visitors along the road gave us more specific directions to where it was roosting. I was eventually able to locate the tricky target, a dark-capped lump of white feathers, sitting by itself way out on the mudflats. I quickly put Miriam on the distant bird, and when I set up my phone to do some digiscoping I found that the gull had vanished once again. Sneaky little bugger.
Several Black-necked Stilts were seen feeding in the marshes, Diamondback Terrapins crossed the road ahead of our car, and the songs of Field Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and Indigo Bunting filled in the soundscape around us. We dedicated some time to snapping pictures at the Purple Martin colony, and the dapper aerialists were happy to show off for us.
The feeders near the visitor center hosted American Goldfinches and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. A couple of Eastern Cottontails, the only wild mammals seen on this outing, were browsing at the edge of the lawn and the thicket. A raucous, chattering cry caused us to wheel around just in time to see a male Yellow-breasted Chat floating down into the foliage as he completed his song flight. We slowly approached the landing site, and I was able to record his wildly improvisational tune. Miriam was amused by that chat’s quirky performance, especially since all of my stories about these weird songbirds had her looking forward to meeting the infamous “bush bird” for the first time. The chat failed to show itself for a second look despite our best efforts, and the Northern Bobwhites across the road remained similarly hidden from sight. Even without a visual on the quails, we managed to connect with every single bird we came looking for. Egret, gull, Ruff, ibis, Bobwhite, chat, avocet, grosbeak, eagle…checks all around, with plenty of extra goodies!
After more than 6 hours exploring Bombay Hook, we packed up our things and headed north. Our growing hunger necessitated a pit stop for an early dinner, and we picked a major winner. Brick Works Brewing and Eats in Smyrna exceeded all expectations: Earth and Fire Fries to start, a Smokehouse Burger for me, Bacon Mac and Cheese for Miriam, and a number of house brewed beers that I just had to sample. I’ll certainly be returning to this establishment the next time I find myself back in Delaware, though it will most likely be longer than a week this time. Our drive home to Long Island was even easier than the drive down, and the sunset behind us brought an end to a perfect day of adventure. It’s always nice to get out and do some impromptu exploration!
Year List Update, July 8 – 314 Species