Another post about my trip last week to NJ, DE, and VA refuges….
After getting off the ferry from Cape May to Lewes, the first stop was Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. The first critter seen, and one that would be seen over and over again in Delaware, was a bunny. So many rabbits along the refuge roadsides – where all all the predators? Surprisingly, in a week’s worth of refuge visits, I did not see the one mammal I would expect – White-tailed Deer. The mammal fauna, other than rabbits, muskrats, and a couple of Chincoteague species, remained hidden for the week. There was a clue though as to why warm-blooded critters might be hiding – deer flies and no-see-ums were out in force. So, after a quick walk around some refuge trails, it was on to Slaughter Beach to check on the Horseshoe Crabs, one of the main reasons I had made this trip at this time of year.
The tide was coming in and the moon close to full in May, perfect timing to see the annual spectacle of Horseshoe Crabs coming ashore to mate in Delaware Bay. I made a lucky stop at the DuPont Nature Center in Mispillion Harbor where I met some birders getting ready for a shorebird program. A couple gave me a tip on a local beach access where the crabs were mating in large numbers. A short drive and there they were, Horseshoe Crabs by the thousands lining the beach. There is so much to share I will do a separate post on this incredible phenomenon later this week.
The next day I spent a cloudy morning with the Horseshoe Crabs and shorebirds at Slaughter Beach and then headed to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge about 40 minutes north. The sun came out (eventually), the wind picked up, so life was good. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects one of the largest remaining expanses of tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region. The refuge’s 16,000 acres are mostly marsh, but also include freshwater impoundments and a variety of upland habitats that are managed for other wildlife. Most visitor opportunities are located along the 12-mile Wildlife Drive so that was the main part of the visit.
Instead of the cute bunnies seen at Prime Hook, the greeting committee at this refuge was a bit more formidable – a huge Snapping Turtle near the Visitor Center, the first of several to be seen along the roadsides here.
Not all the turtles on the roads were quite as large as that snapper – this tiny baby Mud Turtle was crossing at a culvert between swampy areas. One of the ever-present deer flies stopped in for the pic as well.
I picked up a copy of the Delaware Birding trail map and guide (see also http://www.delawarebirdingtrail.org/). The description for the Boardwalk Trail at Bombay Hook reads – “the woods at the beginning of the boardwalk trail can be particularly good for migrant songbirds. The boardwalk trail itself is a great place to see breeding Marsh Wrens…” Talk about truth in advertising! Right after getting out of the car there were birds everywhere – Orchard Orioles, a Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, House Wren, Northern Flicker, male American Redstart, Tree Swallows, and the ubiquitous Gray Catbird.
A walk out the short trail led to some shorebirds and the first Black-necked Stilt of the day. But it was the songs of the Marsh Wrens that caught your attention. A photographer coming off the boardwalk told me he had seen tons of “baby Carolina Wrens, and they had let him get close for photos”. Turns out the boardwalk over the marsh was instead full of the warbles and displays of male Marsh Wrens. Territorial males have an interesting behavior that makes them quite visible – they vigorously sing from one side of their marshy territory for a few minutes and then fly over to to the other side and sing there for awhile. Once in awhile they perform a so-called song flight display, where they fly up a few feet above the grasses, and then flutter down and straddle some plant stalks giving their song all the while. If you just stand within the territory boundaries, you will be serenaded and displayed to at close range.
Male Marsh Wrens construct several partially completed nests within their territory (much like our Carolina Wrens back home) in the hopes of seducing a female (or two – male Marsh Wrens are polygamous). The nests are readily visible as balls of grasses and reed woven together (about the size of a softball) a few feet off the ground with an entrance hole in one side. If a female finds one to her liking she will finish it off with soft liner materials. If not, she will make her own within a male’s territory. I could have definitely spent more time watching and listening to these energetic songsters (and hoping for some sunshine for photos), but there was still a lot of ground to cover.
Along one of the impoundments I saw the bold black and white of a Black-necked Stilt feeding in the marsh. This is one of my favorite shorebirds although I have seen them only a few times. They are just so boldly patterned and they look like they shouldn’t function quite right with those long skinny reddish-pink legs. They supposedly have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird (flamingos are the winner in the proportional long-legged bird department). A couple of nests could be seen on the marsh flats and watching a stilt fold its legs up to sit on the eggs is entertaining. One pair aggressively approached a Great Egret that walked too close to their nest until the much larger bird shied away. I wish I could go back in a week and see the tiny speckled tan fluff balls on sticks that are the young birds.
The marshes and impoundments along Wildlife Drive produced great views of a number of other species including Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Kingbird, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Osprey, and, of course, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds.
The woodland and forest edge portions of the drive were also productive – Eastern Wood-peewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and a Northern Waterthrush.
The road through the open fields produced more Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, American Goldfinch, Blue Grosbeak, Northern Bobwhite, a Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, and Tree Swallows at almost every nest box.
Bombay Hook NWR is, indeed, a delight, and a place I look forward to revisiting.