Wildlife refuge upgraded: Improved Bombay Hook a boon for birds, waterfowl

Oscar Reed, the manager at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, said recent improvements made to the refuge’s freshwater impoundments should help keep migratory birds happy and healthy. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

SMYRNA — Waterfowl and shorebirds are among the biggest stars of the show when it comes to the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, which attracts around 100,000 visitors each year.

Keeping the populations of the migratory birds happy and healthy is why Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to enhance more than 500 acres of emergent wetland by replacing wetland infrastructure at Bombay Hook.

Refuge staff can now exclude tidal saltwater from three of the freshwater impoundments managed to benefit migratory birds.

The project was funded in part by a North American Wetland Conservation Act grant and was implemented in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Conservation work continues at Bombay Hook, with forested wetland restorations scheduled through 2019.

Support from corporate partner Axalta Coating Systems benefit Bombay Hook projects and continue to grow other conservation opportunities in Delaware Bay through Ducks Unlimited’s “Completing the Cycle Initiative.”

The Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge recently got a boost from Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as infrastructure improvements were made the the freshwater impoundments at the refuge. Refuge staff can now effectively control water levels and keep the salinity low at the facility’s freshwater impoundments.

“We average 100,000 visitors a year and our freshwater impoundments are the main feature of our automobile tour route,” said Oscar Reed, refuge manager at Bombay Hook. “People can see shorebirds on the mud flats, and in the fall you can see large numbers of pintails, mallards, geese and more.

“Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been a big help for us because of the cost of the work (on the freshwater impoundments). They repaired the flap gates in these structures.”

The new flap gates allow Bombay Hook refuge staff to control the water levels in its freshwater impoundments.

“Basically, our management regime is we let these (impoundments) fill up in the fall when waterfowl arrives and then we draw them down in the spring and summer when the shorebirds are here,” Mr. Reed said.

Indeed, the refuge manager said that water levels are managed on a seasonal basis to provide mudflats for migrating shorebirds in the spring, then flooded in the fall to give dabbling ducks access to the seeds of the plants that germinate over the summer.

Situated along the wildlife drive, the impoundments — Raymond Pool, Shearness Pool, Bear Swamp Pool and Finis Pool — provide some of the best wildlife viewing in the region, according to Mr. Reed.

Jake McPherson, a biologist for Ducks Unlimited in Delaware, said the repairs made to the flap gates at Bombay Hook should help — at least for now.

“Coastal freshwater impoundments like these are one of the most import habitat features in Delaware for supporting waterfowl,” Mr. McPherson said. “We should do what we can to improve the resiliency of these impoundments while we plan for their future, as they will eventually go away because of sea level rise.”

Bill Stewart, director of conservation and community for the American Birding Association, estimated that he’s made about 1,000 trips to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna to spot and photograph birds of all types.

Mr. Stewart is pleased the 16,250-acre refuge, located off Delaware Bay, is doing its best to try and maintain its feathered populations.

“It’s so user friendly and everybody there is like-minded,” Mr. Stewart said, about Bombay Hook. “They are there for what Bombay Hook has to offer. It’s a major migratory stopping point and a biologically important area.”

It is currently shorebirds’ season for Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, as the waters in the impoundments are currently being drawn down. The refuge is an important stop for thousands of migrating shorebirds every spring as they make their critical trip north to their breeding grounds.

At low tide shorebirds can be seen feeding by the thousands on the salt marsh mudflats along the wildlife drive. The refuge’s freshwater impoundments also provide mudflat habitats.

During late summer and early fall, southbound migrating shorebirds also visit the refuge as they fly towards their wintering grounds.

Common species include semipalmated sandpipers, dunlin, dowitchers, yellowlegs, semipalmated plovers, American avocets and many more.

In the fall and winter, migrating and wintering waterfowl flock to the refuge. Species that are often spotted then include the northern pintail, American black ducks, green-winged teal, Canada geese and snow geese.

They can be found feeding in the refuge’s managed freshwater impoundments or loafing in the adjacent expanses of salt marsh.
Mr. Stewart was excited about the Ducks Unlimited project and its potential for bird habitat on the East Coast.

“Whether you’re a kid or an adult, when I take groups there, it’s like a giant outdoor classroom,” he said.

Mr. Reed is thankful for the recent assistance to the freshwater impoundments.

“The old (flaps) that were in there were very old,” said Mr. Reed. “The bottom foot of them were gone so we’re getting saltwater into the freshwater impoundment which is not good because we try to keep it fresh and keep the salinity down for the plant species that are here.

“This allowed us to keep the saltwater out and better manage these impoundments. With the tidal water coming in it was hard to stay in the range that we wanted.

“This helps us manage the freshwater levels so much easier — and should keep our migratory birds happy.”

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