The path to Bombay National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Del., goes through fields and fields with a variety of agriculture. Brightly colored, handmade, wooden signs flank the sides of state Route 42, selling fresh fruits and vegetables — offerings of potatoes, watermelon and pumpkins.
The trip from Easton to the tidal salt marsh hideaway in Smyrna is just under an hour and 20 minutes, with hardly any traffic. It's only a few turns to the wildlife refuge once you get off U.S. Route 301, pass through Sudlersville and travel over the state line into Smyrna, home to a designated wetland of importance by the Ramsar Convention.
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Bombay Hook is one of more than 560 national wildlife refuges in the United States encompassing more than 850 million acres of land and waters. Delaware has only one other national wildlife refugee besides Bombay Hook — Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Milton.
The Atlantic Flyway, one of four major migratory paths for birds — others being the Pacific, Central and Mississippi flyways — stretches the entire U.S. East Coast and further north and south.
Bombay Hook was established in 1937 with the goal of maintaining a breeding ground for migrating birds. According to the FWS, Bombay Hook encompasses 16,251 acres of tidal salt marsh land. Though the land was established as a national wildlife refuge in the late 1930s, its history dates back to 1679, when the Kahansink Native Americans sold the property to New Yorker Peter Bayard.
The refuge gets its name from the Dutch words “Bompies Hoeck,” which according to FWS means “little-tree point.”
After the wildlife property was established as a refuge, construction projects creating the respite for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds were created by an African-American Civilian Conservation Corps company, according to FWS. Projects creating water control structures, which today are manipulated for food purposes, aided in the formation of various pools on the property.
With the passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act in 1997, refuge systems made it a priority to create recreational wildlife activities.
What started about 80 years ago with a single observation tower 90 feet high since has turned into three observation towers, each 30 feet high, stemming from its five trails at the refuge. Traveling around the 12-mile Wildlife Drive loop by car, the Bear Swamp, Parson Point, Boardwalk, Raymond Tower and Shearness Tower trails all are accessible from the roadway. The path distances range from a quarter of a mile to a full mile out and back.
Oscar Reed, refuge manager, said some of the best views of the refuge can be had from the seat of a car, as all the habitat types can be seen. He said senior centers and other organizations often bring their clients out because of the handicap accessible trails and the amount of viewing available without stepping out of the vehicle.
Some of the fall waterfowl seen on the refuge include the wood, ruddy, American black and hooded merganser ducks, as well as the snow goose, northern shoveler and northern pintails. Great egrets, blue herons and snowy egrets wade in the waters year round, Reed said. During the spring months, when the shorebirds come around, black-necked stilts, greater yellowlegs and black-bellied plovers can be found throughout the area.
To see the various wildlife species, cars park along the Wildlife Drive loop, binoculars in hand, and peer out over the Shearness and Raymond pools. Waiting and watching, visitors move around the property observing the colors, sounds and sights of the feathered figures backdropped with tall marsh grasses jetting out of the shallow waters swaying with the wind. Sight lines go for miles.
Reed said being close to larger cities allows people the chance to get away and disconnect from the busy world.
The entrance fee is $4 per vehicle, per day. Annual passes, such as the Federal Duck Stamp, the Bombay Hook Pass, or Interagency Annual Pass are long-term options for park viewing. A yearly pass at Bombay Hook is $12, Reed said. Active duty personnel and family can receive a free Interagency Annual Pass, according to FWS, as well discounted senior options for those 62 and older.
In addition to wildlife viewing opportunities, Bombay Hook is known for its available hunting locations during the regulated seasons for deer, turkey, small game, and waterfowl, using a shotgun, muzzleloader, or bow.
Four areas are designated for game hunting — Steamboat Landing, South Upland, Regular/Fisher, and Headquarters areas — and four locations for waterfowl hunting — West Waterfowl, Snow Goose Hunt, South Waterfowl, and South Upland areas.
Information about available dates to hunt are listed on Bombay Hook's website under “Visitor Activities,” and specific hunting rules regarding fees and applications can be found on the website, as well.
A special youth hunt for game is scheduled on Nov. 4 on Steamboat Landing and Fisher tracts. Individuals will be selected using a standby ticket lottery drawn an hour and a half prior to the allowed time to hunt. Another waterfowl youth hunting day will be held on Feb. 10.
Statewide deer hunting dates are: Sept. 1 to Jan. 31, archery and crossbow; Jan. 22 to 27, muzzleloader; Nov. 10 to 19 and Jan. 13 to 20, shotgun; Dec. 9 to 16, special antler-less; Jan. 6 to 13, handgun.
Statewide duck hunting dates are: Oct. 27 to Nov. 7, Nov. 20 to Nov. 25, and Dec. 8 to Jan. 27 with a daily bag limit of six.
Reed said though waterfowl hunting takes place on areas away from the Wildlife Drive loop, deer hunting does occur in areas accessible by the road. For safety measures, viewing is sectioned off during hunting days near the headquarters and road so people don't get hurt. The refuge still is open those dates, just with limited viewing for those who aren't hunting, Reed said.
On the refuge's website, a calendar of events is listed that includes monarch tagging, lessons about insects and guided tours of the refuge. Photographers, wildlife enthusiasts and hunters alike can find a day's worth of activities at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
“It's really a nice place to come and relax, and wind down, and just kind of slow your clocks down a bit,” Reed said.