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Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

45 miles S of Wilmington; 107 miles E of Baltimore; 53 miles N of Rehoboth

Thanks to its abundance of wildlife refuges, the Delmarva Peninsula is a haven for migrating birds and those who watch them. Bombay Hook, established in 1937 as part of a chain of refuges extending from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, is the largest of Delaware's refuges. Though its primary (and loudest) inhabitants and visitors are wintering ducks and geese, Bombay Hook also hosts herons, egrets, sandpipers, willets, and the occasional bald eagle, as well as a more permanent mammal, amphibian, and reptile population. If you've visited Maryland's Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Bombay Hook will be quite a contrast. The facilities are considerably more primitive -- roads aren't paved, the trails are well marked but not well worn, and there are fewer ranger programs and visitor services. This means there are also fewer human visitors, so you may have the place all to yourself, especially in the off-season.

Planning a Trip

Getting There -- Take Route 13 north of Dover to Route 42; travel east (left) on Route 42 to Route 9 and then north on Route 9 for 1 1/2 miles; turn right onto Whitehall Neck Road, which leads to the visitor center.

Visitor Center -- The visitor center/ranger station (tel. 302/653-6872; http://bombayhook.fws.gov) is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm, plus spring and fall weekends from 9am to 5pm. The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

Fees & Regulations -- Entrance fees are $4 per car or $2 per person 16 and older on bike or on foot. Admission is free on hunting days -- but access is limited, too. Deer, snow goose, and Canada goose hunting are permitted under special regulations in designated portions of the refuge during the regular Delaware hunting season.

Seeing the Highlights

Like most wildlife refuges, much of Bombay Hook is not accessible to the public. However, the 12-mile round-trip auto route, several nature trails, and three observation towers offer opportunities to see birds and other wildlife. The driving tour, which can be biked, begins and ends at the visitor center and takes you by the three major wetland pools: Raymond Pool, Shearness Pool, and Bear Swamp Pool. The roads are well marked and offer plenty of spots to park. Cyclists should note that the roads throughout the refuge are dirt and gravel -- though they are flat. The visitor center has audiocassettes and binoculars for visitors' use. To see the most birds, come in May or June, when the shorebird population hits its peak. Or visit in October or November, when the most ducks and geese are here -- they can number 150,000.

Bird-Watching -- Birds can be seen all along the auto tour, but for the best vantage point, hike to one of the three 30-foot observation towers, one overlooking each of the pools. Part of the trail to Bear Swamp Observation Tower is accessible; an observation platform at ground level below the tower provides a good view, and a viewing scope at wheelchair level has been installed on the dock.

The best times to see migratory birds are October through November and mid-February through March. Some 256 species have been counted. Canada, tundra, and snow geese begin arriving in early October, while ducks -- pintail, mallard, American widgeon, and others -- increase through November. Shorebird migration begins in April; their populations in the refuge peak in May and June.

The refuge is the year-round home to bald eagles, though they can be difficult to spot. Eggs begin hatching in April; the baby eagles begin to leave their nests in June. Shearness Pool serves as their roosting and nesting area. Parson Point Trail will take you to the back of the pool for a closer look. During mating and nesting season (Nov-June), however, this trail may be closed. Bring binoculars or stop at the observation tower along the auto route to get a glimpse of the eagles.

Hiking -- Hiking in the refuge is primarily a means of observing and photographing wildlife, so the nature trails aren't terribly strenuous or long. All of the trails are flat and range from .25 mile to 1 mile long. Bring insect repellent and wear long sleeves from July through September. The Bear Swamp Trail is partially wheelchair accessible; the Parson Point Trail is the longest option. The Boardwalk Trail offers visitors a look at four different refuge habitats -- woodland, freshwater pond, brackish pond, and salt marsh. Another trail leads to the Raymond Tower, set in a meadow.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.