By Mel White
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Counted among Delaware’s birding hot spots are two of the most famous national wildlife refuges in the eastern United States: Prime Hook and Bombay Hook, set along the western shore of Delaware Bay. A wide array of waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, gulls, and terns show up here in migration. Some goose species can be seen in huge congregations that number in the tens of thousands.
The thin peninsula at Cape Henlopen State Park offers stunning views of the bay and healthy congregations of birds in migration. Visitors are always welcome at the fall hawk watch, held annually from September 1 to November 30.
Delaware has several excellent sites for seeing songbirds, in nesting season and especially in migration. Three parks in the northern part of the state, located just a few miles apart, provide varied habitats of woodland, marsh, and scrub, attracting migrants that enthrall birders in April and May.
Delaware Birding Hotspots
Although best known for its location where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean (hence for waterbirds), this park is also a wonderful place to witness autumn hawk migration.
From fall through spring, look for waterfowl (including all three scoters), loons (including Red-throated), Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, and various seabirds by driving to the end of the road toward Cape Henlopen and scanning the bay and the ocean. (To reach the cape itself you must walk about a mile.) Also take Dune Road to Herring Point for another Atlantic viewpoint. In winter you may see Purple Sandpiper on the rock jetties here.
Shorebirds are found along the park’s beaches, but be aware of seasonal closures to protect nesting Piping Plover, Least Tern, and/or Black Skimmer.
In September and October, volunteers conduct a hawk watch from the dunes near the cape. Raptors wing by after crossing the bay from Cape May, New Jersey, about 12 miles away. Among the most commonly seen are Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon.
Check pine groves for Brown-headed Nuthatch, often found by its squeaky call. The park is among the northernmost places where this species is found.
This 10,000-acre refuge beside Delaware Bay hosts impressive numbers of wintering waterfowl, as well as wading birds, marsh birds, and a great variety of shorebirds, gulls, and terns.
Access is via roads heading east from Highway 1, north of Cape Henlopen. Much birding here is done from roadside pullouts and observation points. At the visitor center, north of Broadkill Road, trails offer the chance to get out and walk through marsh, shrubby grassland, and woodland. (There’s even a canoe trail for those who are prepared to paddle.)
It’s a good idea to visit the refuge visitor center when you first arrive for a map and advice about exploring the area. Unlike some national wildlife refuges, Prime Hook doesn’t have a designated loop auto tour route, so seeing the best parts of it requires taking a series of mostly unconnected roads off Highway 1. One good viewing area is along Broadkill Road east of the refuge roads, where wetlands line both sides of the right of way.
Osprey and Bald Eagle are found throughout the year. Depending on water levels, shorebirds can be present year-round, as well, though peaking in spring and fall. Red Knot appears in greatest numbers in May, to feed along the Delaware Bay shore before continuing northward migration. American Oystercatcher, a species of special management concern, is present from March through summer.
Bombay Hook is among the most famous birding locations in the eastern United States. Encompassing more than 16,000 acres on Delaware Bay, this refuge is largely made up of tidal salt marsh, seasonally home to flocks of geese, ducks, wading birds, and shorebirds.
The marsh and accompanying habitats—freshwater ponds, woodland, and grassy fields—attract more than 320 bird species. Because of factors including tide level and light direction, visits to the refuge a few hours apart can provide very different experiences. Thus many birders spend the entire day.
Bombay Hook’s 12-mile auto tour route offers great roadside birding, but it also passes three observation towers and five walking trails. The route skirts four main impoundments (one, Finis Pool, is freshwater) as well as salt marsh on the Delaware Bay side of the road. It’s no wonder that most locals say four hours is the minimum time for a visit.
Just a few highlights of Bombay Hook are vast flocks of wintering Snow Geese; Mute Swan and Tundra Swan; flocks of (mostly dabbling) ducks; wading birds including American Bittern and (in summer) Tricolored Heron and Glossy Ibis; Bald Eagle year-round; marsh birds including Clapper Rail, King Rail, Sora, Marsh Wren, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Seaside Sparrow; nesting Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet; and many species of gulls and terns.
Although the refuge isn’t known for songbirds, wooded areas such as the Parson Point Trail can be good for warblers and other passerines in spring and fall.
This state wildlife area lies on Delaware Bay just south of famed Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and shares most of its bounty of wading birds, marsh birds, and shorebirds. Birders should be aware that the area is closed seasonally except to hunters. Calling the office in advance is advisable in fall and winter.
Birders have reported 250 species on one stretch of road and bayshore less than four miles long. That route is Port Mahon Road, which heads east from Highway 9 at the community of Little Creek, just east of Dover. Following this road, stop to scan impoundments and other wetlands, and you might spot American Black Duck, American Bittern, Glossy Ibis (summer), Northern Harrier (winter), Clapper Rail, Short-eared Owl (winter), Marsh Wren, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Seaside Sparrow.
The road reaches the bay in 2.2 miles and turns north to follow the shore. If you have a low-clearance vehicle, be aware of the road condition, because it can be damaged by tides. This is a great area for shorebirds, gulls, and terns from spring into fall. In May, this is one of the places where Red Knot and other species stop to feed on horseshoe crab eggs, preparing to continue their northbound migration.
East off Highway 9 about 1.6 miles south of Port Mahon Road is the wildlife area headquarters. Following the road through the office complex for about a mile leads to an observation tower overlooking an impoundment that may be thronging with birds or not, depending on water level.
This 860-acre tract is a county-owned park co-managed by the Delaware Nature Society. It includes ten miles of hiking trails, and has been the site of a reforestation project since 1991. Middle Run is one of the best migration sites in the region, and also hosts interesting nesting species. The bird list tops 200.
The Middle Run Birding Trail has been designed to traverse varied habitats, from meadow to scrubby thickets to mature forest. The one-mile loop begins at the parking lot and descends to Middle Run, a tributary of White Clay Creek. In both spring and fall migration it’s an excellent place to spend a morning. Keep an eye on the sky, because herons and raptors use this valley as a flyway.
Breeding species in the park include Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Tree Swallow, House Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.
Just to the west, White Clay Creek State Park is another excellent location for spring and fall migration, and has similar nesting birds to those at Middle Run. White Clay Creek has often had breeding Veery, Kentucky Warbler, and Cerulean Warbler.
This park along Brandywine Creek north of Wilmington is best known as a hot spot during migration, when it attracts many eastern thrushes, warblers, and other songbirds.
A local favorite spot is the area on the east side of the creek at the Highway 92 bridge. Trails run both north and south from here. Farther south, near the park nature center, the old-growth forest site called Tulip Tree Woods is another excellent location. Brandywine Creek’s breeding birds include Wood Duck, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Eastern Bluebird, Ovenbird, Prairie Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Baltimore Oriole.
On the eastern side of the park is the Freshwater Marsh Nature Preserve (restricted access) where rails and Marsh Wren have been seen.
South of the nature center is a spot with a panoramic view that’s the site of an annual fall hawk watch. Raptors are most common in September and October, with an occasion rarities such as Golden Eagle or Northern Goshawk appearing.
Despite its small size, Delaware encompasses six well-defined ecological regions. This trail takes in all of them, showing their contrasts and providing an education in ecology even as it entertains with great birding. Many of the trail’s 27 sites are along the coastline, where beaches, tidal flats, and marshes offer an exciting diversity of birds year-round. Pale little piping plovers nest on the beaches, joined in spring and fall by busy flocks of other plovers and sandpipers, while migrating black terns, yellowlegs, stilts, and rails gather in the marshes. In winter great flocks of snow geese and ducks shelter in these same wetlands, and their thundering flights at dawn are reason enough for a cold-weather visit. If you can tear yourself away from the coast, Delaware’s interior has stunning meadows and forests with their own treasures. The low hills along the state’s northwestern edge contain songbirds typical of more northerly climes, like the soft-voiced veery and the sharply patterned blue-winged warbler. Southern tier pine flats are enlivened by gangs of spunky little brown-headed nuthatches, which reach the northernmost edge of their range here. —Kenn Kaufman