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Bombay Hook’s Ecological Embrace

birds in flight at bombay hook/ flickr

Delaware Bay is one of the most important stopover sites for migratory shorebirds in the Western Hemisphere.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many species traversing this area faced significant declines due to overhunting, habitat loss, and other human activities. Some species were hunted to the brink of extinction for their feathers, which were popular in the fashion industry, or for sport.  

Red knots, sanderlings, whimbrels, and more all play crucial roles in controlling insect populations, pollinating plants, and dispersing seeds. The decline of the 337 different species could have serious adverse effects on agriculture. The need for a sanctuary for the myriad flocks painting the Delaware skies became apparent by the 1930s.  

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge’s establishment, nine miles southeast of Smyrna, marked a significant chapter in the region’s conservation. The haven sprawls over 15,000 acres, where the melodies of nature find a rhythm with every flutter and chirp. 

The refuge presents a spectacle, especially in the spring and fall when it becomes a temporary abode for, among many others, Canada and snow geese. Their soft honks echo across the refuge as they glide over the brackish tidal marsh to the freshwater ponds. This bi-annual ritual signals the seasonal changes. 

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

The geese, numbering between thirty and thirty-six thousand during the November peak, contribute to the eastern route of North America’s one-million goose population. They navigate the skies along the Atlantic Flyway from Canada’s James Bay and Labrador regions. 

The ecological balance maintained by these geese underscores the necessity of safeguarding their migratory journey. 

 Bombay Hook’s wildlife protection is underwritten by a series of federal laws. The tract’s establishment embodies a series of conservation efforts. Two significant laws helped make the preserve a reality: the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 and the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934. 

The federal government acquired the marshlands in 1937, funded by hunters’ duck license fees. This acquisition provided a stable sanctuary for birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. 

Mallards, black ducks, wood ducks, mergansers, pintails and green-winged teals, along with varieties of herons, owls, hawks, white-tailed deer, fox, muskrat, woodchuck, and opossum, inhabit the refuge. 

flat color map of bombay hook

Bombay Hook territory is primarily tidal salt marsh. However, the refuge also encompasses 1,100 acres of impounded freshwater pools, a result of meticulous wildlife management. These artificial catchments are intended to mimic natural avian habitats. The water levels change to match seasonal transitions. This ensures a hospitable environment for both wading birds and waterfowl seeking deeper water.  

The man-made impoundments, constructed between 1939 and 1961, range in size from 95 to 560 acres, providing a safe haven for freshwater ducks, whose natural habitats were being threatened throughout Delmarva. Without these impoundments, the peninsula would witness a decline in freshwater duck species. 

Cooperation between the refuge and local farmers is of mutual benefit. The farmers cultivate the land, sharing the harvest while sowing seeds for the refuge’s inhabitants. This symbiosis extends to the geese, who forage in neighboring upland meadows, finding remnants of corn post-harvest. 

The marshland cradles a delicate ecosystem essential not just for wildlife, but also significantly contributing to the local fishing industry. 

Challenges: The Tale of the Southern Bald Eagle

The refuge is not without challenges. The Southern bald eagle, an endangered species, finds a home here, but struggles with reproduction, a lingering effect of DDT pesticide contamination. Refuge personnel each year barricade all roads within a half mile radius of eagle nests. The birds sit on the nest several weeks beyond the five-week incubation period. But still, their eggs don’t hatch.  

The barrenness fits into a pattern. DDT is the culprit in most cases. The pesticide, which has not been used in Bombay Hook’s territory in many decades, started the reproductive plight of predatory birds. A farmer sprays his fields with DDT. The chemical washes down into marsh areas where it’s consumed by small food organisms.  

These organisms are eaten by fish which are in turn eaten by larger fish which are the food of the eagles. At each link in the chain, the concentration of pesticide becomes stronger. The eagle ends up with lethal a dose. DDT may kill the embryo in the eggs or weaken the chicks so that when they do hatch, they cannot survive.   

Scientists believe the pesticide breaks down the metabolism of calcium in the birds’ bodies, causing them to lay thinner shelled eggs which crush under their weight. Despite the adversities, the vigilant efforts of the refuge personnel underscore a commitment to providing a sanctuary for these majestic birds. 

Spraying DDT on marshlands. Pre-1961
Spraying DDT on marshlands. Pre-1961

Bombay Hook remains a living classroom for wildlife enthusiasts, a sanctuary where migrating wildlife rests amidst the tranquility of nature, and a serene retreat for visitors. 

Motorists drive the dirt roads flanking the pools in the refuge, drawn there by the remote and wild beauty of the place. Birds are everywhere. Here, a mute swan, over there, a great blue heron, walking against the current, a solitary sentinel against the skyline. Out on the ocean thousands of Atlantic brant gather. A flock of snow geese cuts sharply into the clouds; and at day’s end dun colored deer blend into the shadows. 

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