Day trip: Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is nearby and full of things to see

When my 10-year-old son and I got up at 3:30 a.m. Monday to drive to a wildlife refuge so we could be there when the sun rose, we expected the sun to rise.

It did — eventually. But for the first couple hours after “sunrise,” Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware was shrouded in fog, and the sun was just a round glow, low in the sky.

No matter. We birded anyway, amid the constant chatter of American avocets, a long-necked, black-and-white patterned wading bird, and the ever-present Canada geese. We even tried to identify birds, such as a group of egrets, only 50 yards away but just white apparitions veiled by the fog and invisible to a video camera.

When the sun did rise, it revealed marshes full of waterfowl and shorebirds, backdrops of orange, red and gold fall foliage, and some birds of prey — including a young bald eagle that dive-bombed a group of ducks several times. It flew off empty-footed.

Bombay Hook, about 2 1/2 hours from York, is an excellent day-trip destination for birders. I first went there when I was around 12 or 13 years old, and have lost count of how many times I’ve driven its gravel roads and walked its trails. I’ve never had a bad birding day there. And it’s full of other wildlife — I’ve watched raccoons meander in a field, an unconcerned red fox sit in the brush just yards away, and have walked up close (but not too close) to a huge snapping turtle crossing the road.

If you want to make the trip, here are some things to know:

What: Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/northeast/bombayhook/index.html)

Where: Smyrna, Del.

About the refuge: It’s 16,251 acres of mostly tidal salt marsh, according to its website, but includes some wooded areas. There are 12 miles of gravel roads for auto tours, as well as five trails (two are handicapped accessible) and three observation towers.

It’s known mostly for the large number of waterfowl — everything from Canada and snow geese to several species of ducks to tundra swans — attracted there during fall migration and winter, but it is also a reliable place to see bald eagles.

During spring migration, the refuge attracts a great variety of birds.

If you go: Fee is $4 per car.

The visitors’ center is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. From March through May and from September through December, it is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Its restrooms are accessible at all hours.

The refuge has partial closures during deer and waterfowl hunting seasons, on Nov. 11, 12, 14, 16 and 18; Dec. 12, 14 and 15; and Jan. 20. A section of the refuge is closed until 1 p.m. for Young Waterfowler Hunts on Dec. 10 and 17.

Directions: From York, there are various routes, but the non-back-road way is to take Interstate 83 to Interstate 695 east toward Towson. Take Interstate 95 north to Exit 4A (in Delaware) and follow signs for state Route 1 south. Take exit 119A onto U.S. 13 south and head into Smyrna. Turn left on state Route 6 east, then right on state Route 9 south, and watch for the sign to the refuge entrance. Note: There are $11 worth of tolls en route to the refuge, and $5 if you take the same route back.

Scott Blanchard

Sunday editor at the York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

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