Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beware Delaware, but Get Hooked on Bombay

I must warn of two things up front. Firstly, this post is, alas, not going to be a tale of addition and fancy Indian gins. Secondly, this is going to be really lengthy. 
During a winter visit to Pennsylvania, I found myself with a free day to move farther afield than the local haunts around, so I fortified and forayed out into the cold towards larger and more famous hot spots. I had no Fellowship, and I had no ring-generated invisibility powers, but nonetheless I set off to a place as terrifying to travel through as Mordor in the summer...Delaware!!!

About an hour and a half south of West Chester is the Bombay Hook Wildlife refuge, a large nature preserve with salt marshes, lagoons, woodlands, and farmland all coming together to form a very diverse and birdy landscape. Admittedly, this is a place better visited in the later Spring, but it still provided some of the winter sparrows and eastern waterfowl that I'd been missing in the southwest. I didn't know it at the time, but I had also apparently been missing the bitter, driving coldness that comes with these sorts of birds. 

In order to get there, I had to first drive through many miles of single-lane "highway" laced with stoplights and stop signs and speed traps and those large carnivorous flowers from the Mario games. It was an ordeal, to be sure, and the fact that often times in order to stay on one of the older "highways" in Delaware one must actually exit and join with a parallel road, or it'll turn into something else. Anyway, the travails of travel aside, Bombay Hook was the vast birding expanse it promised to be, a combination of habitats none of which are substantively found in Arizona.

The preserve is huge and you are expected to proceed through it in a sort of safari loop not unlike the jeep tour in the first Jurassic Park movie, except none of the animals here are enclosed, so it's even more dangerous. The perimeter of the park is old cottonwood and oak woodlands. These craggy trees host all kinds of noisy songbirds, including some of the little brown jobs I was particularly seeking while in PA.

This Swamp Sparrow was kind enough to come up and out into the open for a moment so we could take a commemorative photo.

This red morph Fox Sparrow was not. 

It was also nice to be birding in a place where the ranges of the similar Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees do not overlap. Although the Chickadees aren't as approachable on a nature preserve as they are in the backyard, it was nice to have unambiguous identifications of the Carolina variety.

These old, leafless woodlands would be well-described as sleepy, except that all the Sparrows and Wrens and Chickadees kept up such a cacophonous racket that napping was quite impossible (and, given how chilly it was outside, potentially deadly). In concert with the noisy songbirds were all kinds of headbangers. Pileated Woodpeckers were easily the coolest (too cool for a photo), but Red-bellied Woodpeckers were another great attraction in the old growth forests.

The woodland perimeter is itself surrounded by fallow farmland that hosted Blackbird/Cowbird flocks along with Snow Geese, but this area was best observed through a scope. This massive conspiracy of Crows was large enough to be observed and feared with the naked eye. Hitchcock would be proud.

The interior of the preserve features the tall grass and twisting rivulets inherent to salt marshes, and this was really the big attraction. I had the vain hope of seeing a Nelson's Sparrow in the tidal reeds, and while I did not really expect to find that secretive bird, I knew that I'd see lots of cool stuff in the process. It's difficult to get anywhere near Bufflehead in Phoenix, but while I was trying to photograph a Northern Harrier flying over the dense grasses, a lovely male came floating by parallel to the road without any pomp or fanfare.

Some of the channels come together through the preserve to form larger reservoirs, and these reservoirs in turn have sandbars and islands that support larger birds. In addition to the Tundra Swans pictured earlier, Canada Geese congregated by the hundreds, while the occasional Great Black-backed Gull tried unsuccessfully to blend in with them. 

I drove slowly down the dirt road, frequently stopping to binocularize and photograph the marshy species on display. After one such stop, I looked down out my window to see this Savannah Sparrow staring up with frozen terror. I felt bad for the little guy. It was like the sight of this gangly monster protruding from the truck and made him forget how to fly away. It is also possible he was just playing opossum. A third possibility is that he was just trying to remember if he had left the stove on at home. I feel like we've all paused and made this face at one time or another. 

The Savannah Sparrows were pretty common along the road, and it also became clear that they were pretty accustomed to the vehicles. This bird below was hopping amongst these anti-topsoil-erosion rocks, foraging without a care in the world. He definitely got his foot stuck between two stones for like fifteen seconds. He feebly flapped for a second, noticed I was watching, and then just decided to sit still until I was no longer witnessing his great shame. I shifted my attention to other things and, upon a second inspection, the clumsy sparrow was gone. 

The salt marsh portion of the preserve is set up such that on either side of the dirt road there are short, grassy slopes and then thinned riparian vegetation sprouting up before the man-made estuaries that serve to both feed the larger ponds and keep people from approaching any unwilling birds too closely. Nothing likes these thin reedy habitats, or goes better with Bombay Gin, than Bitter(n)s.

I saw three of these eminently awkward and super cool birds along the Bombay Hook drive. Even though they were not new birds for me, unlike the American Black Ducks and Tundra Swans and Fox Sparrows, they were probably the coolest sighting of the excursion, and they're none too common in Arizona either.

Look at this stud of a bird. It's back looks like marble and mahogany all in one. Add to that aesthetic this bird's lightning-fast reflexes, super sharp beak, and disposition similar to that of a stick (but you know, a really cool stick), and you've got a real winner.

The one disappointment of the Bombay Hook, other than the terminally icy and face-chapping breeze, was that I could not actually get coastline access. I had really been hoping the salt marsh road would open up to a full coastal view, but alas. You never know what'll turn up at the beach, and last time I birded on the Jersey shore (Barnegat Bay mind you) it was fantastic. I did some extra driving down past the preserve and made it out to the Atlantic via a small sandy road, but it only opened to a little boat launch and a grumpy gang of stumpy Ring-billed Gulls.

So there weren't any coastal or pelagic birds on this trip then, but I can now say I've taken a shot of Bombay in Delaware, lived to tell the tale, and even come home with a few more life birds. I will definitely try to get back there in the summer.