A Wildlife Photography Day Trip to Bombay Hook NWR

Snowy Egret perching on a pier, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022

I took a day trip in May 2022 to visit the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, USA, for wildlife photography purposes. I have no idea where you reside and whether or not you are familiar with the Mid-Atlantic region here in the United States, but there are a large number of wildlife refuges that one can visit. Not only here in this region, but up and down the East Coast, as well as throughout the entirety of the United States.

Snowy Egret, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022
Snowy Egret, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022

My wife and I visited Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge back around 2005 or so, but never went back. At that time I was heavy into macro photography and not much into wildlife, and there were (and still are) just not a wide variety of bugs to photograph because there are hardly any flowering plants and trees. But we had to check it out. There are dragonflies here and there, but because the place is so big and access is pretty much limited to the main road and a few paths, there are not a lot of macro opportunities. It’s not like a small pond or an arboretum where you can get closeup to the bugs. It’s a place mainly to observe and photograph wildlife from a distance, most notably birds.

Anyway, fast forward 17 years later to this year, May 2022, and now that I own a zoom lens for the first time in my life, and am back enjoying my other passion in wildlife photography, I have begun to visit local wildlife refuges again. Since I have a familial responsibility now, I need a place I can visit in a day. Wildlife photography is mostly a weekend hobby for me, just like fishing or hunting might be for someone else. So as I was researching local refuges near me, one of the results that were returned in Google Maps was Bombay Hook NWR, which I had completely forgotten about. So I decided that it would be my next location to try and photograph a variety of wildlife as I continue to get more accustomed to my new camera equipment (which at the time of this writing includes both the Sony A7 IV and 200-600mm lens).

Shorebirds aplenty at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022
Shorebirds aplenty at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022

Safety Preparations & My First Tick Bite (from another location)

So I made the trip to Bombay Hook armed with light colored clothing that was sprayed with permethrin in order try and avoid getting any ticks (it was applied to all outer areas of my hiking boots, socks, lower pants, shirt collar & cuffs, and hat). It may be overkill, but better safe than sorry. Actually, a couple weeks prior to the trip to Bombay Hook, I was at an Pennsylvania arboretum / state park where I wore my jeans normally (loosely hanging over my hiking boots) and picked up a tick and got my very first tick bite in 51 years of my life! The tick actually embedded itself in my upper thigh, but fortunately I found it the same day and under 4 hours, removed it entirely with tweezers, and never had any symptoms whatsoever. I was very lucky! That was a wake up call and reminder to make sure I wear light clothing, pants tucked into my socks, etc., from here on out whenever I go visiting a place where I might be walking among and brushing up against tall grass, weeds, etc.

Bombay Hook is no different when it comes to ticks, but that’s pretty much how it is around the Mid-Atlantic region wherever you go outdoors, even in your own backyard! Where there are squirrels, rabbits, and deer, there most likely are ticks. I got a tick on me one time just weeding the bushes around our house! Unless you live in the city or urban area, you have to be a little cautious now and then, especially if you frequent the outdoors. And in addition to ticks, because Bombay Hook is a wetland area with lots of marsh, swamps, and mud, there are plenty of flies and gnats, including biting flies, too. So I also purchased some picaridin insect repellent lotion, and a bug net to go over my head to avoid the flying bugs. The picaridin lotion on the backs of my hands and around my face, ears and neck worked so well at keeping bugs away from me that I didn’t need to wear the bug net. And with the permethrin applied to my clothing, at the end of the day, I didn’t have any problems with bugs! Although I did practice some safety measures by trying to avoid brushing up against tall grass, which there is plenty of!

Which reminds me: I’ll never forget during our very first trip to Bombay Hook, getting back into the car after trying to photograph a snake in the tall grass, and finding a couple of ticks on my outer pants! This time I came back from my day trip without a single tick on me, and not even one mosquito bite or welt from a biting fly. Of course, it could very well have been the time of day or the type of conditions at Bombay Hook where the flies and mosquitoes were not in great numbers, who knows, I’m no expert. I’m just glad to have been able to get some photographs and return home unscathed!

Snowy Egret (left) and Great Egret (right), Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022
Snowy Egret (left) and Great Egret (right), Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022

About Bombay Hook itself:

It’s a great place to visit if you are into looking at birds through a scope or pair of binoculars, or if you are into wildlife photography yourself! Sure, there might be some other wildlife like beavers, otters, deer, and foxes, but because I’m not local to the area and don’t plan on making the trip every weekend, I don’t know how common it is to see the land critters that I mentioned. I didn’t see any on this particular trip. I believe when my wife and I first visited almost 2 decades ago we saw an otter or a beaver (or maybe I just think we did after watching so many nature documentaries). However, you will find it to be a birder’s or perhaps even photographer’s paradise! There’s everything from small songbirds to Turkey Vultures and Bald Eagles and everything in between: ducks, geese, egrets, shorebirds, etc. Actually, lots of eagles! I never saw so many Bald Eagles in my life in one location. I don’t know how many years it’s taken for the eagle numbers to increase at Bombay Hook, but after seeing 6 of them or so during this trip, it almost seems common place.

A Bald Eagle feeding while another looks on, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022
A Bald Eagle feeding while another looks on, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022

There is a main road that loops throughout the refuge that you drive or ride your bike on. I believe it’s 15 miles either one way or roundtrip, I forget which. The main road takes you through the refuge and the wetland areas so you don’t even have to get out of your car if you don’t want to! Which could be a good idea depending upon the weather, or how bad the mosquitoes and flies are biting, but again, in the 2 times I visited the biting bugs were not that bad. Of course, it’s not the dead of summer just yet either, so maybe it’s worse then.

The great thing about the drive is that you can pull your car over to the side of the road to get out to take a look around, look at the birds through your scope or binoculars, take some photos, or even walk down a path. One thing to be careful of is the tall grass along the sides of the road. This is where ticks love to hang out, no pun intended, as they reach out with their front legs waiting to hitch a ride on a passerby, be it human or other animal. Which is why it is wise to check one’s pants frequently, even if not bushing up against tall grass. Actually, no matter where you go outdoors it’s a good habit to get into because one can easily pick up a tick walking on leaf litter, or even having a picnic at a park where animals are known to frequent.

Canadian Geese and juveniles, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022
Canadian Geese and their young, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022

There are a good number of small paths which vary in length. Some just a quarter or half mile round trip, others might be a couple miles in length, but nothing too long or too strenuous. These allow you to walk through the wooded areas among the wetlands, or get up close to some of the marshes and waterways that flow throughout the refuge. There are also a few observation towers scattered throughout which are accessed via some fairly short paths off the main road as well. Climbing up the metal steps gives one a birds eye view of the wetlands.

The area is completely flat and not much of a strenuous adventure at all which is great for anyone that might have a disability or trouble walking.

There is a $4 admission fee per day for each car, with the prices varying depending upon type of vehicle, or if one is just walking or biking through. It appears to be on an honor system. The money is placed into an envelope where one pencil’s in their license plate along with the day of the visit, state and zip code. There is another perforated tab where one write’s the date of their visit. Then the envelope gets sealed and deposited into a slotted metal deposit box, while the tab gets torn off and gets placed on top of the vehicle dashboard where it can be proudly displayed. I have no problem paying it. I haven’t visited a wildlife refuge yet that requires a fee, and I’m not sure if Bombay Hook strictly enforces it, but I have no problem supporting them financially, especially since I don’t visit on a daily or even weekly basis.

There is a main visitor center open during weekdays which I believe has restrooms nearby. There are also portable toilets scattered throughout as well.

And one last thing worth mentioning is that if you ever plan on visiting, the types of birds you will see can be dependent upon the season. Certain birds, especially migrating birds, might only be seen during the spring or winter, and other birds (non-migratory) might be more prevalent in the summer. So I plan to make the trip again once each season to see if I spot anything I haven’t seen before or on previous visits.

Wildlife Photography and Bombay Hook NWR:

Bombay Hook is a great place for wildlife photography. However, as I mentioned earlier, most of the birds in the wetlands are at quite a distance, so it’s not easy to get close-up shots of them. This is especially so for the smaller shorebirds. That’s why it would be a good idea to invest in either a scope or pair of a binoculars, or a long lens like a 100-400 maybe combined with a teleconverter for extra reach. The wooded paths that you can walk through will enable you to see some smaller birds, so that could be a good opportunity to see those particular birds up close. Because I am fortunate to own a 200-600mm lens, I was able to photograph a variety of species and am able to crop the photos small enough to maintain detail which basically allows me to zoom in on the wildlife.

So that’s it! Again, I don’t know where you reside, but if you ever take a trip to the Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, or Maryland region, you might consider making a day or half-day trip to Bombay Hook NWR and maybe you’ll see some birds or other wildlife you’ve never seen before, whether you are into wildlife photography or not!

Mute Swans, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022
Mute Swans, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, May 2022


Bombay Hook on Google Maps: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Bombay+Hook+National+Wildlife+Refuge/@39.2583667,-75.4550812,15z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x314379e15fd4ecb9?sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj9oP22_PX3AhWGjYkEHawCC7YQ_BJ6BQiOARAF

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/bombay-hook

Visit Delaware.com: https://www.visitdelaware.com/listings/bombay-hook-national-wildlife-refuge/4119

Friends of Bombay Hook: https://www.friendsofbombayhook.org/

My Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ephemeral.rift/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ephemeralrift1