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It’s in Your Nature: Wildlife rich habitats nearby

I’ve been fortunate to have lived near some wonderful wildlife habitats.

Forested woodlots, small family farms, forested mountainsides, meandering valley streams, and pristine, cold mountain streams have offered me opportunities to see and record wildlife.

I’ve discovered nearly every amphibian I could expect to find, most of the reptiles, mammals, and birds as well.

But we do lack one habitat type here in the Times News region, that is very wildlife rich, the salt marsh.

My family and I were frequent campers at Assateague Island State Park in Maryland. Assateague is one of the many barrier islands up and down the Atlantic Coast.

Barrier Islands have their sandy shores along the Atlantic Ocean, but the western side of these islands are generally wonderful salt marshes. The nutrient rich waters of a salt marsh feed diatoms and Copepods which feed small invertebrates, and small fish, larger fishes, and then the predators.

The numbers of shorebirds, gulls, herons, and even raptors are much greater here than in any habitat our region has to offer. The reason, simply explained, is the food pyramid.

The more organisms at the base of the pyramid (plants and microscopic organisms) means that more upper order animals can be supported with more than enough food.

I was rather familiar with the wildlife that I would find in these saltmarshes in summer and early fall. (that’s when I vacationed there.) This year we spent a couple of January mornings at two salt marsh areas to see what animals remained to face the challenging winter conditions.

Assateague Island and Bombay Hook National Wildlife refuge didn’t disappoint me. I certainly didn’t see the great variety and numbers as in the warmer months, but there is no doubt, plenty of food is available to those animals that “stick out” the cold.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is located in Smyrna, Delaware, just north of Dover. It is about a 2-hour drive. This is a birding area where you almost never need to exit your car. There are a number of routes to follow using the park map that take you along dikes or through some swamps and forested areas as well.

There are at least two observation towers that a short 5-minute walk will get you access to them. A pair of binoculars and your camera are all you will need. If you have a spotting scope, that would be a great asset, but is not necessary.

I found a number of gull species, black ducks, shovelers, green winged teal, pintails, coots, swans, and Canada and snow geese. Merlins and harriers (raptor species), some bald eagles, and quite a few great blue herons were observed as well.

If you recall, we had a very cold few days near Christmas and some of the marsh still had ice cover. That actually helped my photography and sightings because it concentrated these birds in the limited open water.

Bombay Hook, Assateague Island, and Brigantine (Near Atlantic City, New Jersey) all host many bird species over the winter months. Don’t be surprised when you see some of our familiar smaller summer birds there such as flickers, brown thrashers, robins, many blackbirds, and yellow-rumped warblers.

If you don’t mind waking early, I’d recommend the 2-hour trip to Bombay Hook as your first “shot” at seeing the salt marsh in winter.

Take your significant other along and they can stop at the Christiana Mall or Cabelas along the way and that may entice an extra friend to join you for this winter birding opportunity.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Which of these small birds does not remain locally through the winter? A ruby crowned kinglet; B. golden crowned kinglet; C. brown creeper; D. white-breasted nuthatch.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Yes, the pileated woodpecker has a nictitating membrane over its eyes to help protect the eye from “flying wood chips.”

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

Two mute swans rest comfortably on the ice at Bombay Hook in Delaware. One of the many waterfowl species you can find in the salt marshes in winter. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A few hardy great blue herons may overwinter in Carbon and Lehigh counties, but I observed many at Bombay Hook and Assateague. Here one hunts in the shallow tidal waters.
The tides ebb and flow revealing mud flats that feed geese, swans, great black-backed gulls, and many duck species. The cargo ship in the background shows your proximity to the Delaware Bay.
Winter weather keeping you bundled up inside? Take the two hour drive to Bombay Hook to see what bird species survive the winter weather.
So you wonder where our purple grackles and red-winged blackbirds go in the winter; apparently many of them spend the winter in the fields near and in Bombay Hook. I estimated that the one flock held more than 10,000 birds.