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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

April 25, 2009
DVOC Photography Field Trip to Bombay Hook

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The light that heralded my arrival at Whitehall Neck Rd was exquisite. I felt like I was racing the sun the entire drive to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. The quality of that morning light was warm and soft, tempered by just a hint of fog. The fog provided just that extra soft edge, without plunging everything into dimness or cutting visibility to nothing. I drove down Whitehall Neck Rd, scouting for subjects, but there were few birds near the road. As I entered the part of the refuge that is in my Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas (BBA) Block, I found the male American Kestrel who has been spending time on the wires along Whitehall Neck Rd. The male has replaced a female who had been the welcoming falcon for most of late winter – at least when I made the journey to Bombay Hook. A few Horned Larks were quickly on their way, while others, unseen, sang with all their hearts. Just before the entrance gates, a marvelous Chipping Sparrow in impeccable plumage gleamed in the morning light. I wanted to be out there, with tripod up and camera pointed at something – anything. I just wanted to take some pictures; the light was too compelling.

I finally arrived at the Visitor Center, where one photographer had already set up his massive telephoto lens. Decked all in camouflage, with a veil to hide most of his face, this guy was way out of my league. His Canadian license plates, made me suspect he was not here for the DVOC trip, but I felt compelled to ask him if he was. As fate had it, he and I were there for the same reason, but he was not looking to join our small group in touring the refuge. We talked briefly, then he was on his way, off to photograph exquisite exotic Delaware, which we sometimes take for granted due to familiarity and ease of access. Alone, and astonished to be, once again, the first to arrive to one of my own field trips, I whipped out the Delaware BBA paperwork and recorded my observations around the visitor center while I awaited the arrivals of Andy Urquhart and Sam Perloff. Soon Sam drove up and later Andy arrived. As everyone got ready, I rifled off a few more BBA observations and we were off.

Despite the eagerness to capture the day in photographs, I had no desire to spend much time around the Visitor Center. Many of the birds there are pretty accessible, but I hadn’t wanted us to waste the early morning with shots of feeder birds and swallows on nest boxes or gourds. We were off to the Boardwalk Trail, where we briefly lapsed into birder mode to see what was at the woods before the trail. We enjoyed some distant looks at Black-and-white Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Then we got back to business and headed out the path. To say the Boardwalk Trail was quiet would be an injustice. The entire refuge was alive with song including dozens of Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Northern Cardinals, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robins, Song Sparrows, House Wrens and Marsh Wrens. These were punctuated with lesser numbers of singing Brown-headed Cowbirds, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, American Goldfinches, Field Sparrows and Carolina Wrens. More, there were calling Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Flickers, Willets, Eastern Towhees, Common Grackles, Greater Yellowlegs, Tree Swallows, Blue Jays, Fish Crows, White-throated Sparrows and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. The marshes were a beautiful chaos of music and chatter, yet the Boardwalk Trail had few birds near enough to photograph.

A quick foray to the first bit of open water off the Boardwalk Trail revealed a large group of Willets, which had replaced the Greater Yellowlegs that dominated the pool on my previous visit. Still, they were too far out for us. We lapsed into conversation about preferences for F-stops and compensation, metering systems and the like. This always happens at some point. Andy had just purchased his camera, and this trip was its inauguration – and his – into the world of wildlife photography. We walked to where the boardwalk overlooks the tidal stream, and I shot some scenic photographs – just to do it, in case we failed to find some cooperative wildlife before the light gave out. To my dismay, the sun already seemed a little high, but we had the morning fog working for us. On out way out, a few Tree Swallows posed against the morning sky on a snag. I set up the tripod, Andy and Sam clicked off a few shots. We had fairly good light on the bird, and great light on the snag. The swallows drifted in and out, but, as swallows often do, they returned to their perches with some regularity. Now a Seaside Sparrow scrambled among some dry reeds, and we waited until the bird was less obscured. Again the lighting was quite good. The distance was a little more than what we might have wanted, but we were happy for the opportunity to shoot some photos of such a secretive species.

The Seaside Sparrow eventually disappeared into the reeds, and we headed back towards the cars. We found the camouflaged Canadian photographer down the path, where he’d taken a nice shot of a House Wren, and we provided him with an identification of the bird. Here, we found some close Tree Swallows and some reasonably close ones in very good light, so we set about taking some swallow photos. I think it’s always nice to shoot Tree Swallows in a more natural setting. Shooting Tree Swallows at nest boxes does have its advantages, but a Tree Swallow on a natural perch makes for a better composition in my opinion. Our next close bird was a Red-bellied Woodpecker, with the red feathers showing nicely in the morning sun; unfortunately, that bird would not sit still and often hid behind the trunk of the tree. This was not entirely the woodpecker’s fault though, as a Northern Mockingbird was aggressively defending its holly tree here. We got back in the cars and drove down to Raymond Pool, stopping for some photo ops with herons and egrets. Then I spotted a Common Yellowthroat singing almost violently at the water’s edge. We pulled over and set up. Slowly, we advanced on the bird, took some shots, advanced, click click click, advanced, took another shot. Presently, the bird tired of this unwarranted attention and flew five feet to our right, but it was still quite accessible. We tried again, and then the bird flew back to its first perch.

Tearing ourselves away from the yellowthroat, we proceeded switched off and on between birding and photography through the Shearness Area. We shot pictures of Orchard Orioles (distant), Eastern Kingbirds (in poor light), really distant Ruddy Ducks, Great Blue Heron, Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal and Green-winged Teal. A very cooperative and almost close enough flock of American Coot provided some nice photo opportunities. This also provided additional opportunities to explore the difficulty of photographing a black bird with a bone white bill.

We moved on to Finis, hoping for a chance to take really bad pictures of just-too-distant Prothonotary Warblers, but we neither heard nor saw them. A singing Prairie Warbler was a decent consolation prize. We took some time photographing Red-winged Blackbird and a nicely lit Tree Swallow, hoping the Prothonotaries might sing while we tooled around. Giving it up, we headed to Bear Swamp.

We were walking the Bear Swamp boardwalk, when I heard the rustled slide that betrays the presence a serpent. “Snake!” I cried, a little excited and hoping for some cooperative subject matter. Immediately, a Black Racer that had lost most of its tail tip shot out from underneath the boardwalk. We were just getting over the excitement of seeing this silky-scaled creature, when a second Black Racer shot out, seemingly to intercept the first. The injured snake, shot back towards the boardwalk, the other intercepted her. She jetted behind some low vegetation. He ripped through the leaves to accompany her. She shot out towards the water’s edge; he rocketed out in front of her. They chased back to the vegetation, pausing, seemingly face-to-face. Then the uninjured male aligned his body with hers, and where the two met he vibrated along her length, caressing her even without limbs. She calmed somewhat. We shot a lot of pictures, maneuvering as best we could to access these ophidian lovers barely hidden in the sparse vegetation and dry leaves. Without warning, the female shot under the boardwalk. The male disappeared after her, so fast I don’t remember seeing him as he left. What followed was the same sort of excited conversation one shares with an especially good bird sighting. We all agreed that the snakes easily stole the show. We would see nothing else the rest of the day that would rival that spectacle.

The rest of Bear Swamp was still interesting, if not as exciting as the racer show. We had some Black-necked Stilts that were close enough to warrant a little photo study. A Snow Goose was with some other slightly closer Stilts, providing a weird assemblage of winter and breeding species. The Black-crowned Night-herons were not cooperative at all, though. We decided to break for lunch at the Smyrna Diner, though I tarried long enough to shoot some photos of a Common Grackle that was showing off its iridescence nicely.

After our meal at the Smyrna Diner, we made our way to Port Mahon, where groups of shorebirds and gulls were our best subjects. On the way out, Sam took the lead, followed by Andy, so we all might do a little photography using our cars as bird blinds. After that, Sam had to take off, but Andy and I lingered a little, surveying one of the overgrown impoundments before heading back to Bombay Hook. Back at the refuge, we tooled around looking for accessible shorebirds, and hoping to spot an American Golden-plover. We had no luck with the plover, but as the day wore on the temperatures became milder and we just wound up enjoying the view. A stubborn Northern Watersnake, a flyby Whimbrel and some well lit and well organized herons and egrets were the more memorable moments. Afterwards, I spent some time trying to get decent flight shots of Purple Martins, which was all the more difficult due to the excessive amounts of insects. A few American Goldfinches were also good subject matter lit by the late afternoon sun. On the way out, I made one last stop at Finis Pool, finding a very fat watersnake on the water control device. While I heard my first Wood Thrushes of the year here, I still had no trace of the Prothonotary Warblers. There’s always next time, though.