Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge Gets a New Look

A $5.5 million visitor center for the national wildlife refuge breathes new life into a state treasure.

Big wonders often come in small packages, and sometimes those parcels are right under our noses. Despite its size, the First State holds an array of natural marvels within its borders. Delawareans need not travel far to experience nature’s true splendor, from the rolling hills of the Appalachian Piedmont to the windswept dunes of the shoreline. As the French novelist Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Or, in this case, a new visitor center.

Located along the coast in eastern Kent County, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is full of diverse habitats, including tidal salt marshes and woodlands, which make it a haven for migratory birds. Since its establishment as a national sanctuary on March 16, 1937, Bombay Hook has played a crucial role in the conservation of ecological diversity, not only in Delaware but also nationwide.

The reserve’s ever-changing tableau of flora and fauna contains saltwater and freshwater habitats, forests, meadows and streams. In total, there are 16,251 acres of sprawling wildlife sanctuary. But the best part is Bombay Hook’s accessibility, says Josh Smith, the refuge’s visitor services manager. People don’t even have to get out of their cars to enjoy it. A 12-mile wildlife drive loops through the refuge, passing all key points of interest. For those who want exercise, there are five walking trails (two are handicap accessible) and three observation towers. As far as when to visit, “There’s never a bad time to come to Bombay Hook,” Smith says.

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Then there are the animals. Among them, foxes, raccoons, deer and birds—a lot of birds. In fact, Bombay Hook has been named a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and is recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area. It is a major stop for migratory birds in the fall and spring, and the temporary home to dozens of bald eagles in April and May. Smith says he’s seen as many as 50 eagles sitting together in one place. People come from all over the world to visit the refuge and bird-watch, and staff expect more than 110,000 visitors in 2024. “It’s a unique and beautiful spot,” says Kate Toniolo, project leader at Bombay Hook.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The latest attraction, though, isn’t alive at all, but it does have a small footprint. Opened to the public in December 2023, the new 7,313-square-foot visitor center, made of stone and wood with a green metal roof, features a large front-porch seating area, soaring ceilings in the display room and a multipurpose room that can seat large groups of people. There’s an entrance area for hunters to check in and a space for the Blue Heron Gift Shoppe, an operation managed by Friends of Bombay Hook (a nonprofit organization providing volunteer services and financial assistance to the refuge). Most notably, the visitor center is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certified. Green features include solar panels, electric-vehicle charging stations, energy-saving timers for lights and some electrical outlets, and a bird-friendly film on the windows to prevent collisions, says Toniolo.

“I think it is incredibly exciting to have this investment in nature and make it accessible to more people,” says Senator Thomas R. Carper, who was a champion for the Great American Outdoors Act that paid for the new center. “This is a gift God has given us. The new center is going to enable us to tell a story [people] can carry with them the rest of their lives, to pass on to their children and grandchildren.”

The new visitor is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certified. Green features include solar panels, electric-vehicle charging stations, energy-saving timers for lights and some electrical outlets, and a bird-friendly film on the windows to prevent collisions.
The new visitor is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certified. Green features include solar panels, electric-vehicle charging stations, energy-saving timers for lights and some electrical outlets, and a bird-friendly film on the windows to prevent collisions. Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The act established a fund to address maintenance needs throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System. The visitor center was part of a $5.5 million upgrade to Bombay Hook and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges, which make up the Coastal Delaware Refuge Complex. “This shows that government can work to the benefit of everyone,” says Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who attended the ribbon-cutting for the center in October 2023. “This is the reason we do what we do.”

Frog
Photo by Brett Breeding

The new visitor center is an impressive addition but was not designed to stand out. “It respects the landscape—it is not a rockstar,” says Barry Halperin, one of the architects with Beardsley Architects and Engineers, who intended for the building to blend in with the area. When designing the structure’s amenities, Halperin’s team kept it simple, incorporating only what staff and visitors deemed necessary (restrooms, water fountains).

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Julie Memmolo, a wildlife photographer and member of the Friends of Bombay Hook, says she’s most excited about the bottle filler at the water fountain and the technology access to help run the store, which now has its own dedicated area. “The space before was like a closet,” she points out.

Mother and baby fox
Photo by Brett Breeding

The updated center is a welcome upgrade from the old visitor center, which was smaller and starting to fall apart. “When it rained outside, it rained inside,” Toniolo says. She looks forward to working in the larger, brighter, more comfortable staff area in the new building. (The old building will be torn down when the move to the new building is complete.)

Still, the new visitor center is a work in progress. The front lobby is designed to host a group of static and dynamic exhibits of a low-tech but hands-on nature. Those are being developed now, with installation expected by fall 2024. In the meantime, staff members at the refuge are planning tours, school field trips and public events throughout the year. Of course, people are encouraged to visit on their own as well.
Migratory bird
Located along the coast in eastern Kent County, the refuge is full of diverse habitats, including tidal salt marshes and woodlands, which make it a haven for migratory birds. Photo by Brett Breeding

“It’s a place where I find peace and lots of wildlife,” says Memmolo, who adds that every place in the refuge lends itself to photography. She likes to visit to clear her head and enjoy the beauty. “It’s like oxygen.” As the doors of the new visitor center swing open, the hope is that the center will not only serve as a gateway to the wonders of Bombay Hook but also beckon a multitude of visitors to immerse themselves in the unparalleled beauty and biodiversity of Delaware’s cherished wildlife refuge.

For more formation, visit the website.

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