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The Wildlife Refuge I Just Can't Resist

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This screech owl is famous among photographers for being in the same bird box every year. He was not amused by my attempt at an owl call.

 

For a nature photographer, there is no single place in the state as dynamic as Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge near Smyrna. It’s the place where, as a kid, I saw my first bald eagle—and at a time when precious few remained. As I travel up and down the state, I always try to make time for a fly-by to see what the refuge has to offer that day. Sometimes it is something as simple as a family of turtles stacked on a rock in the pond, sometimes something as amazing as a rare albino red-tailed hawk soaring above. I’ve seen short-eared, great horned, barred and screech owls; the ubiquitous great blue heron, shovelers, bobwhites, egrets, wild turkeys, harriers, bald eagles and tens of thousands of snow geese, all packed into the same pond. There is little better than the experience of 30,000 snow geese rising as one in front of you, the overwhelming beating of wings as they essentially become one large animal. That roar sends shivers throughout your body. Bombay Hook is a wonder, a celebration of life’s beauty and its diversity.

 

A staring contest with a bald eagle is rarely a winning proposition. Bald eagles have become prevalent at the refuge. I’ve seen as many as 15 at once at Bear Swamp Pool flats.

 

Perhaps the most dramatic of the owls, this short-eared soars from one side of Shearness Pool to the other. I remember losing feeling in my fingers that February as I tracked this beautiful bird.

 

 

My wife and I were standing on the observation tower overlooking Raymond Pool, which was packed with several thousand floating snow geese and a smaller group of Canada geese. Additional V-shaped gaggles of snow geese spiraled down and landed, packing the group even tighter. It sounded like a crowd at a baseball game, a lot of random chatter and hum. Suddenly there was a silence, a rush, as the entire flock lifted above the pool. I recall feeling like I was falling backward on a chair as the sound grew into a raging song. The birds moved chaotically, like white noise on a television. I struggled to focus on anything as the geese became one massive organism. It was beautiful and entirely different than anything I’d ever seen, this murmuration of large birds raging and lifting. They rose to a certain height, then settled back down into the pond, with no explanation. I remember the goosebumps and my ears ringing. Years later I managed to hike quietly into the middle of one of these flocks in a remote field in Pennsylvania. There had to be 20,000 of them, and when they rose, the feeling was euphoric, like being inside a tornado. It is still something I look forward to every year, like a kid at Christmas.

 

The dawn sun at Bombay Hook stretching above the reeds that line Shearness Pool.

 

I knew this particular short-eared owl liked to perch on this set of branches along Shearness Pool, so I waited there in the car until finally it arrived just after sunset.

 

Probably the rarest and most difficult of all shots was this leucistic (albino without the red eyes) red-tailed hawk, almost entirely white, soaring above Dutch Neck field.

 

Sometimes the foxes just want to pose for the camera.

 

I watched this osprey stare down at Finis Pool for close to an hour before he launched himself at this fish.

 

In the spring the egrets arrive in droves, and can take on interesting formations as they feed in the ponds.

 

Sunrise at Bombay Hook is a glorious experience.

 

 

This barred owl is the first bird I was able to successfully call. I still see him almost every year, with his mate.

 

The spring arrival of the egrets brings a playful dance and sparring over fish.

 

 

I had just finished taking photos of foxes at a den on the opposite side of the park and was leaving when I saw something move near the exit. I pulled over into one of the small parking areas and saw two fox kits playing on the bike rails. I closed my car door in fear that they would jump in, they were that close. They then moved from the lot down through a stream, over the road and down into a ditch about 5 feet from the main park road. I sat on the edge of the road and starting taking photos as they played and fought together in the golden light of sunset. I was there for 15 minutes or so when I noticed other foxes popping up beneath them. I was at a den. Other cars started to arrive, and before long there were perhaps a dozen people watching and taking photos. Dinner had arrived from somewhere, so two of the foxes started ripping some small mammal apart. I was in the zone, photographing the action, when I felt a tap on my thigh. One of the small foxes had hopped on me and was now to my right and facing me. It seemed like it wanted to play. I took photos and backed up, clearly too close to wild animals but also aware that my presence there for perhaps an hour helped the kits to trust me. Mother fox might not feel the same way, so I gave a little space and continued to shoot, still so close that I never needed my telephoto lens. I’d never shot wildlife in light that beautiful, and I still recall the explosive color of their eyes and the warmth of their coats. In hundreds of wildlife shoots, I still consider this the most memorable single experience.