Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge Overview

Located just 10 miles from the state capital of Dover, Bombay Hook NWR is within easy travel distance from the Philadelphia and Washington D.C. metropolitan areas. Another 45 minutes to the south lies Prime Hook, Delaware's only other National Wildlife Refuge. Both are part of the chain of refuges on the East Coast that were established to serve wintering and migrating ducks and geese, and have more recently become appreciated for their biodiversity.

Bombay Hook stems from "Bompies Hoeck," the name meaning "little-tree point" given to the wetlands by a Dutch settler who bought the area from Indians for one gun, four hands full of powder, three waistcoats, one anchor of liquor, and one kettle.

Established in 1937 and purchased with Duck Stamp revenues from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, Bombay Hook NWR as it is known today owes its existence to the powerful effects of The Great Storm of 1878. Some called it a tidal wave. The Delaware Bay with tides three feet higher than normal breached the dunes that protected Bombay Hook Island, making the island more of a lake than an island. The storm created the tidal marshes of the refuge, but it also ended the era of resort life on bay beaches where people would throng by carriage and steamship for the good life.

The storm did not stop the annual horseshoe crab beach invasion, but fertilizer makers unwittingly tried. Horseshoe crabs do what they have done for more than 350 million years; crawl onto the sandy beaches of Delaware Bay to spawn. The horseshoe crab population of Delaware Bay is the largest in the world. In the late 1880s, four million or more were being fished or intercepted by nets each year only to be killed and later pulverized for fertilizer. Whether it was over-fishing, use of artificial fertilizers, or both, the catches declined and the horseshoe crab fertilizer industry disappeared.

Now these ancient creatures face different threats. Harvests by the fishing industry have increased dramatically since the horseshoe crabs became used as bait for catching conch and eel. Another is the potential for an oil spill. If one were to occur in May when the spawning occurs, the impact on horseshoe crabs could be catastrophic.

Worse yet is that horseshoe crabs are not the only animals at severe risk. So are shorebirds—as many as 80 percent of the entire hemispheric populations of some species. With perfect synchrony, hundreds of thousands of hungry shorebirds converge on the Delaware Bay on their way to summer breeding grounds in the Arctic at the very time the horseshoe crabs are leaving their eggs in the sand. The consumption of thousands of horseshoe crab eggs per bird is vital to regaining their strength for the last leg of the annual migration. Experts worry, though, that an ill-timed oil spill could completely wipe out some populations of these shorebirds. It is no wonder that refuge visitors get to see an amazing array of shorebirds on the tidal flats and impoundments especially in May; dunlin, yellowlegs, ruddy turnstone, red knot, semi-palm sandpiper, dowitcher, avocet, stilts, and more.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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