Winter Birding at Prime Hook

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp talks about winter birding at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the coastal comforts of Milton, Delaware.

To experience winter birding on Delmarva at its best, plan a January journey to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Part of the Coastal Delaware National Wildlife Refuge Complex that includes Bombay Hook near Dover, Prime Hook encompasses more than 10,000 acres of salt and freshwater marsh, shallow impoundments and ponds, forested swamps and grassy fields. The refuge is a critical wintering spot along the Atlantic flyway for waterfowl, raptors, and other birds that consider Delmarva "the South" during their annual migration from breeding grounds up north.

Granted, birding outdoors on Delmarva during the bitter, windy winter months may not be your idea of fun. Many would rather stay inside and watch the birds at their well-stocked feeders outside the kitchen window. The benefit to braving the elements is the incredible variety of birds you're likely to see at Prime Hook in January that aren't likely to make a stop in your backyard for sunflowers and suet.

To psyche yourself up, remember the old Scandinavian saying: there's no bad weather, there's just bad clothing. "Dress for Success" by wearing layers, with a fleece to trap the warm air under a water-resistant shell that will block wind and moisture. Waterproof boots are a good idea, too, as you may want to take a walk along the Delaware Bayshore. Nothing spoils a brisk winter hike more than wet, freezing toes on the walk back to the car.

Before you begin your birding adventure, take advantage of the coastal comforts offered in historic Milton, located just a few minutes west of Prime Hook. Stop in the morning for coffee and breakfast at The Backyard, or enjoy lunch at Po' Boys Creole and Fresh Catch or Irish Eyes Pub. Come back to Milton in the afternoon to visit the Tasting Room at America's most interesting and adventurous small brewery, Dogfish Head.

The birding usually gets good right away on the drive into the refuge along Broadkill Road. It's worth checking out the telephone lines for American Kestrels perched and surveying their winter domain.

The tiny but fierce kestrel is North America's smallest falcon. Both males and females have distinctive pairs of black vertical sideburns on their pale faces. Both sexes also have whitish bellies and rusty brown backs with black spots, and a tail with a black stripe near the tip. Male kestrels have slate-blue wings, and females' wings are reddish brown.

From a distance, kestrels are about the size and shape of another common telephone line percher, the Mourning Dove. The kestrel has a larger head than the dove, with longer, skinnier wings and a squared-off tail. When perched on an open wire, kestrels pump their tails as if they are trying to balance on a tightrope.

From their perch, these raptors vigilantly survey the nearby fields and roadside ditches for prey, which includes small mammals and birds in the winter, and more insects in the summer months. Kestrels also hover in the air, facing into the wind, flapping and adjusting their long tails to stay in place.

When scanning the ground for rodents and insects, kestrels are looking for more than movement. Unlike humans, birds can see ultraviolet light. This enables kestrels to see things we can't, such as trails of urine that small rodents leave behind as they run along the ground. These illuminated paths may direct the kestrel to a meal.

If they've had a successful morning hunt, Kestrels are known to hide leftovers in grass clumps and tree cavities for later dining.

From Broadkill Road, park at the Prime Hook visitor center at the end of Turkle Pond Road. The Visitor Center has indoor restrooms, which are welcome on a chilly day, and exhibits and information about the wildlife at the refuge. And, best of all -- no armed, annoying militia members to spoil the scenery!

From the Visitor Center, you can bundle up and choose several different trails to explore. Both the Boardwalk Trail and the Dike Trail are wheelchair-accessible and 1/2-mile long.

From the Boardwalk Trail, you'll likely see several species of ducks in the freshwater marsh. The Northern Shoveler is an easy-to-identify dabbling duck, with its long, shovel-shaped bill used to filter food from the water. Males have a dark, glossy-green head with a black bill and bright yellow eyes. Males have a white chest, black back with white streaks, and chestnut-brown flanks. The brownish-gray females have the same shape, but the bill is olive green with hints of yellow, and the eyes are brown.

From the Dike Trail, you can hike out to a viewing deck that has expansive views of the marsh that leads to the Delaware Bay. During the winter, you're likely to encounter large flocks of noisy Snow Geese, and Bald Eagles posted in the trees at the edge of the marsh.

After exploring the trails near the Visitor Center, drive back to Broadkill Road and hang a left towards the beach. You'll find a few spots on the shoulder where you can pull over to park safely and scan the marsh for wildlife with binoculars and spotting scopes. You'll find more ducks bobbing on the shallow open water here, such as Gadwall, Black Ducks, Northern Pintails, and Green-winged Teal.

Your binoculars may also help you locate a flock of slender, elegant American Avocets huddled together or feeding in the shallow water. These large shorebirds have long legs and a long, upturned bill that it slices back and forth through the water to catch small invertebrates. Avocets appear mostly gray, black and white in the winter, but their necks and heads turn a beautiful rusty orange during the summer breeding season.

At the end of the road, you'll come to the community of Broadkill Beach. You can park in the designated areas, and hike along the beach to scan the bay for Red-throated Loons. Smaller than the Common Loon that also winters on Delmarva, the Red-throated Loon has a thin bill that is usually tilted slightly upward. It sits low on the water, and frequently dips and dives while fishing. The red throat only appears during the breeding season in the Arctic north. During the Delmarva winter, Red-throated Loons are pale gray and white.

After exploring the incredible diversity of winter birds at Prime Hook, drive back to Milton to warm up and refuel with a delicious dinner or craft beer at Dogfish Head.

If you want to experience birding at Prime Hook before the ducks and loons head north in spring, join the expert guides leading field trips during the Delmarva Winter Birding Weekend, which will be held January 29 through 31. For more information, please visit

Find out more:
Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge
All About Birds - Kestrel
All About Birds - Northern Shoveler
All About Birds - Red Throated Loon
All About Birds - American Avocet