Where the Wild Things Are

Bald eagles, egrets, fox squirrels, bottlenose dolphins and the famed wild ponies lure visitors to Assateague and Chincoteague islands.

By: Daniel Shearer

Right, a bottlenose dolphin breaches near Chincoteague Inlet in Virginia. "A

Photos by Daniel F. Shearer  
Above, a pod of bottlenose dolphins slices through the Atlantic, less than a mile off Assateague Island.

   Dawn breaks on Assateague Island, revealing a feeding frenzy.
   Straddling the border between Maryland and Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula, the undeveloped 37-mile barrier island is perhaps best known for its semi-wild ponies, recognition largely due to the popularity of Marguerite Henry’s elegant novel, Misty of Chincoteague.
   On this humid August morning, the handful of visitors assembled to watch the sunrise encounter a rare treat. Hundreds of long-legged white birds — great egrets and their smaller cousins, snowy egrets — have assembled in unusually large numbers. They are feeding on fish, concentrated by drought conditions into a pond a few hundred yards behind the dunes.
   It is a bird watcher’s dream come true.
   Like crop dusters flying low over a field, dozens of black skimmers make repeated passes, barely touching the surface with their longer lower beak, snapping shut the moment they detect something edible. Numerous gulls watch the carnage from a nearby sand bar.
   "Around the July period, we typically get tremendous numbers of wading birds," says John Schroer, who has worked as refuge manager at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for more than a decade. "This year, and it has happened a number of other years, it was pretty dry most everywhere.
   "Within that particular area, we had fish die off, and the birds moved in there and were feeding on those fish very heavily. Once they found that as a really good feeding area, it attracted everything in this area. It was pretty spectacular."


Photo by Daniel F. Shearer
Assateague Lighthouse, erected in 1867 near Chincoteague, Va.

   A few hours after sunrise, little evidence remains from the earlier activity, except for a few more egrets than usual resting in nearby bushes, no doubt with full stomachs. By this time, another migration has started. Thousands of beachgoers are making their daily pilgrimage to the island, many of whom, if they’re lucky, will glimpse bottlenose dolphins feeding near the surf line. During the summer months, groups of 50 dolphins or more are often sighted at the beach and nearby Chincoteague Inlet. The animals will occasionally approach swimmers, surfers or bodyboarders, provided they aren’t splashing too much.
   "Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most visited refuges in the country," says Mr. Schroer, noting that each year the refuge receives roughly 1.4 million visits, based on vehicle-occupant estimates.
   Geography contributes to the large turnout. Assateague Island is the only vehicle-accessible ocean beach on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, separated from mainland Virginia by the vast Chesapeake Bay. Management of Assateague is shared by several organizations. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, encompasses more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh and maritime forest. The National Park Service is charged with running Assateague Island National Seashore, while Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources operates Assateague State Park, situated on 660 acres at the island’s northern tip, the only portion of the island open to overnight camping. The U.S. Coast Guard also runs Assateague Light, erected in 1867 on the south end of the island, near Chincoteague.

Above, a flock of snow geese makes a brief stop on Assateague during fall migration. Below, Chincoteague ponies grazing.

Photos by Daniel F. Shearer

   The area has recreational offerings to suit a variety of tastes, with Ocean City, Md., and its many hotels, rides and boardwalk within minutes of Assateague’s Maryland side. On the opposite end, Chincoteague Island is much loved for its less hectic, fishing-town ambiance. Since there is no highway running the length of Assateague, a visit to both ends of the island requires an hour-long inland drive.
   As summer winds down, Chincoteague tourists shift their interest from tanning to wildlife.
   "This is one of the premiere spots along the Atlantic Coast to do bird watching," Mr. Schroer says. "We get a tremendous number of people during the migration season, who come simply to view the wildlife that comes through this area."
   Beginning in October, large numbers of snow geese regularly make stops on Assateague during their long flight south for the winter, in some years turning the sky into a living white cloud. Osprey are abundant, and sharp-eyed visitors may also spy breeding pairs of bald eagles. Large, pointy-eared Delmarva fox squirrels, an endangered species that once ranged as far north as central New Jersey, also make occasional appearances.
   As for the ponies, many theories exist about their origins on Assateague. The most colorful is the local legend that they swam ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon. However, the most likely explanation is that settlers used the island for grazing and some of the animals went wild. Regardless, the Assateague ponies are divided into two herds: one in Maryland and the other in Virginia.
   The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which maintains a special use permit issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service to graze up to 150 adult animals.


Photo by Daniel F. Shearer
Above, a mare and foal along the Snow Goose Pond Wildlife Loop, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

   Each year at the end of July, the fire department hosts Pony Penning Day, rounding up and swimming the animals across a small channel from Assateague to Chincoteague amid much fanfare. The next day, a portion of the new foals are auctioned.
   The rest of the time, the Chincoteague ponies spend their time on Assateague, separated into two areas designed to minimize their impact on the island’s fragile ecosystem and limit potentially troublesome contact with people.
   "I won’t call the Chincoteague ponies truly wild animals," Mr. Schroer says, "but they are semi-wild, in that they do exhibit some of the traits of truly wild horses, such as the mustangs out West, in that they band up. They have individual territories."
   Maintaining fences on a large barrier island isn’t an easy task. Storms cover fences with sand, trees fall, and occasionally, the ponies simply decide to swim off the island and around the fence.
   "When that happens, we notify the fire company," Mr. Schroer says, "and hopefully within a short amount of time, they come back, correct the problem and put the ponies back where they belong. Every now and then, you will come across them. They could be anywhere on the refuge."
   Wild or not, the Chincoteague ponies are just one of the reasons many visitors maintain a lifelong fascination with Assateague.


Photo by Daniel F. Shearer

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is open daily, year-round. Hours vary seasonally. Weekly entrance
fee: $5 per vehicle. For information, call (757) 336-6122. On the Web: chinco.fws.gov
For information about camping at Assateague Island State Park near Ocean City, Md., call (410) 641-3030, or the Assateague Island National Seashore Visitors Center: (410) 641-1441.
For information about lodging and other accommodations in Chincoteague, Va., contact the Chincoteague
Chamber of Commerce: (757) 336-6161. On the Web: www.chincoteague.net