The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I’ve paved many a mile of that road. All my life I’ve planned to go to Chincoteague for photography, and I finally made it in mid-May 2000. I went down for the Sixth Annual Migratory Bird Celebration, which is held on Mother’s Day weekend each year. I’d driven the 5,500 mile trip to Alaska eleven times before I finally drove the three hundred miles to Virginia.
Chincoteague is an Indian word meaning “beautiful land beyond the water”. Chincoteague is actually the lower section of Assateague Island and really lives up to its name. It is a land of barrier beaches, dunes, coastal and freshwater ponds and coves and a maritime forest of giant loblolly pine. It is a peaceful world despite being one of the most visited refuges in the country.
Chincoteague is best known for its famous ponies, little wild mustangs that have lived on the islands for hundreds of years. To prevent the overgrazing of their habitat, part of the pony herds are rounded up by the local firemen and swum over to the mainland where they are auctioned off to the public. This event occurs on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July each year and attracts thousands upon thousands of viewers. It is truly an outstanding photographic opportunity.
Chincoteague is probably the best place to see the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. This large squirrel was at one time very common throughout the entire Delmarva peninsula, but constant development of the area for both agriculture and suburbia, destroyed most of the squirrel’s habitat, greatly reducing its population. The squirrels are larger than the more common gray squirrel, have a lighter silvery color and a much longer tail. Although the squirrels can climb well, like all fox squirrels they spend most of their time foraging on the ground for food. We found the squirrels to be exceedingly wary and very difficult to photograph. We often saw them alongside the main road of the refuge once we passed the entrance gate. They claim that the best place to see these squirrels is along the Woodland Trail, but we had no luck there.
Like most refuges, Chincoteague offers different photographic opportunities at different times of the year. You are able to see the ponies, the squirrels and the white-tailed and sika deer at all times of the year. The sika deer, a small Asiatic elk, is even less wary than the whitetails and can be seen at almost any spot where the forest meets the marshes. The sika were introduced into Maryland years ago and they have extended their range down the island. Deer hunting is allowed on the refuge in certain areas at certain times of the year.
There are a number of water management areas in the refuge where the water is lowered to create mud flats for shorebirds in the springtime. In autumn the areas are filled with water to create shallow ponds to hold the wintering waterfowl. Tens of thousands of snow geese winter in the refuge starting in November through the end of February. That’s also the time to see the huge flocks of many kinds of ducks, such as the pintail, blue-winged teal, shoveler and mallard.
I chose to go to Chincoteague in May because I’m fascinated with shorebirds. I know I could have gone to Cape May, NJ and photographed the same birds one week later, but I’ve been to Cape May numerous times and this year I really wanted to see Chincoteague.
The refuge is open from one half hour before sunrise until sunset. We got there each morning around 6 a. m. The first place to go is to the canal on the left side of Beach Road, which runs into Swans’ Cove Road. Your subjects will be sidelit unless you drive past them and shoot back; then you will have the full light of the rising sun behind you. This is an excellent spot for trying for black-crowned night herons, great blue herons and great and snowy egrets fishing. You will need your longest lens. Both common and least terns constantly fly up and down the canal, diving into the water frequently. Occasionally a black skimmer will also patrol this narrow stretch of water, leaving a wake in the water as though it were opening a zipper.
The shallow water on both sides of the levee separating Swans’ Cove Road and Little Tom’s Cove is a treasure trove. The light on the Swans’ Cove side is perfect all day, as you are shooting from the south. The mud flat, about 50′ from the road, parallels the road and is a source of activity all day long. Laughing gulls and first and second year, as well as adult herring gulls wade in the shallow water and catch little crabs galore. It’s truly amazing to see the gulls gulp down these little crustaceans, which have all eight legs waving wildly. Waving goodbye, I guess.
In the shallow water between the mud bank and the road, dowitchers and dunlins feed on bloodworms buried in the mud. Their heads bob up and down so fast they look like miniature sewing machines stitching the bottom. It is almost unbelievable that so many birds can find so much food, so constantly in areas that are worked over so continuously. It proves once again how important our wetlands are for the wealth of food they provide for birds, animals and humans. It’s why refuges are so important to all living creatures.
We saw only a few lesser yellowlegs, but willets were plentiful. Their striking white wing patterns, seen when they fly, makes them easy to identify.
Semi-palmated plovers are there by the thousands and the black-bellied plovers are common. The former are easy to photograph while the latter are not.
You can drive to the beach, but not on it unless you have a special permit. Large portions of the beach are off limits to everyone to protect the endangered piping plovers and least terns on their nests. The refuge staff is having good success in helping the piping plover by placing wire over the birds’ nests to keep predators off. You can see the birds from permitted areas, but they are too far to photograph.
Black-backed, herring and laughing gulls, long-billed curlews, willets, common and least terns and black skimmers can be found on the beach.
Behind the Visitor’s Center is a 3.2 mile wildlife loop that is open only to hikers and bicyclists from dawn until 3 p. m. After 3, it is open to auto traffic also.
You can park behind the Visitor’s Center and it’s only a short walk to the start of the loop. At the very start of the loop is a narrow finger of water where a black-crowned night heron did not live up to its name. This heron could be found hunting for food every morning up until about 11 a . m., a very late hour for a night heron to be active.
The western part of the loop allows two-way traffic, the rest of the loop is one-way going counterclockwise. The western road is great for glossy ibis; large numbers of them constantly worked the shallow water. Cattle egrets could also be found there.
Along the edge of the entire snow goose pool, we saw red-bellied, eastern painted and snapping turtles. A wooden nest box near the Swans’ Cove Trail held a family of Delmarva fox squirrels. Tree swallows were using the dozens of bird boxes that the refuge staff had put up. My wife, Uschi, discovered a red-headed woodpecker excavating a nest site in a loblolly pine. Unfortunately, it was too far to photograph.
With Chincoteague such a bonanza for wildlife, why did it take me so long to go there? I don’t have a good answer to that. Just make sure that you don’t make the same mistake.