By Cyndel Brunell
”What kind of bird is that?”
“How much smaller are the Chincoteague ponies from regular sized horses?”
“Are there any foals this time of year?”
“How deep is the water they swim in?”
If you want answers to these questions and many more you should take the bus tour out into the wilderness of Assateague Island on the East Coast of Virginia. On this ride you will see the world famous Chincoteague ponies and other wildlife in their natural habitat.
The tour bus begins it 2012 schedule April 6 with a Friday trip at 4 p.m. For current information regarding wildlife tours, or to purchase tickets, inquire at the refuge visitor center or call the CNHA office at (757) 336-3696
The CNHA offers visitors the opportunity to tour the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the months of April to November. The tour accesses areas of the refuge that are normally only open to foot traffic. The tour covers approximately 15 miles and lasts about 90 minutes.
Depending on the time of year, foals may be frolicking in the vast forest and bush of the island or mares may be grazing in the saltwater grasses. Always standing guard nearby, is the stallion who commands a band of mares and foals. The bus leaves from near the information center and has now been in operation for a little over six years. In October I went on my first bus tour. The tours are ran by the Chincoteague Natural History Association, a large group of volunteers that supports agencies that run this national park in many ways.
The bus takes you 7 ½ miles out into the wilderness. Inside the bus there is a wheelchair lift, two double seated flip up benches, and individual seats two next to each other going down the aisle. Each seat has a very large window with hatches so you can take pictures without the interference of glass. Some drivers will tell you not to open the hatches, however. Many people from around the world go to the refuge to experience this tour of the island trails.
You can see many ponies of the larger northern herd on this trip, the herd that is kept out of sight of the public until Pony Penning. This is the big event that draws thousands to Chincoteague and Assateague each July. Ponies are not the only animals you will see on this relaxing yet exciting nearly two-hour journey. The smaller southern herd of wild ponies is sometimes seen right from your car on the right side of Beach Road, on the way out to the Atlantic Ocean.
On your bus trip you may also see sika elk, white tailed deer, turtles, egrets, snow geese, hawks, eagles, Canada geese, the glossy ibis and other migrating birds. With any luck you might see a Delmarva fox squirrel, an endangered animal that gets lots of attention from park managers. And in the nesting season you might get a distant look at a piping plover cage that provides protection against predators. The piping plover is a small at risk bird. Each trip promises something new.
The driver will stop or slow down whenever they see something and will normally give you a description of the animal. On rare occasions however, there can be a few surprises that you may not see regularly. Horses sometimes interact with other animals, or a predator bird catching food in a near-view. There are always unexpected happenings on this tour.
One thing is for certain though, you are sure to learn a lot about this historic barrier island from the driver-tour guides. The drivers are very well informed and just full of interesting details. You will most likely be with people from all over the country and even other countries. The questions above the first paragraph were asked on a tour this past summer by guests from Annapolis, Md., Long Island, New York; Michigan and Accomack County.
This is not a rushed tour and it is not expensive. For tour times and prices go to www.assateague.com. One word of caution, there are nice, clean restrooms at the information center where you buy your tickets, but this is the last one you will see until you return. Passengers are not allowed to get off the bus.
The information center which now runs the bus tours is where you buy tickets. It is a good idea to call in advance, because many trips are sold out. Officials of the historical association have talked about getting another bus. Also they run special tours upon request in advance. I hope I have inspired some readers to consider going on this tour. It is the only way, really, to be sure you will see the wild ponies up close by traveling on land. Unless, of course you want to hike the seven miles out, which some people do. The drivers and tour guides are well informed. I will assure you that you will at least be stunned, marveled, fascinated or surprised at things you may see or learn. I know I enjoyed this wilderness adventure and hope you will too.