Children, Parents Enjoy International Migratory Bird Day at the Refuge

By Misty Thornton

Co-Editor, Wild Pony Tales

On an hot early morning on Assateague Island, VA, bird-lovers, park rangers and visitors gathered to enjoy a day full of family learning as well as some games and entertaining exhibits.

As we crossed the Assateague Channel Bridge to the beautiful island of Assateague, the air was moist and the sun was hot, but nothing was going to stop the excitement that was fluttering in the hearts of children and their parents. At the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge parking lots were filling up fast as people from all around came to enjoy themselves at the International Migratory Bird Day Festival.

Tee shirts and carving lessons were available just ouside the refuge information center, along with hotdogs and bottles of water.

Walking through the first set of doors to the information center four exhibits lined the lobby’s walls. Carver Bill Cowen had on display about 20 of his best power carved birds of all shapes and sizes from an arrangement of owls to a bright red cardinal.

Mr. Cowen said one of his birds made second best in the world at a competition.  As a carving teacher of about 30 years he said, “I love carving. It’s just something you can sit back, relax, and not even think about it. It’s like everything around you disappears and only you and your carvings are left.”  Mr. Cowen has a place on the island but mainly lives in New Jersey with his family and his business.

Then, there was an assortment of birds, ducks, and fish carvings on the next table done by Ed Kuhn of Onancock, VA., and there was also an exhibit that had photographs of birds, sunsets and wildlife taken by Robert Wilson.

The next exhibit was by Donnie Thornton. His had bird feathers with hand painted fine art on the front. He’s lived on the island all his life and painting feathers is just what comes natural. He’s been painting island houses, ponies, birds and plants on feathers for 17 years now. “When I’m not painting, I’m playing with my horse, Nugget,” said Mr. Thornton.

Inside the information center there was plenty more for visitors to experience. The conference room was the place for children. There was face painting, woodcarving for kids, experts to talk about birds and fuzzy, live birds that would later get center stage in the Scales and Tales program in the auditorium.

Coming out of the conference room and back into the main center, were two main exhibits. Residents Wayne and JeanBonde had on exhibit a large variety of duck stamps representing each year since 1934.

The migratory bird stamps have been around since the first one in 1934. We decided to collect them which meant we had to go back and get all the other stamps in the series that we didn’t have from 1934 until 1977, ” said Ms. Bonde. “We went to stamp shows trying to find as inexpensive  used ones as we could fine. It took us a while, maybe about 20 years.”

In the meantime, in 1977, they started buying a migratory bird stamp each year which keeps them up to date. The older used stamps, 1934 up to 1977, are all signed by the hunters using them.  “It is a requirement,” explained Mr. Bonde, “if you are going to hunt waterfowl, that you have one of the migratory bird stamps signed by you in your possession for that year. From 1977 on, all the migratory bird stamps I have are unsigned.

Right now a migratory bird stamp costs $15. “They can also be used to gain entrances onto refuges and state parks,” said Mr. Bonde.

Further along in the information center was an artist, Jenny Somers, who had hand painted over 50 pictures. She lives on Chincoteague. “Every moment of free time I have I’m usually painting the scenery and the world around me. What a better place to do that then right outside of my home.”

There were exhibits of photographs and more paintings. One thing that attracted the most attention wasn’t an exhibit at all. It was the live eagle cam which brings the eagles and on that day just-born eaglets right onto a TV screen in the information center. The actual nest is high in the pines just off the Wildlife Loop. With visitors and Wild Pony Tales cameras looking on the first of two eggs hatched right before our eyes. Visitors were overjoyed to see the mother caring for her baby. The two eggs were special to the refuge staff because the first three eggs had been destroyed in a wind storm.  (See separate story on the site.)

When the excitement died down it was time for the Scales and Tales presentation where Erica Mcgrath and Samantha Ford from the Conservation Corp. in Maryland gave detailed information on their animals they brought with them from Pocomoke River State Park. Their animals all have been wounded at some point in their life and have been taken under the park’s wing. The animals included from owls, turtles, falcons and even an Eastern King Snake. (See a separate story.)

The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the National Park Service both hold events and programs for families and children throughout the summer.

Uniqueness of Islands Revealed at Museum of Chincoteague

By Windy Mason and Robert Boswell

One look inside the door of the Museum of Chincoteague and it will be apparent that some very caring, creative hands and minds have been at work. From the soft paint choices to the handmade frames for the photo displays visitors can go on a journey that tells them the story of the watermen and workmen and women that held Chincoteague Island together through storms and economic change.

Established in 1966, the Oyster Museum has now been fully remodeled and renamed to include the history of both the town and the oyster, the people and the culture. The new Museum of Chincoteague Island officially opened its doors on April 9 after years of planning and an extensive effort to set up displays with good lighting and well written explanations.

The museum, located at 7125 Maddox Blvd., holds many new exhibits with more in the works, to include “some things for young people to feel and touch, such as an old fire hose,” said John Jester. Mr. Jester is the chairman of the Museum Board and a member of the Chincoteague Town Council and other community organizations.

“Nearly all the work it has taken to plan and develop the new museum was done by the board members who are all retired,” said Mr. Jester. “It just happened that among them, they had a combination of talents to do the various jobs.” Mr. Jester, himself, did a lot of the painting and provided the leadership that spurred the project to completion.

Two members, William Spann and Bill Borges, had experience in setting up antique shows. Therefore, they tackled one of the biggest tasks of making frames and presentations for hundreds of photographs. Among these photographs are a large number of donated vintage photos from resident Dino Johnson.

As he walks around the exhibits, Mr. Jester stops at a large display of oyster and clam equipment, including old rakes, buckets and other items.  “The oyster business is totally different now. Oysters are basically farmed, starting out with a tank in a building.”  It, oystering, was a rough life, said Mr. Jester. “People worked very hard and we wanted to show what it was like, growing up then.”

One exhibit that Mr. Jester seems especially proud of is a photo of the group of women who started the museum. “We wanted to honor them,” he said. “It was a bold move by them to do what they did.” The women were dedicated to examining the history of the town with the oyster.

The oyster business was established on the island by John W. Whealton, the island’s first millionaire. Mr. Whealton owned what became the largest store on the Eastern Shore and opened the Whealton Oyster Company. Through Mr. Whealton’s strong leadership, the island’s seafood industry was allowed to operate during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln issued the island a grant with gratitude for aligning with the Confederacy during the war. The grant enabled boat captains from Chincoteague free trade with northern ports and provided them with naval protection. With this, Chincoteague’s reputation and seafood industry sky rocketed and continued to for decades.

Mr. Jester points to one of several video presentations mounted on the walls, this particular one being of the residents talking about surviving the Storm of ’62, one of the worst storms to hit the islands. As he continues along, he points out photographs of the old stores in downtown Chincoteague as well as some of the actual ledgers used to keep track of accounts. On one ledger, hardly an item is over a dollar and a box of matches was four cents.

A large colorful quilt is displayed with 780 names on it. The historical quilt was a fund raiser for the fire bucket brigade of the time. Getting your name on the quilt cost 10 cents in 1918.

More exhibits include a large collection of Native American artifacts from the Gingoteagues who are a part of the Nanticoke Nation. Also on display is the community bell which Mr. Jester remembers ringing when he was a child.

Visitors may also see a stained glass window from the D.J. Whealton house and an extensive collection of boat models including a large model of the Manzanita which was built by Herb Jester and is on loan from the Leonard Family of Chincoteague. The Manzanita was a ferry boat that carried passengers from Chincoteague to Franklin City on the mainland where they could board a train for points north. It was a 25 minute ride across the water. Ferry service was stopped when the new bridge and causeway were opened about 1922. However the same route kept busy until 1962 hauling chicken feed on monitors which are barge-like flat boats pulled by a boat with an engine. In the Storm of ’62 the chicken operations on Chincoteague were wiped out.

Also on display is a Dragger named the Captain Oliver donated to the museum by native islander Parker Selby and an 1880 hand pumper from the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, purchased in 1905 for $25.

An old Shipmate cook stove is also on exhibit at the museum. A Shipmate is a wood stove which was used to create warmth and cook food on the Down the Bay boats of years gone by. Loaves of bread were actually baked in these tiny stoves by the watermen themselves. There is also a small scale exhibit of what a fish trap looked like and an oyster shucking station.

Members of the board of directors who also did most of the creative and construction work on the new museum are: John Nelson Jester, president; Gary Turnquist, vice president; Scott Chesson, Kelly Conklin, James Dayton, Lyn Neilson, Spiro Papadopoulos, Ellen Richardson, William Spann, Jack Tarr and Christian Young.

The Museum of Chincoteague Island is accepting contributions. If you have something you are willing to share, you may contact the Exhibits and Collections Committee at 757-336-6117. You may call the same number to inquire about exhibits, hours and admission fees.

Seafood, Music, Sunshine Make for a Perfect Day

By Windy Mason

Weather forecasters predicted perfect weather for the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce Spring Seafood Festival. They were 100 percent accurate. However, they failed to mention the gnats. Although the gnats were horrible, everyone seemed to have a really great time while smacking and fanning them away.

The executive director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, Suzanne Taylor, said, “There were over 2,700 paid tickets.” While the chamber is still working on the statistics, it is estimated that two thirds of those tickets were purchased by people who do not live on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Ms. Taylor said, “It was a beautiful day and we appreciate all the people who helped to make it happen in such a short time. We have a lot of volunteers and they all pulled together to make it a success.”

The Thomas family from West Chester, Penn. had a great time. For some members of the family, this was the first time attending. The younger generation grew up camping here on the island and their parents own a home here. The Thomas family comes to the island to “get away.” They said, “It’s relaxed and the people are great.” Sophia is the youngest member of the Thomas Family at 10 months old. She is looking forward to attending her very first Pony Penning in July. Sophia had a lot to say while sitting on her grandfather’s lap, playing and babbling. The Thomas family will definitely be returning next year.  “We love it. It’s great. The band is fantastic and the food is awesome.”

Also attending this year’s festivities was Vicky Russell of Charleston, West Va. Ms.  Russell came to the island to spend time with her son who lives here and to come out and enjoy the festival. She said, “Good food. Good fun. Good beer.”

A lot of hard work and preparation went into making the festival a success, as Sarah Savage of Temperanceville knows first hand. Ms. Savage is a 19 year veteran of the shucking industry. She began her career as an oyster and clam shucker in 1992 under Bill Jones of Chincoteague. “I tried it and  have been shucking ever since,” said Ms. Savage. She works the seafood and oyster festivals held on the island each year, as organized by Donna Mason.

Ms. Savage said, “If the oysters are good, you can make money. If they aren’t, you won’t.” All together, about 3,000 clams and oysters were shucked at the raw bar this year during the festivities. “The crowd was more than usual this year. By them having it on a Saturday, it gave people something to do,” she said.

The festival has been held on Wednesdays in the past. Another difference is the sponsor, the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce. The festival has been previously sponsored by Farmers and Merchants Bank to promote the Chamber of Commerce.

The Island Boy Band performed live and seemed to be a hit with everyone. At the festival, any age gaps that may have existed somehow disappear. Everyone joins together in the celebration and enjoys one another’s company.

Although the single-fried oysters ran out, a delivery of nine more gallons arrived rather quickly. However, there were no crab cakes at the festival this year. The all-you-can-eat menu did include “Little Neck” clams steamed to perfection, a raw bar featuring clams and oysters, fried fish, cornbread as good as granny’s, boardwalk fries, clam strips, single-fried oysters, oyster fritters and a few other tasty surprises. Sodas were also included in the ticket price and beer was available.

The tradition of the Spring Seafood Festival began in 1968 and promotes the seafood industry on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. If you missed the festival this year, you can acquire tickets for next year’s festivities by calling the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce at 757-336-6161. Tickets are $40.

Ms. Mason is a staff writer and general manager of

From Destroyed Nest, Life Begins Anew for Eaglets



By Robert Boswell

Most parents leave the first moments of care of their newborn up to skilled doctors and nurses.

But  those lucky enough to be watching the live eagle cam at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge this past week could see that mom has to handle the details of those very first moments all by herself.

Around 10:30 Saturday morning, May 7, the first of two eaglets began using his beak tooth to peck through his shell. Mom, who had been taking turns with Mr. Eagle sitting on the eggs, moved off to the side a little so she could watch. It did not take long for a tiny head to appear and at that point mom got in on the action. She helped chip away the remaining shell and appeared to eat it. Suddenly the newest member of the eagle family began moving around a little. But not for long.

Mom seemed to have prepared a hole, or slight impression, in the nest, high in a pine tree on the Wildlife Loop, next to the other egg. Into this she pushed her little one and then covered him with straw and promptly sat on top of her newborn and the egg which was still sheltering his brother or sister.

Not obvious at first, it appears that the eagle parents had prepared for the birth of their young one by having a piece of fish standing by.

Within minutes of the eaglet moving around, mom was reaching into the inside of the fish, perhaps just for some nourishing liquid or something soft. Like a kitten reaching for a place to nurse, the tiny neck stretched upward and then mom and her little one were beak to beak as the first feeding took place.

On Wednesday, four days later, a crack showed in the second egg and another tiny head poked through. Now mom had enough to keep her busy

In the days ahead, the eaglets would grow strong on a diet of regurgitated fish, rabbit, snake, duck, turtle and perhaps a piece of squirrel. In 12 to 13 weeks they will get their first flying lesson.

Both eaglets and parents went about the first days of life totally unaware of how much excitement they had created across the marsh in the Bateman Educational Center less than a half mile away.

Visitors from Philadelphia, New Jersey, across the U.S. and the Eastern Shore stood spellbound as this display of life in the wild occurred on the camera right in front of them. Two young boys, there with their grandmother, had been working their way through the exhibits in the center when they arrived at the big bald eagle nest on display and then glanced up at the screen. “Is this live?” asked one. From then on the live cam had their attention.

The news of these latest eaglets was especially welcome to the biologists and staff members of the refuge who had gone through the disappointment of finding the first three eggs laid in January destroyed when the nest was knocked loose in a big wind storm February 25.

 The parent eagles had returned to their nest, carrying up sticks and twigs to make repairs in time to prepare for their next family. They had been coming to the nest for years, each time tidying up and making repairs as needed.

The damage to the first nest was discovered by Park Ranger Sally Bowden who opened the information center that Saturday morning. “I came into the visitor center around 8:45 Saturday. I walked back here (to the live cam) and about died,” said Ms. Bowden. “When I saw the nest and no eggs, I knew right away what had happened.”

Ms. Bowden said she wrote it in the log book, a journal kept by the refuge on a table below the camera where visitors had been recording their comments since the nest rebuilding had begun.  “When I opened the visitor center at 9 a.m. we had 180 folks that Saturday and they were very disappointed, almost in tears. We were handing out Kleenexes.”

Some of the visitors came every weekend and almost every day to check on the progress of the eggs, Ms. Bowden said. “The first one was due to hatch the weekend of March 4-7.

The rangers had hoped the eagles would produce more eggs.

In fact, the eagles came back to the nest Saturday morning, after the February 25 wind, and brought along a duck to eat, perhaps to have something aboard when the little ones were ready. No one knows, of course, what they felt when they discovered their eggs and part of the nest missing. But the eagles were seen sitting on the nest and rearranging as if the eggs were still there.

Another park ranger, Jill Van Scoyoc, got an April Fools Day surprise but it was no joke. “As soon as I opened up,” said Ms. Van Scoyoc, Charlotte (Nowcid, a volunteer) and I began checking on the nest. I could tell from the way she was sitting and working on the nest around her that she was sitting. Then she stood up and we got a magnificent look at it.” This was the egg that hatched May 7.

The habitat of the wildlife refuge is a wonderful area to have these birds because it has mostly what the eagle considers as food, said Ossana Wolff, another park ranger.  Ms. Wolff  said the waiting time for hatchlings could take 35 days. “Often one or more of the eaglets don’t make it.” The newborn has a furry body with grayish-white skin and a smoky beak. “At this time their only protection is their parents,” said Ms. Wolff. “The offspring that lives are taught how to fly when they are two or three months old.

Questions about the eagles can be directed to the visitor center through email at and by phone 757-336-6122. Other developments can be found on Those who want more eagle details can go to