To See Chincoteague Ponies, Wildlife Assateague Bus Tour Is Best Bet

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.

 

Backyard Birds are Celebrated at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

With our region’s mild winter weather, more and more people are seeking opportunities to enjoy the out-of-doors or to get out and enjoy public lands such as our national wildlife refuges.  The 15th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) offers a chance to do both.  Taking place in backyards and nature centers throughout North America, the GBBC will be celebrated locally at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, from February 17-20.

At the Chincoteague refuge, volunteers will be on hand to tally and discuss the species in the backyard bird garden of the Herbert H. Bateman Educational Center.  As seasoned local birdwatchers, knowledgeable about local bird species, native plants, and bird-feeding tips, these volunteers will share stories of the species they observe while providing more information to visitors on creating backyard habitats. 

The four-day event is open to bird watchers of all ages and skill levels. Participants watch birds for any length of time on one or more days of the count and enter their tallies (at no charge) at www.birdcount.org.  From reports of rare species to large-scale tracking of bird movements, the GBBC provides insight into the lives of birds. The results provide a snapshot of the whereabouts of more than 600 bird species.  Citizen participants become scientists, just by counting and observing.

“This bird count offers individuals and families a chance to learn more about the winter visitors to their backyard,” said Kevin Holcomb, Refuge Biologist at Chincoteague NWR, “while also providing valuable data to scientists and conservation researchers.”

Mid-February is chosen as the time for the Great Backyard Bird Count because it offers a good picture of the birds typically found throughout the winter months.  It also coincides with migration for some species, such as egrets or marsh birds. That window of transition affords an opportunity to detect changes in timing for northward migration.

On the www.birdcount.org website, participants can explore real-time maps and charts that show what others are reporting during the count. The site has tips to help identify birds and special materials for educators. Participants may also enter the GBBC photo contest by uploading images taken during the count. Many images will be featured in the GBBC website’s photo gallery. All participants are entered in a drawing for prizes that include bird feeders, binoculars, books, CDs, and many other great birding products.

The bird count is a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada.  For additional details on the Refuge’s bird count event at the Herbert H. Bateman Educational Center, call 757-336-6122 or visit http://www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco/.

Children in the Woods Day Camp Applications Available

Wondering what your children will be doing this summer? Why not let them spend a week discovering Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge through Children in the Woods Day Camp?

The Camp is full of fun and educational outdoor activities that explore the six priority uses of the National Wildlife Refuge System, said Park Ranger Aubrey Hall.

Activities can include crabbing, clamming, archery, surf fishing, bicycling and kayaking.  Day Camp is offered to children who have successfully completed 3rd, 4th, or 5th grades by summer 2012 and must be between 8 and 11 years old.

Applications for the children in the Woods Day Camp are now available at the Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center and online at ww.fws.gov/northeast/chinco.  A lottery will be held to select 14 participants for each session. Preference will be given to those who have not previously attended Children in the Woods Day Camp. Applications for the camp must be hand delivered or received in the refuge office by 5 p.m. on May 15. 

Three sessions will be offered this year.  There is a fee of $50.00 per participant, but scholarships are available.  There is a single application for June, July and August day camps. The sessions are:  Session 1: June 18 – 22, 2012 

Session 2: July 16 – 20, 2012

Session 3: August 6 – 10, 2012

If mailing, send application(s) to:

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Attn:  Children in the Woods Day Camp

P.O. Box 62

Chincoteague, VA 23336

The Children in the Woods Day Camp is sponsored by the Chincoteague Natural History Association.  To learn more and see memorable photos from past camps, visit their website at www.piping-plover.org. Go to the Kids Corner tab and click on Children in the Woods.

For more information, contact Aubrey Hall, Park Ranger, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge at (757) 336-6122 ext. 324.

Recovery Under Way for Beach Parking

 

By Windy Mason and Robert Boswell

Taking into account the economic impact of Assateague Beach to Chincoteague Island and all of Accomack County, the parking lots buried under 3 feet of sand by the powerful November storm, will be restored for use by summer; paid for by the National Park Service.

Lou Hinds, manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, said the cost is expected to run $600,000, somewhat less than previously thought. Mr. Hinds said at a meeting with community leaders on December 14 he gave a slide shown presentation, “This was the first time a lot of them had gotten the chance to see the actual damage.”

 He said representatives of the park service attended and announced a plan for restoring the parking lots. Also involved in the decision was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The plan for lots 1 and 2 was to dig out the parking lots, pull the shell and clay out, put the sand back down, and then put the clay and shell back on top of the sand.” He said, “Instead of them always getting covered with sand, actually raise them up.” Lots 1 and 2 will also be moved back a bit from the shoreline to lessen the impact of future storms.  Three and 4 are to be dug out and remain as they were. Currently, there are 961 spaces in being restored for visitor parking.

 Mr.Hinds said discussion at the meeting was about making sure that whatever they do out there is sustainable in the face of sea level rise, and is responsible for the American taxpayers dollars.  “There was acknowledgment from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and I that not only does the town of Chincoteague’s economic base rest on the national seashore, but also the entire Accomack County,” he said.  “There is a large tourism industry in Accomack County, and it is also based somewhat on this shoreline out here. We want the community to be part of the future development and planning for those parking lots.” Said Mr. Hinds.

“This was a storm of historic proportion for many communities, Chincoteague being one of them,” He said, “It has given the community an opportunity to talk openly about its future and not just the future of the community, but also of Assateague Island, and how we’re going to plan for our economic development into the future. My first responsibility is still to the wildlife here on the refuge but that responsibility is also in full awareness of the economic tie to the communities.”

Future plans will apparently include an alternative transportation plan. Mr. Hinds explained, “The alternative transportation plan is very close to completion and the partners, which are the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Town of Chincoteague, the County of Accomack, and Northampton-Accomack Planning Commission, are getting the different chapters to read as we speak.” “Once all of the chapters have been reviewed, we’re planning on having a full blown public meeting tentatively scheduled for sometime in February,” he said.

This alternative transportation plan is not simply talking about parking cars and transporting people to the beach. “That’s one of the alternatives,” said Mr. Hinds. But the plan may include offsite parking, biking, city or public transportation and possibly water taxies to move people around to different parts of the island.

Mr. Hinds said he expected some of the ideas to be met with resistance because over generations, we’ve been trained to take our cars to the national parks and wildlife refuges, and have been encouraged to do that. But we’re learning that this love affair with the automobile, which is really just a hundred years old, is not sustainable, said Mr. Hinds. “It was a great idea. It brought the national parks and the American public together. However, we are realizing now, after a hundred years, that it may not be sustainable,” he said. “If you make the parking at a remote location, and then the ride to the beach is an experience of the beach itself, people will say, ‘Wow! That was cool!’ And, that’s what we’re striving for,” he said. Mr. Hinds said that the experience will begin wherever that parking may be. He also said there might be a trained interpreter, and your arrival out there would be part of the experience of seeing wildlife, seeing the beach.