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/.

Joy Turns to Sadness for Eagle Cam Watchers

 

By Kate White and Robert Boswell

By now one of the three eaglets in the nest atop the tall loblolly pines on the Wildlife Loop would have used its egg tooth to break through the outer shell, taking a first breath, and soon opening eyes to see the real world it had just entered.

But instead, the eggs, three of them, are somewhere at the bottom of the trees, victims of the 71 mph winds that blew across the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on February 25, knocking part of the nest down and disappointing visitors who had been coming to the refuge visitor center to see nature in real time on the live cam, eagle parents sitting on three eggs, waiting for new life.

The parent eagles, like in years past, had returned to their nest in January, bringing up sticks and branches to make repairs and then, right on schedule lay three eggs. Three eggs that were never to hatch.

The disappointment of the fallen nest hit park ranger Sally Bowden like a brick when she opened the visitor center Saturday morning, February 26. On her way to work, she had gotten a cell phone call from Robert Meehan, a maintenance employee, who comes in early to power up the exhibits including the popular eagle camera where so many visitors had watched the eagles rebuilding, sitting on their eggs and getting ready for parenthood.

“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 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 this weekend, March 4-7.

So will the eagles lay more eggs? “The eagles have been observed mating and rebuilding the nest,” said the park ranger, “but it is up to nature whether or not they will lay eggs again. At this point, all we can do is keep our fingers crossed.”

In fact, the eagles came back to the nest Saturday morning, after the Friday 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.

It was not the first time nature had dealt a heavy hand to young wildlife on Assateague Island. On July 3, 2008 a biologist discovered a full nest of loggerhead turtle eggs in the sand of Toms Cove Hook. Excitement spread among the refuge staff , only to turn to sadness when a September nor’easter sent waves crashing ashore, saturating the egg chamber and drowning all 166 hatchlings.

The eagle cam has become a very popular attraction in the Bateman Center, the place where many of the 1.4 million visitors to the refuge begin their trip.

When there are eagle babies in the nest visitors can see parents taking turns on the nest and feeding. But the menu will not be like anything a newborn human might eat at home. The eaglets grow strong on a diet of regurgitated fish, rabbit, snake, duck, turtle and perhaps a piece of squirrel.

Questions about the eagles can be directed to the visitor center through email at FW5RW_CNWR@fws.gov and by phone 757-336-6122. Other developments can be found on http://www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco/ Those who want more eagle details can go to www.nationaleaglecenters.org.

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.

The journal by now has many messages left by visitors. One child left a drawing of both parent eagles. Another wrote, “Eagles both still building like they have a deadline to meet.” Yet another, “Both eagles are on the nesting spot. The male seems to be calling the shots,” and another wrote, “Both eagles are on the nest. They seem to be having a disagreement about a stick.”

Kate White, a 9th grader at Arcadia High School,  is co-editor and Mr. Boswell is publisher of www.wildponytales.info, a web magazine that covers Chincoteague and Assateague Islands in Virginia.

Eagles Rebuild Nest, Start a New Family

By Kate White

Right on schedule, to the pure delight of visitors who find their way to the live cam at the back of the exhibit area at the information center on Assateague Island, the eagles have returned to their nest, made repairs and are now sitting on two eggs.

People can stay as long as they want and many leave entries in the Eagle Eye, a journal where visitors can record a message, or like one child did, a drawing

The Eagle Cam has become a very popular attraction in the Bateman Center on Assateague, the place where many of the 1.4 million visitors to the refuge begin their trip.

Questions about the eagles can be directed to the visitor center through email at FW5RW_CNWR@fws.gov and by phone 757-336-6122. Other developments can be found on at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco/

When the young eagles arrive in about five weeks visitors can see the parents taking turns on the nest and feeding their babies. But the menu will not be like anything a newborn might eat at home. For the eaglets it will be  fish, rabbits, snakes, duck, turtles and perhaps a piece of squirrel.

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, a park ranger.  “Every once and a while we’ll see one of them bring up a whole fish to feed on, but most times they just cut it apart. They are very opportunistic.”

 The eagles spend most of their time in high places scoping out food from up in some of the tall loblolly pine trees that are found throughout the island.

Ms. Wolff is one of the newest park rangers. She originally came from the Washington D.C. area.  She attended Virginia Tech, and received a degree in Natural Resources Conservation. She helps out in camps held at the refuge throughout the summer.

The cam attracts regulars from the island of Chincoteague, Ms. Wolff said,  and also people who come in frequently time to time just to see the camera and check on the eagles. The storm a few months back brought this all to a halt and put the camera out of order. Recently, it has been fixed and the camera’s fans are coming back fast.

During the late days of January and the first days of February, the eagles lay their eggs, usually two or three. The waiting time for the hatchlings could take 35 days. Not all the eaglets live. The newborn has furry body with grayish-white skin and a smokey beak. At this time, their only protections are their parents. The offspring that lives are taught how to fly when they are two or three months old.

The comments left in the journal by guests go from the present to the first day the camera was turned on.

 Their nest looks to be about ½ an eagle body long and 3 eagle bodies wide, larger than It was a week ago, one visitor wrote. Here are some other comments.

1/11/11

Eagles both still building like they have a deadline to meet.

Eagles Cam Fan

1/10/11

Both eagles are on the nesting spot. The male seems to be calling the shots.

Eagle Cam Fan

1/3/11

Both Eagles are on the nest. They seem to be having a disagreement about a stick.

Eagles Cam Fan

Right now, the eagles are rebuilding the nest from recent destruction by the wind of the storm which was around 25 to 26 mph. They have recovered most of their nest recently in only a few weeks time, but it’s still not finished. “They bring back more bits and pieces of foliage of leaves and twigs when they return to their home, and it’s visible to see what they added that day that wasn’t there before”, said Ms. Wolff. “It is built higher than 55 feet.” What they usually do at the tree is keep watch over it and mess around with the nest packing it together, so it’s secure.

Eagles Return to Find Nest Destroyed by Storm

 

 

By Windy Mason and Robert Boswell

Early last December when the eagles returned to their nest on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, they found that high winds had damaged their home, causing it to fall about three feet. When the eagles returned a couple of weeks ago, after the November storm that pounded the Eastern Shore for three days, they found that the nest had this time been completely destroyed.

If the eagles were upset, no one could tell as they went right to work rebuilding, preparing the nest so they can lay eggs in late January. The nest is located high up in the Loblolly pine trees on the Wildlife Loop on the refuge. It is the same nest that drew thousands to the Bateman information center last year to watch live on a TV screen as the eagle parents rewove sticks and small branches to complete their structure just in time to lay eggs.

Visitors then counted the days, watching the male and female adults take turns sitting on the three eggs they laid, the first on January 25, the last on January 31. The excitement around the information center grew as time for the eggs to hatch grew near. Then, on March 2, the first eaglet used his “egg tooth” a point at the top, to break through the shell. The eggs hatched in the same order they were laid, the last by March 11.

Only one of the three eaglets survived, getting a daily diet of regurgitated fish brought to the nest from nearby waters. . The surviving eaglet left in early summer. The adults left soon after, returning recently for the new mating season.

The nest when rebuilt could be as large as 6 to 8 feet across, 12 feet deep and weigh over 1,000 pounds. But as of this week the eagles had a long way to go. Fresh, green twigs and pine needles can be seen on the screen. “They’re rebuilding it now,” said Michael Dixon, visitor services manager. “They’re both very active on the nest.”

The cable that carries the TV signal from the nest to the information center also needs repair. “We’ve had some trouble since the storm,” said Dixon. He said a repairman had been out in a kayak, trying to locate the problem.

Questions about the eagles can be directed to the visitor center through email at FW5RW_CNWR@fws.gov and by phone 757-336-6122. Other developments can be found on the at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco/

While the eagles were at work on their nest, the refuge staff was also busy, restoring trails, roads, trying to reopen the park to visitors as soon as possible. Work has begun moving several feet of sand from around the circle at the beach and the parking lot to the north.

Before the full staff reported to work on Monday following the storm, Dixon came in on Saturday to take a new intern on a tour of the refuge. “There were some blue skies and the sun came out out and all looked somewhat right in the world,” said Dixon.

“But upon further discovery, when you go out to the beach and you see firsthand the three to four feet of sand which is covering the parking lots, one gets a true sense of what happened. I drove up the service road and went out and looked at the dunes that are on the north end and you could see where they had been carved out by the sea and the storm surge,” he said.

“The elevation of the dunes on the north end are much higher than the ones you see on the south end. So when you saw the erosion of the sand, there was a cliff-like drop off from the dunes being eroded away. The other dramatic change that occurred on the southern part of the island was the major over wash that cut through the Hook, creating another island”, said Dixon.

In the two and a half years he has been at the refuge this was the worst storm he experienced. “What surprised me most was seeing that from Beach Road to the Wildlife Loop was all covered with water,”

 “The wind gage at the National Park Service visitor center near the beach was destroyed at 70 knots,” Dixon said. Also, he said, out to the end of Swans Cove, hundreds of conch shells, not usually found there, were laying all around by the hundred.

Monday, November 21, was the first day the full staff reported to work. It began with a staff meeting conducted by Lou Hinds, refuge manager. “I was fielding calls from the Associated Press and other reporters who were calling in seeking information,” Dixon said. “The refuge manager and biologists were still assessing damage by going up in the helicopters, obtaining aerial photographs, coordinating with the National Park Service and other partners to really get a full sense of what was going on.”

Dixon said part of his job, along with other staff members, was to gather information so the refuge manager could make appropriate decisions about trail closures or public access. “It’s a challenge to keep pace with what’s happening on the ground and what people want to know,” said Dixon.

Dixon said he was struck at the resiliency of wildlife to adapt. “The birds, including snow geese which come at Thanksgiving, obviously were impacted. With salt water from the ocean covering their food supply, they relocated further north on the refuge.

“The other thing that amazed me was the willingness of people to help with the recovery effort. By that Monday, when we officially returned to work, the tree that fell over in front of the visitors’ center was gone, the boardwalk was repaired. The employees and volunteers immediately went to work. Dixon, who lives in Salisbury, said, “I felt bad being so far away and not being able to contribute to the effort; but at the same time, I felt relieved knowing that the community would come together for the sake of wildlife and this wonderful destination.”