By Misty Thornton
It is the slow season now. The winter months that bring most seashore communities almost to a standstill. Some Chincoteague shop and restaurant owners are on vacation. The visitors to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in January and February are likely day trippers, arriving from Hampton Roads or perhaps the Washington D.C. area or Eastern Pennsylvania.
But as February gives way to March and March to April, the egrets and blue herons that dot the landscape on the way out to the Atlantic Ocean and the Fox Squirrels and Sika Elk, even the famous ponies, are sure to notice that with the coming of spring there are many more cars going by. More cameras taking their photos and more people walking the trails. The trickle of visitors in the cold months will become a full flow by summer, reaching 1.4 million by year’s end.
Many visitors will go straight through to the long white sand beach on the eastern edge of Assateague Island, the barrier island in costal Virginia that protects Chincoteague Island from most of the bad storms. But for those who came to see and to learn about the wonders of the wildlife Refuge, as they venture onto Assateague, their first stop should be the Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center.
The Bateman Center was founded in 2003, and serves its visitors with maps and brochures of the islands, the trail walks and Assateague Lighthouse tours. There are movies of the history of the Islands along with documentaries about many of the hardships faced through the years by the islanders themselves. Special events are held there throughout the year as well, for all ages. One of the favorite attractions, the live Eagle cam, will not be working this year, thanks to Hurricane Sandy. The camera that has brought so many delightful moments to visitors in recent years was blown out of a tall pine on the Wildlife Loop along with the nest where the parent eagles had raised their young. By the time the camera was recovered Refuge biologists said it would disturb the eagles who were already rebuilding the nest, preparing for more hatchlings.
The Eagle cam is a small monitored camera that was located high up in a pine tree, where two Eagles come every year to make a home for their family. Some of the islanders came to the Bateman Center almost every day just to see these Eagles and their young. “It’s like watching your own children grow up. They grow up and leave so fast” said an elderly islander.”
See story about these Eagles on our site /archives/1754. And a video made by our staff.
Assateague Island is home to the famous wild ponies which once included Misty of Chincoteague and her foal Stormy. There are no Misty descendants on Assateague today. There are Misty descendants at the Chincoteague Pony Center, and at the Chincoteague Pony Rescue in Ridgely, Maryland.
If you want a closer glance than a roadside view, you can take the Refuge Wildlife Bus Tour and experience the wetlands in a comfortable, air-conditioned, bug free environment. Bus fees are $12 for adults and $6 for children under the age of 12. The tour takes you 15 miles round trip to the north end of the Island and is approximately 90 minutes long. Other than hiking, the bus tour is the only way to see this part of Assateague. Cars and bicycles are prohibited.
At the visitor center, you can also get tickets to the Assateague Lighthouse. Tours run daily from 9 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Tour Fees are $5 for adults and $3 for children under 17 years old. For a list of other tours available to visitors visit, http://www.pipingplover.org/wildlifetours.html.
The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge has recently, with the help of a group of volunteers, constructed a Butterfly Garden that is set to bloom in the spring. Their motivation was the excitement from their earlier project, a Bird Garden. Both gardens can be seen from a window inside the Bateman Center or, along the sides of the building. These two projects were made to encourage the observation of wildlife.
The Bateman Center has exhibits located to the left when you walk through the second double door entrance. These stations are there to entertain but, also to inform the visitors of the importance of the native wildlife and its ecosystems. One of the exhibits is an interactive cave, in which you can get up close and personal with the plant life on a cellular level, and as you exit the exhibit and look up, a huge Eagle peers down at you from above with its talons bared. There are many other educational yet interactive games and kiosks located at each exhibit throughout the visitor center.
If you have questions about the Refuge or wildlife, you can just stop by the information desk and talk to one of the well informed rangers on duty or a member of the volunteer staff that contributes so much to the daily running of the Refuge. To the left of the information desk is a gift shop where you can buy souvenirs, books, local artwork, photos, music, jewelry, and even some baby clothes with the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge logo on them. Everyone who visits the islands take something home with them, whether it be a souvenir , a shell from the beach, or even just the memory of the fun and adventures had while on the islands.
This educational facility promotes a friendly eco-system for the animals that live in the area, even the building itself was completely constructed to be eco- friendly. The floors, ceiling and roof are made from recycled or renewable materials including rubber, bamboo and geothermal energy, which provides heating and cooling. The center even created its own wetland area around the building so that it would act as a water filtration system for the entire center.
You learn new things everyday on the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague and it is all sure to be better appreciated after a stop by the Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center.
The visitor center is open seven days a week from May to September between the 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. October through April.
For more facts on the Bateman Educational Visitors Center visit http://www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco/visitorcenter.html.
The knowledgeable staff of biologists, rangers and managers are helpful to visitors who have questions and seek additional information. “We have called on them many times,” said Robert Boswell, publisher of Wild Pony Tales, “and they’ve always been willing to answer our questions and find information we needed for our stories.”