Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA
By Candyce H. Stapen
On Assateague Island the breezes may bring you the sounds of snow geese honking and the neighs of wild ponies. Although Misty, the pint-size pony from Marguerite Henry’s book Misty of Chincoteague, may have made this area famous, there’s a lot more than horses here. The area also has sunlit beaches, wetlands and in fall thousands of migrating waterfowl.
Chincoteague provides the only Virginia access to Assateague Island, home to Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. This barrier island has 37 miles of wild beach, and the only inhabitants include 320 different species of birds, the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, white-tailed deer, Sika elk, and wild ponies. Grazing or galloping across a field, the ponies impart a sense of power and freedom to this landscape. Remember that the ponies are wild. Do not get too close and do not pet these animals as they may bite or kick.
No one knows how the ponies arrived. Legends abound, including speculation that the first ponies swam ashore from wrecked Spanish galleons or were driven to the barrier island in the 1680s by colonists avoiding livestock taxes and the cost of fencing. Six inches shorter than saddle horses, the brown, white, or dappled Chincoteague ponies are stockier than other breeds.
Cars are allowed only in limited areas, so your best bet for enjoying the wildlife and undeveloped beaches is to hike or bike. Fall and winter are special times to visit. There are 18,000 acres of natural landscape—no motels, condominiums, or fast-food restaurants to mar your communing with nature—and few crowds except during the peak of the fall migration. The island is located on the eastern flyway, so the sky is filled with thousands of migrating waterfowl in fall. Here the crisp, clear air vibrates with strange sounds, such as the high-pitched honk of snow geese and the throaty duck calls that carry from marsh to marsh.
In fall and winter you can walk the miles of wild beaches bordered by dunes, bike through the acres of marshlands, and observe scores of black ducks, snowy egrets, and great blue herons. This is a special winter refuge, not just for the migratory waterfowl, but for beach lovers, bird-watchers, animal enthusiasts, and especially burned-out city dwellers.
To learn more about the refuge, visit the Herbert H. Bateman Visitors Center, a green building that serves as a state-of-the-art environmental learning center with an array of interactive, educational exhibits in a sustainable-design facility.