Travel

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

by Kari Post | July 19, 2011

© Kari PostChincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is a true coastal treasure as far as nature observation and wildlife photography are concerned, and it is my favorite place to shoot in the Mid-Atlantic. Located on the lower half of the Assateague Peninsula in Virginia right near the Maryland state border, Chincoteague (pronounced CHIN-KO-TEEG) is named for the small residential island through which visitors pass through to enter the refuge.

Chincoteague is best known for the small herd of wild ponies that inhabit the island, castaways from cargo and shipping boats that came to America during the colonial period. Each year towards the end of July, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which owns the ponies that inhabit the refuge, rounds up all of the ponies on the island as part of the annual pony penning day. The herded ponies are vaccinated then swum across a channel to Chincoteague, where the foals are auctioned off as part of a large carnival used to raise funds for the fire department. This event was made world famous by the 1947 book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.

While ponies are certainly one of the main attractions of this refuge, Chincoteague is also an excellent birding location and home to quite a few other interesting and unique creatures. The endangered Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel is well established on the island and the refuge is home to a small exotic species of deer, sika elk, which originated from China, Japan, and Korea, and were released on the island during the 1920’s.

Chincoteague pony © Kari Post

Chincoteague’s diverse and varied ecosystems provide great habitat to a wide variety of more typical Mid-Atlantic species as well. White-tailed deer, Eastern cottontails, and raccoons can be found within the loblolly pine forests throughout the refuge or along the edges of fresh and salt-water marsh. River otters and muskrats are often spotted swimming along the banks of the shoreline along the wildlife loop and main drive. Several species of reptiles call the refuge their home and water snakes, box turtles, and snapping turtles can be found sunning themselves on or near paved roads throughout the refuge while painted turtles are best observed basking on logs in freshwater pools.

As far as birds go, Chincoteague has plenty, and their variety and abundance vary greatly according to the season. Great blue heron and great egrets are easily observed and photographed year round, while other waders, including black-crowned night heron, snowy egret, cattle egret, tricolored heron, little blue heron, green heron, and glossy ibis can be observed seasonally. Shorebirds, including semipalmated, piping, and golden plovers, peeps of all kinds, willets, American oystercatchers, black skimmers, and black-necked stilts, are also plentiful and are best photographed in the mud flats around Tom’s Cove. Here you can also find rails scurrying through the marsh grass if you are lucky, although you are more likely to hear them than see them. Gulls, including ring-billed, herring, and great black backed, can be found at Chincoteague year round, but early summer is particularly good for laughing gulls in breeding plumage. Terns breed on the island and if conditions are right, can be easily photographed while hunting for fish. Many species of passerines pass through Chincoteague during migration and several species nest at the refuge, but the layout and restricted hours of areas of the refuge can make photography of smaller species difficult and probably much easier to accomplish elsewhere. Bald eagles, osprey, and owls nest at the refuge and can generally be observed spring through fall, and sometimes in winter. Huge flocks of snow geese come to the Chincoteague in the fall and make for fantastic photo ops. Several species of ducks, including mallard, black duck, and ruddy duck, winter here, as do tundra and mute swans, and the ever common mallard and Canada goose can be observed year round. Winter is also a good time to observe loons in non-breeding plumage and fall is good for coot and pied-billed grebes. Chincoteague is one of the best places I have found for brown-headed nuthatch, which seem to be around spring through fall. Other highlights include belted kingfisher, northern bobwhite, blue grosbeak, and Eastern kingbird, and on the refuge more common birds such as double-crested cormorant, tree swallows, mourning doves, red-winged blackbirds, boat-tailed grackle, and brown-headed cowbirds are quite prevalent.

Landscape © Kari Post

Chincoteague for Photographers

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is open 5AM to 10PM year round, which makes it great for photography. There are several miles of paved road are open to the public and these allow photographers to negotiate much of the refuge easily and shoot from the comfort of their vehicle if needed. The paved roads at Chincoteague are roughly shaped like a “6” lying backwards on its side. You must enter the refuge off of Maddox Blvd and this main road leads straight into the heart of the refuge. On the left side of the road, there is a parking area for the visitors center (this parking lot is a great place to photograph brown-headed nuthatch) and another for the wildlife loop. Unfortunately, the wildlife loop opens to vehicles at 3PM each day and unless you feel like carrying your heavy gear for miles, this makes the wildlife loop only suitable for afternoon shooting. When the wildlife loop is closed, you simply continue straight down the road you entered the refuge on, and this eventually leads to the beach.

Along the road to the beach, the parking lots to the Chincoteague lighthouse trail and wilderness trail are on the right. I have seen brown creeper and sika along the lighthouse trail and the wilderness trail is good for locating Delmarva fox squirrels or observing ponies at the pony overlook. The wilderness trail also usually has quite a bit of brown-headed nuthatch and woodpecker activity as well, and is a great walk to experience the beautiful loblolly pines, which give the forest an almost prehistoric feel. If you go early enough, you stand a chance of encountering pony or deer along the trail or seeing owls in the woodland trees. Note: In the warmer months, the woodland areas of Chincoteague are infested with large numbers of nasty mosquitoes and black flies. It can be a good idea to wear bug repellant and/or safety netting when entering these areas in late spring through fall.

As you drive towards the beach, freshwater canals line either side of the paved road, and these are usually great for photographing waders. Great blue herons and great egrets are most common, but keep an eye out for the smaller herons and egrets as well. The varied habitat along the canals can make for some superb and different photos of these more common species, and often the egrets can be observed roosting or preening in pine trees or fishing among the scrub grass on the banks or out in the open water. Sometimes, you can find cormorants and coots as well, although I usually spot these in similar areas along the actual wildlife loop in the afternoon. As you get closer to the beach, keep an eye out for anything interesting in Tom’s Cove, the bay on the right side of the road right before you reach the end. This is where I often see loons and have seen a family of river otters playing and hunting together. Once you get to the beach, you can photograph gulls just about anywhere or try heading right and parking near the mudflats, where getting down and dirty can pay off in some great shorebird photos. At the end of the parking lot is an off road vehicle trail, so if you have a 4WD vehicle and a valid off road vehicle permit, you can explore the shoreline further. However, areas of the beach are closed off for part of the year to allow for breeding plovers, least terns, and skimmers, so please obey all posted signs and be careful not to disturb nesting birds.

Sanderling © Kari Post

While driving throughout the refuge, look for rabbits and squirrels along the side of the road. If you drive slowly and negotiate your vehicle carefully, you can get great shots of these guys from your car. Also, please keep an eye out for snakes and turtles crossing the roads or sunning themselves on the pavement. If you see one, it’s generally okay to pull over and get out to move or guide the animal away from traffic and danger. Just be careful to not handle any animal you are unfamiliar with and be aware that snakes and especially snapping turtles can have a nasty bite!

The layout of Chincoteague makes it especially good for car shooting. I highly, highly recommend using a sturdy beanbag when shooting from the car, as you will be more comfortable and have a much more stable shooting platform than if you try to handhold your lens or resting it on the window sill. For those who enjoy photographing or observing wildlife from kayaks, the causeway leading to Chincoteague Island is often engulfed with birds during the early summer breeding months and a public boat launch and kayak ramp allow for easy access to the water.

If you have no interest in the activities surrounding the Fireman’s Carnival and pony penning festival, avoid Chincoteague from mid-July through early August. The pony swim is traditionally the last Wednesday or Thursday in July, and the carnival starts at least a week ahead of time and ends at least a week after. Since pony penning is the main universal attraction of Chincoteague, the island is extremely crowded during this time and this is when hotel rates on the island skyrocket and rental homes are solidly booked. Fortunately, for most of the rest of the year, Chincoteague is pretty low key and can be enjoyed for both its small town quaintness on the main island and amazing wildlife once you cross into the refuge. (Note: If you like ice cream be sure to check out the Island Creamery on Maddox, the street that leads to the refuge. The store is open year round and it some of the most delicious homemade ice cream that has ever graced the surface of my tongue. The Island Creamery also has free internet access for those who can’t go more than a day or two without checking email.)

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is a fantastic location for wildlife photography and truly one of the gems of the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. The diversity of the ecosystems found on the island and unique inhabitants make it a wonderful place to experience and photograph. I first went there to see the wild ponies I had read about as a child, but I keep going back because I haven’t found any place else that is quite like it and conveniently located just half a day’s drive from home. Every time I go, I always find something new and interesting and come home with different and wonderful photographs that I love. Any nature enthusiast, birder, or photographer who lives in the mid-Atlantic or visits the area should definitely check out Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge at some point. You won’t be sorry.

Forsters tern © Kari Post

About the Author

Kari is a self-described adventurer, photographer, outdoor enthusiast, conservationist, and nature lover. She loves being outside in nature, exploring the world around her, and doing just about anything that keeps her on the move. Kari picked up photography as a young girl and developed a serious passion for the still picture in high school. In college, she combined her photography hobby and love of nature and began photographing wildlife and outdoor subjects, which now make up the bulk of her work. Kari views photography as a way to share the beauty she sees in the natural world with others. She hopes her images can be used help educate and inspire others to appreciate, preserve, and protect wild places and creatures, and aspires to one day work as a photojournalist for National Geographic documenting conservation issues. Visit Kari's website at: www.karipost.com and her blog at: www.karipost.com/blog.

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