Dawn at Assateague Nat'l Seashore

After Jersey and the Big Apple (see last week’s Naturalist’s Corner – http://www.smokymountainnews.com/outdoors/item/7554-famous-nyc-offspring,) it was time for a leisurely trip home. We headed south to Cape May and took the Cape May – Lewes Ferry across the Delaware Bay to Lewes, Del. The trip across takes about an hour-and-a-half. It provides a view of three lighthouses, Cape May Light, Harbor of Refuge Light and Delaware Breakwater East End Light. The ferry is also linked to another feature on our southward trek home – the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. Service at Cape May-Lewes began in 1964 with a fleet of four ferries purchased after the completion of the CBB&T ended their route across the bay from Cape Charles.

After the ferry we drove to Chincoteague Island, Va.  base for Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague National Seashore. We didn’t arrive in Chincoteague until about 4 p.m. but by 5 p.m. we were in the ocean. Assateague is really a nice beach. The sand and water, while not sugar and cobalt, are not brown like some Atlantic beaches. The breakers are great for boogie boards and shells and mole crabs definitely kept my six-year-old daughter, Maddie’s attention. And there are amenities like chemical toilets and showers and changing stations available.

Assateague Island is 38 miles long. The northern end is in Maryland and the southern end terminates in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. Chincoteague and Assateague are renowned for their wild ponies. Origin of the ponies is kinda like the weather – it gives people something to talk about. One story is the ponies escaped from livestock early settlers turned out to graze. But the sexier tale is that the ponies are the descendants of survivors of an ill-fated Spanish galleon that wrecked off the coast.

The National Park Service owns the Maryland ponies while the Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Chincoteague’s annual Wild Pony roundup and auction is a huge event on the island. And it serves two purposes; keeping the herd at a manageable level and raising money for the Fire Company.

Without trying too hard, we saw the wild ponies in the marsh and we saw deer and lots of wading birds. We even took the 198-199 (depending on what you count as steps) steps up to the top of the 142-foot-tall Assateague Lighthouse. At least there was a little bit of a breeze up there.

And, yes, I stuck away for a couple of short early-morning birding excursions. I wound up with about 60 species. It was fun seeing brown-headed nuthatches and I got great looks at usually secretive clapper rail and black-crowned night heron.

But the ocean was the hit of the trip and what a way to end a hot day. We would get to the beach around 5-6 p.m. and stay till around 8 p.m. The crowd was sparse, the temp wasn’t too bad and the ocean was refreshing.