Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
In the sand dunes at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is a 14,000-acre property established in 1943 spanning parts of Chincoteague and Assateague Islands on the border of Virginia and Maryland. Most of the refuge is on Assateague Island and about 3% of the land area of the refuge is in Maryland. The refuge includes 427 acres on Morris Island, 546 acres in Wildcat Marsh on Chincoteague Island and manages all or part of Assawoman, Metompkin and Cedar Islands (all barrier islands to the south), Assawoman and Metompkin Islands owned primarily by the Nature Conservancy while ownership of Cedar Island is shared among the Nature Conservancy and other private parties. Most of the barrier islands and the area around Tom's Cove Hook are closed to the public from mid-March to mid-September, primary nesting season for many of the migratory birds that congregate here.
Through an agreement with the National Park Service, a large portion of the beach and dunes area along the Atlantic shore is administered as part of the Assateague Island National Seashore. It is not possible to drive between the two areas of the National Seashore without returning to the mainland and traversing roads in between to get there.
Chincoteague NWR is rather famous for the herd of wild horses roaming the area. The horses have been loose on the island since early colonial days and have adapted to the conditions well. The horses today are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and through a Special Use Permit, they are allowed to graze up to 150 ponies on refuge lands.
The shoals just offshore made the islands a nasty trap for ships and there are many shipwrecks in the area. The first Assateague Lighthouse was built in 1833 and was replaced by a brick lighthouse in 1867. Around that time Assateague Village began to build. By 1915 there were 25 to 30 families living there. Then a Dr. Samuel B. Fields of Baltimore purchased most of the land on the Virginia side of the island and fenced it off so the residents could no longer go to Tom's Cove for supplies. The people started leaving, moving their houses to Chincoteague Island and living there. Last person to leave the village was the man who owned the general store. By 1943 the good doctor was dead and his family made arrangements to sell the property to the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Chincoteague NWR provides habitat for the threatened piping plover (a shorebird that has nesting sites on all the islands of the refuge) and the endangered Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel. In the zone where the sand dunes fade into grasses is where the endangered seabeach amaranth grows. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles are also regular migrants passing through.
In the heart of the Atlantic Flyway, the refuge sees about 320 species of birds in a normal year. Part of what draws them in is the 2,600+ acres of moist soil units, areas where the water levels are carefully controlled to produce maximum feed and habitat for the migratory birds. Water levels are drawn down in the spring to create a mud-flats environment where the fish are concentrated in small shallow pools: ideal for migratory shorebirds. Water levels are raised again in the fall to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl through the winter and into the spring.
The western sides of the barrier islands are home to estuaries and salt marshes, very productive areas for mollusks and crustaceans. the salt marshes are also vital to black ducks and other migratory waterfowl. The higher ground between the coasts is vegetated with loblolly pines and a variety of oaks. Several species of snakes (non-poisonous), as well as white-tailed deer, raccoon, rabbit, fox and sika (an introduced species of East Asian elk) live in these woodlands.
The refuge offers several miles of trails for hikers. About half of those trails are paved and allow bikers. Camping is not allowed, the refuge is day-use only.
In the upland forest on Chincoteague Island
One of the Chincoteague wild horses
Area map of Chincoteague National Widlife Refuge
Photos and maps courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife Service