The time will come when winter will ask what you were doing all summer.
I had some time to explore over the recent holiday weekend, but decided that my favorite place, Pungo, would probably be too crowded so I thought I should try someplace else. My original plan was to head to Florida, but, with some chores that needed attention on Friday, and uncertain weather forecasts, I opted for a closer destination. I headed north on Saturday to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Established in 1943, the refuge totals over 14,000 acres of ocean-side habitats including beach, dune fields, marsh, and maritime forest.
I arrived just in time to drive out onto the Wildlife Loop (it opens at 3 pm to cars; you can hike or bicycle earlier in the day), which has produced some nice sightings on previous trips. The trail was packed with people, but relatively few birds.
I saw a handful of ducks, an eagle, and a couple of herons and egrets. The sky and afternoon light were beautiful, but clouds were quickly moving in, and the forecast had changed to an increased chance of precipitation overnight and the next day.
The cloud cover thickened as I drove out toward the beach hoping to see some shorebirds or gulls. Along the way, a striking sunset began to color the sky, so I stopped to watch it progress. I spotted something out on a sliver of land (to the right of the duck blind in the photo) and when I glassed it, saw that there was a small herd of the famous Chincoteague wild ponies grazing in the marsh. I must admit, I usually don’t take many photos of wild horses, but I couldn’t help myself as the sunset grew in intensity.
I got out the 500mm with a teleconverter and took a series of shots as the horizon burst into flames of orange and red. Anytime there is a pony within sight on the refuge, crowds begin to gather, and the road was soon lined with cars enjoying a spectacular end to the day.
The next morning was just gray and cold. So much for the old “red sky at night, sailor’s delight” theory. By 9 a.m. a very wet snow was falling. The changed forecast called for snow all day and then bitter cold and strong winds. Florida was looking like a better choice, perhaps. But, I decided to make the best of it.
I geared up and hiked the 1.6 mile Woodland Trail, hoping to find a Screech Owl or some other wildlife holed up in one of the many cavities in the dead pines (a pine beetle outbreak has killed large numbers of pines on the refuge). Since the snow had intensified, I just carried my point-and-shoot and binoculars. Of course, with my good camera in the car, I came across a very cooperative (and wet) Delmarva Fox Squirrel chewing on a pine cone. These beautiful squirrels have just recently been taken off the Endangered Species List. They are huge, weighing up to 3 pounds, making them roughly three times the size of your typical backyard Gray Squirrel. I soon started feeling about as wet as the squirrel, so I headed back to the hotel to dry out and do a little writing. The snow continued all day, but eased up late in the afternoon. I soon headed back to the Wildlife Loop, hoping the bad weather might have created some wildlife opportunities.
There were few birds (and now almost no people) until I got almost all the way around the 3.5 mile loop. A lone snag at the edge of the marsh had a nice surprise perched up on a high branch – a Merlin. This has been a good winter for Merlin sightings and this pugnacious little falcon was very cooperative. I sat with it for 15 minutes until another person came along and spooked it. But it gave me a lot of poses as it apparently was stretching and trying to dry out its feathers.
Darkness came quickly with light snow still falling. The next morning was clearing, but bitterly cold, with temperatures in the teens and a strong northerly wind.
The winds had painted one side of the trees white with the remaining snowfall overnight, but few people were out to enjoy the scene as I patrolled the refuge roads.
I was the only one seeing the horses as they now grazed the marsh near the historic Assateague Lighthouse, completed in 1867. It seemed as though all the wildlife was hungry and active in the cold.
The overnight drop in temperatures froze some of the shallow pools and brought birds to the deeper channels close to the road, providing me with a better look than the previous two days.
The morning turned out to be productive, in terms of good bird sightings, and the light was just right to highlight some of the details of the ducks. I still had another day to search for critters. Bombay Hook perhaps? While there were reportedly some good numbers of Snow Geese up there, it was another 3 hours north.
But then I saw this guardian of the marsh, and he seemed to be giving me a clue. His bill pointed back toward the south. Finally, I understood, and I convinced myself to go where I knew there would be birds…back home to North Carolina. Pungo was only a little over three hours away and I could make it in time for the evening show…