At 5:30 a.m. we were off to the southern part of Assateague Island. It is a barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, and as such, a storm recently ravaged the island with wind speeds up to 70 mph. The island itself, a National Park, just reopened to the public but with limited access. The gate to the park opens automatically at 6:00 a.m. and we were second in line to go across to the island. Ahead and behind us were fishermen heading to the beach to surf cast for what they call rockfish, an anadromous fish, meaning that it spawns in fresh but lives in salt water. Spawning occurs up north where we call the fish a striped bass. Down here they only catch them in spring as they migrate North, and as they migrate back down south for the fall. The Rockfish tournament was another casualty of the storm and has been put off to a later date. After talking with the fishermen I learned that the rock fish run has come later each year.
We could hear the roar of the surf as we made our way from the western side of Assateague to the East. Today's wind speed is a modest 25-30 miles per hour. It is obvious why this is referred to as a barrier island. The seaward side of the island takes the brunt of the weather, sheltering the mainland but subjecting its inhabitants to nature's awesome power.
Wild pony droppings litter the road ahead of us, a sure sign that the storm has damaged the fences that restrict their movements. They are free once again. On the Virginia end of the island, they have opted to restrict the movements of the heard in the interest of protecting the biodiversity of this fascinating ecosystem. With a number of endangered species present on the island, and with fragile dune habitat, free-ranging ponies can have a significant impact. For management purposes there is a fence that runs across the island to keep the northern and southern herd separate.
When we arrived on the eastern side of the island, the extensive parking area that I have known since I was a kid, had disappeared. The only evidence of its existence, are directional signs indicating a passed boundary between wild and domestic. The sand blurred, nearly obliterated, the actual boundary and has completely engulfed the parking area and access road. No ponies here!
Back at the pony overlook I set up my tripod to photograph the sunrise. The island in front of me is already perfectly reflected in the water, an orange glow just beginning to show. A bald eagle lifts off of a loblolly pine tree, soaring across the twilight sky. The eagle flies out over the grass flats where a major portion of the southern herd lives. Minutes later a second eagle takes off form the island flies toward the shore. They are likely on the hunt for the same creature I have come to photograph, the snow goose.
After capturing some images of the early morning reflections and wading birds we will head back down to the coast to watch for the early morning arrival of the arctic travelers. In addition to the migratory ducks wading and shore birds there are tens of thousands of snow geese and hundreds of tundra swans that migrate to the island each year. During the day the geese hang out in local farm fields eating the left over corn and soybean. We park along the access road and hike our way down to the shore. A sign reads "No Parking," its post is buried three quarters of the way up to the actual sign. Another sign directs cars to keep right but there is no road to turn on to or from.. An out-house stands with its door held wide open by the sand. So much drifting sand has filled the outhouse that the seat of the toilet is flush with the ground. Over the pounding of the surf the faint sound of geese could be heard growing louder and louder. I turn to head back to the fresh water impoundment, hoping to photograph the geese as they make their landing. Multiple flocks converge and begin their decent. Could these be the same geese that I saw last month in the arctic?
As if on cue the geese erupted into flight shortly after the last goose had landed. I scanned the skyline for an eagle but saw none. Their huge numbers reminded me of a giant hoard of insects. With a great commotion of honking and wings flapping, the flock lands on the other side of the road, in Tom's Cove, on the protected side of the island.
Our next stop is the forest loop to see if we can find some of the ponies liberated by the storm. I look over to my left and see a large brown shape-- a Chincoteague pony. I pull the car over and we pile out to take a closer look. As we make our way cautiously over to the horse it becomes apparent that there are three others in the group. The small band was made up of one stallion and three mares. The stallion looked familiar and when I looked into his left eye I realized why---the lower half of his eye is uncharacteristically blue. I have met him before on previous visits and it is good to see him looking healthy and in charge. All four had bloated bellies from retaining water due to the salt marsh grasses they eat. One of the mares had a belly considerably larger than the others and her right side larger than her left. Could she be pregnant at this time of the year? Cautiously we approach the small band and get a better look at the strange blue eye of the stallion. His blond mane and forelock are blowing in the breeze, very striking against his chocolate brown coat. The forelock almost covers his left eye and his shaggy neck is covered in sand from rolling on the beach.
These sturdy animals are believed to have been roaming the island for as many as 400 years. Some debate still exists about the means of introduction. Legend has it that a Spanish galleon crashed off the coast in 1750 and that the horses managed to swim to the island. Most historians believe that as early as the 1600's settlers swam the horses from the mainland to avoid the expense of fences to contain them, and to avoid taxation.
Today, the Virginia herd of the Assateague ponies are owned and managed by the Chincoteague Fire Department. The Department rounds up the ponies each July, and swims them across the channel from Assateague Island to the Chincoteague Fair Grounds. Some of the horses are then auctioned off. This has happened for over 80 years now and one of the little foals sold at auction there inspired the story of "Misty," a children's book that made the Chincoteague pony famous. We stay with and photograph the four ponies for nearly one hour. What a great way to start off our Chincoteague adventure. Next stop northern Assateague where the ponies are free to roam at all times. Aside from the border fence between Maryland and Virginia the only barrier preventing dispersal is the island itself.