Monday, July 7, 2014

My kingdom for a horse

Monday afternoon, our first of two half-days on the islands. "There they are," I said.

"There what are?" replied Jessica.

"The ponies."


"Out there, just beyond and to the left of the pine trees."

"Are you sure those are ponies?"

"Try the telephoto lens."

[Having looked through the telephoto lens] "I repeat, are you sure those are ponies? They might be bushes."

I'd been promising Jessica Chincoteague ponies (in truth, "Assateague horses" is a more accurate name, and I go back and forth) for two and a half years, ever since she found out I'd spent a lot of time on Assateague. She'd read Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague as a child, and had always wanted to come here.

Now, here they were—well, there they were, admittedly a good way out—and clearly she was underwhelmed. A discussion ensued concerning what constituted a legitimate pony experience and thus the fulfillment of my promise; I pointed out that they are, after all, wild horses and therefore beyond my control, while she reminded me that I'd told her several stories of close encounters—very close encounters, she emphasized.

She had a point, and I might have felt some anxiety, but I had reason to be confident that we'd get closer looks.

Tuesday morning, we spotted what appeared to be the same band, in more or less the same location but somewhat closer to the road, and Jess was mollified: she could see them with the naked eye, they were more obviously horse-shaped and horse-coloured...altogether a more satisfying sighting, and she held my promise fulfilled. (Just a bit grudgingly, perhaps.)

Eventually, it was time to go, so we bade farewell to the horses and to the refuge at large. We stopped in Chincoteague for some ice cream at Muller's, where I've been going since I was seven. (I checked with the current proprietor, and he confirmed the shop opened in 1974.) Jess took pictures of a duck in their front yard, we had a banana split, and then headed for home.

Somewhere between the NASA facility at Wallop's Island and T's Corner in Oak Hall, Jessica fell asleep. So when we got to Pocomoke City, Maryland, I went right at the split, heading north on US-113 toward the north end of Assateague. She woke up just after we crossed the causeway. "Close enough now?" I asked.

Just a short distance from the road, maybe thirty yards or so, were three mares—two pintos and a chestnut—grazing on cordgrass. I was reminded of Marguerite Henry's description of horses, newly arrived on Assateague, discovering their grazing:

This was it! This was the exciting smell that had urged them on. With wild snorts of happiness they buried their noses in the long grass. They bit and tore great mouthfuls—frantically,as if they were afraid it might not last. Oh, the salty goodness of it! Not bitter at all, but juicy-sweet with rain. It was different from any grass they knew. It billowed and shimmered like the sea. They could not get enough of it. That delicious salty taste! Never had they known anything like this. Never.

Moving on, we encountered a chestnut stallion in one of the beach parking lots. Jess named him "Owen Wilson" for reasons unknown.

There were ducks here, too.

On the way out, we spent some more time with the trio of mares. Up close.

And Jess drove away a happy girl.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

photoblogging: Assateague beach

Jessa on the beach at Toms Cove. I need to get this girl a decent pair of sunglasses, innit?

In the distance, the old Coast Guard station at Toms Cove, inactive since 1967.

We both liked the purple of the mussel shell against the green of the seaweed.

Beach grasses. Where there are dunes on Assateague, it is grasses like these that hold them together.

The beach is seasonally closed to off-road vehicle use to protect nesting birds, notably black skimmers, least terns, and piping plovers.

And because there are these...

...there are these. The enclosures (this one is likely over a piping plover nest) exclude gulls while letting the nesting birds come and go.

Another mussel shell.

Twelve-spotted skimmer, one of my favourite dragonflies.

Bathing beauty.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sex on the beach

At Toms Cove and other sheltered beaches on the Atlantic coast, late spring brings Atlantic horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) to mate and lay eggs. Jessa jokingly describes this as "monsters making more monsters".

Each female can lay tens of thousands of eggs, many of which are eaten by shorebirds such as these short-billed dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus).

Another shorebird, the red knot (Calidris canutus), is so dependent on horseshoe crab eggs that the eastern North American subspecies (C. c. rufa) may become extinct if recent declines in the Limulus population are not reversed. (Causes for the decline are thought to include habitat changes as well as overharvesting for bait and for medical research and testing.)

During their visits to the beach, some of the horseshoe crabs get turned upside-down by the waves, and will perish if they cannot right themselves using the telson or spike-like tail. This is one of several we rescued [Just flip 'em]—an opportunity for a good look at the creature beneath the carapace.

A good many of the horseshoe crabs don't come alone, but bearing hitchhikers. This specimen is covered in limpets; others that we saw carried barnacles.

After their romp on the beach, the horseshoe crabs return to the deeper waters of the continental shelf, leaving only tracks and the bodies of the fallen.

...and, of course, the birds.

[For more information on these fascinating "living fossils", please visit the website of the Ecological Research and Development Group at]

Friday, July 4, 2014

Barrier island bunnies

I'm not always accustomed (said the bunny hawker) to seeing rabbits at their leisure, but along with squirrels and wild horses—yes, there is a Chincoteague pony post coming soon—we saw quite a few cottontails on the refuge and the national seashore.

[Beach bunnies. Well, beach road bunnies, anyway; there was a small herd of them feeding on a narrow strip of land between the road and Little Toms Cove.]

There are, of course, marsh rabbits (Sylvilagus palustris) on the islands, but all the rabbits we saw on this visit were eastern cottontails (S. floridanus). Marsh rabbits are a darker, more uniform brown, and are more strictly nocturnal than eastern cottontails. Both species live in the marshes, but the easterns are less dependent on the marshes and more frequently found in other habitats.

[Assateague abounds in ticks as well as mosquitoes, and this young cottontail has two prize-winners on his right ear; the lighting shows that they appear to have latched on to a pretty good blood vessel.]

[This one looks rather hare-like for a cottontail.]

[This photo, one of my favourites of the entire trip, reminds me of a Robert Bateman painting in its depiction of the animal and its habitat. Jessa, I believe, took all of these.]

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Delmarva fox squirrels

"If you travel much in the wilder sections of our country, sooner or later you are likely to meet the sign of the flying goose—the emblem of the national wildlife refuges. Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children, as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization."

—Rachel Carson

One of the primary missions of Chincoteague NWR (located not on Chincoteague but on its neighbour Assateague) is the conservation of the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinerius). The squirrel's range originally stretched north along the Atlantic coast as far as central New Jersey, but contracted as mature forests were fragmented and destroyed, until only a few populations  on the Delmarva peninsula remained. The population on Assateague is not original, but the result of translocations from Blackwater NWR and Eastern Neck NWR in Maryland. The releases began in 1968, just a year after the subspecies was listed as endangered, and continued through 1971. Today there are approximately 200 squirrels on the refuge.

In some parts of their range, including where I live in eastern Nebraska, fox squirrels are habitat generalists. Farther east, however, the generalist niche is occupied by eastern grey squirrels, and fox squirrels tend to be more closely associated with loblolly and longleaf pine woods. On Chincoteague NWR, greys were removed to reduce competition and simplify management.

[Maritime forest, here dominated by loblolly pine, along the Woodland Trail.]

Refuge visitors are made aware of the Delmarva fox squirrel's endangered status and reminded to drive carefully.

Provision of nesting boxes is one management tool used on the refuge. Some squirrels are also trapped and radio-tagged for habitat-use and population studies.

Jessica would like it to be known that these photographs, taken by the two of us, came at a cost—blood was shed, in fact, or at least drawn. This being her first visit to the islands, she was not prepared for the abundance and ferocity of the local mosquitoes. In just a short walk down the Woodland Trail, Jess killed over 50 mosquitoes on her person, and suffered a great many more bites. I'm not sure she believed me when I told her it had been a relatively light morning. So please enjoy these photos of a Delmarva fox squirrel foraging, and remember the sacrifices made by your intrepid correspondents here at Flyover Country.

[This is a fairly dark individual, with a blackish face reminiscent of the fox squirrels found in the Deep South. Most of the Delmarvas that I've observed, both here and at Blackwater, have been lighter, closely resembling greys but larger.]