Every Thanksgiving for the last several years, we have gone to Chincoteague, Virginia. On this weekend, the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco) celebrates Wildfowl Week by permitting access to the Wildlife loop from 9 am to dusk and opens the special service road to private vehicles for several hours each afternoon.
The Wildlife Refuge is operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and is especially dedicated to migratory waterfowl, with special emphasis on snow geese, tundra swans, and Canada geese. The refuge is also home to populations of sika elk, whitetail deer, a variety of wading birds, the famous Chincoteague ponies, river otters, several species of raptors including bald eagles, and the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel. Most of these animals may be sighted on a visit to the Refuge. The Refuge has a new Visitors' Center with displays, a small gift shop, and an auditorium for programs. You can also visit the lighthouse, the Tom's Cove Visitors' Center, and many different hiking and biking trails. Every turn of the roads and paths offer new sightings of birds, other animals, and spectacular scenery. Sunsets and sunrises are especially good around Thanksgiving, as well.
When we visit the Refuge, we always stay at the Wildlife Refuge Inn (www.refugeinn.com), a very appealing facility located right at the entrance to the Refuge itself. The Inn offers comfortable rooms, a heated indoor pool and hot tub, excellent service, and a continental breakfast served each morning in the lobby. There is also a roof patio where you can watch the stars on a chilly, clear night while you listen to the calls of owls and of snow geese coming down to rest for the night. There is also a small herd of ponies for viewing.
Two other activities that we enjoy on this weekend away are the Deborah Wildfowl Show and Auction and dining at Bill's Seafood Restaurant.
(www.billsseafoodrestaurant.com) The Wildlife Show has shrunk in recent years, but still offers many artists who specialize in wildlife photography, fine arts, and decoy carving. It is nice just to stroll the aisles and look at the work of these fine artists. Bill's Restaurant serves excellent food. The Thanksgiving dinner there is superb, especially the bumbleberry pie. A visit to Chincoteague wouldn't be the same without a visit to Bill's. There is also a small movie theater and lots of specialty shops to browse in that stay open for this last weekend before winter.
Over the years, we have photographed a wide variety of wading birds at the Refuge, but most numerous are great blue herons and great egrets. Adult and immature night herons are also often found in the pine trees along Tom's Cove road. We have also seen little green herons, and snowy egrets in some numbers. One particularly warm fall, we photographed little blue herons and snowy egrets in profusion at the marsh along Tom's Cove.
In the fall, great flocks of snow geese descend on the Refuge to winter over in their fresh-water impoundments. The geese leave the Refuge in the early morning to feed in neighboring fields, and then return to rest in the fresh-water areas especially maintained for them. Small flocks of tundra swans also avail themselves of the facilities of the Refuge, as do Canada geese. Pied billed grebes are frequently seen fishing in the canals beside theTom's Cove Road, and many species of ducks also visit the Refuge. It is truly awesome when an eagle flies over the flocks of snow geese and they all lift off the ground at once in huge waves of whirring white wings and raucous panicked cries. Our friend dubbed this vision "fairy dust"!
Sometimes we arrive at the Refuge when migrating warblers are still there. One year, yellow-rump warblers filled the reeds and grasses alongside each of the impoundments. Last year, beach birds fed in the shallow waters in the marshes and ducks dabbled. Coots search for food in a pool just before the entrance to the Service Road, and eagles, perrigrine falcons and hawks troll for food among the flocks. Also last year, we photographed a belted kingfisher as she made her rounds looking for fish.
Delmarva Fox Squirrel
The Refuge is home to the highly endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, a beautiful squirrel slightly larger than the normally seen gray squirrel. The fox squirrel is gray in color with small tufted ears and a very long bushy tail. It can often be seen near the parking lot or in the woods near the path out to the pony viewing area. It took us at least three years before we actually saw a squirrel close enough to recognize it, but we have seen them every year since.
The sika elk are an introduced exotic species that are not at all popular with the staff at the Refuge, We often see these small deer-like animals at various spots throughout the Refuge.
Another of the introduced species is the Assateague pony, popularized by Marguerite Henry's book, Misty of Chincoteague. Again, not popular with the Refuge staff, these are visitors' darlings. The biggest problem, though, is the fact that people simply don't take direction well when it comes to the "look, don't touch" rule: They flat out ignore it. This creates problems for the Refuge. Along with that, the ponies eat a lot and produce a lot and generally impact the ecosystem of the Refuge.