The Atlantic Flyway is an avian superhighway, offering an unobstructed route from its northern extremes in the Canadian Maritimes to its southern ones in the Gulf of Mexico. The birds traveling it need not navigate over mountain or even hills. But they still need rest stops in their trips north and south along the way, and they find an excellent one at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island just off Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
The Wildlife Refuge was established in 1943 to provide a habitat for migrating snow geese, but has become one of the best hiking, biking, and bird watching spots on the entire Mid-Atlantic coast. You can begin your exploration of the Wildlife Refuge with a trek along its nearly eleven miles of untamed sand beaches, starting at Toms Cove Hook on the southern tip of Assateague and ending at the State Line where the Maryland section of the Assateague Island National Seashore begins.
That hike, thanks to the shifting sands beneath your feet, will be a true test of your conditioning. If you want something a bit less strenuous, stick with one of the Wildlife Refuge’s paved trails. Great for both hikers and cyclists, the 1.5 mile Woodland Trail and three-mile Wildlife Loop are ideal vantage points for viewing either the Island forest and the Chincoteague ponies or Snow Goose Pond, where the geese for which the Refuge was originally started still gather by the thousands in the late autumn and early winter each year.
Your best chance of seeing ponies, however, is in the very early morning, so you may need to engage in some pre-dawn hiking or cycling preparations.
Assateague Island is just a short bike ride from Chincoteague. The two are connected by a bridge located at the eastern end of Maddox Boulevard. Stop in at the Chamber of Commerce a little more than half a mile west of the bridge to learn about bike rentals and what else to do on Assateague.
One of the recommendations they’ll almost certainly make is to look for as many of Assateague’s more than three hundred bird species as you can find. Not all of them, of course, are on the island at the same time. By stopping in at the Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, you learn what birds are currently there and where you’ll be most likely to spot them.
The marshes of Assateague shelter a wide variety of shorebirds, including ibises, marsh hens, egrets, herons, and the whimsically-named “oyster crackers,” with their bright scarlet beaks and eyes (not to be confused with the oyster crackers you can put on the bowl of amazing Chincoteague clam chowder you deserve to have at least once during your stay!)
If your trail passes beneath the sheltering stands of loblolly pines, you may hear warblers, blackbirds, sparrows and nut hatches calling overhead during the summer months. In the winter their calls will be replaced by those of cardinals, finches and jays, as well as the staccato of woodpeckers.
A hike along the beach may treat you to a glimpse of piping plovers, gulls, sandpipers, and terns. Going on a family hike or ride? Get one of the Visitor Center’s “Jr. Birder” booklets, and let the kids complete it with the information they pick up during your outing. If they do a satisfactory job, they’ll be rewarded with souvenir patches for their jackets or backpacks!