ChincoteagueNWR > June 2017
Travels Index Michael W Masters

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Well, It's Official. . .

After years of discussions, public meetings and planning, Assateague Island National Seashore will have a new recreational beach.  Someday, when the budget can accomodate the estimated $15-20 million needed to execute the beach development plan.  Hurricanes, nor'easters and even tidal overwash have at long last made continued maintenance of the current beach parking area financially untenable according to officials.  The new public beach will be located farther north on Assateague, along the Service Road, beyond the Wildlife Loop and Shoveler Pool.  There, deeper land areas behind the beach will provide more protection from storms and wave damage.  You can read a brief discussion about the planned new beach here, and there's a fact sheet here summarizing the long-awaited and often discussed Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan.

One of the consequences of the beach move is that summer access to the current Tom's Hook beach area will eventually be curtailed.  This will almost certainly produce a negative impact on nature and bird photographers.  In particular, it will render inaccessible productive morning photo locations such as Swan Cove, the marsh behind the beach parking lot and the small, sheltered notch in Little Tom's Cove near the beach that I've referred to for years as Tiny Tom's Cove.  Shorebirds, gulls and terns often congregate in this tiny inlet to bathe or just hang out, and egrets and herons hunt for fish in shallow tidal waters lit by the morning sun.  One suspects that the Wildlife Loop will also be impacted since beach traffic will have to traverse the back exit straightaway to get to the new beach parking lot.

All of these current locations have one thing in common for bird photographers in particular -- the presence of large bodies of open water.  A quick glance at the refuge map at the end of the Chincoteague NWR brochure reveals the presence of additional pools north of Shoveler -- Mallard, Pintail, Farm Fields and Gadwall.  Beyond those, there are two large impoundments, South Wash Flats and North Wash Flats.  However, the first set of pools are small compared to Swan Cove and Snow Goose Pool (Wildlife Loop), and there's nothing remotely like Little Tom's Cove to be had.  Worse, most photos and aerial map images reveal the smaller pools to be dry much of the time.

Furthermore, according to the CCP fact sheet, the Service Road will continue to be open only to hikers, placing everything beyond the new beach effectively beyond reach.  Given the substantial distances involved, hiking in with a large, bird-capable telephoto rig will not be an option for most.

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We understand that the economic and environment impact of frequent storm damage to the existing beach in recent years has driven the beach move.  With no end to storm damage in sight, moving the public beach seems like a solution from the bean-counter perspective.  However, bird photography can only suffer as a result.  For years  now, there has been a downward trend in the bird population at the refuge, particularly shore birds.  These small flyers were once plentiful in all the locations named above, but now they are rarely seen -- except for resident willets and the occasional oystercatcher that inhabit the marsh grass between the current beach and Little Tom's Cove.  The Snow Goose Pool, enclosed by the Wildlife Loop, was once the best place for afternoon imaging.  But lately, it has contained very little water, and as a result few subjects venture near enough to the road to become photographic subjects.

Closing the beach road short of the Swan Cove/Little Tom's Cove causeway will almost certainly have a serious adverse impact on bird photography at the refuge.


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