ChincoteagueNWR > June 2018
Travels Index Michael W Masters

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Better than Expected. . .

After years of staying in an excellent house well suited to our situation -- and having been forced to look elsewhere when it was sold for non-rental use -- we've finally settled on another exceptional house, this one on the Oyster Bay side of the Island.  There's plenty of room for everyone to spread out, and the location is witness to some spectacular sunrises.

This year saw some of the strongest rain and thunderstorms we've ever encountered.  However, surprisingly mosquitos were well under control, and the purchase of a new hat with integral face mesh, along with gloves and long pants, kept the famous biting bugs at bay.  As a result, nature photography was a more pleasant experience than in some years past.

We've sometimes lamented the fact that weather related changes to the refuge have impacted the quality of photography opportunities at the refuge.  One big result is a significant reduction in the presence of shorebirds on the island.  Formerly, many species could be found:  dowitchers, godwits, dunlin, turnstones, yellowlegs, and a whole host of little peeps, including semipalmated sandpipers, sanderlings, golden plovers and more.  Lately it's rare to find anything other than the resident willets and a few reclusive oystercathers.  Swan Cove is often devoid of water birds, and the Wildlife Loop is hardly worth the trouble to traverse.  Whether any of this decline could have been mitigated by refuge management is a complete unknown.

However, having noted the above, there were opportunities this time around, and the result is a fairly varied collection of nature images.

Weather related changes are also necessitating a move of the Assateague Island recreational beach.  Some work has been started, namely the clearing of trees and brush along the path to the new beach -- which 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.   The new road will parallel the existing Wildlife Loop and then merge into the Service Road.

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The biggest concern for nature photographers is whether the service road will be opened to traffic north of the new beach.  One of the consequences of the beach move is that summer access to the Tom's Hook beach area will be curtailed.  This 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 small inlet to bathe or just hang out, and egrets and herons hunt for fish in shallow tidal waters lit by the morning sun.

All of these current locations have one thing in common for bird photographers -- 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.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge has posted a fact sheet summarizing the long-awaited and often discussed refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan.  You can read a brief discussion about the planned new beach here, and a July 2017 Update contains a link to a USDOT summary page referencing many aspects of the new beach proposal, including a slide presentation that provides a detailed explanation of why the beach is moving.  Of particular note is the slide on page 9, showing the evolution of the the beach and Tom's Hook since 1850.  The bottom line is that ocean action is slowly moving the beach west as well as narrowing it to the point where one can foresee a time when Tom's Hook may become a separate island.

But the beach move is yet some distance in the future and is not currently in the budget.  In fact, the clearing of the right of way for the new road was funded through a one-time grant, so at present it is not known when the beach move may get underway.



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