Sunday, October 25: After our walk along the Woodland Trail, I want to get out into the open where there might be a breeze to blow away the mosquitoes. We get in the car and take a cruise down Beach Road to the Little Tom’s Cove Visitor Center. There, we take a stroll along the boardwalk through the marsh bordering Little Tom’s Cove.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “most of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is located on the Virginia end of Assateague Island; however, 418 acres are on the Maryland side of the island, 427 acres are found on Morris Island, and 546 acres comprise Wildcat Marsh on the northern tip of Chincoteague Island. Additionally, Chincoteague Refuge’s boundaries extend south and encompass all or part of the following barrier islands: Assawoman, Metompkin, and Cedar.”
So, in case you’re confused, Assateague Island is just one part of the larger Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. I learned something new myself, as I always thought they were two separate places!
It’s still quite overcast, but at least there’s a breeze out here in the open and I’m not getting attacked by mosquitoes.
Broad expanses of generally shallow water form behind barrier islands where they’re protected from ocean storms, according to a sign along the boardwalk. Known as bays here, elsewhere they are called “sounds” or “lagoons.” Bays serve as vast nurseries and feeding grounds for great numbers of fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and other marine life. Nutrients produced by tidal marshes and seagrass communities enrich bay waters, which in turn benefit all ocean life.
Blazing surface temperatures (up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit in summer), drifting sand, and salt-spray have created a harsh desert-like environment few plants or animals can tolerate without special adaptations. Small leaves, hairy stems, and waxy coatings protect plants from excessive heat and the drying effects of salt. Many animals rest during the hot day and become active at dusk or dawn.
Assateague’s Interdune community stretches between the large beachfront (or primary) dunes and the dense shrub/forest zone. Fragile and dynamic, these inner dunes are held in place by hardy plants that also provide food and shelter for many animals.
Though vulnerable to hurricane-strength storms, the interdune zone is more often damaged by people walking on dunes — plants are killed, sand blows away, and the community disappears.
Beach heather’s woolly appearance is caused by a thick coat of white hairs surrounding tiny, drought-resistant leaves. This low evergreen shrub is an excellent sand-trapping and stabilizing plant. Small flowers form a magnificent yellow dune carpet in mid-May.
Deep roots and underground stems of American beach grass quickly bind sand, making it the most important dune builder on Assateague.
We leave the Visitor Center and walk down to the beach, where we can smell the salt air and hear the waves of the Atlantic lapping the shore. It’s quite a gloomy day, but warm, although at least there’s a breeze by the ocean.
We get back in the car and drive down Beach Road, which runs between Little Tom’s Cove and Swan Cove Pool. We have some beautiful views of the marshland and sea oats.
We quietly spy on an egret stealthily looking for his lunch.
After numerous photo stops, we drive to the head of the Marsh Trail, a ½ mile looping trail along the Wildlife Loop. This unpaved trail, open only to walkers, includes an observation platform overlooking Snow Goose Pool.
I like the way the grasses look like a Van Gogh painting, all swirling into a riot of waves.
We walk along a pathway bordered with more grasses and then a wide expanse of marsh dotted with gnarly trees.
From the viewing platform, we can see where several different habitats meet: forests, fields and wetlands. Wildlife thrive in these edge environments because they can move back and forth between habitats, taking advantage of resources from each. For them, it’s the best of all worlds!
We leave the viewing platform behind as we make our way back to the parking lot.
By now, it’s 1:30 p.m. and we’re getting hungry for lunch. We drive back to the Channel Bass Inn, where we’ll eat at the food truck out back, Right Up Your Alley, and then we’ll go out for a bike ride on the refuge’s many bicycle paths.