Monday, February 6, 2012

Winter at Chincoteague

I've been eager to get some good bird photography to test a new camera.  So, when the weather opened up for three sunny days, off I went to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.   When most people think of the refuge, they think of Assateague ponies and large flocks of waterfowl driven south to Virginia by hard northern winters. Well, this has not been a hard winter, not so far. There have been some positive reports on the birds at the refuge, and I could always move north to Prime Hook and Bombay Hook NWRs in Delaware.

The drive is a good five hours, so I could arrive about two hours before the Wildlife Loop opens to cars.  Photographing from the car can be very nice because the birds do not react as they would to a person standing outside.   The main refuge road leads out to the ocean beach, and usually you will see some of the ponies along the way. Be wary of cars containing small children. They'll make sudden stops to pile out and  take photographs, usually of the kids with ponies in the background.  Admittedly, photographers do make the same sudden stops, just for different reasons.  And, they usually hang around for a longer time.

Moving on from the ponies,  I saw little on the causeway to the ocean or at the seaside.  A  visit to the visitor center confirmed the best was likely on the wildlife loop.

It was Monday, the quietest day of the week, so I got in line at the gate for the 3 pm opening.   It was nice to be first to claim a nice spot, first near a pair of Pintails. They are just beautiful.   I've found it good to just sit and let things develop. So many see the bird, snap a photo and rush on. I don't, and think I see more.

The best of the afternoon was the Tundra Swans towards the middle of the loop. On the next day neither Pintails nor Tundra Swans were on the Wildlife Loop. 

I've put a couple of nice Pintail photos in  my waterfowl gallery at:

I ended the day watching a pair of Tundra Swans silhouetted against the orange sky's reflection at the end of the loop.Perhaps the best aspect of Chincoteague in late January is the absence of insects.  If you've been there in summer, you really appreciate the difference.

Tuesday dawned beautiful, if cold. But it warmed quickly.  A large part of my early morning was watching a Great Blue Heron fishing along the causeway to the beach.

The Strike
The Catch- a Double

 In watching dozens of heron strikes that morning, I only saw one that might have come up empty.  Wish I could have been that successful fishing.

I decided to explore the refuge's Woodland Trail.  I'd been seeing quite a few warblers while watching the herons, and the trail seemed a good choice to find some to photograph closely.  Did not see any warblers, and the male Northern Cardinals were pretty skittish, but I was seeing  the endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel.  I was seeing them running across the asphalt pavement of the trail.  Not good by my  measure. Then, near the end of my walk, I spotted a single squirrel high in a pine tree just beneath a huge mass of debris, likely a nest. They are significantly larger than the common Grey Squirrel.

There was a side trail, the Bivalve Trail, that went to the tidal flats.  I discovered that these flats are open to oyster cultivation and harvesting. It seems to have been an accommodation to the local fishery when the refuge was established. I can tell you that I had the most delicious pan fried oysters at dinner and heartily support any access for oyster harvesting.

Now, when the Wildlife Loop opened on Tuesday, it was pretty much a bust.  No Pintails, Swans or such anywhere near. I saw a flock of Willets lift off and head seaward, so I changed the plan and hoped I would find shorebirds in the surf.

Well, I was in luck. Dozen of Willets were probing the sand for small snails and periwinkles.  The wind was perfect for them to wing past me with the sun nicely bathing them in warm evening light. And there were gulls too.

This is a Herring Gull, but I also had some Great Black-backed Gulls working in among the Willets and Herring Gulls. It was nearly 50 degrees, but a 20 mph wind made my hands numb.  I could not think of trudging back through the soft sand for gloves, only to get back when the light was gone.

I was to return home on Wednesday.  Deciding I had exhausted the subjects at Chincoteague, I made a very early start to reach Prime Hook by 8:30 am.  I found a beach road and there were some very nice waterfowl close to the road including a very stately pair of Pintails. Thankfully, the road was very lightly traveled and I could pull over safely for long periods of time.
So, on the final day, it is a balance between getting the photos and getting home. I'd seen some flights of Snow Geese but they were high. Two more beach roads were empty.  The final stop was Bombay Hook.
Rounding a road at its intersection with the apply named Thirteen Curves Road, there was a pair of Snow Geese only ten feet from the pavement.  Surprise!

Driving on, I came upon a winter wheat field literally covered with Snow Geese.  I think it best to quantify them by the acre, not the thousands. Just too many to put a number on. Still, they were not close enough for mid range images.   

 The noise is one of continual cacophony with a mix of goose vocalization plus the wing noise. I imagine they can strip a field in a day.

Entering Bombay Hook NWR, I only found the most common waterfowl, generally too distant plus one male Bufflehead.  He was too distant for a really good image.  Looking at the clock, it was time to leave if I was to make it thru Philly before rush hour. 

I pulled into the refuge visitor parking, safely stowed the gear in the trunk, and thought about where to get a lunch before beginning the drive.  However, just 1/2 mile out of the refuge at a cross road, I spotted several acres of Snow Geese right alone the quiet road.  Easy to photograph from the car.  Change of plans.  Pull out the big lens, drive near and give it fifteen minutes. They were so "tame" I could get out of the car and rest the camera on the trunk deck.

The new plan was to skip the diner, get a sub sandwich and hit the road.  Home  by dinner and facing over a thousand images to cull down to the best seventy.  Happy man.

Obviously, there are many more good images, all in higher resolution, to enjoy. I've put a few more on my Flickr page at:

I've posted the best high resolution images in the Bird Galleries of  webpage.  Seek out the sub-galleries for Waterfowl and Shore & Wading Birds. Go to:

I hope you find these images enjoyable and that you too have the opportunity to enjoy Chincoteague in the Winter.  I'd love it if you find this  something to share with your friends.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Paul  Schmitt


  1. Excellent shots! Pintails really do photo well with their distinct contrasts. I jumped to your galleries, all just absolutely beautiful, glad you made it down there Paul!