Chincoteague, a Walk on the Wild Side

Osprey returning to nest

Before visiting our son Adam and his family in the Washington, D.C., area at the end of May, Sandra and I took a few “just the two of us” vacation days and visited two great destinations, each about three hours south of D.C. – Chincoteague and Assateague islands on Virginia’s “Eastern Shore” and, in the nearby Tidewater region, the “Historic Triangle” of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. I had been to most of these places about three decades ago when I lived in the D.C. area; Sandra, a California girl, had never been to either.

This week I’ll write a bit about our visit to Chincoteague and Assateague. I’ll follow up shortly with Williamsburg and environs.

For readers unfamiliar with the area, Assateague is a long, narrow barrier island – an enlarged sandbar whose shape and length are in continual flux, thanks to storms and strong ocean currents. Much of the U.S. East Coast is fringed with sandy islands like this – North Carolina’s Outer Banks are the best-known example. The North Atlantic washes – sometimes pounds –Assateague’s beaches.

Just west of Assateague, across a narrow salt-water channel, lies Chincoteague Island. It is separated from the rest of Virginia’s Eastern Shore by a much wider channel and salt-water marshes to its own west. Actually, the whole area is some distance from the rest of the state, since it lies in the southernmost part of the Delmarva Peninsula (named for Delaware, Maryland and Virginia), itself a mostly sandy region bounded on the east by the Atlantic and on the west by the enormous Chesapeake Bay. Delaware constitutes the northeastern quadrant of the peninsula; the “Eastern Shore” of Maryland occupies most of the rest; the southern tip belongs to Virginia.

A popular puddle just across the street from our motel

What makes Chincoteague and Assateague interesting is their wildlife. The islands sit astride the north-south migratory routes of countless avian species, and their shallow waters offer food and rest to a wide range of shore-dwelling and aquatic birds. Inshore waters are ideal breeding grounds for clams and oysters, which are extensively farmed. Crabs are famous throughout the Chesapeake Bay region – people even eat them whole in “soft-shell crab” sandwiches when they’re caught in a vulnerable state after shedding their old shell and before their new, larger shell hardens.

The area’s most famous residents are the “Chincoteague ponies” who actually live wild on Assateague. To keep the equine population from growing beyond what the island’s vegetation can sustain, the animals are rounded up and made to swim across the channel to Chincoteague every July where some are auctioned off for the benefit of the volunteer fire company.

Canada geese and goslings

Sandra and I greatly enjoyed the wildlife. In addition to the ponies, which we saw from both our rental car and a tour boat, we spotted deer and a great many birds, including a pair of ospreys (fish hawks) feeding chicks in a nest they had built atop a navigation marker in the boat channel. We also saw a juvenile bald eagle, numerous redwing blackbirds amid the marsh reeds, and lots of swallows (scientific name: skeeter eaters) darting about in pursuit of tasty insect morsels. We had quite a colony of black-headed laughing gulls and Canada geese feeding and bathing in a large puddle across the street from our motel. Cormorants, sanderlings (plus my very own Sandraling) and a variety of egrets, herons, plovers, gulls and terns rounded out our bird sightings.

Horseshoe crab

As we walked along the beach on Assateague one evening, we saw a horseshoe crab that had washed up and was moving in circles trying to find its way back into the surf.

We also spotted a mated pair of mallards that seemed to have made a home amid Main Street’s shops, sidewalks, alleys and traffic (which always stopped for them). The last we saw of them was from the window of Don’s Seafood Restaurant, waddling about, oblivious to the thunderstorm that was raging outside.

In fact, we enjoyed Don’s so much, I wrote a restaurant review, something I do only for establishments that really blow my enthusiasm whistle.

Oyster “steamers” at Don’s

Don’s is also the subject of an amusing story, but if you are easily offended by rather explicit double entendre, you may wish to stop reading here.

Don’s became our culinary headquarters not only because we greatly enjoyed the food, but also thanks to my memory of a visit to Chincoteague over 30 years ago. After a meal there at that time, I found the restaurant was selling T-shirts that read “If It Smells Like Fish, Eat It.” I’d bought one then for my stepbrother, a fisherman with a bawdy sense of humor. So when I found the restaurant again on this trip, I asked Don about the shirts. He said the rising tide of political correctness had obliged him to stop selling the shirts, but then, from his last box of bumper stickers bearing the same slogan, he gave me one. Thank you, Don!

Clearly, Chincoteague’s charm extends beyond its wildlife to a wild side preserved in the memory of a few old timers.

I spotted a Sandraling (hiding something under her jacket)

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