Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Overview
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is for the birds. Sure, Chincoteague's most famous inhabitants are probably the wild ponies that run across the island each year, but its position along the Atlantic Flyway makes it a vital resting and feeding spot for a large population of feathered folk. It was established in 1943 to provide habitat for migratory birds. Rachel Carson, no stranger to the needs of these animals, championed the value of this refuge, which supports waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, and song birds.
Chincoteague is one of the most visited national wildlife refuges in the United States. Located on the Virginia portion of 37-mile-long Assateague Island, it is a less than a day's drive away for millions of people. Assateague is a barrier island along the coast of Virginia and Maryland. It is separated from smaller Chincoteague Island, where the town of Chincoteague is located, by a narrow bay. Because a refuge is named either after the town from which it gets its mail or after a specific person or wildlife species, it is from nearby Chincoteague that this barrier island refuge derives its name.
More than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh, and maritime forest make up Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. A knowledgeable refuge staff encourages the growth and ability of various species to thrive on the refuge, and also offers environmental education to anyone interested in learning. Birding and wildlife viewing top the list of priorities for most visitors, but there are also numerous opportunities to fish, crab, hunt, hike, and hit the beach.
See the Wild Horses on Chincoteague Island
For some, it's all about the wild horses. The "Chincoteague Ponies," descendants of colonial horses that grazed the lands to avoid fence law (or possibly survivors of a Spanish shipwreck centuries ago), are Assateague Island's most famous inhabitants. Following tradition, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which purchased the now-wild ponies prior to the establishment of the refuge, rounds up the entire herd (approximately 150 ponies) for the Annual Pony Penning and Auction held on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. The auction benefits the island's ambulance and fire services.
Spot the Raptors
A watchful birder can be rewarded many times in one day on Chincoteague Refuge. Two pairs of nesting bald eagles can be seen flying over refuge property. Osprey perch on hunting blinds over open water or fish the abundant seas surrounding the refuge. There are numerous red-tailed hawks nesting here, as well as kestrels, merlins, sharp-shinned, and Cooper's hawks. Three species of owls—the eastern screech, common barn, and great horned owl—are year-round refuge residents. The best time to spot these impressive birds of prey is during the raptor migration in September and October.
"Hoof It" around the Island
There are 15 miles of trails open to the public on the 14,000-acre refuge. The Wildlife Loop, a 3-mile paved loop, is ideal for spotting heron, egret, and duck, but be aware that vehicles are permitted to drive on it from 3 p.m. till dusk. From the Wildlife Loop Trail take a walk to the beach on Swans Cove Trail. Or take the Black Duck Marsh Trail to connect with the beautiful Woodland Trail if you're in need of spotting the wild ponies. Woodland Trail winds through a pine forest to an overlook with great views of the island. Foot access is also permitted on Chincoteague's 7.5-mile service road.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication