Waterfowl Weekend at Chicoteague NWR

This week’s guest blogger is Michael Masters.

Looking for a nature photography opportunity after Thanksgiving?  Give Waterfowl Weekend (Nov. 24-27) at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge a try! This time of year ducks and geese will be in full migration.  There won’t be many better opportunities for critter photography in the Mid-Atlantic region this time of year.

 Avian photography is one of the most popular forms of natural image making, and bird photographers are always seeking hotspots.  In our area, one need look no further than the Chincoteague refuge – which is co-located with the Assateague National Seashore on the barrier island of the same name.  Chincoteague, the island – and its quaint and delightful town – lies inboard between Assateague Island and the Eastern Shore mainland.

Once home to a small village – founded around the island’s historic 1833 lighthouse and the local fishing industry – the Virginia part of Assateague was donated to the U.S. Government in 1943 for use as a wildlife refuge.  Made famous for its wild ponies by Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague – a photographic draw in their own right – Assateague’s location as a stopover on the Atlantic Flyway makes it ideal for photographing waterfowl and other migrating birds in the Fall.

Although exact timing is never predictable, the big autumn attraction is snow geese, which often show up in the thousands – or even tens of thousands!  But waterfowl of many species abound, including mallards, northern pintails, northern shovelers, black ducks, ruddy ducks, lesser scaups, Canada geese as well as coots and more.  Cormorants are usually in attendance, diving for fish among the waterfowl or drying their wings on snags – providing great photo ops as they do so.

Waders are ever present, including great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, tri-color herons and occasional little blues.  If one looks closely, one can find black-crowned night herons hiding in brush thickets, along with glimpses of secretive green herons.  Several species of shore birds will likely be observed, the most striking of which are skittish American oystercatchers.

Ospreys are often seen, along with various other raptors.  Nesting bald eagles have been present the last few years, though they rarely venture close enough for prize winning images.  One may also see whitetail and sika deer, raccoons, otters, rabbits and even an occasional fox.  Not to mention the famous ponies.  The island is also home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel – and I even have an image of a black squirrel!

In addition to fall migration, Waterfowl Weekend is special for another reason. One of the favorite attractions is a three mile drive called the Wildlife Loop, normally open to vehicles from 3 PM to dusk.  (It may be hiked any time the refuge is open.) However, from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday the Loop opens to traffic at 9 AM, an added bonus.  The Loop encloses the aptly named Snow Goose Pool – frequently the scene of very large and impressive avian gatherings.  Hint:  snow geese blastoffs can be – well, a real blast for nature photographers!  J

Moreover, the service road north from the Wildlife Loop, normally closed to vehicular traffic, is also open – an opportunity to explore a seldom seen part of the island.

I’ll be there, as will many other nature lovers and photographers – so why not come out and join the fun!  If you want to chase our feathered friends, bring a long lens for avian portraits and an intermediate telephoto for flight images.

Although Hurricane Irene caused substantial damage, recovery efforts are underway, and it is anticipated that Waterfowl Weekend will take place as planned.  For updates, call refuge information at (757) 336-6122 or refer to the refuge home page at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco/.

Michael Masters is moderator for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of NatureScapes.net, a web community devoted to nature photography.  As moderator, Michael organizes outings for members in the region.  Chincoteague NWR is a perennial favorite.  Michael may be reached at Michael@GrayFoxImages.com.

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