National Wildlife Refuge

Assateague Island
National Seashore
Maryland and Virginia

This page excerpted from a brochure published
by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
and the National Park Service

The National Seashore
The Wildlife Refuge
Wild Horses
Naturalist Activities
Safety, Regulations, and Pets

The National Seashore

Assateague Island is a barrier island built by sand that persistent waves have raised from the ocean's gently sloping floor. Constant reshaping mirrors a restless origin, as steady winds continue moving trillions of sand grains, each a bit of eroded ancient Appalachian Mountains. Occasional storms drive waves and sands so forcefully that beach and shoreline change dramatically. But Assateague's summer mostly means the lure of beaches and mild surf where shorebirds trace the lapping waves back down the beach. Behind the dunes, the island's forests and bayside marshes invite exploration. Now and then a wild pony wanders into view. Assateague Island consists of three major public areas (see map): Assateague Island National Seashore, managed by the National Park Service; Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: and Assateague State Park (not shown on map), managed by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. Assateague Island National Seashore is administered to provide for recreational use and enjoyment consistent with the maintenance and perpetuation of the seashore's natural communities. Together, these agencies hold in trust a priceless seashore heritage of wildlands, wildlife, and outdoor recreation. The National Park Service operates visitor centers serving both the Maryland and Virginia ends of the island. Visitor centers are the places to find out about naturalist activities, among other things. The Barrier Island Visitor Center at the Maryland end (not shown on map) features exhibits, an aquarium, and maps and other publications. A naturalist will answer your questions. For information about seashore camping or other recreation and fees, write or call: Assateague Island National Seashore, Route 611, 7206 National Seashore Lane, Berlin, MD 21811, (410) 641 -3030 or (410) 641 -1441

Assateague State Park. The State of Maryland owns 680 acres of Assateague Island that it operates as a state park its beach offers separate swimming, surf fishing, and surf boarding areas. Ask about these at the state park entrance. Bathhouses, a bait and a tackle shop, and food service facilities are open in summer, when lifeguards protect the beach. For information about the state park, write or call: Assateague State Park. Route 611, 7307 Stephen Decatur Highway, Berlin, MD 21811, 410 641-2120

The Wildlife Refuge

The once-enormous waterfowl populations that migrated to the Delmarva region were dwindling at an alarming rate during the early 1900s. Wholesale conversion of wetlands to agriculture and private development, coupled with outlaw market gunning for food and plumage, threatened many bird species. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1943 as a wintering area for migratory waterfowl. The refuge is located on the Virginia end of Assateague Island and was purchased with Duck Stamp revenues. The Chincoteague refuge's prime Atlantic flyway habitat is essential to the survival of birds whose hereditary migrational instincts take them annually north and south on sometimes incredible seasonal journeys. Refuge management programs actively enhance this coastal habitat for the benefit of migratory and nesting birds and indigenous wildlife. The primary function of the refuge is to protect native and migratory species of wildlife and their habitat. The refuge is open to recreational uses centered around wildlife and wildland activities that are in harmony with this primary objective. Birdwatchers know the Chincoteague refuge as one of the East's finest places to add sightings to their life lists. Whitetail deer and the small Sika deer, an oriental elk released here in 1923, also inhabit its pine forests in the island's interior. The Chincoteague Refuge Visitor Center at the Virginia end (see map) provides information, descriptive leaflets, and schedules for interpretive activities, including guided walks and auditorium programs. A concessioner operates a series of wildlife and boat tours. You may make reservations for the tours at the visitor center. The access road off Beach Road is also the entrance to the Wildlife Loop (see map). For information about the refuge and visitor center seasons, hours, and fees, write or call: Refuge Manager, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 62, Chincoteague, VA 23336, (757) 336-6122. The National Park Service assists the Fish and Wildlife Service in providing services and managing recreational use in the Toms Cove area of Assateague Island's Virginia end. The Toms Cove Visitor Center offers exhibits and maps and other publications. For information about National Park Service naturalist or beach recreation activities there, call (757) 336-6577.


Although birds abound throughout Assateague, birders usually find more opportunities in the Virginia portion of the island. In summer, the refuge's fresh-water impoundments combine with marshes all along Assateague to host a variety of herons, egrets. and other wading birds. Terns dive for fish and gulls and sandpipers work the beaches and mudflats. Warblers and other passerine species are found in shrub thickets and pine forests. Late summer brings migrating shorebirds and peregrine falcons to the island. Thousands of waterfowl winter here, especially snow geese, black ducks, mallards, and pintails. Scoters, oldsquaws, and other sea ducks are sometimes seen in Toms Cove or Assateague Channel. Obtain a bird checklist from any of the island's visitor centers. The Piping plover, a threatened species, nests at Assateague. Special nesting area restrictions may apply--ask at any visitor center.

Wild Horses

Two herds of wild horses known as "ponies" by an adoring public make their homes on Assateague Island. The herds are separated by a fence at the boundary between Maryland and Virginia. In Maryland, horses are often seen around roads and campgrounds. In Virginia, look for them in Black Duck Marsh from observation platforms along Beach Road and Woodland Trail. The Maryland herd is managed by the National Park Service. The Virginia herd is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and allowed by permit to graze on Chincoteague refuge. Each year horses from the Virginia herd are rounded up and many of the foals are sold at the Pony Penning and auction, held on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July. Proceeds from the auction help support the fire company. Today's wild horses on Assateague Island are descended from domesticated stock that was grazed on the island as early as the 17th century by Eastern Shore planters. The planters grazed their horses here to avoid mainland taxes and fencing requirements. Only slightly smaller than many other horses, these shaggy, sturdy animals are well adapted to their harsh seashore environment. Marsh and dune grasses supply the bulk of their food; they obtain water from freshwater impoundments or natural ponds. Their social organization, behavior, and communication habits are explained in publications available at visitor centers. Although domestic in their distant origins, these horses are wild today. Respect them as such and view them only from a safe distance. While usually appearing docile, they are prone to unpredictable behavior and can inflict serious wounds both by kicking and by biting. Do not feed or pet the horses.

Naturalist Activities

Programs to enhance your enjoyment of the island's environment and unique recreation opportunities are offered at both the national seashore and the wildlife refuge. The National Park Service offers guided walks, talks, children's programs, and seashore recreation demonstrations daily in summer and on weekends in fall and spring. Guided walks include explorations of Assateague's birdlife, the beach, salt marshes, the bay and dunes. Demonstrations include surf rescue and surf fishing. Clamming, crabbing, and canoe trips are available in Maryland. Check at the Barrier Island and Toms Cove Visitor Centers about programs at the island's Maryland and Virginia ends. The Fish and Wildlife Service offers wildlife-oriented interpretive walks and audiovisual programs for visitors of all ages. Some require free advance registration at the Chincoteague Refuge Visitor Center. From spring through fall, narrated land and boat tours are conducted by a refuge concessionaire. On summer weekends, holidays, and during Pony Penning week, local wildlife artists exhibit their works in the historic Lighthouse Oil Shed reached by a short walk on the Lighthouse Trail. Each November the refuge sponsors Waterfowl Week so that visitors may observe and learn about wintering waterfowl. Contact the refuge or stop by the visitor center for information on scheduled activities and programs.

The Official National Park Handbook, Assateague Island, tells about this barrier island's natural history of ponies, pirates, and shipwrecks. It walks you through the beach, dune, salt marsh, and bay environments with the author, world-renowned marine biologist William H. Amos. The handbook may be purchased at visitor centers or through the mail by contacting the national seashore.

Safety, Regulations, and Pets

Water Safety and Seashore Hazards. Use the lifeguarded beaches. Mats and tubes are prohibited on lifeguarded beaches and discouraged elsewhere. Treat breaking surf waves with respect; dislocated shoulders and sand abrasions are not uncommon. Even broken necks and paralysis have resulted from riding the waves in some fashion and being thrown into the sand head first. Get off the beach during lightning storms. Overexposure to sun causes heat exhaustion and/or severe sunburn. Bare feet can be hurt by shells, glass, or hot coals left in the sand. Do not approach ponies closely. They can bite and kick, inflicting severe injuries.

Driving and Parking. Drive cautiously and obey posted speed limits. Take extra care around parking lots, campgrounds, and popular shellfishing areas that may be crowded with vehicles, bicycles, and children. Do not stop suddenly or block traffic to watch ponies or other wildlife. Avoid road-shoulder stopping and use designated parking. In Virginia, demand can exceed available parking space, especialIy on summer weekends.

Hours of Operation. The wildlife refuge located in Virginia, is open year-round although opening and closing times vary seasonally. After hours surf fishing is allowed by special permit. There is no closing time in Maryland, but overnight stays are permitted only by campers in designated campgrounds or backcountry campsites or by surf fishermen. No permit is required for overnight surf fishing in Maryland.

Pets. Please leave pets at home. They are prohibited in Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, in Assateague State Park, in the primitive area north of the state Park, and in all backcountry campsites. Pets are permitted elsewhere on the Maryland end of the island but they must be on leashes no more than 6 feet long. This regulation is enforced because dogs can disturb other people, ponies, and shorebirds that nest in the sand or in marsh grasses. Blowing sand and salt spray are hard on the eyes and feet of dogs, and insects can further endanger their health here (heartworms). Really, it's better to leave your pets at home.

Wildlife and You. It is illegal to feed the ponies, deer, or other wildlife. Feeding encourages wild animals to become less afraid of, more dependent on, and, therefore potentially more dangerous to people. It is also unhealthy for the animals and encourages them to stay along the roads where many are hit by cars each year. Keep the wild in the wildlife. Please don't feed.

Poison Ivy, Mosquitos, and Ticks. Guard against poison ivy, mosquitos, and ticks--all abundant on Assateague from spring through autumn. While very rare along the Eastern Seaboard (an annual national average of 5-10 human cases), the potential for mosquito-transmitted encephalitis always exists since the virus can be present in wild birds. Three different species of ticks are found on the island: dog, lone star, northern deer (left to right). A tick bite may transmit various ailments. The northern deer tick is known to carry Lyme disease. To avoid getting bitten, stay on the trails, use repellents, and inspect yourself carefully if you walk through grass or brush. Ask at the visitor centers or campground office for a brochure.


[ Focus on Waterfowl (Chincoteague NWR) | The Virtual Birder Home Page ]

Send feedback on these pages to:
Copyright © 1997-2002 Great Blue Media Works and David Stimac. All rights reserved.
Last Updated: Saturday, December 14, 2002 12:00pm EST