BRENT PENNINGTON A Great Egret hunts in the salt marsh at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the morning of 09 May 2015.

As much as the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is about the ponies, it’s also about birds, and particularly migratory waterfowl.  The refuge is designed to provide an ideal stop-over habitat, with its extensive marshes, freshwater ponds, and saltwater marshes and bays actively managed across the seasons to provide ideal conditions for avian visitors.

It turned out that my visit coincided with the Migratory Bird event at the Refuge, which included a number of family-friend events throughout the day.  I know that there was a ranger-led bird tour Saturday morning, and I applaud anyone who went.  I wasn’t brave enough.

BRENT PENNINGTON A Common Loon fishes in the surf off the beach at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge at Assateague Island, VA, on the afternoon of 08 May 2015.

BRENT PENNINGTON A Common Loon fishes in the surf off the beach at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge at Assateague Island, VA, on the afternoon of 08 May 2015.

The subjects of my bird photos are all shorebirds/waterfowl, and range from egrets, such as the Great Egret in the topmost image, to the migrating Common Loon pictured above.  In the case of the Loon, it was actually Mandy who spotted it in the swells just offshore.  We thought it was a duck and it wasn’t until I reviewed the photos later that I realized it was a Loon, no doubt pausing to rest and refuel on its way to its summer breeding grounds.

BRENT PENNINGTON Willetts lounge on the beach at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, VA, on the afternoon of 08 May 2015.

BRENT PENNINGTON Willetts lounge on the beach at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, VA, on the afternoon of 08 May 2015.

BRENT PENNINGTON Willetts lounge on the beach at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, VA, on the afternoon of 08 May 2015.

The beach was dominated by Willets and Sanderlings, although I only spotted each a few times across the three day span.

Short-billed Dowitchers, on the other hand, were spotted several times on the exposed mudflats along the access road at low tide.  On the mud flats the half-dozen or so that were feeding shied away from me, even though I was several meters away, shooting from the edge of the roadway.  In contrast, the three Willets I encountered on the beach the next day didn’t seem to mind my presence, and I was able to walk right past them to get up-sun and capture some full-frame photos.

BRENT PENNINGTON A Short-billed Dowitcher feeds on an exposed mud flat at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island on the morning of 08 May 2015.

One of the NWR’s highlights is their Piping Plover management program, which seeks to provide protections – such as fencing around nest sites – for this endangered plover.  I was fortunate enough to encounter a pair of these little guys on an exposed mudflat my first morning.

BRENT PENNINGTON An adult Piping Plover in breeding plumage feeds on exposed mud flats at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island on the morning of 08 May 2015.

Visually, they appear similar to the Killdeer, although smaller and with a different head and beak shape.  Like all plovers, they feed mainly on invertebrates, plunging their bills into the mud or sand to pick them out.  The Piping Plover’s range is tiny compared to most birds; they winter on the Florida’s Atlantic coast and the whole of the Gulf Coast, and summer in a few select spots along the mid-Atlantic Coast, as well as in a larger section of the US and Canadian plains.

BRENT PENNINGTON An adult Piping Plover in breeding plumage feeds on exposed mud flats at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island on the morning of 08 May 2015.

BRENT PENNINGTON An adult Piping Plover in breeding plumage feeds on exposed mud flats at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island on the morning of 08 May 2015.

Being the beach, there were of course gulls present.  There were three or four species apparent, although they were dominated in numbers by the Laughing Gull, with his black head and orange bill.  Laughing Gulls are smaller than the generic (and inaccurate) “seagulls” I usually see in PA and were clearly used to human presence, as several let me approach close enough to capture nearly full-frame images with the 35-100mm lens.

BRENT PENNINGTON Laughing Gulls on the beach at sunset, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the evening of 09 May 2015.

BRENT PENNINGTON Laughing Gulls on the beach at sunset, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the evening of 09 May 2015.

I also had a singular sighting of a Glossy Ibis during my one visit to the inland marsh.  It isn’t the greatest shot ever, due to the fog and distance, and I only got off the one frame before he flew off.

BRENT PENNINGTON A Glossy Ibis hunts in the marsh at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island on the morning of 08 May 2015.

Other species I saw but didn’t get a capture of include a number of Northern Cardinals, both male and female, and Red-winged Blackbirds, which curiously seemed to have a different-sounding call than the ones at home, leading me to wonder if there’s a certain amount of regional variation among their vocalizations?

BRENT PENNINGTON A Great Egret hunts in the salt marsh at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the morning of 09 May 2015.

In all it was a very successful birding trip – I added five new species to my life list, with some excellent photos of most of them.  Five in two days is pretty good anywhere!

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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