Wild Ponies Feeding in a Wetland in the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge in Assateague Island, Virginia

Assateague Island

Assateague Island is a barrier island just off the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula, on the east coast of the United States of America. The northern portion of the island falls within Maryland, while the southern ⅓ is within the Virginia state lines. The island is best known for its beautiful beaches, iconic lighthouse, and herds of feral horses.The Maryland portion of the island includes most of the Assateague Island National Seashore and the Assateague State Park. Similarly, the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is a National Park located within the Virginia portion of the island.

Landscape And Climate Of Assateague Island

Assateague Island ponies
Ponies in the beach in Assateague Island.

Assateague Island is a long and narrow barrier island that measures around 60 kilometers in length. It is connected to the mainland peninsula via bridges in each state. The island has lovely sand beaches on its eastern side and contains a variety of marshlands, bays, and coves, the most notable of which is Toms Cove. The island's climate is considered humid subtropical and falls within the hardiness zone 8a.

Natural Areas In Assateague Island 

The National Park System, Maryland State Park, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service organization all preside over the island, managing various parts and ensuring the natural beauty and wildlife of the island are protected.

The island's Maryland portion is protected as the National Seashore and is also part of the State Park. The National Seashore preserve was first established in 1965 and aimed to protect both the shoreline and the off-shore waters. Alternatively, the land south of the state line, in Virginia, is all within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, excluding a small portion of land set aside for recreational beach use. Chincoteague was established in 1943 and is most notable as a sanctuary for migratory birds such as snow geese.

Wildlife In Assateague Island

The main type of wildlife on the island is birds. Some 320 different species have been recorded in the area, some permanent residents, but many migratory or seasonal. Year-round species include herons, oystercatchers, and snowy egrets, who mainly live in and among the marshlands, while seasonal species include sea and shorebirds like terns, gulls, geese, and ducks. One of the noted threatened species that nest on the island is also the piping plover.

A female Sika Deer (Cervus nippon) at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland
A female Sika Deer (Cervus nippon) at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland

Aside from birds, another common animal that brings many visitors is the feral horse. The species on the island is alternatively called the Assateague horse or the Chincoteague Pony, with much debate between the two terms. Regardless, a fence does run along the state border, separating the Maryland horses from those in Virginia. The horses are called 'feral' and not 'wild' as their ancestry can be traced back to domesticated horses. Though they live in the wild now, they were domestic horses at some point in their lineage and therefore cannot be fully deemed wild.

male and female Bobwhite birds
Male and female Bobwhite birds in Assateague Island.

It is thought that they came from a Spanish ship that was wrecked on the island, but other historians argue the horses more likely were brought to the island in the 17th century to avoid certain livestock laws and taxes. The population is regulated, and when it threatens to become too large, individual horses are rehomed into domestic situations and seem generally to adapt well, another indicator that they are not, in fact, purely wild. The population control also involves a contraceptive program in Maryland and a Pony auction in Virginia. The horses are owned by the NPS and Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, respectively.The horses are one of the largest draws to the island, and many visitors and tourists come to Assateague specifically to see this impressive population. 

Tourism In Assateague Island

Assategue Island
Tourists spending a good time by a lake in Assateague Island. 

Though one of the largest draws, the horses are not the only attraction or draw to the area. Camping, hiking and limited off-roading can be done within the parks, with specific rules and regulations differing depending on the area. Similarly, water activities such as kayaking and canoeing are an excellent way for visitors to spot the wildlife in and among the bays.As the island is almost entirely state park or preserve, the only form of overnight accommodation is camping, and there are no permanent residents on the island. For those keen on soaking up the beauty and natural wonder of the island, though, Assateague offers a chance to take in nature, experience local wildlife, and relax on pristine beaches. 


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