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Chincoteague refuge features many more critters than just ponies

A cattle egret is seen on the back of Lady Hook, a Chincoteague Pony.
A cattle egret is seen on the back of Lady Hook, a Chincoteague Pony. (Lois Szymanski photo)

Anyone who reads my column regularly knows that I am slightly obsessed with Chincoteague Ponies. Every time I write about the ponies I get a pile of emails from readers who tell me they like those columns best. But the ponies are not the only reason I go to Chincoteague Island. It is about so much more.

The ponies live on a protected National Wildlife Refuge with many species of animals and so many varied birds that I am still, after 30 years of regular visits, discovering new species nearly every time I visit.

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In preparing a talk I am doing at 4 p.m. today at the Carroll County Public Library's Mount Airy branch, I started thinking about all the years we tent-camped at Tom's Cove Campground when my kids were small. A good portion of their education came from Chincoteague and Assateague islands. Both girls earned their junior wildlife badges by participating in a refuge-sponsored program and during the years that we homeschooled we had biology lessons, went marsh-mucking and took piles of photos of the critters that I made them look up in the guidebooks we toted along.

The rangers on the refuge are always helpful. I'll never forget the time we were on the hook of Tom's Cove when my husband scooped a long, dark thing out of the water. It almost looked like a rotten cucumber. As he held it up and said, "I wonder what this is?" it squirted black liquid at him like spray gun. When I saw him with that glop running down his face I had to laugh. Then we were off to the wildlife center to ask a ranger what the oblong critter was.

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It turns out that my husband had found a sea cucumber. We learned it is the only animal in the world that can spit out its entire intestinal tract as a defense mechanism and still survive, growing one back in record time. God sure has populated this earth with some interesting creatures!

When the kids went to bed at night we would go into the bay with nets and scoop up some of the aquatic life that comes to shore at night. We had an aquarium we'd sit on the picnic bench, full of bay water. We put everything we scooped up into the tank so the kids could use their guidebooks to research up in the morning. One night we netted the biggest seahorse I've ever seen. All the other campers came to look before we turned them back into the bay.

On a wildlife trek — a bus tour to the north end of the Refuge on Assateague — I found out how Delmarva Fox Squirrels came to live on the refuge. In the early 1970s biologists went on a hunt to find as many of these squirrels as they could. They were on the endangered species list and needed protection but the biologists could find only 30 in this country. Because they are a squirrel, slower than gray and red squirrels and unable to compete with them for food, all of the smaller species were removed from the island. Boxes were hung like little squirrel houses for them to nest in.

Now, over 325 Delmarva Fox Squirrels live on the island. In December of 2015 they were finally removed from the endangered list. It's always a thrill to see these chubby-cheeked, nearly white squirrels that remind me of teddy bears.

I, for one, am very grateful that President Theodore Roosevelt set aside public lands and waters to conserve America's fish, wildlife and plants, designating land for the first one — Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge — in 1903 in Florida. Now some 562 National Wildlife Refuges and 38 wetland management areas conserve more than 150,000,000 acres with a refuge in every state in the United States.

Refuges across our country offer fishing, crabbing, hunting, birding, education about our environment and a plethora of photographic opportunities. These lands are responsible for bringing back multiple endangered species. One of those species now abundant on the Chincoteague refuge are bald eagles.

On the wildlife trek I learned that bald eagles mate for life. Their wingspan can be as much as 8 feet. They build a nest that they use for as long as the nest survives, adding to it annually. A single eagle's nest can weigh hundreds of pounds and be as a large as a queen-sized mattress.

The symbiotic relationships that unfold on the island always make me wish that humans could get along as well as these critters. You can't visit the island without seeing a pony walking along with a cattle egret sitting on its back. They share the perfect symbiotic relationship. The bird gets a free meal of the bugs and the ponies get relief. They must love those birds. The mosquitos on the island are relentless and so big that I've often joked that they should be the state bird. No wonder they sell so many T-shirts on the island that say, "I gave blood on Chincoteague Island!"

Between the plovers that race back and forth with the surf to scoop up crustaceans, the multiple species of turtles that cross the roads by the dozens in May to lay eggs, the birds, snakes, squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, white tailed deer and sika elk, there are so many critters to love on the refuge. And on the first full moon of June each year a spectacular show of nature happens in Tom's Cove when the horseshoe crabs mate. Hundreds come ashore, the male holding onto the female's tail as she comes onto the sandy beach from the water. The female digs a hole, lays her eggs in it, drags the male over the hole to fertilize the eggs and then she heads back to sea. The male drops off and often does not make it back into the ocean.

I hope you can pop by to see me at the Mt. Airy library today. I'll be talking about the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge and we are bringing a real Chincoteague Pony to meet. Nature comes alive on our wildlife refuges. I think that is why I love it there so much. Yes, the ponies draw me there. But all those other critters are sweet icing on the cake.

Lois Szymanski is a Carroll County resident and can be reached at loisszymanski@hotmail.com.

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