Twice each year, once in early June and once in mid-September, National Aquarium Vice President of Conservation Programs Laura Bankey, her husband, Ian, and their daughter, Abbey, drive about four hours from their home in Baltimore County to the small coastal town of Chincoteague on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
On a typical day there, Laura and her family get up early and drive through Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge onto Assateague Island National Seashore. The two parks, co-managed by the National Park Service and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, are home to sandy beaches, salt marshes, maritime forests and coastal bays. The area is probably best known for being one of the few places in the United States where you can see wild horses.
Laura and her husband have an America The Beautiful access pass and an over-sand vehicle permit, so once they're on Assateague Island, they let some air out of the tires of their four-wheel-drive Toyota truck and drive onto the sand in one of two OSV zones. They continue until they can't go any farther, searching for a prime fishing spot and the perfect home base for a day of exploring.
"I love to be the first one on the beach in the morning, with nobody in front of us," Laura says. As the sun comes up over the ocean, "there are ghost crabs skedaddling out of our way and shorebirds out looking for breakfast. We've seen peregrine falcons, bald eagles and red fox hunting along the sand dunes, wildlife you don't usually see once more people start to arrive."
They find a spot to park their truck and Ian sets up for a day of surf fishing. "Because he fishes, we get a glimpse of the local wildlife that's usually hidden from view," Laura notes, adding that what Ian catches in June is different from what he catches in September, and that he returns almost all of it—anything they're not going to eat themselves—to the ocean. He typically catches a lot of red drum and bluefish, and some of his more notable catches include sandbar sharks, cownose rays and clearnose skates.
While Ian fishes, Laura packs up her water bottle, bug spray and camera and starts walking. She usually makes a big loop several miles long, exploring tidal pools, small streams, marshes and shallow areas of the bay, keeping a close eye on what's flying overhead, feeding in the ponds and hiding in the vegetation. She always has her camera with her so she can take pictures of what she sees.
"Chincoteague Bay, like most estuaries, is extremely productive," she explains. "This island is different every single time I come. That's what makes exploring it so much more fun; you're not coming back to the same thing over and over again. I'd be here every other weekend if I could."
Listen as Laura Explores
Laura explores Assateague's barrier island ecosystem and talks about some of the species found there, as well as the importance of protected habitats for animals, plants and people.
Barrier Island Ecosystem
Assateague Island is part of a string of barrier islands that lines the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States.
Barrier islands are thin strips of sand with areas of dunes and beach that absorb the energy from ocean waves and wind, protecting the mainland beyond. The dunes at the southern tip of Assateague Island are unique; they're almost cliffs with sheer faces, not the gently rolling hummocks typical to Atlantic beaches. Like all dunes, though, they help protect the island against erosion. The constant battering from wind, waves, weather and tides means that barrier islands are dynamic, ever-changing places. They roll with nature's punches—growing and shrinking, expanding and contracting—as the sand shifts and tides rise and fall. They're meant to be this way, and the animals and plants found on barrier islands are well adapted to withstand the unstable environment.
"Because this island is protected, it is able to support several threatened and endangered species," Laura says. "It provides unique habitat for species that rely on this area all year round or for important stops along their migratory pathways—unlike coastal areas to the north and south that are more developed."
In addition to a huge variety of birds, there are red foxes, small rodents, crabs, snakes, freshwater and sea turtles, insects, frogs and more on Assateague. "The biodiversity of these barrier islands is incredible and the more you look, the more you'll find," Laura says. As much as the dunes and marsh grasses provide habitat, so does the undeveloped sandy beach itself. "The seemingly barren sandy shoreline is home to crabs and insects and is often the nesting ground of several species of birds," she says.
Diversity's in the Details
Because of the island's unique attributes, the wildlife found on Assateague is extremely diverse—but it can take a careful eye to fully appreciate how remarkable an array it actually is.
Laura says, "When you go to the beach, it's not just a bunch of ‘seagulls' by the water begging for your french fries. We have probably three or four common species of gulls on this beach, and maybe another three or four that you don't see as often. Some are here year-round, some visit seasonally. Learning to distinguish one species from another and understanding their differences is fascinating."
Egrets, too, are plentiful on Assateague and in Chincoteague, but they are not a homogenous group. At first glance, many look like large, long-legged, white wading birds. Great egrets, though, generally have yellow bills and black feet; snowy egrets have black bills and yellow feet; cattle egrets have yellow-orange bills and sometimes perch on wild horses' backs. The white ibis is another large, white wading bird often seen in mixed flocks with egrets, but it's an entirely different species with a long, curved, orange-pink bill. And that's only the beginning.
Laura makes note of everything she sees—including plants, insects, shells, bones, nests and tracks—and uses her photography as a tool to help with identification. Once she's back home, she downloads her photos and zooms in close so she can see every detail, using her guidebooks to determine the species. She says that it was through the National Aquarium's participation in the annual City Nature Challenge that she first became fascinated with the nuances of species identification.
"Many species of birds, fish and insects have different physical characteristics depending on what life cycle they are in or if it is breeding season," she says. "In order to properly identify a species, you need to step back and understand the bigger picture—a lesson that goes beyond this particular hobby."
"When you use iNaturalist to identify species, you are contributing to global biodiversity research. It's one of the things that attracts me to this, because it's not something just for me. When I take a picture of something and it can be verified that this species was in this place at this time, it really does help a larger global community better understand biodiversity and help protect the wildlife around us."
Plants and Animals of Assateague Island
While the wildlife Laura sees (or sees evidence of) on Assateague Island and in Chincoteague changes from spring to fall and from year to year, there are a few constants. Assateague is the only place she's ever seen live whelk, and it's a year-round home to ghost crabs, sika deer, gulls, terns and dolphins.
The area of the island she explores is home to a wide variety of small fishes. "The fish are feeding on the detritus of the decaying plants; they like to be in this intertidal zone. In turn the shorebirds like to be here because this is where the fish are," she explains.
The Spartina alterniflora—also known as smooth cordgrass or saltmarsh cordgrass—that grows on Assateague Island is the same kind of grass the National Aquarium plants as part of its habitat restoration efforts. "These plants not only mitigate flooding but will be a huge driver in mitigating climate change—the roots help stabilize the sand and the plants help fix carbon," Laura says. "Plus, they're just an amazing habitat." The grass is meant to be underwater during high tide. Algae and periwinkle snails grow on the stems; during high tide, fish eat the algae and snails. It also offers protection by allowing small prey to hide in the thick stems, protected from larger predators that can't maneuver the tight spaces.
Sand Fiddler Crabs
Seeing a large group of fiddler crabs is the reward for quiet, patient observation. "At the edge of the marsh grass, there can be thousands of them, moving as one," Laura says. "They feel the vibration when we walk and scurry into the grass to hide, but if we act like statues for five minutes, they'll come back out." There are three species of fiddler crabs found in the Chesapeake Bay region—the sand fiddler crab is the species that's most common on Assateague; the other two are the red-jointed and marsh varieties. Fiddler crabs are named for males' one oversized claw that makes it look like they're holding a violin. Males use this claw to defend their burrows and attract mates. Fiddler crabs eat algae, bacteria and decaying marsh plants, and their burrows appear to benefit the marsh by improving drainage and enriching the soil.
Whelks and conchs are mollusks that occupy similar-looking whorled, tapered shells, so people tend to think they are the same animal. "They're a similar species but there are enough differences," Laura says. One primary difference is that whelks live in cooler water while conchs are found in tropical regions; another is that whelks are carnivores and conchs are herbivores. The species of whelk that can be found on Assateague Island include knobbed and channeled. If you've ever found a long, twisty string of small, sand-colored, papery disks on the beach, you've found whelk egg cases. On average, each string can have 40 to 160 disks and each disk can hold up to 100 eggs.
These plump little shorebirds migrate to the Arctic tundra during breeding season and only appear on mid-Atlantic beaches in the fall and winter. Their populations seem to be in serious decline; according to National Audubon Society, some surveys show an 80% drop in their numbers in North and South America since the early 1970s. They are small, about 8 inches long, with white and gray feathers and a straight, blunt, black beak that they use to probe the wet sand as they run along the water's edge while waves wash in and out, digging up sand crabs and other invertebrates to eat.
American oystercatchers are one of the species of threatened shorebirds that nest on Assateague, laying their eggs out in the open, typically on the ground at the base of a sand dune. They're striking birds, with a white belly, dark gray-brown back and black head. They have a long, curved, bright-orange beak and yellow eyes ringed with red. In spring, much of the beach on the southern end of Assateague Island is roped off so that oystercatchers and other threatened shorebirds can nest undisturbed. Laura says that during one of her family's spring visits, they could see a nesting pair of oystercatchers on the protected stretch of beach. The male would go to the shoreline to hunt, then walk back to the nest to protect the eggs while the female went to feed. "They took turns all day," she remembers.
When Laura found a dead shark washed up on the beach during her most recent visit to Assateague Island, she was able to identify it as a small sandbar shark, common in the Chesapeake Bay and found in Chincoteague Bay from May to October. These sharks can grow up to 8 feet long and are named for the sandy flats, bays and estuaries where they live.
"This is one of my favorite places in the entire world, and it's an opportunity for me to show off all of the biodiversity that's here and to hopefully get folks to understand how important it is to protect places like this all across our country and all around the world—places that are safe for wildlife, full of rich habitat that animals can thrive in and plant species can thrive in, that can keep our planet safe and healthy as we move together into the future."
Winter 2021 More Watermarks Stories
Support the National Aquarium
Your gift supports the highest level of animal care and advances research, education and conservation action.