For those who are unfamiliar with US geography, it seems that I may have forgotten to mention in my last entry that when I made the statement that we were in Delaware, I should have also mentioned that Delaware is part of the Delmarva Peninsula; an offshoot of the mainland USA that hangs like a small appendage surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. I find it interesting because the name Delmarva is made up from the fact that the upper and mid portion of the peninsula is comprised of the states Delaware and Maryland (Del and Mar) and the bottom portion is actually a part of Virginia (Va – the state’s initials). So by travelling down it, we actually pass very quickly through three states.
Right, geography lesson over folks, now onto natural history….
Assateague Island, or more correctly known as Assateague Island National Seashore, is yet another National Park Service site I have been desperate to visit – made popular due to the fact that is houses a herd of wild ponies, believed to be descended from horses turned free in the 17th century by settlers. The seashore itself is 37 miles long and technically a barrier island, which means it gets hit with all of the crappy weather coming in from the sea first, before it gets to the mainland; but also means it has a fabulous ecosystem ripe for conservation.
We cross over onto Assateague via a bridge, passing the large visitor centre on the mainland, and make our way to the campground in the park. And yes, we’ve actually found a site large enough for us within the park and are willing to pay the high $30 overnight fee, just to watch the ponies.
We park Belle lengthways which means our windows face out over a small patch of marshland with a small glimpse of the water beyond. Apparently the feral ponies wander through the campsites fairly often, so we hope that we might get a good view of them from the bus.
We decide to take an evening ride on the bikes down some of the paved roads; the park is pleasantly quiet in most parts, except the area where people can run their generators. The air is cool and pleasant, but I’m glad to have my jumper on and soon realise a fleece wouldn’t go amiss either, it’s definitely a sign that autumn is on its way. We quickly spot a deer and two ponies grazing, the ponies are being photographed by a chap who, given the size of his lens, is either a professional or is aspiring to be.
With the light fading we head back to the bus for dinner and bed.
I awake to an elbow in my ribs. First a gentle prod, which I can ignore, and then a more hearty nudge which makes me sit bolt upright. “What?” I growl (mornings aren’t really my thing).
Loops has his camera in hand and is pointing out the window.
The sun is just rising, a peachy orange and red, and directly out of our bedroom window, munching in the marshland, are three ponies, two adults and a foal. We watch them quietly graze; the foal seems slightly more interested in antics than food and proceeds to play with the edge of the metal fire pit, scratching an itch, before startling itself as the metal gives way and sends it running back to its mother to suckle reassuringly from her.
In case you are wondering about who looks after the ponies, the answer is no-one. They are, for the most part, left to their own devices. They receive no supplemental feed and no veterinary care, nature takes its course. If a pony is found to be in a fatal situation, the park service will see that they are euthanised to prevent suffering. The only other intervention is for conservation of the land; pony numbers are restricted by giving a contraceptive to selected mares each spring, to see that they do not overwhelm the landscape and damage it for other native species.
Once we’ve wrapped up warm I decide we should take a morning walk along the beach before we leave the park. I am both shocked and delighted to find the beach here is empty! I expected to find throngs of people, but I guess we’ve hit it at just the right time of year with everyone heading back to school and work. We walk for an hour or so up and down the beach, watching the birds and combing for interesting items on the sand. As time wears on a few more people join us, but I can still count them on one hand.
A trip to this area wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Ocean City boardwalk, a traditional beach boardwalk full of tacky shops and eateries, where we avail ourselves of lunch. We don’t think much more about our lunch stop until Loops’ dad phones us later and tells us that we are on the news! Well, technically we are on the weather report at the end of the news. It seems there is a time lapse camera overlooking the car park at the beach where they show the day’s weather and low and behold, you can see our bus pull in and park; run the footage slowly enough and you can actually see Loops getting out of the bus and walking across the car park. It gave us a good giggle – Belle is famous!
Carrying on with our nature theme, Loops has decided to book us in for a couple of nights at the nearby Kiptopeke State Park, renowned for its bird watching and annual hawk migrations.
It turns out there is a hawk watch and walk taking place while we stay, so we take the opportunity to join in and are guided by a lovely biologist named Caroline, who is here for the migration season as an educational guide. I find Caroline pretty fascinating, not only does she have fabulous bird identification skills, but she is spending her working life traveling around the country to basically be an educational biologist. Working with her is another young lady, probably in her 20’s, who has been identifying birds since she was a child and can simply look up and, without binoculars, tell you exactly what birds are flying overhead. I’m jealous.
We start our bird walk at the main bird watching platform, about 25 feet in the air, where sadly the hawk counter lady tells us today seems to be a bad wind day. This means that the wind today is working against the birds wanting to migrate south, therefore few birds are flying over. However, she does enthusiastically tell us that we missed a fantastic day yesterday where they saw over 300 hawks and falcons come through. Yeah, thanks for that.
Not to be discouraged, Caroline leads our little band of merry followers through a small patch of scrub and boardwalk and down towards the bay overlook, hoping to spot other birds along the way. While no hawks were forthcoming, we did stumble across these….
These are concrete ships. Yes, that’s right, floating ships made from concrete. Did you know concrete could float? No? Me either. But there you have it, it does.
These ships were coincidentally made in Tampa, FL, and were constructed when plate steel was in short supply during World War II. Concrete ships were used both in the military, as floating supply ships, and also for more mundane, closer to home jobs such moving sugar and coffee from South America to North America.
How did these ships end up sitting here in the bay?
Well, apparently before the Chesapeake Bridge and Tunnel were built, there was a ferry operating in this area from a pier. In order to ensure the safety of the ferry pier from the weather in the bay, a harbour of sorts was required. As the war had ended and there was an excess supply of ships from the military, they agreed in 1949 to partially sink nine ships to form an artificial harbour.
Now, the ferry is no longer in existence, but the ships remain and now provide a habitat for aquatic life as well as birds. Looking out from the remains of the pier, the ships are a fascinating and mesmerising spectacle, and covered from bow to stern with pelicans; a bird I’ve come to really love, spellbinding to watch flying and diving.
We carry on our walk along the beach, spotting a bald eagle along the way, before making our way back to the hawk watch platform where only a couple more birds had passed overhead.
Still feeling in the mood for further exploration, the Blue Bandit is put into action and off we go to explore the grass and sand trails around the park. If becomes pretty obvious that not many guests choose to make use of these trails because by the time I make it back to the bus, I am a cycling spider web streamer!
The following morning, before we leave the park to cross the Chesapeake but after having a grump at Loops over cleaning the bus, I walk back down to the pier on my own for some quiet time.
I choose one of the empty benches to plonk myself on and just sit and try to think of nothing, to empty out my head. I watch three men crabbing off the pier; loading up their traps with bait before lowering them over the side rail and into the water. Those crabs sure must be hungry, each trap coming up with a catch after only five or ten minutes in the water. I found the traps intriguing as they weren’t crap pots, fully enclosed, they were more like a hanging basket, half open, which they just pulled up before the crabs could crawl out, I guess?
I watch people paddling in boats in the small harbour – but not normal boats, these were almost like little kayaks with a tiller; where the occupant either peddled to propel themselves or seemed to have a small but invisible motor pushing them gently through the water. I’ve never seen such a thing before, what a great way to go boating! Even better, some of these people had a small pole-holder on their boat, so they could peddle out and sit and fish in their individual kayak. It looked like a fun hobby to me.
With time wearing on, and before Loops decides to drive off without me, I head back to the bus.
Time to cross back over the mainland and into the south proper – Chesapeake Bay Bridge here we come….