Winter Takes Wing in Chincoteague, Va.

Snow geese and other waterfowl use Virginia's Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for resting and feeding in winter. If your timing is right, you could see up to 50,000 "snowgies" at the refuge, on Assateague Island.
Snow geese and other waterfowl use Virginia's Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for resting and feeding in winter. If your timing is right, you could see up to 50,000 "snowgies" at the refuge, on Assateague Island. (U.s. Fish and Wildlife Service)
By Mike Edwards
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 25, 2009; Page P06

The imported palm trees at Refuge Golf and Bumper Boats are swathed in plastic for protection from the chill. A sign at Steamers seafood cafe announces "CLOSED 4 SEASON." Thus the Virginia resort town of Chincoteague snoozes through its winter semi-hibernation.

Gone are the summer hordes, the fathers lugging umbrellas to the beach and little girls squealing "Mama! Is that Misty?" when sighting a pony. "Misty of Chincoteague," that enduring children's book by Marguerite Henry, underpins two days of equine hoopla every July, beginning with the swimming of feral ponies across Assateague Channel from the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to the town. The show packs Chincoteague with an estimated 40,000 visitors, 10 times the town's population.

I gladly give them summer, along with the mosquitoes. I'm for winter: miles of empty beach, no crowds in town. My wife, Jennifer, and I have enjoyed 11 New Year's holidays in Chincoteague, and sometimes I've managed, despite the eve's revelry, to make it to the beach on New Year's Day in time to watch the sun rise over the ocean like a tumescent fireball. It's a perfect way to inaugurate a new year. Or a new life, if that's your mind-set.

Our New Year's custom began with a surprise birthday party we arranged with some friends for my wife's sister. It was so much fun that many of us have continued to return to party -- though we don't celebrate so far into the wee hours now. This revelry has usually taken place at Refuge Inn, family-owned and superbly maintained.

In general, we and our friends aren't hair-of-the-dog types. Our restorative on New Year's Day tends to be a huge midmorning breakfast at Bill's restaurant, a biscuits-and-gravy kind of place, much favored by the locals, which also serves to-die-for spicy sausages, crabmeat omelets and raw oysters, among other delights.

Then it's time to head for the 14,000-acre wildlife refuge, across a causeway on Assateague Island. It's part beach, part piney woods and part marsh, and all those parts beckon. But the big attraction is a 3.2-mile road that loops around wide, shallow ponds. It takes me about an hour to walk it.

Yellow-rumped warblers, known to birders as "butter butts," flit about in patches of brush. Sometimes I catch sight of an eagle overhead. But the real payoff is likely to be upon those ponds.

A few years ago, I was treated to an awesome spectacle there: tens of thousands of ducks, geese and swans, honking and quacking in exuberant cacophony. Every so often, clouds of snow geese -- or Canada geese or pintail ducks or tundra swans -- would rise from the ponds, circle awhile, then return in a churning, noisy splashdown. It was one of the greatest nature displays I've ever seen.

Waterfowl populations migrating south generally arrive at Chincoteague in November and December, and most birds begin to return north in February. Whether they linger at the refuge or get an early start back toward their nesting grounds in Canada depends in part on the weather. If it's not too cold and food is plentiful, they'll probably hang around.

All in all, chances are good that you'll take home rich memories, whether you're a serious birder or a mere dabbler like me. Consider the visual possibilities of 50,000 snow geese. "I look forward to them every year," says Louis Hinds, the refuge manager. "They're not here, then all of a sudden one day in December the sky is full of them." This winter, as temperatures briefly warmed, the number of Chincoteague sojourners declined to something like 20,000 -- still, a great many birds -- as the others apparently decamped north to Delaware or New Jersey, perhaps temporarily.

I saw no flocks of gleaming "snowgies" on my first trip around the loop road last New Year's Day. The 20,000 had winged off to glean the grain fields of Delmarva. But when I went back late that afternoon (cars are allowed on the road after 3 p.m.) V after V was returning, pirouetting in an aerial ballet as the birds chose a splashdown spot. "I believe," Hinds says, "that if a person is deliberate in his attempt to see a lot of snow geese, he will." It just may take a little time.

In fact, there are few winter days when the refuge offers no worthwhile sightings. Take my word for it. You might encounter the local (non-migrating) Canada geese population, a thousand strong and looking eminently martial with their smart white chin straps. Canals and marshes harbor great blue herons and snowy egrets, regal stilt-walkers intently stalking a fish dinner. And if you slowly drive the loop road, a pony or two (actually, they're small horses) will eye you with interest. Don't feed them, refuge officials plead. But a little eye contact with a friendly horse is a nice memory to take home.

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