Floridians could learn a lot from a visit to Assateague Island. This barrier island is a 37 mile long sliver of sand along the Virginia portion of the Delmarva Peninsula. It has wide beaches that much of the Gulf coast of Florida can only dream about. To some extent this is due to the lack of permanent structures built within the National Seashore so that the island is allowed to move in a relatively natural manner. If a dune is “protected” by bulkheads, the actual area of beach will diminish due to the increased force of the waves concentrated in a smaller area. The visitor’s center was removed years ago from the beach side and placed on pilings on the back/marsh side. The NPS does attempt to protect the parking areas in the short term by building up dunes, but as sea level rise accelerates this policy would more logically be replaced by a system of buses to bring visitors to the beach from parking areas more remote from wave action.
Assateague/Chincoteague Islands are famous for the “wild” ponies that originally were introduced by early European colonists but later supplemented with new stock. They are managed by the local fire company to limit the herd size to prevent overgrazing. But even so there is a considerable adverse effect of their herbivory on the salt marsh grasses. The strange thing is that teeth of prehistoric wild horses may be found along Florida’s Gulf beaches, yet horses subsequently became extinct in N America. Thus horses are an exotic/feral species here.
I visited Assateague in late April so there were many signs of Spring. For example there were violets blooming in the edges of fresh water marshes. Yellow thistles were in bloom, attracting butterflies such as this tiger swallowtail and a large bumblebee on the same bloom. Due to their spiny nature thistles are often considered undesirable, but they are an important source of nectar for insects. Their presence is often related to soil disturbance; thus reducing disturbance is an effective way to control thistles without the use of toxic herbicides.
Many of the shorebirds were ones I was familiar with from Florida. But they were in breeding plumage and often engaged in reproductive behaviors. For example the royal terns were interacting with raised fully black crests and clearly getting ready to breed. The Forster’s terns were also very handsome with their new black heads and orange bills. The least terns had reproductive coloration (note yellow bills) but in addition this photo shows the mating behavior in which the male feeds the female a fish.
I was excited to see spectacular oystercatchers (standing on their oyster food) which are uncommon in SW Florida and to see them apparently paired up to breed. One of the pair I was photographing had bands (black P4 vertical) on both upper legs placed there by scientists who send data to the American Oystercatcher Working Group ( http://amoywg.org ).
There were various wading shorebirds such as willets, yellowlegs, dowitchers and dunlins present. The dunlins were interesting since they were in the process of migrating north to Delaware Bay (for a stopover to feed on horseshoe crab eggs) before heading to the Arctic to breed. Yet their belly was only in an intermediate stage of molting to the all-black color.
As barrier islands in Florida are gradually overwhelmed by sea level rise and sand moves towards the mainland, human structures will have to be relocated to the back of the islands or to the mainland. A different strategy for management will have to be developed for these rapidly changing marvels of nature. Assateague Island should be required study for those interested in this topic.