Wetlands life proves a treasure on constantly changing island


June 20, 1993|By Audrey Haar | Audrey Haar,Staff Writer

Assateague Island is more than sandy beaches and a place to spot wild ponies. Explore the island on your own or with one of the park guides, and a complex network of plant and animal life unfolds.

Guides and rangers at the Assateague Island National Seashore Park offer daily programs in the summer that take visitors wading into the marshes to identify water creatures, and to learn how the island changes and evolves each day, to fish and crab, and to explore Chincoteague Bay in a canoe. Talk to a park ranger for a few minutes, and you will find yourself catching their enthusiasm for nature.

Even simple pastimes such as scavenging for shells on the beach can become an adventure when you realize that at Assateague a shell could be more than a hundred years old.

Walking the beach, it is common to find clam and oyster shells, even though they don't come from the ocean. And they are not leftovers from a beach party, says park ranger Rachelle Daigneault.

The shells are uncovered as the island literally rolls over itself, and old bays and marshes are uncovered on the ocean side of the island. During storms, waves wash away the dunes and flood the island. Sand from Assateague is shifted into the bay, causing the island to slowly move west.

"These things that used to be on the other side of the island are just proof that the island rolls," says Ms. Daigneault. And she points out that the changing nature of the island is why it isn't suitable for development.

"If you try and build on the beach, that building would be in the water before long. It would not be beachfront property, it would be in-the-water property," Ms. Daigneault says.

In the 1950s, a developer tried to compete with nature. Nearly 6,000 lots were sold before a storm in March 1962 crashed into the island. Several buildings and a paved road were washed away. The remains of the road can be seen at the Life of the Dunes nature trail in the park.

"When the storm hit, it pushed the sand dunes and the beach eroded. "That's a good thing -- a normal thing. These are all natural events. We get excited by them because they are exciting. The sand is deposited out to the bay, and the bay grows and it replenishes itself," Ms. Daigneault says.

It is the changing environment that intrigues her. "I know that I can go out after the high tides and find things that I might not find at other times. I can go out after a storm and find that something changed on the beach."

Daily changes can also come from the tides that yield anything from marine garbage to an historical find such as an arrowhead (which shouldn't be removed from the park, Ms. Daigneault says) left by American Indians who once lived on the marsh side of the island. Remnants from the shipwrecks that dot the nearby waters may also come in with the tide.

While the Park Service offers guided programs, there are independent activities as well. In the cool comfort of the visitor center, there is a nature film that is shown continuously.

The center also houses a beachcomber exhibit that identifies many of the items likely to be found on the beach. There are also two fish tanks. One of the tanks is the "touch tank," where visitors can pick up a horseshoe crab or a shell and see the creature that lives inside it.

Printed guides to the island are also available at the visitor center. To better enjoy the three nature trails, pick up a copy of "The Life of Assateague" ($1.95). Each path is short, easy to walk and provides a quick introduction to the types of plants and animals that can be found in the dunes, marshes and forest areas of the barrier island.

In addition to the nature trails, visitors can see the marshes up close from the footbridges at Ferry Landing, and there is a large picnic facility with grills at the end of Bayside Drive.

While visiting the island, stop the rangers and guides and ask questions, says Ms. Daigneault. "If they see one of us walking along with a bucket, they should come up to us and ask what's in that bucket."

There is a lot to experience at Assateague, and most people encounter the pesky mosquitoes that breed in the marsh areas. Rangers frown on spraying the island with insecticides to control the mosquitoes, Ms. Daigneault says.

"They should find out why the mosquito is such an important part of the dynamic of the food web here and why we don't spray for them. Watch the tree swallow and see it do its wonderful acrobatics in the air to realize that the swallow is doing acrobatics because it is feeding. It's taking out of the air flying insects, and one of those is going to be the mosquito," Ms. Daigneault says.

The female mosquito is the one that does the biting, and takes that blood to produce her young, Ms. Daigneault explains. She lays her eggs at the edges of the marsh. When the eggs reach what is known as the wiggler stage, they become a tasty treat for the minnows swimming in the marsh.

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