ASSATEAGUE ISLAND - If you're making family getaway plans for some surf fishing or a trip on an Ocean City head boat this year, think about adding one more activity to the schedule.
The new $10 million Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge visitor center at the Virginia end of the island, about two miles from Chincoteague, is an educational and environmental knockout.
Named in honor of the late Virginia congressman Herbert Bateman, the building is the dazzling centerpiece of the 37-mile-long barrier island that is the Grand Central Station of Atlantic bird travel.
The center is filled with interactive displays, gorgeous wildlife photos and 6-foot plastic "beakers" that show wildlife activity on the surface and below the waterline at the refuge.
Visitors can punch a button on a map of the Western Hemisphere to follow a peregrine falcon on its migratory path from the Chesapeake Bay region to South America and then to northern Canada. Little lighted dots show the progress of the radio-collared raptors over a two-year period.
The 125-seat auditorium shows five films each day. And if you get tired, you can plop down in one of the wooden rocking chairs on the center's glassed-in porch to watch wildlife.
Outside are a number of outstanding wildlife trails, ranging from a quarter mile to 3.2 miles. The latter loops around a large pool that is usually dotted and ringed with waterfowl.
The tree swallows and laughing gulls have returned for spring, and other species are expected to arrive over the next several weeks.
"Things are beginning to pop," said T. Paul Smith, the coordinator of the senior citizen volunteer corps. "This is just a beautiful time."
Of course, the other seasons aren't shabby, either.
In winter, for example, as many as 15,000 snow geese blanket the aptly named Snow Goose Pool. Even if your name isn't Audubon, watching hawks circle and egrets do their fishing ballet is a lot of fun.
Kids will love the wild ponies, but be sure to point out the sika deer grazing at the edge of the woods.
Of course, the entire island is a treat.
If you stood Assateague Island on its wider southern end, it looks - at least from an organizational standpoint - like a parfait. The bottom layer is the Chincoteague refuge, established in 1943 and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Then comes Assateague Island National Seashore, managed by the National Park Service. On top of that is 680-acre Assateague State Park, operated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Topping things off is another layer of National Seashore.
It took 40 years for the Bateman visitor center to go from an idea to a ribbon cutting because of funding hassles and other federal priorities. Finally, the local community prodded the project to the finish line.
Federal officials believe that within its first year, the center will draw 350,000 to 500,000 people, making it among the busiest visitor centers in the refuge system.
It's worth the three-hour trip from our area.
If you need another excuse to head to the Eastern Shore, the Delmarva Birding Weekend and the Ward World Championship Waterfowl Carving Competition are coming up the last weekend of the month.
The birding weekend, in its 11th year, attracts birders - novice and expert - to some of the state's best viewing spots. The 2003 Christmas Bird Count listed 162 species, the second highest tally in the 56 years of the survey.
Some of the activities are booked months in advance. But others can handle larger groups or have multiple outings.
There are boat trips, an owl prowl, a pelican cruise, a night visit to the Salisbury Zoo and an eagle watch - all led by experienced birders.
Learn more at www.delmarvalite.org/bird or call the Worcester County Tourism Office at 410-632-3617 or 800-852-0335.
The waterfowl carving championships have been around for 32 years for good reason. The event attracts more than 20,000 spectators, many of them non-hunters who appreciate the craftsmanship on display.
About 2,000 competitors in seven classifications fill the Ocean City convention center with both artistic carvings and real working decoys. The winners get prizes that range from $3,500 to $20,000.
Call 410-742-4988, ext. 105, for show hours and ticket information.
Feather in his cap
There's no ducking it. When it comes to painting Maryland waterfowl scenes, David Turnbaugh leads the flock.
The Towson man's oil painting of two pintails, called "October Day," was selected from a field of 36 entries by 20 artists to win the Maryland Migratory Game Bird Stamp Design Contest. His paintings also took second and tied for third.
For Turnbaugh, 66, the win is his fifth in the 30-year history of the contest. He also took top honors in 1985, 1991, 1996 and 2000. When you realize that the contest rules require the winner to sit out the next three years, his record is remarkable.