Photo Opportunities At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge & Assateague Island National Seashore

Ospreys can dive to catch fish. Their feathers shed water easily and their talons specifically designed to be able to grab and fly with their catch.
Ospreys can dive to catch fish. Their feathers shed water easily and their talons specifically designed to be able to grab and fly with their catch.

Location & Management

Managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge covers 14,000 acres of beach, dune, marsh, shrub and forest habitats.  The majority of the refuge is located on the Virginia end of the narrow, 37-mile-long barrier island of Assateague (Assateague Island National Seashore) just south of Ocean City Maryland. The refuge is managed to benefit wildlife and to protect critical habitat for both resident and migrating species. Birds found on the refuge include ducks, geese, heron, raptors, warblers, and shorebirds plus deer, raccoons, Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrels, muskrats, foxes, and otters. 

In recent years, there has been a significant drop in the number of migrating snow geese visiting the refuge in the fall. Once reaching nearly 40,000, but today the numbers are much lower. Grabbed this shot several years ago as they landed on the beach. This fall, they were there again this year.
In recent years, there has been a significant drop in the number of migrating snow geese visiting the refuge in the fall. Once reaching nearly 40,000, but today the numbers are much lower. Grabbed this shot several years ago as they landed on the beach. This fall, they were there again this year.
Large numbers of snow geese sometimes stop at Bombay Hook National Wildlife refuge, DE instead of proceeding south to Chincoteague in the fall. This flock circled several times before landing.
Large numbers of snow geese sometimes stop at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, DE instead of proceeding south to Chincoteague in the fall. This flock circled several times before landing.

A number of impoundments have been created by refuge staff where water levels are managed to provide resting and feeding areas for waterfowl and other species.  Some dikes bordering the enclosures are topped with roads adjacent to water-filled borrow ditches where birds congregate.  This arrangement offers excellent opportunities to photograph wildlife from your car, steadying your camera on a bean bag or using another means of support. Because the animals are protected on the refuge and are used to seeing people and vehicles, they are less timid than elsewhere and more easily photographed. 

Clapper Rails are secretive birds found in the marshes. They feed at low tide on the exposed mud flats. Rails are often heard before seen.
Clapper Rails are secretive birds found in the marshes. They feed at low tide on the exposed mud flats. Rails are often heard before seen.

Wild ponies are a favorite photo subject among visitors.  Smaller than standard horses with heavy coats to protect them in this harsh environment.  They appear perpetually pregnant with bloated bellies from their diet high in bulk and salt.

Change

As with all barrier islands, the sand shifts with the season and strong storms.  The ocean cuts through the dunes sometimes forming temporary inlets.  Water-laden sand rolls over the land creating new marsh.  With the landscape constantly changing, there are always new and exciting opportunities for photography. No matter when you visit, you will always find something to photograph.  Even in the summer when the public beach is packed with people, you can still find photo subjects by venturing out in the early morning and late afternoon when there are fewer people to interfere with your activities.

Locating and Approaching Wildlife

Spotting animals requires careful scanning of the environment for shapes, tones or colors out of place, and movement.  By studying animals, whether photographing or not, you gain insight into their behavior and are better able to capture action shots. Creatures of habit, animals often visit the same locations repeatedly so check these spots on a regular basis.  Know your equipment well and be prepared to photograph at any time.  Have a suitable camera/lens combination ready with exposure settings pre-set for conditions you are likely to encounter. Once a potential subject is spotted, plan your approach.  Consider the lighting, background, subject temperament, and the animal’s direction of movement.  If it is following a predictable path, move slowly and indirectly to position yourself where it is heading.  Be careful not to cause it to alter its behavior.  Rapidly moving directly towards the animal will normally cause it to flee.

I watched the direction the fox was moving and carefully position my vehicle on the shoulder of the road at a distance in front of where I thought it was going. I made sure the warm afternoon light was illuminating its beautiful red coat.
I watched the direction the fox was moving and carefully position my vehicle on the shoulder of the road at a distance in front of where I thought it was going. I made sure the warm afternoon light was illuminating its beautiful red coat.
To minimized my profile and create a more intimate image, I shot from a low position behind my vehicle. As the fox hunted, it ignored my presence.
To minimized my profile and create a more intimate image, I shot from a low position behind my vehicle. As the fox hunted, it ignored my presence.
After hearing its distinctive call, I spotted this Belted Kingfisher on one of its favorite branches. As I positioned my camera, it plunged into the water and emerged with a small crab in its bill before returning to its perch. To capture various poses as it struggled to consume the crustacean, I held down the shutter release button and repeatedly fired a series of shots at a high number of frames/second.
After hearing its distinctive call, I spotted this Belted Kingfisher on one of its favorite branches. As I positioned my camera, it plunged into the water and emerged with a small crab in its bill before returning to its perch. To capture various poses as it struggled to consume the crustacean, I held down the shutter release button and repeatedly fired a series of shots at a high number of frames/second.
Shot from my car with my Nikon D850 camera and 600 mm lens resting on a bean bag. Settings: ISO 800, F10, and shutter speeds approximately 1/2000 second.
Shot from my car with my Nikon D850 camera and 600 mm lens resting on a bean bag. Settings: ISO 800, F10, and shutter speeds approximately 1/2000 second.

Suggested Lenses and Other Gear

  • A wide-angle for beach scenes, flocks of birds, and sunrise/sunsets and perhaps an 80 to 200mm zoom lens to isolate portions of the scene.
  • A 300, 400 or 600mm telephoto for small or timid subjects such as shorebirds. It is preferable to buy long lenses that have collars for mounting on a tripod. This makes it easier to handle the camera/lens combination and it allows for quick adjustment of orientation from horizontal to vertical or in-between.
To spot animals, I look for movement. This Cedar Waxwing was part of a flock attracted to the berries. Shot with my 600-mm lens.
To spot animals, I look for movement. This Cedar Waxwing was part of a flock attracted to the berries. Shot with my 600mm lens.
  • A 1.4 teleconverter to extend the effective focal length of your primary lens for photographing small subjects. Note: The tele-converter reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor, cutting shutter speeds in half.  For best image quality, buy one matched to your prime lens.
  • A 200-mm macro lens for close focusing and high magnification when photographing a shell, insect, or flower. Compared to shorter macro lenses, with the 200-mm lens, you can obtain the same magnification at a greater working distance from your subject–a benefit if photographing something timid such as a ghost crab.   

 

  • Other gear: An electronic shutter release to prevent camera shake when using long exposures or high magnification. A polarizing filter to remove unwanted reflections and shine on surfaces of vegetation intensifying colors.  Depending on the angle of the sun, it can also make the sky appear bluer.  You might want to include a neutral density filter that reduces the amount of light entering the lens in order to create special effects by using slow shutter speeds to suggest motion of moving objects – the surf, the wings of birds, etc.
The lighting and pose made this photo of a Great Blue Heron special. Shot in the early AM.
The lighting and pose made this photo of a Great Blue Heron special. Shot in the early AM.
  • A sturdy tripod, preferably without a center post for maximum stability when using long telephoto lenses. The tripod should be topped with a professional ball head that can easily support the weight of your camera/lens combination or with a Wimberley Head (gimbal) which is preferred by many photographers for manipulating large lenses and tracking animals and birds.
  • If shooting on the beach, the wind off the ocean can be fierce and unpredictable, so never walk away from the tripod. Also, watch where you place your camera gear since an incoming wave can swamp your equipment or worse, wash it away.  When around blowing sand or dust, shield your camera when changing lenses to avoid particles entering the throat of the camera and making their way to the sensor resulting in dark spots on your images.
Willet picking up mole crab. Shorebird behavior is often predictable. They follow the edge of the surf, probing for organisms as waves retreat.
Willet picking up mole crab. Shorebird behavior is often predictable. They follow the edge of the surf, probing for organisms as waves retreat.

Useful Tips

  • By having with you two cameras mounted with different lenses when in the field, you can avoid changing lenses in the open and can more quickly switch from one focal length to another.
  • When on the beach, wipe or brush the sand off your tripod legs with a damp cloth to prevent particles and salt from entering the joints between tripod segments and making it difficult to adjust the tripod’s height. You can buy or create water-proof tube covers for the lower legs to minimize sand-related problems and to allow you to submerge the legs in the surf.
  • If visiting in the spring, summer or early fall, bring insect repellant to guard against mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks potentially carrying Lyme disease.
Adjacent to the refuge is the town of Chincoteague with a small boat harbor. Sometimes loons are found here. It is also a good place to photograph sunset.
Adjacent to the refuge is the town of Chincoteague with a small boat harbor. Sometimes loons are found here. It is also a good place to photograph the sunset.

By Irene Hinke-Sacilotto

With more than 35 years experience conducting photo workshops, I have conducted programs on Chincoteague many times.  My book entitled “Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and Ecological Treasure” is sold locally.  Check out my upcoming workshops at Assateague Island National Seashore, Chincoteague NWR, Tangier Island, and Bosque del Apache. See details described in Outdoor Photographer’s online listing of “Classes, Workshops & Tours.” For photo workshop schedule updates and details, also see my website: www.ospreyphoto.com.

Irene Sacilotto
facebook.com/ospreyphotoworkshops
www.ospreyphoto.com

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