|Posted on 24 July, 2016 at 15:35|
I have just come back from America, where I went to visit my sister and her partner, Vanessa. The main thing was just to spend time with them, but there was one trip which they had arranged and kept strictly secret to be a surprise for me. It turned out that we were going to go to see the feral Assateague ponies of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Assateague Island is a barrier island located off of the Eastern coast of the Delmarva Peninsula. It is 37 miles long, and is home to over 320 species of birds (depending on the time of year), the famous Assateague ponies, pristine beaches, and a working lighthouse. The Northern two thirds of the Island are in Maryland, while the Southern third is in Virginia. The Virginia section contains the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and is the part which we visited. Here we had booked a boat trip around the island, using 'Daisey's Island Cruises', a family run boat touring company.
We checked into a Bed & Breakfast called the Channel Bass Inn. A cosy little Bed & Breakfast with two families of mallard ducks living outside, who we discovered congregating around a pond boasting a constantly running water fountain at one end. Bathing under the water fountain looked so blissful with the air temperature at around 37 degrees centigrade.
Once we had checked in, we decided to head over to the wildlife refuge straight away, before nightfall. Driving through, we almost immediately saw a herd in the distance, so we pulled over to get a better look. First of all they were just far off shapes, but when we used the binoculars we could see in enough detail to watch a cattle egret riding on the back of one of them.
Closer to us there were also Great Egrets fishing in marsh pools....
After some time, the mosquitos increased and the sky began to threaten rain. We called it a day before getting drenched and becoming meals for biting insects.
The following day, after a delicious home made breakfast (including amazing gluten free and vegan ginger scones!), I was excited to get out on the boat to see more of the Assateague ponies. I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to go to the local beach and have a dip in the sea first though. My refreshing swim was followed by packed lunch on the beach, fuelling up for a super boat trip.
On arrival at the pontoon, my sister was initiated into the reality the local horses must face all the time- A bite on the leg by a greenhead horse fly. These flies are from the same family as our horse flies back home. They have a biting mechanism like scissors, making it possible for them to slice the skin first before having their blood meal. This is what makes their bite so painful. Like our British horseflies, they do relent in a strong breeze, so when the captain started the boat’s engine and we began to gather speed, the Green Head Flies rested on the ceiling of the boat and left us alone.
For behavioural scientists, researching the horses and other wildlife can be difficult and potentially very dangerous, when faced with difficult terrian and insects carrying dangerous diseases. Getting to some of the small marsh islands where bands of horses like to graze will sometimes require a twenty-minute walk through waist deep water. ("The Assateague Ponies", Ronald R. Keiper)
Five minutes into the boat trip and before we got to where the ponies might be, some Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins stole the show! It was a huge pod, to the point that it was hard to know where to look.
The captain could not find any of the ponies this time. For me, the beauty of more ethical wildlife spotting trips is the unpredictability of them. I believe this teaches us humility towards nature - it is not there for our entertainment. There were no ponies for me on this boat trip, but even though we had set out to see them, the opportunity to witness so many other beautiful animals in their home environment was incredible. I was also able to experience a small taste of the horses' terrain, as well as learn a lot about them anyway.
Here is a list of the birds we spotted; Belted Kingfisher, Willet, Godwit, Ibis, Least Tern, Common Tern, Sandwish Tern, Little Plover, Great Blue Heron, Tri-coloured Heron, Black headed gulls, juvenile Bald Eagle, Brown Pelicans, Cormorants, Oystercatchers, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Canada Geese, and last but not least a stunning Osprey and chicks...
Laura and Vanessa had done the boat trip once before, and had some beautiful photos, so here they are:
Foals nursing and resting:
The stallion, Riptide, is the dark chocolate coloured pony with a lighter mane and tail, to the right of the central, piebald mare with her skewbald foal:
Here a foal uses his/her dam to shelter his face from the flies:
Nobody knows the true origin of the Assateague Island Ponies, but there are three theories. One is that a Spanish galleon, carrying horses to South America, shipwrecked off the Island in the late 1500s, and the horses come from survivors of that wreck. Another theory is that pirates deposited the horses on the Island to serve as food when they next passed that way - the pirates never came back, but the horses flourished.
The last theory is the one believed to be the most feasible. This is that the ponies descended from horses concealed by the early Eastern Shore colonists who sought to escape taxation and fencing requirements, grazing the ponies on the Island until they were needed back on the mainland. Whatever the true theory, the ponies have successfully lived on Assateague for at least three hundred years.
There are two herds, the Virginia herd and the Maryland herd. The Maryland end became Assateague National Seashore Park, and the southern end Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The population size of each herd is kept to around 150 animals to lessen the impact on the island ecology, but each herd is managed in a very different way.The ponies living in the Assateague National Seashore Park have long been part of a contraceptive programme using PZP (porcine zona pellucida). The zona pellucid is a glycoprotein membrane which surrounds all mammalian eggs. Put simply, the PZP is produced by a process where the ZP is removed from the ovum, its glycoproteins extracted, isolated, and converted into a vaccine. The vaccine then stimulates the target animal to produce antibodies, which attach to their own ZP, blocking fertilisation and causing contraception. This method of contraception has been used on the horses in the Maryland herd since 1988 with enormous success, and they are now exclusively managed this way. It can be administered via a dart gun so that handling can be kept to an absolute minimum. Disease is also generally seen as a natural environmental factor and the horses left to regulate these issues naturally.
The Virginia herd have exactly the same population limit of 150 individuals, but are instead controlled via a removal scheme, sponsored by the Chincoteague, Virginia, Volunteer Fire Company. This has become an annual tourist attraction, with over 40,000 spectators turning out to watch the famous 'pony swim', where the horses are herded across the water from Assateague to Chincoteague, and that year's foals are sold at auction. Spectators arrive the previous week to watch all the events leading up to the swim. On the weekend prior, the ponies are herded into two corrals on the Southern and Northern ends of the Virginia section of Assateague. There are bus tours to the Northern end corral, and the public are able to access the Southern end corral. Early on Monday morning, cowboys will then move the ponies out onto the beachfront and walk them down to join the poinies at the Southern Corral. Tuesday they are all vet checked and vaccinated, before the pony swim on Wednesday. The swim takes place at 'slack tide' when there is no current. On arrival, the ponies are allowed to rest for 45 minutes before being paraded down the Main Street to the carnival grounds, where they will be sold at auction on Thursday morning. The auction serves to control the population size, but it is also a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which does give some of the proceeds towards veterinary care of the ponies. Each year, population permitting, the Fire Company selects a few ponies as 'Buy Backs.' This is a foal that is designated to the Fire Company to return to to the Island to live out his or her life there. They are auctioned with the rest of the foals, but the winner of a Buy Back Pony is able to name the pony before they are returned to Assateague. They are the highest priced pony sold at the auction, with last year's sole Buy Back foal being sold for $30,000.
Because both herds of ponies are on an island and are effectively in quarantine from other horses, they are an exceptionally good opportunity for viable research projects. Because the two herds are also managed in such different ways, it is also possible to draw comparisons between them. Personally I believe that we can learn a lot from the Maryland herd, perhaps fostering similar methods of controlling feral pony populations without as much human intervention.
It has been shown that horses are more fearful of humans after they had endured experiences such as roundups. When you speak to the locals, they all say that the Maryland herd are the less nervous of humans. These are the ponies which are left to their own devices and are not part of the annual round up.
Big thanks to our super guide, who happens to be the new Mayor of Chincoteague, Arthur Leonard.
Keiper, Ronald R. 'The Assateague Ponies', Tidewater Publishers, A division of Schiffer Publishing, Ltd, Reprint copyright 2015.
Chincoteague town website: http://www.chincoteague.com
Daisey's Island Cruises: http://www.daiseysislandcruises.com/
Pryorwild, 'Following the activities of the Pryor Mountain wild horses', February 19, 2010 - PZP & Assateague Island: https://pryorwild.wordpress.com/2010/02/19/february-19-2010-pzp-assateague-island/
Assateague Island National Seashore: http://www.assateagueisland.com/index.htm