Friday, August 30, 2013

Clams, Mussels And Crabs...Oh,My!

Today is Friday, Carl’s Day to become involved in something he‘s interested in. He is so patient with me while I drag him from one end of the island to the other, traipsing up and down the beach in search of a band doing something other than being horses, or stopping on command as we pass something of interest on the way to somewhere else. At each National Park we have visited, they have ranger led programs geared mostly to families with children and Assateague is no different. Carl wanted to get involved in clamming and crabbing along the beautiful waterways of Maryland’s barrier islands. The best time to dig for clams is actually high tide because they have much less grit and “clamminess”. During low tide, they “clam up” clamping their shells together and won’t release anything for fear of drying out. They also prefer sandy bottoms and not the marsh mud we normally associate with clam digging. Who knew? Ranger Sara did. Carl also learned it is much easier to harvest mussels which attach themselves to the grassy stems at the water’s edge. Clams must be dug with a rake, backbreaking work that can wreck arm strength for days. In fact, Carl harvested about 4 pounds of mussels which he proceeded to clean, steam and eat for lunch. You can’t get much fresher than that, from bay to table in about an hour. He didn’t catch even one legal Blue Crab.

When he was through with lunch, we gathered all the shells, papers and other trash to haul to the dumpster which is all of 20 feet from the camper by the way. We forgot one item so I opened the door of the camper to hand it to him and behind him was one of the pinto mares from yesterday, followed by a second and third. I grabbed my camera and slipped into my crocs so I could get some photos. Bringing up the rear was the Mahogany Bay stallion who was being attacked by these huge horse flies. I call them B-52s because they are so massive and we've seen them swarming all of the horses. They’re so huge they appear to be birds in the photos I've taken. The small band meandered across two campsites, checking for edibles on the tabletops and stopped where the pit toilets and water faucets are located. A couple of the horses seemed to be checking to see if anyone had left water while the others grazed on the grass nearby. Park volunteers called the “Pony Patrol” routinely drive the roads and campgrounds to make sure both humans and ponies  behave themselves. One patrol member arrived and I asked about the band we were watching. He told me the stallion was one of the oldest in the park, having been around for more than 20 years. That’s a ripe old age even by domesticated standards. We also found out this band has the nickname of “ the picnic robbers”. We didn't
realize that just 15 minutes later we would find out why.

Carl watched the band of horses cross over the dunes and head back towards the beach. I grabbed my camera and walked two sites down to the boardwalk as us humans have been instructed to do. Only half way out to the beach, a lady came from the beach and approached the campground hosts. It seemed a group of horses were on the beach molesting a family for their snacks. The lady also reported the animals were attempting to “eat” the blankets they were sitting on. I crested the hill, just in time, to see, yes, you guessed it, the picnic robbers all standing within inches of the vacated blankets. The people tried to hold their ground but not wanting to be cited by the rangers for being too close or feeding the horses, they retreated. The camp hosts radioed the rangers who sent someone to gently convince the horses to move on but by that time, the people had gathered their things and left the beach. The band led by the Mahogany Bay didn't seem the least bit contrite for all the fuss they had created.

Someone mentioned last night these animals are more feral than wild. By definition, feral means existing in a natural state, not domesticated, having reverted to a wild state or characteristic of wild animals. When applying these definitions to these horses, I find they are not domesticated but also are they not wild. They have become habituated to humans and their foods most likely through no fault of their own. This is not their natural state. When a person can walk to within a foot or two of a “wild” animal and it is not afraid, there is danger for humans and animals alike. It’s the same with bears who become too accustomed to climbing into dumpsters, raiding bird feeders and even busting down screen doors to get into kitchens for the food on the table. It usually ends up badly for the bears. I certainly hope that our love of these hardy and adaptive horses doesn't end up being the cause of their eventual demise. Incidentally, the definition in my dictionary of the word “wild” reads very similarly to the word “feral”.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Day At The Beach

Today we got to see first hand when a juvenile “ages out of the system”. A small band of horse were taking advantage of the strong and much cooler northeasterly breezes on the beach. Three pinto mares were lounging in the sand while their stallion, a beautiful deep Mahogany Bay, stood watch over them a couple of feet away. Much further off, a couple hundred feet or so, stood a much younger stallion who I estimated to be about 2 years old. While he’s not a mature breeding animal ready to have his own band of mares, he is too old and no longer tolerated in the family group. The band stallion, probably his father, has decided he can no longer hang with the “family”. Talk about tough love. Now the youngster have a one to two year period of being on the fringe. Most likely he will get together with age mates in the same predicament and when the time is right, he will steal a mare or two and form his own breeding herd. Sometimes he will fight for those mares. Later in the day, we observed another band on the beach enjoying the brisk breeze while the surf swirled around their legs. What caught my eye in this band was a palomino mare, not rare but also not as common as the more prevalent bays, chestnuts and pintos.

Just before supper we started out for a drive to see if we could discover any other bands in the area. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe there are more than 100 horses on the Maryland end of the island with none in sight and at other times, you almost drive into them. We left our site, drove no more than 50 feet and there they were, munching on the thick grass in the campground. And sure enough, it was the “Palomino” band from earlier in the day.

Each evening we drive the park roads in their entirety. That sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Well, there are about 5 miles of roads on this end of the island. We drive this loop a couple of times each day in search of ponies. Towards the end of tonight’s loop, we spotted a band of 6 members feeding on the thick cord grass growing on the marshlands. I had an up close experience with the stallion of this band who was grazing nearest the road. He crossed the course sand no more than 5 feet from me and even though they are pony size in stature, every inch of him looked horse to me. Even their knickers to one another are deep and throaty. We found a roosting tree of egrets but the sun was low in the sky so I wasn’t able to do justice to this majestic sight. After a short drive off the island to find a postal box to mail cards, we were back at the same marshy area when a second band of ponies which included the cream and white pinto mare arrived. Knowing two stallions cannot abide one another for very long, I suspected there might be fireworks. The mares milled together for a short while, some even seemed to be greeting old friends but just moments later, the stallions came nose to nose. There were sharp squeals, one showed his teeth and the other showed his heels. The late arriving band showing good sense, left the field, and it was all over. I never considered myself as “that person” who goes to a NASCAR race to see a wreck, or in this case, watches as two stallions fight over grazing rights. But there I was feeling disappointed when it was over that quickly.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Second Trip

Our 2nd trip to Assateague comes with mixed feelings. This was supposed to be the trip to show our granddaughter what a natural wonder this place is. Whether you subscribe to the romantic notion of Spanish horses swimming ashore or farmers turning out young or unused stock to avoid being taxed, this miracle began more than 300 years ago. Each year the shape of the island is changed by winter storms, wild hurricanes and even normal tidal erosion. What doesn’t change is the conditions these hardy animals have had to endure, driving rains, gale force winds, wind driven blinding snows, less than nourishing browse and biting and stinging insects that drive even us humans stark raving mad. I should know. I was outside without bug spray on for just a half hour and I’ll be scratching for days. And the heat is enough to drive any sane animal searching for shade and a cool drink and this is where it gets really interesting. The island is surrounded by salt water so the only source of fresh water are these oversized puddles where rain water collects or slightly brackish water filtered by sand and limestone finds its way. The photo with this post, while not beautiful or awe inspiring, shows one of these areas. We have since found out brackish ponds have the fresh water floating on top of the much heavier salt layer. The barrier island is also smack dab in the middle of the Chesapeake Flyway, one of the largest migratory routes in North America, making this place a birder’s paradise.

Last April, we were greeted by a small band of ponies just after crossing the Verrazano Bridge onto the island. This year, because of the heat and insects, the ponies seem to be hiding in the woods. I did observe a small band of 5 animals, a stallion and four mares walking in circles, brushing up against and walking under as many low hanging branches as possible. They did this over and over, varying the route only slightly. If I were to watch this behavior in my pasture at home, I would say the animals were stressed or bored silly. Here, it seems a more than practical way of temporarily relieving the itching and biting.

And much later in the early evening we were fortunate to see a rather large band, consisting of 6 mares and a stallion on the beach. Most of the horses of color here are black and white or brown and white pintos but in this group there was also a palomino
and white pinto, unusual to say the least. We spent our first evening at Bayside Landing to watch the sunset.