Wild ponies on Assateague Island


Parents' Visit 2009

Last updated August 10, 2009



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Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five

Every other year, I visit my parents and every other year, they visit me. Visitations are staggered so we see each other every year for about a week. Though it may not seem like much, the time we spend together is well thought out and planned. I do my best to ensure not a minute is wasted.

They arrived on the evening of Friday, May 22 and left in the late morning of Thursday, May 28, 2009.

As soon as they arrived, I took them to Shin Chon restaurant in Ellicott City. Here, we ate Korean food grilled right at our table on a turtle-shaped platter. Some of the meat was tender and tasty and some was very fatty. As one might expect, there was a big variety of kim chee. Unfortunately, I don't think any of us were terribly fond of it. But the atmosphere was nice and with my folks, Norma, her mother (Hazel), Joyce (Norma's sister), and Jimmy (Joyce's husband), a splendid time was guaranteed for all.

Day One: Saturday, May 23, 2009

Norma organized our first full day.

My parents and I arrived for an outdoor brunch, served in Norma's back yard. Her mother and housemate, Carmen, joined us. We ate an egg pancake topped with peaches along with bacon, and baked oatmeal. Delicious!

Next, the five of us (Carmen went her separate way) went to Brookside Gardens. At the entrance, a dove guarding its nest greeted us. See first photo at left. Though we didn't see their Wings of Fancy butterfly exhibit, we did walk the perimeter of the gardens. We saw several dogwood trees in bloom and numerous geese with their goslings walking about (second photo). They were obviously used to being around people. We also saw numerous turtles and a snake (third photo). There were some beautiful and huge Japanese maples in a well-landscaped Asiatic garden. See fourth, fifth, and sixth photos. I really enjoyed seeing some of the metal wind sculptures (see seventh photo). Near the entrance was a big section of a fallen tree whose insides had decayed over time. By Maryland standards, it was an enormous tree. See eighth and ninth photos.

Temperatures were in the low 80s and a little humid but at least it was sunny.

To cool off, we stopped in at Island Style Ice Cream for some frozen dessert.

Lastly, we drove back to Norma's place for dinner. I grilled beef from Hazel's farm on Norma's brand new propane grill which she purchased for thirty something dollars. Norma served orzo and asparagus too. After eating our fill, my folks and I headed home.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Day Two: Sunday, May 24, 2009

Norma and her mother came over my place the next morning and prepared breakfast for us all. Then we loaded the car and headed off for a multi-day adventure. Both Norma and I own small cars so Norma swapped cars with Joyce so the five of us could get around in a large Chevrolet with a massive trunk. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.

A one hour and 45 minute drive took us to Fort Delaware State Park in Delaware City, Delaware. We ate lunch at a picnic table near where a young man (probably 18-ish in age) loudly spouted off all kinds of profanities in the presence of his father. An Eminem wanna-be.

A ferry boat took us (and the young man) to Pea Patch Island. At one time, I had considered paddling to this island in the middle of the Delaware River but after seeing the route, I'm not sure if it would hold my interest. But while the boat ride over wasn't terribly interesting, the fort most certainly was. The moat and high walls made it look somewhat like a castle. See first and second photos at left.
While defending the critical Delaware Valley during the Civil War, Fort Delaware also served as a prison camp for thousands of Confederate soldiers captured throughout the war. The fortress also saw duty during the Spanish American War, where she was the key in a 'Three Fort' defense made up of Fort Delaware, Fort Dupont and Fort Mott (NJ). Fort Delaware was active until WWII, and her guns were never challenged.
- from Delaware State Park Reservation Service

We were greeted by people in costume from the 1800s. Each was in character. They treated us as if we were inspectors, telling us about their job at the fort. It was a most impressive structure. As one might expect, there were a large number of old weapons including muskets, pistols, mortars (third photo), and several large cannons. They demonstrated the firing of an eight inch Columbiad Cannon (fourth photo), the biggest gun on the island! It reminded me of the huge guns Norma and I saw on our January 13, 2009 bike ride which took us to Fort Foote Park. The Columbiad Cannon was every bit as loud as an 81mm mortar though not as loud as a claymore mine. If we had arrived earlier, we might have also checked out Fort Mott in Pennsville, New Jersey since a visit was included in the price of the Fort Delaware tour.

Walking on a bridge over a small canal, I saw numerous eighteen inch long catfish below.

Just across the street from the ferry, we stopped for a cold dessert at an ice cream parlor. Dad really likes his ice cream if he can get it sugar free or no sugar added.

Next, we drove 50 minutes then checked in at the Comfort Inn in 222 South Dupont Highway in Dover, Delaware. It wasn't fancy but the prices were good, it was clean, and they had a small refrigerator and microwave in each room. If staying in the area, I would return since there are no nearby campsites.

Our next stop was Port Mahon, which lies due east of Dover near the Little Creek Wildlife Area. I learned about this place during Norma's and my 2008 Horseshoe Crab Watch. Though we saw numerous horseshoe crabs last year, we hoped to see many more this year.
Starting in the middle of May, female horseshoe crabs ready to spawn heave their tank-like bodies onto the moonlit sands of Delaware Bay. In what's known as "spawning aggregation," the crabs ready to lay eggs arrive en masse, often numbering more than 300,000 in a single spot on a single evening...These [horseshoe crab] ladies are prompt, arriving just before the tide crests - and in even greater numbers during the full and new moons in May and June when the evening tides protect the buried nests from subsequent tidal cycles until the egs hatch some two weeks later...And despite the fact that they've been overused as bait for eel and conch fishing, the horseshoe crab population is conservatively estimated at between 2.5 million and 4.5 million in Delaware Bay alone.
- from "Crabby Lifesavers" by Madeleine Eno, May 2009, Appalachian Mountain Club Magazine.

We arrived at about 1800, which was about 1.25 hours after the low tide on the day of the new moon. The day was right but the time was not. Though we saw perhaps 100 horseshoe crabs, they were clearly not coming in. It appeared instead that they were either stranded or digging in to stay moist until the high tide returned. The ones on the beach were covered with sand (see fifth and sixth photos) while those that chose to venture further inland were caught between rocks that protected the road from erosion (see seventh photo). We did what we could to rescue the survivors (eighth photo) but some were very tightly and deeply wedged between rocks and could not be extracted. One mating pair was found stuck in a drainage pipe (see ninth photo). While not the most ideal viewing conditions, it was nontheless impressive. This was the first time my parents or Norma's mother had seen horseshoe crabs. Needless to say, they found them strange, but that only added to their novelty.

We also saw the head of some fish (see tenth photo). While there was no body to be found, it was obviously gigantic. I don't know what kind it was. The head alone was roughly about the size of an eight inch diameter sphere.

Numerous birds came out to eat the horseshoe crab eggs. See eleventh photo.

The birds weren't the only ones that were hungry. After our little adventure, the five of us went to a nice dinner at Flavor of India where we ate northern Indian cuisine, buffet style. We learned that northern style has meat and is less spicy than southern style. The restaurant is at 348 North Dupont Highway (route 13) in Dover, Delaware, just north of Oak Lane. As I often do at a buffet, I ate too much. But that worked out fine because afterwards, Norma and I burned off a few excess calories by going for a walk near the government buildings in Dover, the capital of the first state.
Click thumbnails to enlarge.

Day Three: Monday, Memorial Day, May 25, 2009

My parents, Norma, her mother, and I began our morning with an outdoor breakfast at the picnic table by the motel pool. See first photo. Here, we saw a rabbit that seemed rather intrigued by our presence.

We headed out to Kitts Hummock which lies just southeast of Dover. This tiny beachfront community has a public beach whose only access is at the east end of Hummock Road.
Like the Native Americans before them, European settlers used this rising ground or "hummock" on the shore of the Delaware Bay as a place for fishing and recreation. In 1738, Jehu Curtis received a patent for lands that he called "Kitt’s Hammock." By the early 1800s, the Pleasanton family had established a tavern here for the entertainment of visitors. Around 1846, a hotel was built nearby. Known for a time as the Bay View Hotel, it was long the center of local activities. In the latter decades of the 19th century, a number of small cottages were erected here. Many were owned by residents of Dover who left the sweltering heat of summer behind for the cooling effects of the waters and bay breezes. Kitts Hummock continues to provide a peaceful refuge for residents and visitors alike.
- from sign at Kitts Hummock

Our goal was to see more horseshoe crabs. We arrived at 1030. High tide was at 1105. Walking south from the public access, we saw more crabs along with the red knots (second photo) that eat their eggs. As with yesterday, most of the crabs were already ashore and partially covered with sand. But as high tide approached, more and more horseshoe crabs came ashore. Eventually, the shore was literally covered with a few thousand crabs. I don't think I would be exaggerating if I said we saw a thousand over a one hour period!
  • Third photo: Mom with mating pair of horeseshoe crabs.
  • Fourth photo: Mom taking photos of horseshoe crabs.
  • Fifth photo: Norma and Hazel with horseshoe crabs.
  • Sixth photo: My parents and me with horseshoe crabs.
  • Seventh photo: Lots of horseshoe crabs.
  • Eighth photo: Closer look at horseshoe crabs.

  • Most of the males were about eight inches wide while the females were generally about ten inches wide. Some of the larger ones were about fourteen inches wide! While the males are generally smaller, I was able to distinguish between small females and large males by looking at their front legs.
    The males have "boxing glove" shaped claws on their first pair of legs that are used for attachment at the back portion of the female's shell during spawning.
    See ninth photo.
    In contrast, the female's front pair looks like most of the other legs. See tenth photo. Both the males and females have a back pair that look very unlike a crab leg.
    [The back pair of legs] is actually used for propulsion along the bottom and acts like a ski pole.
    - from Creature Feature - The Horseshoe Crab Fact Sheet

    Just as with yesterday, we did what we could to help the ones that were stranded on land. But unlike yesterday, there were no rocks for the crabs to get trapped between. Their biggest risk was being flipped over by waves. We saw two crabs that had U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tags on them: identification numbers 105895 and 099364. See one of them in the eleventh photo. I later called the toll free number appearing on the tags to report our find. A few weeks later, I was sent two pewter horseshoe crab pins, literature about horseshoe crabs, and certificates reporting my find. See twelfth and thirteenth photos.

    I saw several individual eggs scattered about the beach along with a few large clumps of horseshoe crab eggs. Each egg appeared to be 1.75 mm in diameter. See fourteenth photo.

    I found one poor crab that had a colony of mussels living on its shell. I doubt any of its ten eyes could see anything. I tried to pull off some of the mussels but they were really holding tight. See fifteenth photo. He may not have been able to see yet he was able to make it to the right place at the right time for spawning.

    We really hit the jackpot as far as seeing the horseshoe crabs is concerned. Though the evening high tide (which was 1.2 feet higher) might have had more crabs, I wouldn't have been able to photograph as much at 2326 (11:26 pm).

    Our next stop was Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. We went to the visitor center, looked at displays, and picked up several pamphlets.
    Bombay Hook was established in 1937 as a link in the chain of refuges extending from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It is primarily a refuge and breeding ground for migrating birds and other wildlife...[The refuge] is about 16,000 acres, the terrain is flat - less than ten feet above sea level. Tidal salt marsh composes four-fifths of the refuge, one of the largest expanses of nearly unaltered tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region.
    - from "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge" pamphlet

    The refuge contains several short trails (none more than a mile long) and a few lookout towers. My goal was for us to drive twelve mile auto tour and to have us all walk each trail and to each lookout tower. Doing so would have only amounted to maybe two and a half miles of total walking in five segments.

    We began the auto tour, stopping at each numbered sign and taking turns reading the information sheet. We saw what I thought was a bluebird but now I'm not so sure. See sixteenth photo. We also saw numerous herons (seventeenth photo), egrets (eighteenth and nineteenth photos), and geese. I caught a very quick glimse of a muskrat.

    Our first walking stop was for the observation tower at Raymond Pool. We walked not more than a quarter of a mile round trip. The path was a mowed section of grass that had regrown to about eight inches high. At the top of the tower, we could see almost the entire pool along with much of the road we would soon encounter. See my parents at the top of the tower in the twentieth photo.

    The temperature was probably in the low 80s and humid...good conditions for biting critters. Numerous flies attacked us. Some were biters though I don't think any were deer flies which bite much harder. As usual, the mosquitos were drawn to me. We made it back to the car in one piece then started driving. We decided the flies were too aggressive to stop for other short walks so we would just continue with the auto tour. This was a wise decision since not long after we continued, we started finding ticks. Over the next few hours, Norma found about a dozen ticks on her and I found maybe one on me. My parents and Hazel found a few on them too. Some might have been the dreaded deer ticks but many were the much larger (and easier to find) dog ticks. Just the thought of them was enough to make one itch.

    Continuing onward, we spotted some turtles at Finis Pool.

    Heading south, Norma and I reminisced about our August 5-7, 2006 adventures in Delaware as we passed through or by various familiar towns. We left Delaware as the rains hit. There was heavy traffic heading north. I assume they were leaving Ocean City. Fortunately, we were moving in the opposite direction.

    Norma took us on a little side trip into the town of Berlin, Maryland. We walked through the downtown section a bit.

    A little later, we entered Snow Hill, where I took my parents back in September 2005. It seems they are just as lacking in restaurants today as four years ago.

    Next, we checked in at Pocomoke River State Park in the Robins Nest loop. I reserved sites 176 and 178 which were near both each other and the bath house. Norma and I set up our tent while my parents and Hazel stayed in a mini-cabin. See twenty-first photo. I've never seen a Maryland State Park mini-cabin before. I was rather impressed. It has a cipher lock on the door. If there isn't any staff at the park (as was the case for us), one must call the park rangers who might be a little clueless as to how the campsites are run. Inside the cabin is a bunk bed and a double bed. Each has a vinyl mattress. Campers only need to bring pillows, sheets, and blankets or sleeping bags. There is even an air conditioner/heater. The mini-cabins are a little expensive but if you can split it with three or four people, it isn't so bad. Better yet, if someone in the group is a senior citizen, the rate is cut in half!

    We went out for sandwiches and pizza at Down Under which is located at 5342 Snow Hill Road (route 12). This tiny little hole in the wall is just on the northwest side of the Pocomoke River. We all agreed that the french fries were delicious.

    That night, Norma and I went on a little walk. We saw a firefly...just one.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    Day Four: May 26, 2009

    Between yesterday and this morning, everyone except me had to have a tick extracted. We checked each other thoroughly. Fortunately, I packed my Tick Nippers which came in mighty handy. It seemed unusual that so many ticks would be encountered in a quarter of a mile stretch of mowed grass in late May though I suppose the location is ideal for them. It is good we found and removed the ticks early since according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation, ticks need to be attached to their host for about 36-48 hours to transmit the disease. Still, I urged everyone to get tested for lyme disease during their next annual physical or sooner. I get tested every year; I just ask my doctor to take a little more blood during the blood test and send it to the lab. I described for everyone the symptoms but also warned that symptoms don't necessarily show up if you have the disease.

    We ate a hearty breakfast in the mini-cabin comprised of leftover pizza, fruit, and various other items. I also discussed our schedule for the day with the group. It rained during the night and in the morning so instead of going kayaking, like I originally planned, I would check the forecast for today and tomorrow then maybe swap the days of our itinerary.

    We drove back into town and I asked the people at the Pocomoke River Canoe Company if we could switch our reservations for tomorrow. They were fine with this.

    A few more ticks were found in the car.

    Norma drove us to Assateague Island National Seashore. By the time we arrived, it had stopped raining but it was a little cold...definitely too cold to take my parents or Hazel kayaking. The nice thing is the cold weather and the ocean breeze kept the insects in hiding. Unfortunately, they also kept many of the critters we want to see in hiding too.

    Our first stop was the half mile long Life of the Marsh nature trail. This boardwalk trail took us along some of the marshy areas of the park and to a small beach area. We saw two wild ponies. See one with my parents in the first photo. To me, they look like horses but I'm no equestrian science expert like my good friend Jenn. How did the ponies get there?
    The origin of the ponies on Assateague is unclear. The most romantic tales tell of wrecked Spanish galleons and Conquistador horses struggling through the surf to shore, but more likely the ponies are descended from herds maintained by early colonial mainland farmers who used the island's waters as a natural fence.
    - from Maryland Wonder and Light

    Next, we walked on the half mile long wooded Life of the Forest nature trail. Near this area, we saw two Sika deer which are also called "Asian elk" (see second photo). This lucky deer gets to listen to the radio. Here, we also saw the second pony that we saw on the previous trail. See third and fourth photos. Notice the pony in the background in the fourth photo.

    Lastly, we walked on the half mile long Life of the Dunes nature trail which led us on sand and along what was once an old highway. See this highway in the background of the fifth photo. See other pictures of our fine looking group in the sixth and seventh photos. Throughout much of the Life of the Dunes trail, we saw numerous tiny yellow flowers. Most of the flowers were past their prime so millions of small petals lay amongst the sand. We also spotted duneland fungi (see eighth photo) which at first glance also looks like a flower:
    The crowned earthstar, a relative of puffballs, is adapted to desertlike conditions of the dune zone. This fungi derives nutrients from organic material in the soil. The fruiting body of the earthstar (the part above the surface) has a ball-like inner spore sac covered by a thick outer layer. When rain brings moisture, the outer layer splits open and the pointed segments curl downard, sometimes raising the plant above the ground.
    - from The Life of the Dunes Nature Trail

    After a quick snack, the five of us walked along the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. See ninth photo. I found some really miniscule shells (tenth photo).

    Next, we headed to the Barrier Island Visitor Center where we saw a short film about the animals on Assateague Island.

    A roadside stand called our names so we just had to stop and buy some locally grown strawberries, cantaloupe, and firewood.

    Our next stop was Waterman's Seafood Company where my parents tried Chesapeake chicken for the first time. Norma, Hazel, and I ate crab cake sandwiches. I think I learned that I like the crabcake filler more than the crab meat itself.

    We stopped for groceries then headed back to the campsite. I built a campfire and we stayed up until 2130 talking.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    Day Five: May 27, 2009

    No new tick extractions.

    We ate breakfast, packed up, then walked on the 0.7 mile Trail of Change where we meandered through a cypress swamp. See first photo. Some of the cypress knees had a volcano-like rim at the top (second photo) rather than the rounded shape I typically see.

    Our final adventure was to kayak the upper 5.4 miles of the Pocomoke River from Porter's Crossing to Snow Hill Road (route 12). I've done this trip twice before and in my opinion, this is one of the nicest paddling trips in all of Maryland. I've boasted to Norma about this route several times and now she would finally be able to appreciate it.

    The people at the Pocomoke River Canoe Company drove Norma, my parents, two recreational tandem kayaks, paddles, personal floation devices (PFDs), and me to Porter's Crossing then helped us launch. Hazel decided to stay behind and guard the store in our absence. The first part of the trip was comprised of winding back and forth amongst the cypress trees in brown, tannic acid filled water, similar to that which Norma and I paddled on May 16, 2009. Unlike that trip, this one would be much easier since the waterways were much wider (but not too wide) and while we had to duck under low branches and logs, no portages were necessary.

    I paired up with Dad (see third photo) while Norma paired up with my mom (see fourth and fifth photos). We saw numerous cypress trees but none that were anything like those we saw a week and a half prior in Sussex County, Delaware. Still, they were very nice and kept us out of the sun for much of the trip.

    As the river widened, we began seeing turtles. See sixth photo. They became more and more numerous as we continued. I reckon I saw about thirty. Some had shells up to fourteen inches long! We also saw numerous spatterdock flowers, a water snake, and some cormorants (seventh photo). I was a little disappointed that we didn't see any bald eagles.

    Two hours after we began paddling, we were back at the canoe shop (see eighth photo). I think the caretaker at the canoe shop was impressed that we finished a half hour faster than the typical time.

    We changed into dry clothes then ate lunch under some umbrellas at a table next to Maggie's of Snow Hill, a bookstore. Though we weren't customers, they are somehow connected with the canoe shop so we were allowed to use their table.

    On the way home, Norma stopped in at another local produce market. It seems she can't get enough of those eastern shore fruits and veggies.

    Back at my house, my dad, Norma, and I cleaned out the car. We vacuumed, washed, cleaned the windows, and wiped down the plastic and vinyl with Armour All. Not a tick left.

    For dinner, we went to TGIF in Hanover. Good food but too noisy. Then we stopped in at Safeway to pick up dessert, which we ate at my house.

    Sadly, Norma and Hazel went their separate ways, saying goodbye to my parents until their/our next visit.
    Click thumbnails to enlarge.

    On my parents' final day, we slept in then ate a light breakfast at home.

    I showed them my pride and joy, the S1-A.

    I downloaded their digital photos onto my computer and uploaded mine onto their camera memory cards.

    Lastly, Dad helped me carry the grill down into the garage and clean it. He is always willing to lend a helping hand.

    I drove them to the airport and we said our final farewells. It seems the time just flew by. I already miss them.