Spend some time at the shore

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake

My fam­ily had a chance to go to Ocean City last week­end.

We’re lucky to have some friends with a condo around 80th Street who are kind enough to let us stay dur­ing the off­sea­son. The month be­fore Memo­rial Day and a few weeks af­ter La­bor Day are great times to visit the beach if you’re not a fan of crowds. The weather is usu­ally pleas­ant and most of the at­trac­tions are open, at least on the week­ends.

Thrasher’s Fries, some leisurely beach­comb­ing and a round or two of minia­ture golf are all es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ents of a good Ocean City va­ca­tion, but there’s a lot more to do and see if you are will­ing to ven­ture a lit­tle way from the board­walk.

Just a short 20-minute drive from the in­let is As­sateague Is­land Na­tional Seashore. Cross­ing over the Ver­razano Bridge trans­ports you to a windswept bar­rier is­land, na­ture’s foothold on the edge of the ocean, just min­utes away from the hus­tle and bus­tle of down­town Ocean City, but worlds apart.

The wild horses are its big­gest draw. On week­ends, cars will form a long line of on­look­ers if horses are graz­ing nearby. They can be seen just about any­where on the is­land, from the surf on the beach to the salt marshes by the bay. Signs ev­ery­where warn vis­i­tors not to ap­proach the horses, and that’s a good rule be­cause they can de­liver a nasty kick or bite. But from a safe dis­tance they are a treat to watch as they frolic and ca­vort in small groups.

When I was a kid we did most of our trav­el­ing on a bud­get and that’s where camp­ing helped stretch our dol­lars. One year my par­ents thought it would be a novel ex­pe­ri­ence to camp with the wild horses and we got a camp­site on As­sateague.

The wind that af­ter­noon we ar­rived made it nearly im­pos­si­ble to put up the tent. We al­ways en­joyed fly­ing a kite on the beach, but not when the kite was our shel­ter for the night. It was mem­o­rable not only be­cause of the dif­fi­culty we had with the tent in the wind, but also the sites are quite rus­tic with cold show­ers and no elec­tric hook-ups. The camp­ground was quite full this past week­end, both with tent campers and RVs. Lots of fam­i­lies were grilling and pic­nick­ing on the beach.

Aside from the ponies, As­sateague is also a bird­watcher’s par­adise. Spring and fall are prime times to catch sight of some of the mi­gra­tory birds that travel along Mary­land’s coast­line. I rec­om­mend that you take the time to stop at the park vis­i­tor cen­ter, learn the his­tory of the is­land and also pick up their bird­ing list. The marshy land­scape is chock full of all kinds of feath­ered vis­i­tors.

We were only on the is­land a few hours and in that time sighted al­most 20 species, from an Amer­i­can oys­ter­catcher to east­ern king­birds. Al­most ev­ery­where we turned there were great egrets and red-winged black­birds.

As­sateague is an im­por­tant breed­ing ground, in fact the only nest­ing site in Mary­land, for the en­dan­gered piping plover whose nests are cor­doned off by the park rangers when nec­es­sary. The dif­fer­ent ecosys­tems on As­sateague — marsh, for­est, and dunes — have their own na­ture trails that are quite ed­u­ca­tional, easy to nav­i­gate and worth­while for dis­tinct bird­watch­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Driv­ing a lit­tle fur­ther on U.S. 50 West will take you to Sal­is­bury, home of the Ward Mu­seum of Wild­fowl Art, which hosts the largest col­lec­tion of wa­ter­fowl carv­ings in the world. Right now there’s a tem­po­rary ex­hibit of Sumi-e paint­ings in­spired by the an­cient East Asian art form that em­bod­ies the spirit of “less is more” and in­cludes some beau­ti­ful ren­di­tions of pop­u­lar birds like blue jays.

De­coys and bird sculp­tures make up the mu­seum’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, but it’s

equally in­ter­est­ing for its dis­plays on the his­tory of wa­ter­fowl hunt­ing and the lo­cals who cre­ated the util­i­tar­ian de­coys that were once de­ployed in duck hunts and now con­sid­ered prized art.

A tour of the mu­seum gives you a feel for how dif­fer­ent life was on the East­ern Shore in years past and may help you ap­pre­ci­ate your Mary­land her­itage a lit­tle more. There’s a room ded­i­cated specif­i­cally to the Ward broth­ers,

Lem and Steve, two bar­bers who whiled away the slow times and win­ter months carv­ing de­coys, which be­came their full-time oc­cu­pa­tion (mostly) as word spread of their re­al­is­tic de­coys that were guar­an­teed to lure in ducks.

As one of the plac­ards stated, a full re­fund was of­fered for any de­coy that didn’t at­tract, and they never paid up once. As the old days passed dur­ing the 20th Cen­tury and peo­ple be­came more aware of the times that were slip­ping away, lo­cal home­grown ar­ti­sans like Lem and Steve be­came well known, and it

is in honor of their con­tri­bu­tion to Ch­e­sa­peake Bay cul­ture that the mu­seum is named.

The most jaw-drop­ping part of the mu­seum is the World Cham­pi­onship Gallery, which fea­tures mas­ter­pieces carved by true ex­perts in avian art. Many of the birds on dis­play are from the Ward World Cham­pi­onship Carv­ing Con­test held in Ocean City every April. There are ea­gles, swans, owls, geese, ducks, herons, song­birds, and even some ex­otic birds that mag­i­cally come to life through a com­bi­na­tion of wood, paint and artistry.

As a South­ern Mary­land na­tive, I was proud to see work by one of our own artists on dis­play in the mu­seum. Richard Me­nard’s en­try “Two Broth­ers,” which de­picts two north­ern shov­el­ers, dab­bling ducks with dis­tinct green heads and black, spoon-shaped bills, tri­umphed in the 42nd an­nual Mary­land Mi­gra­tory Game Bird Stamp Con­test this year.

His art­work will be fea­tured on the stamp that all hun­ters tar­get­ing mi­gra­tory game birds in Mary­land are re­quired to pur­chase. Sales of the stamp raise funds for con­ser­va­tion.

And if you’re mak­ing the trek to the Ward Mu­seum, the Sal­is­bury Zoo is worth a short de­tour be­fore re­turn­ing to Ocean City, es­pe­cially if you have lit­tle peo­ple along with you. It’s on the small side when com­pared to the Na­tional Zoo, but what it lacks in size it makes up in char­ac­ter. The zoo boasts a jaguar, river ot­ters, al­pacas, bi­son and birds of all sizes with many species of ducks, macaws, flamin­goes, sun conures, bald ea­gles and sev­eral kinds of owls. And ad­mis­sion is free.


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