Spend some time at the shore
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.