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Annual pass to Assateague is worth every penny - January 12, 2012

For less than a dime a day, you can access one of our most precious local resources. Thirty dollars will get you a 2012 Annual Pass to Assateague Island National Seashore, a national treasure. Make the investment. It's worth every penny, and more.

Many may not renew their annual passes or consider visiting Assateague until the weather warms up, but I encourage you to reconsider. The 37-mile, 48,000-acre barrier island nestled between the Atlantic and the coastal bays provides a dynamic experience year-round.

Recently, I asked some of my colleagues to share some of their favorite things about Assateague, especially during the winter months. These folks work at Assateague, full-time, and have for many years. Some have been there for decades. Often times, they even spend their days off on the island. They all found it difficult to contain their enthusiasm.

Rachelle Daigneault, chief of interpretation at Assateague, indicated one of her favorite things to do is to take a walk on the island with her dogs.

"I never bring them in the summer because the sand gets so hot on their paws," she said. "And yes, I always pick up after them, because they are not part of the wildlife on the island. The park even provides pick-up bags at various locations," she said. "I always find myself grinning foolishly at some point during my visit because it feels so good to be outdoors at the beach."

Ranger Nick Clemons mentioned that in winter, park visitors seem especially friendly and relaxed. Camping is quiet and peaceful, and you can walk the trails without worrying about ticks or mosquitoes.

"Even the beach looks different during the winter, transitioning from a smooth, sloping summer shore, to a rougher looking winter shoreline with jagged escarpments," Clemons said.

Without the crowds, shelling and searching for other natural treasures can be especially rewarding.

Clemons detailed the variety of bird species that can be seen on the island during the winter months.

"Viewing wintering waterfowl and other species, including buffleheads, mergansers, grebes, black ducks and more, from atop of the pedestrian bridge is spectacular," he said.

The Barrier Island Visitor Center also has spotting scopes to help visitors get a better look and learn to identify the tremendous diversity of species.

Assistant Chief of Interpretation Liz Davis is always excited to share her deep love of Assateague.

"I love exploring -- exploring back in farthest away places, all alone ... the all-mine places."

During the winter months, it is easy to imagine the island is all yours. Davis enjoys a brisk, cloudless, blue sky day, hiking or paddling. And when she gets tired, nothing is better than finding a sunny dune and shelter from the wind for a nap.

Davis went on to list many things she loves.

"I I love taking my daily walk on the beach on my days off . I love watching ducks, geese, gannets, loons and grebes. I love watching the eagles hunting the ducks. I love hearing the wingbeats of a whole flock of brant flying over," she said. "I love the hawks hunting and the yellow-rumped warblers scattering. I love the super clear water in the winter on a paddle. I love the winter quiet on the island. Winter on Assateague is my favorite."

When you go, stay until sunset, if possible. The winter skies at Assateague are unmatched. A stop at Bayside Drive or Old Ferry Landing offers spectacular views of amazing sunsets.

We are fortunate to have this national park right in our back yard. Treasure it. Visit it. Share it with your friends and family. It's your park.

These passes to Assateague Island National Seashore are valid for an entire calendar year. You can purchase yours on the island at the fee collection booth or a ranger station. Do it soon and visit the island often this winter. Experience Assateague in winter. You won't be disappointed. It's been so warm, you might even be able to dip your toes in the ocean.

To learn more about birding around the Maryland coastal bays, email mcbp@mdcoastalbays.org or visit www.mdcoastalbays.org

Carrie Samis is the education coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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