The Daily Times

ASSATEAGUE, Md. (AP) — Serenity. Solitude. Tranquility. While they’re not words typically used to describe the barrier island that attracts 2 million people each summer, that’s what greets visitors to Assateague Island National Seashore in autumn.

As soon as they cross the Verrazano Bride, sightseers are greeted by salt marshes vibrant with red glasswort, birds in the midst of fall migration and half-grown fawns grazing boldly along the sections of scrubby vegetation that line the roadway. What makes those sights even more arresting is the lack of tourists stopping in the middle of the road to shriek with glee and crane their necks at the park’s wild ponies in the crush of summer vacation traffic.

“There are a lot of things you just don’t get to see unless you’re here in the fall,” says Ashlie Kozlowski, an outreach coordinator with Assateague Island Alliance, the park’s friends group.

The slow, natural pace of the park ¡attracts visitors who are interested in more than soaking up the sun on the park’s expanse of sandy beaches. There are photographers seeking to catch the sun rising over the ocean, birdwatchers keeping an eye on species diversity and kayakers enjoying the tranquility that comes with paddling across the bay. And there are those who come simply for a stroll along the beach.

It only takes Ocean Pines resident Crystal Lilley one word to describe what early morning walks beside the Atlantic Ocean bring her: clarity.

“To be out there watching and hearing the waves come to shore, seeing the horses and deer existing on their own, it grounds you and helps you keep things in perspective,” she says.

“Watching the beach change from season to season is reflective of life. It’s always changing, but always kind of the same.”

Marcia Balestri is another who enjoys early mornings at Assateague. You won’t typically find her strolling along the ocean, though.

Balestri, who lives in Ocean Pines, often makes the short drive to Assateague in the fall. Arriving shortly after sunrise, dressed to withstand the morning chill, she sets herself up along a copse of trees near the park’s bayside parking lot. She raises her binoculars to her eyes and opens her ears, training her senses on the birds flitting through the small point of trees.

“The diversity of species at Assateague is really good,” Balestri says. In the fall, she and her fellow birdwatchers might see American Redstarts, Black-throated Blue Warblers or any number of other species of birds. “You can see a large variety of birds in one day in a small place.”

Because of the array of species that can be found on Assateague, it’s something of a hotspot for birders. There are several counts — such as this month’s Rarity Roundup and last month’s Sage Thrasher Hunt — that attract birders from throughout the surrounding areas.

“People will come and spend hours and hours,” Balestri says. “We’ll divide up Assateague and tally up what we see.”

When she does venture to the ocean side of the island — where she says you’ll see gulls, skimmers and oyster catchers, among other species of birds –Balestri says she appreciates the solitude the beach offers this time of year.

“My favorite time at the beach is the offseason,” she says. “I like it when it’s cold and windy and I can walk along the beach in the brisk air.”

If you walk far enough along the beach, you’ll come to the OSV zone. The area where visitors are allowed to drive their vehicles on the beach, which can be full to capacity in summer, might not see a handful of vehicles on a weekday in autumn. There are a fair number of surf fishermen, however, that regularly frequent the beach once they can cast their lines in peace.

Berlin resident Anita Chandler says she and her husband go surf fishing at the park throughout the fall, hoping to catch rockfish and red drum.

“Because Assateague is remote, the fish tend to be plentiful,” she says, “especially in the fall.”

She says she loves the quiet that comes with a trip to the beach in October or November, when the park’s other visitors are taking advantage of the same thing.

“We see hikers and campfires and people doing nothing but sitting in beach chairs reading books,” she says.

Rachelle Daigneault, chief of interpretation and education for Assateague Island National Seashore, says fall is when the park is used by those who have the time to spend there. While some are retirees, some are just enjoying the luxury of living close enough to the barrier island that they can visit without having to take a week off work and drive several hours.

She says there’s not just one thing that makes Assateague special in autumn.

“It’s everything,” she says. “From the weather to how the island itself changes. The salt marsh in particular. It looks like there’s splatter paint thrown across the marshes.

“It’s so unexpected and beautiful.”

Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md.,

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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