Assateague Island National Seashore & Assateague Island State Park
11800 Marsh View Lane, Berlin, MD 21811
Assateague Island is a unique birding site, offering access to the only remaining segment of unspoiled ocean beach habitat within the State of Maryland. Assateague is the #1 eBird hotspot in Worcester County, and Worcester has the longest species list of any county in Maryland. Assateague is a 37-mile long barrier island along the Atlantic Coast of Maryland and Virginia, most of the Maryland portion being managed by the National Park Service (NPS) as Assateague Island National Seashore. The State of Maryland manages two miles of Atlantic shoreline as Assateague State Park.
Sinepuxent Bay and Chincoteague Bay lie behind Assateague Island, separating it from the mainland. The island’s rich mosaic of beach, dune, forest, and marsh habitats offers feeding and nesting opportunities for a wide array of shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, and waders. The Island is also famous for its wild ponies, which roam free throughout the island. Assateague presents a vivid picture of what the Atlantic Coast looked like before beach resorts were developed.
This description will cover only the northern section of Assateague Island, within the State of Maryland. The Virginia portion is managed cooperatively by the NPS and US Fish and Wildlife Service as the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
The Maryland portion of Assateague Island is reached from the mainland via Verrazano Bridge, which carries MD Route 611 over the Sinepuxent Bay. At the foot of the bridge on the mainland side, NPS operates the Assateague Island Visitor Center, which houses exhibits and provides brochures, maps and a film about the wild ponies. The Visitor Center has restrooms, a bookstore, and emergency services, and offers park activities in season.
Behind the Visitor Center, MD DNR maintains a walking trail that loops around an area of bayside scrub and wetlands on the shore of Sinepuxent Bay, offering good habitat for passerines. The trail provides access to the historic Rackcliffe House, a restored 18th-century coastal plantation house that is open to the public from May through October. Note that there is no public parking area at Rackcliffe House; it can be reached only via the trail.
Across the road from the Visitor Center, the State of Maryland has a marina with boat launch and fishing pier, and a large parking area. Particularly in the winter, the marina is a good place to check the waters of Sinepuxent Bay for waterfowl, loons, and grebes. Year-round, the scrubby vegetation and grass near the marina parking area can hold interesting land birds. Often Merlins and other raptors hang out here.
On Assateague Island itself, there are a lot of areas and habitats to explore. Consult the assortment of maps at the trail guide link at left. Both the State Park and the National Seashore have overnight camping as well as day use areas. Within the National Seashore, there are three main walking trails: the Life of the Marsh and the Life of the Forest Trails (both on the bay side of the island), and the Life of the Dunes Trail, where the paved road heading south ends in a circle. Birders should consider walking all three trails, or parts of them, because each goes through different habitat.
Note that parts of the beach at the northern end of the island (see maps) are off-limits from April 15th to September 15th, to protect nesting areas for endangered Piping Plovers and other shore nesting species. At the south end of the island, there is an extensive zone where Over-Sand-Vehicles (OSV) can drive on the beach (permit required). The OSV zone can provide a good way to explore the back-country areas of Assateague, in search of birds that prefer to avoid human disturbance. Read about the OSV regulations and tips before you go there.
Before you go, explore the wealth of information on the NPS Assateague Island website, especially a set of brochures that include detailed guides for the three walking trails, an information sheet on Piping Plover management, and basic information for planning your visit, including operating hours, fees, and so on. Also take a look at the separate website for Assateague State Park, which also offers much information to help plan your visit.
Assateague Island is a mecca for birders with over 300 species of migratory and resident birds, including some western vagrants. There are over 40 eBird hotspots that dot the Maryland portion of the Island, including the Over-Sand-Vehicle Zone: the abundance of eBird hotspots corresponds to the many habitats to explore at Assateague. See the eBird hotspot map at https://ebird.org/hotspots?hs=L450228&yr=all&m= for hotspot locations. The top three among the individual hotspots are Assateague I. NS–Bayside peninsula, with 275+ species reported; Assateague State Park, with 260+ species reported; and Assateague I. NS–Bayside Campground, with 250+ species reported.
Wintering Northern Saw-Whet Owls may roost in the little pines near the State Park entrance, and also in winter, Short-eared Owls hunt over the marshes. During winter irruptions, Snowy Owls may appear anywhere on the beach or dunes. Northern Gannet is reliable offshore, with Common and Red-throated Loons flying and swimming offshore. Also in winter, Northern Harriers fly low over the marsh grasses as they scan for prey and flocks of Brant, diving ducks, loons, grebes, and an occasional alcid occur in the waters offshore.The Bayside Camping Area in the National Seashore can produce rarities in fall or winter: Northern Shrike, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Clay-colored Sparrow have appeared in recent years.
In early spring, Piping Plovers arrive and begin to perform their elaborate territorial and courtship displays. After sunset, several species of owls become active, including Great Horned and Eastern Screech. Spring also brings migrating waves of passerines, usually found in the bayside thickets.
During the summer months, wading birds like Great and Snowy Egrets and Clapper Rails hunt in the shallow waters along the marsh edges, also populated by Sharp-tailed Sparrows (all year) and Seaside Sparrows (in summer). Terns and Laughing Gulls hunt the waters.
Fall once again brings migrants, including flights of southbound raptors and passerines. Waterfowl start arriving in November.
Designated lots in State Park and National Seashore. See trail maps at the link at left.
The visitor center, most nature trails, bathhouses, and nature centers are wheelchair-accessible. The National Seashore has two accessible campsites which may be reserved. ◾ Both the State Park and the National Seashore offer many nature education programs seasonally. ◾ Canoe and kayak rentals are available from a concessionaire in the National Seashore. ◾ If you’re not a paddler, consider a guided boat trip for the chance to see more of the refuge and its wildlife. Check out Eco Tours and Dolphin Tours & Cruises. ◾ The island is the focal point of the Assateague Island Important Bird Area and the adjoining Maryland Coastal Bays Important Bird Area, as designated by the National Audubon Society. ◾ Assateague State Park is a certified Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE) Green Center. ◾ The Tri-county Bird Club is the local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society, serving Wicomico, Worcester, and Somerset Counties; the club offers field trips to local birding areas and meetings with informative presentations, all free and open to the public.
Episode 2701 of Outdoors Maryland from Maryland Public Television has a segment called “To Trap a Raptor,” showing how Snowy Owls on Assateague Island are trapped and banded for studies of their movements. The segment features MD DNR Biologist David Brinker. Other segments in this episode include “Walking Over Winter,” about snow-shoeing in the winter, and “Cub Scouts,” about surveying black bear cubs born in Maryland.
From US Route 50 west of Ocean City: Take MD Route 611/Stephen Decatur Highway south for 7.1 miles. Route 611 ends at the Verrazano Bridge to Assateague Island. The Visitor Center will be on your right (south side of road) just before the bridge, and the marina and fishing pier will be on your left (north side of the road). Upon crossing the bridge onto the island, follow signs for the State Park and the National Seashore entrances and parking areas.
Ocean City Inlet, Castaways RV Resort & Campgrounds, E.A. Vaughn WMA, Pocomoke State Forest – Hickory Point Cypress Swamp Natural Area, Truitts Landing and Other Bayside Landings, West Ocean City Pond, Ellis Bay Wildlife Management Area, Nanticoke River Wildlife Management Area – Nutter’s Neck, Pemberton Historical Park
ConifersHedgerows Old Fields, Shrubby MeadowsSandy Beach or Dunes Forested SwampJetties & SeawallsMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Open Ocean, Bay, or EstuarySalt or Brackish Marsh
BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)BoardwalkBoat or Canoe/Kayak LaunchBoat RentalsCampingFishingHiking/Walking TrailsHistorical FeaturesNative Plant Garden or Meadow/Pollinator PlantsNature Education ProgramsObservation Platform or TowerParkingPets AllowedPicnic AreaRestroomsSnack Bar, Camp Store, Food ConcessionsSwimmingVisitor Center, Interpretive Displays, ExhibitsWater ViewWheelchair Accessible FeaturesYoung People / Families
#1 Hotspot in County or CityAtlantic Ocean and Intercoastal WaterwaysAudubon Important Bird AreasHiker-Biker Trails (Paved)MAEOE Green CenterNational Parks & MonumentsNature CentersState Natural Areas & WildlandsState ParksWater Trails