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Maryland-Virginia Barrier Islands

Site Facts

Country, State, Province/Region:

United States, Maryland and Virginia

Relative Location:

Barrier islands extending along the Atlantic coast of Maryland and Virginia; including Chincoteague NWR and the Assateague National Seashore.


37 54' N, 75 54' W



Basis for Designation:

More than 100,000 shorebirds annually


20,725 hectares (51,212 acres)


September 1990

Site Owner/Steward:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service

Human Population within 100 km:



Alexandra (Alex) Wilke
Virginia Coast Reserve Program
The Nature Conservancy

About Us

Photo by L. DeFrancisci

The Maryland-Virginia Barrier Islands WHSRN site consists of a series of primarily sandy barrier islands which run from Ocean City, Maryland to Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The site also includes Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Assateague Island National Seashore, and the Virginia Coast Reserve, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy.

Mostly unwooded, with varying amounts of dunes and low shrubs, the islands' habitats include fresh water impoundments, beach, dune, marsh, maritime forest, and mud flats. Exposure to the sea is mostly unregulated and storms alter the coastline frequently. During migration, the outer islands are frequented by Sanderlings and peeps, and the inner areas are often used by plovers and larger shorebirds.

While detailed information is not yet available for the entire area, it is evident that the Barrier Islands are extremely important to migratory shorebirds during both spring and fall migrations. Further investigation may likely reveal that the area hosts numbers of shorebirds well exceeding 500,000 annually. 

Results obtained from the International Shorebird Surveys (surveys conducted since 1974) show that of all 600 sites surveyed to the east of the Rocky mountains, Chincoteague ranks second in species diversity during both spring and fall migrations, and is among the top ten for sites with greatest maximum counts. 

The 1987 Wildlife Report prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wild life Service quoted 120,348 shorebirds for a single count at Chincoteague NWR alone, suggesting far greater numbers for the extended Barrier Islands. 

Data compiled by the International Shorebird Surveys from 1976-1987 counts at Chincoteague report single maximum counts of 54,335 shorebirds in the spring, and 32,522 shorebirds in the fall, totaling 86,857 shorebirds (single maximum count) annually. When these data are extrapolated to consider turnover rates of migrants as well, numbers well exceed 170,000 for Chincoteague alone.

Chincoteague, Wachapreague, and Cape Charles support over 1100 American Oystercatchers during the winter -- one of the largest known wintering concentrations in the U.S.. (Christmas Bird Count, 1986). A significant percentage of American Oyster catchers and Piping Plovers also breed on the Barrier Islands, as well as Wilson's Plovers, and numerous terns and gulls.

In the News

Chincoteague NWR Responding to Hurricane Sandy

Counting Red Knots: Keeping Tabs on a Threatened Bird

Map of Chincoteague by USFWS

Ecology & Conservation

This section is being updated...


Alexandra (Alex) Wilke
Virginia Coast Reserve Program
The Nature Conservancy
(757) 442-3049 (Office)
Virginia Coast Reserve