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IDANCED A strange minuet with an ibis. The large, purplish-brown bird, resembling a heron with a long, down-turned bill, was peacefully wading at the edge of a tidal pool by the side of the road when I spotted it. We were separated by a line of scrub brush.

As I inched left for a closer shot, it moved right with equal speed. A move to the right brought me closer, as the maddening bird eased to the left, keeping just out of camera range.

Seekers of summertime pleasure often follow the herd instinct, going to the beaches, the campgrounds or the mountains where the crowds go. There is an alternative that, at the very least, provides a respite from the conformity: national wildlife refuges. They dot the country, often close to major attractions, and if the two we visited are any indication, they are virtually deserted.

National wildlife refuges differ from national parks in that they don't offer camping or accommodations for overnight stays. They are havens for dozens of animal species, many of them endangered, and are a nature lover's paradise, gently touched by human hands, free from campers and recreational vehicles. At the refuges, animals come first.

My ibis dance occurred at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, one of the many barrier islands stretching down the Atlantic coast of the United States.

The refuge provides a variety of environments for both animals and people. Miles of spotless, white sand beaches attract visitors from all over the country. Behind the beaches, sweeping dunes provide habitat for herons, geese, ibis and countless other birds.

We chose to see the refuge by bicycle, and in doing so got to meet some human critters as interesting as the wildlife and a lot more accommodating. Like the elderly man at the bicycle rental store on Chincoteague Island, who sized up the three of
us, trying to match us to appropriate bikes. One look at my wife, Carol, and he said with a Virginia drawl, "They are lawng-legged women and shawt-legged women -- today we've had a run on a shawt-legged women."

After several minutes of searching his dwindling stock, he selected one and adjusted the seat downward several times until he got the right fit.

The day promised to be quite hot, so we packed a picnic lunch with plenty of liquids and doused ourselves with sunscreen. Happily, the stands of pine in the refuge and a strong ocean breeze gave welcome relief from the heat.

The bicycles gave us freedom to go where we wanted (within designated areas, of course) and to get close to the wildlife. We bicycled up to quiet tidal pools teeming with waterfowl to observe and photograph them, while white gulls with black heads filled the sky laughing raucously at the human interlopers.

Assateague Island, of course, is best-known for its wild ponies. Legend has it that a Spanish galleon carrying horses sank off the Virginia coast and that today's Chincoteague Refuge ponies are descendants of those Spanish horses.

The less glamorous truth is that today's herds are descended from those of Virginia planters in the 17th century who grazed their horses on the island to avoid mainland taxes.

The ponies roam through the sweeping sand dunes, as free as earth-bound creatures can be. Signs warn that they are wild, so it's best not to get too close, because they sometimes kick or bite. Nevertheless, they appeared quite willing to let us come near enough to take their pictures.

Our next stop was Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, Md., an island in the Chesapeake Bay.

The heavily wooded, 2,200-acre island is deeply indented on three sides by inlets, an ideal habitat for shore birds. The smooth western shore offers a panorama of Chesapeake Bay, ideal habitat for humans enjoying an afternoon of sailing.

Eastern Neck is a refuge where people are more likely to partake in the environment than to observe it. Bogle's Wharf landing, on the eastern part of the island, provides public access for boaters, and the Ingleside Recreation area attracts crabbers every summer. The crabbers drag their dip nets through the waters, searching for Maryland's most-beloved product. The refuge also attracts hunters for an annual one-day deer hunt with bow and arrow.

Osprey inhabit the refuge during spring and summer. These large birds nest in platforms set over the water on top of long poles. The nests stand like lonely sentinels over the inlets of the island as if guarding against invasion.

A visitor to Eastern Neck that is particularly beautiful, and not as abundant at other eastern shore refuges, is the oldsquaw, a diving duck noted for the male's long pointed tail. This duck changes plumage dramatically from summer to winter. Its summer neck is black and its face white. In the winter the neck turns white and the face dark. This duck (which also is abundant during winter in the Niagara River off Lewiston) is noted for its yodel-like voice.

We had hoped to see two of the island's star attractions, the Delmarva fox squirrel and the bald eagle, both endangered species, but the wily creatures avoided our cameras. We did see several white-tailed deer and lots of songbirds such as orioles and cardinals.


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