SCARBOROUGH, Maine — We were on an early morning walk overlooking the twisting, narrow channels that snaked through the salt marshes and low pools of Scarborough Marsh. The briny smell of low tide filled the air. We stopped to watch a pair of egrets feed in the shallows; shorebirds flitted in and out of the salt meadow hay fields; black cormorants swam along the crumbling, weed-choked banks.
This marsh in southern Maine was once fertile fishing grounds for Native Americans. They called it Owascoag, “the Land of Many Grasses.” Later, colonists would graze cattle on the nutrient-rich salt marsh hay. Today, Scarborough is the largest salt marsh in the state and considered one of the most important and productive on the New England coast. It includes more than 3,000 acres of tidal marsh, salt creeks, fresh marsh, and uplands, and is a resting, breeding, and feeding ground for an array of wildlife, particularly birds.
“The salt marsh is a very unique place, filled with seabirds and plants that you don’t often get to see,” says Linda Woodard, director of the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center. “What I like best is that it’s always changing. Every week there’s something new coming through the preserve. It’s a treasure.”
Waterfowl, egrets, herons, glossy ibises, and many species of shorebirds feed in the rich estuary, rest here during migration, and use the watery preserve as nesting habitat. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons have been spotted. Muskrat, mink, otter, and deer are also said to frequent the marsh, though we didn’t see any signs of them on our recent visits. For us, the marsh was a great place to escape the confines of everyday life, to sample a tiny touch of wildness.
We took the easy, self-guided nature trail that skirts through the salt marshes and cattail fields. There were several suggested stops along the way with information markers. We followed the trail to the edge of Dunstan River, one of the freshwater rivers that empty into the marsh, with views of the surrounding tidal grass and salt marsh hay fields, before crossing the road and climbing a small hill for a look at a shallow pond. The pond was slick with green algae, a good thing, we learned, as algae make the perfect nursery for baby snails, fish eggs, and insect larvae. We meandered along a small, tidal stream, past a patch of cattail plants, before reaching another small pond, where a pair of mallards and tiny ducklings paddled across the water. We walked through a patch of woods, and stopped to see a canal that was dug during the Revolutionary War. The canal once ran from a shipyard, hidden from British warships, to the Dunstan.
It was low tide when we stopped for a final look at the sweeping salt marsh, now buzzing with activity. (Low tide is the best time to be here, when the wild things are most active and visible.) We watched for a long time as stick-legged herons dunked for fish, skittering sandpipers and glossy ibis dug in the mudflats for food, and waterfowl swam up and down the salty inlets.
136 Pine Point Road, Scarborough, Maine. 207-883-5100, www.maineaudubon.org, grounds open year round, dawn to dusk.