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Welcoming spring at Bristol’s Audubon Nature Center and Aquarium

The raised, ADA-accessible trails and Nature Center offer ways to explore in spite of New England’s tricky spring weather

The Audubon Nature Center and Aquarium in Bristol, R.I.
The Audubon Nature Center and Aquarium in Bristol, R.I.Peter Goldberg/Handout

When April finally comes around, when there are songbirds in the trees and flowers are starting to bloom, it feels like a true reward for surviving a long New England winter. There’s always a bit of a dilemma this time of year, though: the sunshine and warmth makes you want to get outside and explore as much as possible, but it’s also mud season and, since it’s New England, there’s still a slight chance of snow.

That’s what makes the Audubon Nature Center and Aquarium in Bristol a great choice for spring exploration. The raised trail above the marshland is an easy, dry walk for anyone to enjoy. But the Nature Center is more than just convenient — it’s an underappreciated gem that’s part outdoor exploration, part indoor learning center, and all uniquely Rhode Island.

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Just off the East Bay Bike Path, the Audubon Nature Center and Aquarium is located within the Claire D. McIntosh Wildlife Refuge. There, a mile-long walking trail goes quickly from field and forest, past a rose pollinator garden, to the saltwater marshland that leads out to Narragansett Bay. The walking trail is ADA accessible and ends in a dock perfect for birdwatching and observing the sea life, or just taking in the views of Rumstick Point across the Warren River, and in the distance across the bay, Rocky Point State Park in Warwick. Turn your head to the left and you’ll see Bristol Town Beach. To the right, Jacobs Point and Warren Town Beach beyond. McIntosh Wildlife Refuge also has a picnic area — that and the trail are open daily, even when the Nature Center is closed.

Inside, the Nature Center and Aquarium has interactive, educational exhibits about wildlife in Rhode Island. In addition to a living tidepool exhibit and tanks with local marine life, there’s a life-sized, 33-foot model of a North Atlantic Right Whale. The ravens who live on-site, Zach and Lucy, are the unofficial ambassadors of the place.

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Through April 25, an art exhibit called “Hidden Beauty: A Celebration of Life Under the Waves,” is on display in the Nature Center. The artist, Isabelle Cadene, is a senior at Roger Williams University and uses scientific illustration techniques to create her vision of the natural world.

As the pandemic continues, the center has a capacity limit of 35 people; timed tickets or reservations are not required, but you may have to wait a little while to get inside if the center is at capacity. The center is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursdays through Sundays.

If you’re the kind of person who can’t tell an osprey from a heron, but would like to be able to, the center offers guided bird walks for people age 12 and older, from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings, when the birds tend to be most active. It costs $5 per member ($7 for non-members); group sizes are limited, and participants must register through ASRI’s events calendar. Binoculars are encouraged, and as long as the pandemic persists, masks are required.