|The main trail at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield.|
The Webster Sanctuary, a.k.a. Dwyer Farm, is comprised of a diversity of habitats -- from meadow to marsh to woodland, plus a river and a pond. Trails and boardwalks stretch across expansive fields, along riverbanks, and through woods of cherry, maple and birch. To encourage visitors to pause and reflect upon their surroundings, the property also includes two wildlife observation blinds, numerous benches in quiet spots inviting contemplation, and a platform at the top of a small hill that offers one of the most unique views around.
There is so much to experience at Daniel Webster Sanctuary, yet I admit I have often yearned for more. I’ve longed to see what lies beyond the easternmost expanse of the trail system -- to explore the meadows that stretch from Fox Hill to the sea. I’ve daydreamed about paddling my kayak from the tide gate on Dyke Road, upstream through the Webster Sanctuary, as far up the Green Harbor River as possible. And I’ve always wanted to explore the woods on the other side of the river.
What a thrill that one of those wishes has now been granted! The River Walk, the new trail at the Webster Sanctuary, branches off from the property’s main path, crosses a simple but beautifully constructed wooden bridge, and leads onto a finger of land owned by the Marshfield Airport. Surrounded on three sides by the Green Harbor River, this small parcel was until recently a mystery and a temptation to sanctuary visitors-- in plain view across a stretch of river, and yet completely inaccessible.
The trees one sees along the River Walk’s boardwalk path are quite strange. This is a recurring theme in the Green Harbor River Valley. Not only at the Webster Sanctuary, but at nearby conservation areas Wharf Creek, Cherry Hill, and Webster’s Wilderness, the tree trunks are dark, gnarled and stunted-looking. They twist and turn at odd angles, sometimes stretching out parallel to the ground. There is very little growth around them, and very little color, resulting in a landscape that is both eerie and intriguing. What makes the trees grow this way? Is it the soil? The wind? The salt air? The lack of light? Is it some man-made influence?
The Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary is located at the end of Winslow Cemetery Road in Marshfield. From Webster Street, you can follow the blue and white Audubon logo signs. At the end of the road, you will find a small parking area and a visitor information building. At the entrance, you can pick up a trail map, learn more about the property, and find out what creatures have been observed there lately.
Proceed from there to the trails. My favorite tour of the property begins on the Fox Hill trail. Follow it downhill, and take a short detour through the Piggery Loop. Keep your eyes open for the seven northern harriers (marsh hawks) currently inhabiting the sanctuary -- sometimes they perch on top of bird houses.
Once you’ve returned to the main trail, look for signs for the River Walk, which will take you to the first bridge. Cross the river, and follow the boardwalk through the woods and on to the second bridge. You might pause there to see not only a great view of the surrounding marshes and meadows, but also, if you’re lucky, the muskrats who play in the water below. Be sure to stay on marked paths, and don’t stray too close to the river. The banks are unstable and the riverbed itself extremely silty -- not the kind of place you’d want to get stuck (like the Audubon staff member who once sunk in to the top of his chest waders).
The second bridge will connect you with the Sparrow Trail, which leads along the river and back to the main path. Climb to the top of Fox Hill, to the observation platform. If you’re there at the end of the day this winter, you might see long- and short-eared owls hunting. Because the sanctuary is open only from dawn until dusk, the casual observer will have only fleeting opportunities to see these rare creatures. Watch the skies, looking out over the fields toward the ocean, for the fluttering flight of the short-eared owls, or scan the trees and signposts for the more direct movements of the long-eared ones. Audubon occasionally offers guided tours of the property, where you can stay later and see more.
From Fox Hill, return to the main path. You may hear meadow mice scurrying in the grass. Take the winding Secret Trail through the woods to Pond Loop. Consider stopping at the observation blind as well. Most likely, you’ll encounter a flock of Canada geese on your way to the exit; watch your step for their green droppings. Allow yourself at least an hour for this tour, and if you have binoculars, bring them along.
Like all Massachusetts Audubon lands, activities at the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary are restricted, so please leave your dog, bicycle, skis, and loud voices at home. For a more formal introduction to the property, inquire with Audubon’s South Shore Sanctuaries office (781-837-9400) about their Family Days at the Farm program, happening on the third Sunday of each month this winter, from 1-3.
by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.