Plum Island, comprising parts of the towns of Newburyport, Newbury, and Rowley, is home to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. With its 6 1/2-mile road, the refuge offers drive-by access to dunes, tidal marshes, and freshwater impoundments specially managed for migratory birds. From the extensive tidal flats of the Merrimack River to the barrier dunes of Plum Island, the refuge’s 4,662 acres fairly swarm with fascinating bird life in all seasons.
Near the north end of the refuge, the salt pans on the right side of the main road attract Hudsonian Godwits, dowitchers, dunlins, and other shorebirds (the refuge has recorded an amazing 43 species) from May to October. New Pines, a pine grove a mile ahead on the left, may hold wintering finches or a Northern Saw-whet Owl. About a half mile farther on the right is Hellcat Swamp. In spring, the swamp and woods trail may be swarming with kinglets, thrushes, and warblers. In late summer, the evening flight of herons and egrets coming to roost in the Hellcat marshes can be phenomenal, and tens of thousands of Tree Swallows swirl above the tall marsh grasses, snapping up mosquitoes; White-tailed Deer, Common Muskrats, and Red Foxes are also often seen. Snowy Owls may be spotted atop the dikes at Hellcat in winter.
Sandy Point State Reservation, at the southern tip of Plum Island, has nesting Piping Plovers and access to good beach areas. Shell collecting can be very successful along any of the island beaches, especially after a storm: the world’s largest mollusk, the Giant Squid, has even washed up here. The refuge’s beach is closed from April to August to protect breeding Piping Plovers. Massachusetts Audubon Society is developing one on the Merrimack River side of the Plum Island Tpke.
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