Wildlife of the Ipswich River Watershed

Have you ever been hiking along, and come across a tree gnawed by a beaver, or followed the tracks of a deer, or heard the song of a white-throated sparrow, or seen an otter splash nearby? Seeing wildlife or the signs of their presence is often the high point of an outing. The Ipswich River Watershed abounds with wildlife.  It is an excellent place for birding, salamandering, butterfly watching and animal tracking – enjoy!


Great Egret on the river. D. Comb photo

Great Egret on the river. D. Comb photo

It doesn’t matter whether you’re an expert or a novice – the Ipswich River Watershed provides many opportunities to observe a great variety of birds. The watershed provides habitat for a number of endangered and threatened species, including the piping plover and least tern on the coastal beaches, as well as least bittern, golden-winged warbler, Cooper’s hawk, pied-billed grebe and northern harrier. More common species also bring great enjoyment and beauty to the landscape – chickadees, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, blue jays, red-tailed hawks, spotted sandpipers, song sparrows, great blue herons, egrets, wild turkeys… the list goes on.

The Ipswich River provides feeding and resting areas for migratory birds and excellent nesting habitat for many species. Red-winged blackbirds and common grackles are the most numerous birds along the river. These noisy, aggressive species build their nests in the cattails or shrubs in the bordering marshes or along the riverbanks.

Eastern kingbirds and Baltimore orioles are also very common along the river. Blue-gray gnatcatchers are riverine birds found more easily along the river than anywhere else around. The warbling vireo is the only one of the six northeastern vireo species which habitually nest along streams; its melodious warble also distinguished it from other species. The most colorful birds along the Ipswich, besides the orioles, are two of the warblers, the common yellowthroat and the yellow warbler. Both of these dazzling warblers sing constantly along the Ipswich and are quite easy to observe. Paddling the river in spring offers quite a show, as these birds chase each other around trying to establish their territorial boundaries.

Many other birds use the Ipswich for nesting, resting and cover. Mallards, Canada geese and other waterfowl are numerous. Many herons catch their food in the river, and Great blue herons, green herons and the large, white great egrets are the most likely to be seen. Belted kingfishers hunt the river, and the brilliant rose-breasted grosbeak is as common along the river as anywhere else; its warbling song, sweeter and more melodious than that of the warbling vireo, is one of the prettiest among all the New England songbirds.

The Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Massachusetts Audubon Society’s largest sanctuary, not only provides 2800 acres of diverse habitats, but also offers workshops which will help you learn more about birds, or virtually any other aspect of nature study that you may wish to pursue. Mass. Audubon has another sanctuary at Cedar Pond in Wenham, another wonderful place to observe birds.


Piping plover on Crane Beach. Jim Barber photo

Piping plover on Crane Beach. Jim Barber photo

Crane Beach in Ipswich is one of the most important habitats for least terns and piping plovers (piping plovers are federally “threatened” and least terns are species of special concern in Massachusetts). There are special measures in place at the beach to protect these birds while accommodating the huge numbers of people who enjoy the property; we thank you in advance for respecting the restrictions. The beach is also a great place to watch shorebirds; and you’ll quickly learn how resourceful seagulls can be.

Bald Hill/ Boxford State Forest is an important birding area. Wild turkey, barred owl, northern goshawk, pine warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, red shouldered hawk, wood duck, solitary vireo, winter wren, ovenbird, Baltimore oriole, eastern phoebe and pileated woodpecker are some of the species to be observed there.

Willowdale State Forest is a paradise for nesting birds, and habitat for 8 state-listed rare species, including the least bittern. Other properties of importance for birding include Appleton Farms, Bradley Palmer State Park, Harold Parker State Forest, and the Ward Reservation. Smaller properties such as Fairbank Meadows in Reading, the J.C. Phillips Wildlife Sanctuary and Long Hill in Beverly also provide excellent habitat and opportunities for birding. Bird watchers at Greenwood Farm in Ipswich may observe swallows, waxwings, bobolinks, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, snowy and great egrets, northern harriers and great horned owls.

Norwood Pond in Beverly hosts a multitude of species, including hummingbirds, thrushes, warblers, orioles, woodpeckers, great blue herons, egrets, wood ducks, hawks, owls, wild turkeys and woodcock.

Experienced birders may wish to contact the Essex County Ornithological Club, which has organized a canoe trip on the Ipswich River almost every spring since 1906. This trip begins very early in the morning – like 6 a.m. – and involves a long day of paddling and documenting what birds are seen.


Spotted salamadner

Spotted salamadner

One of the most ethereal and unique experiences available in the Ipswich River Watershed is the experience of going salamandering. Salamanders are small amphibians, many of which are threatened or endangered species. They live in the forest litter, under rocks, leaves and dead trees lying on the ground. They burrow into the soil over the winter and re-emerge in the first warm rain of the spring. When the forest is bathed in a soaking rain after the cold months of winter, the salamanders emerge from their winter slumbers to find their way to vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs. A vernal pool is a unique habitat — the pool fills with water in the spring rains and melting snow; and by summer time the pool has dried up. This ephemeral habitat is actually part of the grand scheme of nature – the temporary nature of the pools means that fish can’t survive there, and thus can’t prey on the creatures which depend on these pools.

To go salamandering you must go out on a dark and rainy night. Good rain gear and a powerful flashlight are critical for this activity. You can locate vernal pools by listening for the continuous chorus of wood frogs, which also use vernal pools in their life cycle. Their chorus sounds like soft quacking, and is often accompanied by the high-pitched, more familiar song of spring peepers, tiny tree frogs which produce an amazing amount of sound!

The Town Forest in Reading has numerous vernal pools, some quite close to the access road to the Reading Water Treatment Plant. On the first warm nighttime downpour of the spring, you will often find groups of curious enthusiasts, flashlights bobbing as they walk on the dirt road, following the salamanders to get a peek at them at their once a year emergence, in their critical habitat. It’s an experience not to be missed!

Animal Tracking – and Listening

In days of old, many children learned to “read” the landscape; this was a survival skill for them. Nowadays there is renewed interest in learning to read the landscape, more for enjoyment and to make being outdoors even more interesting and fun. Tracking animals is a skill to be gained over time, but to begin you may want to take a workshop, such as those offered at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield.

You can also gain a lot by getting a good animal tracks field guide, and going out soon after a fresh snowfall, and then periodically over a period of days. You’ll soon be able to picture how wildlife get through the winter; how important wetlands are; and perhaps even how predators seek their prey.

Look for other signs of wildlife as well. Some are pretty obvious, like beaver lodges and the gnawed stumps near their dams. Others may be more subtle, like branches with buds nipped off on low trees and shrubs – an important winter food source. Look for the patterns of different types of woodpeckers on trees in the forest.

And of course, keep your ears tuned to the sounds around you. The quacking of wood frogs and high call of spring peepers, or melodious trill of American toads, add so much to springtime explorations. Even the familiar chatter of squirrels or calls and songs of cardinals, blue jays, robins and chickadees are a welcome part of the outdoor experience. You’ll soon find that you can identify some insects, amphibians, birds, and mammals without seeing them, and begin to sort out the wild music around you into a natural symphony.