Natural Wonders for all Seasons
A number of factors make Newburyport/Plum Island a four-season natural history destination. The large number of habitat types in close proximity - ocean, salt marshes, mud flats, freshwater ponds, mixed forests - attract a tremendous diversity of species.
We invite you to immerse yourself in our natural history heritage-our greatest treasure!
During the spring and fall migrations, thousands of land and water birds move through this area. The migrant land birds seek sanctuary and food on the thickets of Plum Island and surrounding areas. In mid-May, it is not unusual to see 15-20 species of warblers - those magnificent songbirds so sought after by birders. During spring and summer, large numbers of waterfowl, herons, egrets and land birds nest and feed in the extensive salt marshes. During fall, huge numbers of shorebirds pass through the area en route from their Arctic nesting grounds to Central and South America. These birds stop to rest and feed on the mud flats and salt meadows of the Merrimack River estuary. The shorebirds are joined by vast numbers of land birds also moving to their southern wintering grounds. During the winter, large flocks of loons, grebes, and ducks seek the ice-free waters of the Merrimack River for shelter and food. Snowy Owls and Rough-Legged Hawks, species closely associated with northern latitudes, are annual visitors to our area. One of the best year-round bird watching destinations in North America, Newburyport draws thousands of bird watchers to our area each year.
The Annual Merrimack River Eagle Festival
Mass Audubon's Joppa Flats and the The Annual Merrimack River Eagle Festival
celebrate the area's Bald Eagles every year with the annual Merrimack River Eagle Festival. A full day of fun indoor and outdoor activities include: eagle tours every half hour departing from Newburyport's Chamber of Commerce (reservations required), on-site guides at eagle-spotting locations, live eagle demonstrations at Newburyport's City Hall, a stage performance about birds for children age 5 and up at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, live raptors at Joppa Flats, family activities at both Joppa Flats and at the PRNWR headquarters all day long, and more! For more information, click here!
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
The focal point for many birding trips is the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a 4,662-acre sanctuary located on Plum Island and less than four miles from downtown Newburyport. The Refuge has a wide variety of habitats such as beaches, sand dunes, salt marshes, salt pannes, freshwater impoundments, and maritime forests. The large salt pannes located on the west side of the refuge road are excellent places to see a variety of shorebirds during fall migration (July through September) and egrets and herons from mid-April through October. The Hellcat Wildlife Swamp Interpretive Area has large freshwater impoundments, an extensive swamp, and deciduous forest. The impoundments and swamp support large numbers of waterfowl, herons, and shorebirds. During the spring and fall, the woodlands are excellent places to observe migrating songbirds, including the magnificent wood-warblers. Near the southern end of the island, Stage Island Pool is also an excellent spot for waterfowl and waders. During the summer, Sandy Point State Reservation at the sound end of Plum Island is a breeding area for the endangered Piping Plover and a very productive site in fall for shorebirds. In winter, the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to see waterfowl plus many northern species that winter in our area, such as the Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike, and Snowy Owl.
Mass Audubon's Joppa Flats Education Center
Open to the public in 2003, Joppa Flats Education Center provides an expansive view of the Merrimack River estuary and its wildlife. At the Center, visitors will find birding guidance from staff naturalists, interpretive displays and materials, and a nature shop. Regularly offered programs include Wednesday Morning Birding and, for families, Sunday Afternoon Drop-In Adventures. For a complete listing of programs for all ages and levels of experience contact the Center 978-462-9998 or check out the website. Open year-round, Tuesday - Sunday and Monday holidays, 8:30 AM - 4 PM. Admission by donation.
The section of Newburyport, (sometimes called “Joppy,”) was named after an ancient city in Israel which is known in the Bible as a site of miracles. When European settlers colonized the lower Merrimack, they found an abundance of wildlife that provided a rich harvest: a miracle to those who faced the hardships and dangers of this new wilderness. Today, the extensive mudflats along Joppa and the southern shore of the Merrimack River estuary are excellent locations for gulls, terns, waders, and shorebirds. Vantage points with parking for birders include Joppa Park on Water Street and the Joppa Flats Education Center on Plum Island Turnpike.
Cashman Park and Deer Island
During the winter, Cashman Park on Merrimac Street (a short distance west of the Route 1 bridge) is a reliable place to see waterfowl and Bald Eagles. The Bald Eagles, which come to the area to feed on fish, ducks, and carrion, can also be viewed from Deer Island in Amesbury, which is beneath the chain bridge that connects Newburyport and Amesbury.
Salisbury Beach State Reservation
Winter is a great time of year for birding at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation. Nearby Newburyport on the north bank of the Merrimack River, it is an excellent place to see loons, grebes, and ducks, the Northern Shrike, Lapland Longspur, and Snow Bunting. The Reservation has a beautiful 3.8 mile stretch of beach and areas to picnic as well as 480 campsites.
Mammals such as the beaver, white-tailed deer, red fox, and river otter are often seen in the early morning or late afternoon on Plum Island. Harbor seals are common visitors at the mouth of the Merrimack River. In summer, whale-watching cruises depart from Newburyport to Stellwagen Bank where humpback, fin, and minke whales are regularly seen.
Essex Coastal Scenic Byway
Newburyport serves as a gateway to the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway, an 85-mile route showcasing the best of coastal Massachusetts: historic seaports, colonial era farms, village and city centers, and a wealth of period architecture. Set against the coastal backdrop composed of a rocky shoreline and The Great Marsh, New England's largest salt marsh, the Byway traverses thirteen historic North Shore communities and offers a unique way to experience the region's cultural heritage.
Beginning in Newburyport at picturesque Atkinson Common, with its elaborate gardens and commemorative monuments, the byway travels southerly along historic High Street (Rts. 113 and 1A), praised as one of America's most beautiful residential boulevards. A downtown waterfront loop beginning on Green Street delivers the traveler to Market Square, the heart of the city's shopping, dining, and cultural district. Situated amidst a renowned collection of restored commercial buildings, the district opens to the broad Merrimack River, waterfront parks and a popular boardwalk. Continuing out Water Street one passes the Custom Maritime Museum and more unique retail shops en route to Plum Island, an 11-mile barrier island with public beaches and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Located on the Atlantic Coast flyway, the refuge and region offer some of the country's best bird watching.
The Essex Coastal Scenic Byway is an integral part of the congressionally-designated Essex National Heritage Area, created in 1996 to recognize, promote and preserve the nationally significant treasures of the region that tell the nation's story of early settlement, maritime supremacy and early industrialization. For more information click here.