Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bay Circuit Trail: Ipswich To Hamilton.

Old Ipswich River Town Photo

You can get a 6:30 am train out of North Station to Ipswich. It is like an express as it races by all the stops save Salem before it drops you there at 7:17am.

As a non-driver, I’ve been looking for an equivalent to Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield. It’s a long walk from the station and the early morning hours you get should belong to getting to habitat as soon as time allows.

This is essential for experiencing peak neotropical migration. After poring over the data, I decided to just check places along Route 1A south toward Hamilton and I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.

As you follow the road curve over the Choate Bridge toward the south, you will immediately find a good first stop to check riparian life at the back side of a human necropolis, Old South Cemetery. A set of railroad tie steps down what appears to be a modest kame terrace draped with floodplain forest gets you a good first river look and I was rewarded with a glimpse of a nesting Flicker in a hollowed out tree carcass off to the right of the steps by around 20 yards. I could see the borehole at first and wondered if it had use and the old binoculars revealed mom Flicker ducking in and out.

This is the essence of bird watching to me, a series of ecotone stepping stones and the first one out of the train station was agreeably lush. The river is really like a pond here as it is the impoundment area made by the Ipswich Mills Dam.

Further along 1A south, one comes upon the Ipswich River Watershed Association with its 15 acre home parcel called Riverbend generously provided by the late Joseph “Doctor Bob” Petranek.


There is a small immaculate canoe dock with the Shady Creek Conservation Area on the opposite bank. At this point, it resumes its resemblance to a river. A noteworthy and striking bit of spontaneity came in the form of large wild turkey traversing the driveway toward a wetland ravine due south. It maintained nonchalance until a distance of around 10 feet and then it began its evasion efforts toward convenient dense understory.

It is as if each visited spot had its defining surprises. A further facet of this stepping stone approach I use involves a pause with focused stillness, mainly listening. That is one of the fundamentals of bird watching. It’s really about listening. Sure you can go for maximum zoom with lenses that resemble Light Antitank Weapons but a basic 7x35 binoculars approach wants closeness which wants stillness and pausing and listening.

And this means time well spent learning bird sounds and the ability to pick out things in the ambient boisterous matrix of high spring outdoor New England. Along this hike I will be reliably blown away by the staggering variety of unfamiliar sounds or ones mainly remembered fuzzily.

Waldingfield Road meets with 1A for my next major bearing point, the Northeast entrance to Appleton Farms, the oldest continually operating farm in the US. If you head a bit further west on Waldingfield, the Julia Bird Reservation fans north between the river and the commuter rail tracks.

I opt to head southwest through Appleton Farms to explore some of its Bay Circuit Trail sections. Extensive farm fields make fairly vast welcome mats to accommodate flocks of otherwise hemmed in species, such as bobolinks and meadowlarks, that have been major victims of sprawl and farmland loss. Few holdings in the northeast are as extensive as this. Appleton has meadows, pastures and farm plots in a number of succession stages for maximum variety.

This aspect will be further enhanced in the wilder tracts of Appleton Farms Grass Rides.

The farm road through Underhill and Patch Fields is lined with ancient oaks. I meet the Bay Circuit at the boundary between these fields and follow it south to where it heads west to cross the Newburyport commuter rail line straddled by the reservation. The trail passes through an older pasture called The Plains with scattered old oak groves of well separated trees to convey a park-like sense. Baltimore Orioles are the most avid to be seen and heard.

From there it skirts a larger pasture called ‘The Old Pasture’  and turns south toward Appleton Grass Rides which it meets at a stone wall.

There are a few confusions to attend to. One comes upon a fork where the signage has opposing directives.

One fork is for equestrians and the other is for pedestrians. 

This resolves further on at the edge of the Grass Rides tract where horses are verboten but dog walking and bicycles are okay, (both are not allowed in the Farms). Generally, if you are riding shanks mare, you are okay in all situations.

Appleton Grass Rides has a fairly complex trail matrix as it was made for horseback rides. Contrary to a few assertions out there, this potential confusion is alleviated by smart placement of the characteristic white blaze patch that indicates the Bay Circuit Trail. The reservation is a newer acquisition but the trails are old.

They pass through a veritable showcase of area forest ecotones such that one moves through hemlock and pine groves, lowland wooded maple swamps and older growth oak tracts with a wetland or two for punctuation. Oddly, I still didn’t run into significant black fly and mosquito swarms and there weren’t even any ticks.

There were an abundance of thrushes in the upper forest canopy. Hermits, Woods, Veerys and Swainsons’ were all sounding at different stretches of the trail. The last were probably stopping over enroute to the boreal forests further north.

The understory was also alive with activity from various warblers that I was unable to spot. I could readily hear Yellowthroats. Warbler spotting is probably the most challenging bird chore. They are tiny, hyper and their calls are often very faint.

And then there was the Pileated Woodpecker contingent. I’d forgotten their calls and how eerie they are but I could sense the similarity to a Flicker. They stayed up in tree tops well concealed and kept a wary eye on me.

One arrives at a special spot along this trail segment where a multi trail juncture forms something like a star pattern with a relic from Harvard as the center. There are several of these in various spots of the Appleton properties. They are called Pinnacles and evidently once adorned a now extinct Harvard Library called Gore Hall. Appletons have been going to Harvard since John Harvard invented the place.

The trail continues on a southerly course and leaves Appleton Grass Rides at Cutler Road to cross into a tract that includes one of many bits of former Harvard forest land found around the region. This particular one is joined to the Pingree Reservation, an Essex County Greenbelt Association tract noted for eskers and an odd device called a Beaver Deceiver.

I work my way along one esker before heading south to Hamilton where I’ll grab a train home. On the way I stop by Patton Memorial Park and revisit the tank I once crawled over as a kid while wondering what might have happened if the old general didn’t get in that jeep accident long ago and actually made it home.

When I was a kid, people were profoundly proud of the old man’s brief presence in the Commonwealth.

This particular hike may well be one of the best ever and I intend to do a follow up as soon as possible. Ipswich is an unusual epicenter in the array of area preservations and the height of spring neotropical migration may well be the best time to go. It is fitting that the town has its own dedicated blog in addition to the many converging land preservation entities that focus on it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Trolley Trail. Martin H Burns Wildlife Management Area.

Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway. (Bill Volkmer collection).

After a long hiking hiatus, I answered spring and found a day trip out of Newburyport on the last day of April. It isn’t technically part of the Bay Circuit Trail system but is fascinating in its own right.

Massachusetts was the leading adopter of interurban trolley lines by the 1890s. This was a substantial growth engine in the period before automotive ubiquity and the system collapsed in a heap of bankruptcies by the early 1930s.