Salt Marsh Sweep

THE tide was ebbing furiously, impatient to leave the malodorous, viscid mud banks of the tortuous creeks and return to the cool, clean ocean. Areas of thatch appeared gradually above the receding water, and scattered salt haycocks were no longer dumpy islands, but brown warts on a glistening plain.

A yellow sun gazed languidly down upon lengthy reaches of salt marsh which straggle along the northern shore of Massachusetts. In places the marsh clings close to the ocean, a narrow strip of alternate land and sea. Other sectors bite deeply into the coast line, driving inland for miles, finally to butt ineffectually against some adamant barrier that defies further encroachment. Recession of the great ice cap has left many relics of its passing, and the Atlantic has whittled its way into the coast for centuries. These extensive marshes are outposts of its incessant war with land; interminably they reach farther into the continent and the bordering beach follows them. Other parts of the beach, however, have inched seaward instead of retreating, owing to the character of adjacent currents.

When gardens are sere, and black frost has spread its devastating chill in the air, the marshes harbor recurrent waves of migratory waterfowl. Then it is that the barren spaces arouse the hunters’ interest for a few weeks. Otherwise the terrain is no-man’s-land, except for casual visits of farmers bent on cropping salt hay. There is a wild beauty about the place; yet, during the warmer months, it is more satisfying from a distance. Close at hand it is marred by odor and insects. Birds, however, care nothing for insect pests. In fact, their presence is a boon to the avian tribe, for mosquitoes and green flies serve to keep the marshes inviolate for the feathered clan that swarms over them. Other birds prefer the firm sand which fringes the southern part of this territory. Farther north, beaches are replaced by rugged headlands of ancient granite and sienite.

Only a person interested in birds would penetrate into these insect-ridden marshes in spring or summer. For those who are interested in ornithology, the effort is well worth the making, as there is a wealth of material to observe on beach, marsh, and bordering mainland. Birds from several zones nest in this county, and the beach offers unusual migrants and casual visitors. Very little housekeeping is done on the marsh, except at the edge, where sharptailed sparrows, savanna sparrows, spotted sandpipers, and meadow larks hazard occasional flood tides.

The Collector and I began one of our periodical pilgrimages on a sullen June day. Our first objective was the beach. Through one of the serpentine creeks we threaded toward it in a rowboat, multiplying, perforce, the distance as a crow flies by ten. Night herons were feeding along the smaller creeks, and as we rounded an abrupt corner we startled a great blue heron from its contemplation of a likely mud flat. While we beached the boat, a flock of turnstones twisted past, and a lone spotted sandpiper scuttled across the sand. We did not expect to see many shore birds, for most of them had already left — not to return in force until late July. Only two of the Limicolæ remain to breed upon the beach, the piping plover and the spotted sandpiper.

A strong easterly had been blowing for several days, so the beach was replete with marine life. Finger sponges, brittle stars, sea urchins, and sand dollars were abundant. In gouts of seaweed along the shore green crabs clustered, some interred limply, others pugnaciously active.

Leaving the boat where it was, we started back across the marsh on foot. Greater yellowlegs whistled musically in the thatch and occasionally we saw a pectoral sandpiper. Around the sloughs semipalmated and least sandpipers probed busily for food. Where marsh joins upland, there is a border of the rush called black grass. Here, too, are windrows of thatch and grass cast high by winter tides. Savanna and sharp-tailed sparrows choose this locality in which to build cleverly hidden nests. A casual observer seldom sees the birds, for they are adept at concealing themselves in the grass.

We arrived at one of the terminal areas after an hour’s trip across the marsh. On a near-by staddle, a kingbird sat screaming at our intrusion into its hunting domain; and in the underbrush just beyond the edge of the marsh a cock pheasant ‘raaaaawked.’ No savanna sparrows were in evidence, but we did hear the hissing song of a sharptail. In the space of half an hour we found the nest. It was elevated about six inches above the ground as a protection against full noon tides. Salt grass formed an arch over the five eggs, and the nest was carefully made of fine soft grasses, deeply cupped.

Later, cool green woods beyond the marsh beckoned, so we left the salt meadows for higher ground. Half a mile back from the marsh we found a pleasant fresh-water stream churning contentedly over brown tree roots. We followed its banks for a while, then left them to climb a pine-covered knoll where a vireo was singing. Behind the rise we came upon a miniature valley of hard sand, dappled with outcroppings of clay. Neither bushes nor grass grew upon its surface; it was a bare, yellow-gray gash in a setting of green. Here, sometime in the past, there had been an Indian camp site or workshop, for evidence of the fact was on every side. The sand was covered with chips, cores, and spalls — remnants of implement manufacture. We went over tne site carefully and found several perfect arrowheads, a spearhead, and three scrapers.

The sun indicated that midafternoon had passed. We circled back to the marsh and started across it once more in the direction of our boat. A strong breeze had arisen and was rippling the thatch; at the same time it afforded us blessed relief from insatiable mosquitoes. Herons and yellowlegs were still plentiful, and a lone killdeer called shrilly.

It was late when we reached the boat and rowed back to the car. The twilight flight of a night-heron legion had begun; numbers of the birds winged heavily over the marsh and along the beach in a southerly direction toward a large heronry.

So passed another day into the limbo of time.