WNPR

A Lunchtime Hike, Cloistered Among Salt Marshes And Egrets

May 21, 2018

Standing at a trailhead in Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, I’m enveloped by a chorus of birdsong.

This is one of several spots in the preserve, which stretches along 70 miles of Connecticut coast. The whole space is home to forest, islands, and tidal marshes. If you're in the neighborhood, its Salt Meadow Unit can make for a perfect lunchtime getaway. 

As I stood at the trailhead, robins scuttled across the ground, while cardinals swooped and woodpeckers clung to trees. 

It’s spring. The crowns of trees were beginning to bud, and just a few feet in front of me a giant black snake slithered past.  

At the Salt Meadow trailhead is the Enoch Murdoch House. It’s one of several historic homes on the property, originally built in the mid-18th century by some of the first settlers of Westbrook.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1972.

Today, it has expanded to several pieces on the Atlantic flyway, providing important habitats for migrating birds.

What’s amazing about this spot is you’re very close to I-95, but among the trees and birds, you can’t really hear the cars. Civilization is here, but it felt, looking around, like it really wasn't.

The Salt Meadow Unit was Connecticut's first national wildlife refuge. In the 1970s, Esther Everett Lape donated her estate to protect the wetlands. She and Elizabeth Reed lived and worked in Manhattan, but bought the property in the early 20th century as a getaway spot. The two entertained many guests on the property over the years, including Eleanor Roosevelt.
Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR

The lookout has a scope available for public use. Visitors peering through it can see egrets and songbirds up close as they rest and feed. When I visited, several bumblebees were enjoying the lookout point, so I backed away to give them some space.
Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR

As I walked further into the Salt Meadow, the trail wound for about half a mile, leading to a nice lookout point.

It’s a nice little payoff for a short hike: a quick jaunt giving way to a wide expanse of salt marsh.

Further in, old stone structures overlook the expanse.

There’s a derelict round cutout, which was an old slate table.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s where Elizabeth Reed and Esther Lape -- who donated the land in 1972 -- used to take summer meals.

As I walked on a trial adjacent to the salt marsh, just a few feet away, birds silently swooped in beside me.

Wading birds like the great egret will come here to feed. There are ducks, songbirds and elsewhere in the refuge, endangered terns.

When I visited mid-day during the week, I was the only person on the trail.

All the more reason to check out this beautiful spot for a peaceful lunchtime hike, especially if you like birds.

The Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge’s Salt Meadow Unit is located off Old Clinton Road in Westbrook.