July is a great month for enjoying wildflowers and birds. The Libby River Farm Preserve offers a profusion of both, all contained within the 0.6-mile Lucy R. Sprague Memorial Trail.
If you love the vivid red and black colors of red-winged blackbirds and the blue sheen of tree swallows, this is the place for you. Add meadows carpeted with dense areas of yellow buttercups, white daisies, violet wild iris and orange hawkweed, and you have all colors of the spectrum of light.
To reach the preserve, drive 2.5 miles south on the Black Point Road (Route 207) from Route 1 in Scarborough. As you pass over the small bridge over the Libby River slow down and look for a narrow gravel driveway on the left leading into Camp Ketcha, 200 yards beyond the bridge. A small green-and-white sign at the entrance that says “Wohelo Lodge Trail Head” is easy to miss.
An informational kiosk is adjacent to the parking area on the left. A map is posted – the same map that you can download from the Scarborough Land Conservation Trust at scarboroughcrossroads.org.
Access into the Libby River Farm Preserve is gained via a linear half-mile trail leading through the secluded woods of Camp Ketcha. Along the way you will pass on the right a beautiful stand of white pine that the camp refers to as their version of the “Cathedral Pines.” The open forest floor is matted with pine needles, and benches provide a spot to rest if the camp ropes course is not in session.
A few yards further on you will come out into a small mowed clearing bordered with blueberry and blackberry bushes. This is a nice spot to tarry and soak up the warmth of the sun, in contrast to the moist coolness of the dark woods. The path turns sharply to the left, passes by an ornate olive tree, and re-enters the woods. In a few yards you will come to another kiosk where the loop trail begins. We followed the trail in a counter-clockwise direction.
The trail can be muddy after a rain. Be sure to wear supportive walking shoes. Hundreds of feet of sturdy bog bridges lead through beautiful patches of ferns and skunk cabbage whose thick, fleshy stems and giant green leaves make them look like rhubarb. Shortly you’ll re-enter the world of sunlight, and emerge into a large meadow leading down to the Libby River drainage. Ahead is a large island-like grove of forest. Follow a faint trail through the grasses to the right of the trees, heading west toward the river. In a few yards you will see a large viewing platform down by the marsh.
This is a fabulous place for bird watching. The viewing platform is in a perfect spot, camouflaged by the surrounding bushes and trees, but high enough to offer a 180-degree view over the expanse of river and marsh. Despite being in the midst of a densely populated area, you’ll see signs of only one home, tucked away in the woods on the far side of the marsh.
Get your binoculars out and start scanning the grasses, tiny river and treetops. In the tops of the dead tress on the far side of the marsh you will be looking for hawks, vigilantly in wait to swoop down on the bounty of life at their feet. In the myriad ribbons of water you might spy blue herons.
But the stars of the show are the red-winged blackbirds and the tree swallows. For photographers with a telephoto lens this is a superb spot from which to take close-up pictures. A number of swallow nesting boxes sit along the edge of the marsh only yards away. The swallows living in the boxes provide an entertaining show, preening on the tops of the boxes, poking their round heads out the small entry holes. The top of their heads and backs radiate a striking iridescent blue sheen in the morning sun. My wife calls them a “poor man’s bluebird.”
As you scan out over the marsh there are red-winged blackbirds everywhere, hundreds it seems. The males are absolutely stunning with their contrasting black body and brilliant red wing patches. The black accentuates the red, and through the binoculars their red patches are breathtaking. The males are playful in the early summer, often chasing the heavily brown-streaked females and the youngsters. The marsh is alive with the trill of birds and the acrobatic antics of both the blackbirds and the swallows feeding on the profusion of insects in the air.
We spent a lazy hour in the warm sun, enjoying the coolness rising up from the marsh, and passing the binoculars back and forth, all the while “oohing” and “aahing” at the beauty and the flight gyrations of the birds. Suddenly out of nowhere a hairy woodpecker landed in the top of a small clump of birch trees, five yards away, and started chattering and pecking away at the tree. We zeroed in on the dark red patches on the back of its head and followed its progress up the branch.
In a sudden panic we looked at our watches and realized we might be late for our dentist appointment back out on Route 1 in Scarborough. One of us had the root canal component of the visit, the other the moral support component. I think I got the better of the deal (moral support). As the drill whirred away my dear wife just kept her focus on the flight of blackbirds and swallows, and the kaleidoscopic riot of colors waving in the meadow breezes that we had enjoyed the hour before.
Keep in mind the marshes of Scarborough can be buggy during the early morning and evening hours. This time of year a mid-day visit will mitigate the bugs, but not totally eliminate them. Consider wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirt, and bring the bug repellent just in case. And of course a big thanks to the Scarborough Land Conservation Trust, whose tireless efforts since 1977 have helped protect more than 1,000 acres of open space in Scarborough.