12. Gagetown Ferry Marsh
Ferry Road (off Route 102)
Red-winged Blackbirds have long despised the coming and going of motor boats and sailboats on Gagetown Creek. From the trail that hugs the river shore upstream of the ferry landing, you can watch these gregarious birds hanging on for dear life, to the stalks of wild rice that sway violently in the wake of passing vessels. When the rice is ripe around the middle of August, one begins to note congregations of these birds swooping down on stands of these emergent plants, feeding insatiably in preparation for their upcoming migration. This trail will take you up along the Creek where you will be flanked by the marsh to the west and Gagetown Island across the channel to the east. This part of the lower St. John River is the domain of waterfowl. The southern portion of the island is a Wildlife Management Area that contains two Ducks Unlimited wetland projects encompassing more than three hundred acres of wetland habitat that attracts thousands of ducks. In the centre of the island is located a shrub dominated wetland project called Mount Marsh. This bowl shaped marsh is an evening roost for American Black Ducks, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Green-winged Teal, American Widgeon, and Ring-necked Ducks. Long skeins of ducks can be seen coming from all directions just before dark and piling into the marsh fringed with Silver Maples. As the birds drop down below tree level and are directly over the marsh they give out one last quack or grunt, designed to pinpoint the exact location of their brethren. Once on the water the strategy for avoiding detection is silence. Here they will sleep peacefully under the watchful eye of those that have been chosen for night time guard duty.
The Ararat Marsh project is located immediately inside the thin strip of island intervale that parallels Gagetown Creek. This wetland is made up strictly of emergent plants like Horsetail and Bulrush and is a haven for Black Terns. This species prefers wetlands with stable water levels and can be seen patrolling the wetland with its characteristic swooping and bobbing flight, in search of freshly hatched aquatic insects. Continue upriver along the trail to the marsh on your left where unpredictable sightings await you.
The Gagetown Ferry Marsh is known for its unpredictable sightings. This wetland is so rich in nutrients that one never knows what they might see here. Northern Shoveler can be found in this marsh, the males quickly spotted if one has as their search image, a floating white plastic bleach bottle. This species is not common along the river, but the last few years have seen an increase in the amount of nesting birds in the triangle formed by Sheffield, Jemseg, and Gagetown. Certain to be encountered though are the locals, the Blue-winged Teal, the American Widgeon, the Mallard, and the American Black Duck. The relationship between the sexes of waterfowl will surely delight you. Take the early-migrating Blue-winged Teal for example. Hens will be keeping an eye on their playful broods, while the unhappy drakes will be standing alone, stripped of their bright nuptial plumage, and whose dark mood is compounded by the inattention of his mate. If the water is still high in the marsh you may very well see a Common Goldeneye hen accompanied by her round-headed black and white ducklings. Common Goldeneye are the most abundant of the cavity nesting waterfowl on the lower river. Their ranks are complimented by Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers who are present in much lesser numbers. These birds nest in natural cavities located in the large Silver Maples, American Elms, Basswoods, Poplars, and Butternuts that line the shore of the river and its islands.
The edge of this marsh is also a great place to flush an American Bittern. Their gangly nature is quite amusing, often providing quite a spectacle by clumsily jumping up and flying out to sit on a tree branch instead of crash-landing back in the marsh vegetation. The end of the trail might afford you a close-up look at a Great Blue Heron, patiently stalking its quarry at the outlet of the marsh just down from the Gagetown School.
Make your way back down to the ferry landing. Where the main stem of the St. John River meets the mouth of Gagetown Creek is a fabulous place to watch the river flow by and scan for the fish hawks. Osprey are plentiful along the river these days after their populations were decimated by DDT in the early 1970’s. The Osprey’s exclusive diet of fish was contaminated by the widely used insecticide, directly affecting the reproductive capabilities of this top of the food chain species. Osprey rely heavily on the river and its associated wetlands. Fish of various species entering and exiting wetlands used as spawning grounds and nurseries, are often forced to use narrow passages and channels where they are more susceptible to the Osprey. The king of all birds can also be found in residence here. The Bald Eagle is more of an open water hunter and can be seen circling high above the river, or diving into the shallower waters located at the head of river islands. Before these heavyweights crash into the water they make sure they have ample space to pull themselves out of the splash, and make their way skyward with their massive wingspan and rather sluggish wing beats. The passing boats that injected terror into the lives of Red-winged Blackbirds seem to serve the eagles well. Eagles often hang out just below where the ferry crosses, in a wide expanse of water just upstream of Upper Musquash Island. They are presumably taking advantage of fish that have been disoriented by the boat traffic and the coming and going of the ferry. A disoriented fish is quickly recognized by eagles as distress behaviour, and this visual is often immediately followed by a swoosh down for the pickings.