Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

April 2016

Vol. 44, No. 2

Birding Old Town Hill in Newbury, Massachusetts

David Davis

Old Town Hill is a Trustees of Reservations property on Route 1A in Newbury, Massachusetts, only two miles from the road to Plum Island. Habitats encountered in the property include freshwater and saltwater marsh, oak and pine forests, pasture land, and river, each with its attendant bird species. The property includes more than five miles of hiking trails. The dominant feature is Old Town Hill, a glacial drumlin that reaches 168 feet above sea level and provides views of Plum Island and locations in three states.

A watchtower was constructed at the top of Old Town Hill in the 1600s, and the property has lured sightseers, hikers, and nature lovers ever since. Although the site is a popular hiking destination, local birders on their way to or from Plum Island also know to drive Newman Road, which passes through the reservation, to observe the birdlife on the salt marshes and the tidal Little River.

History

There are Native American sites on the property, and colonists believed that a Native American burial ground was located near the top of Old Town Hill, although it has never been found. The first settlement in Newbury was at the base of the hill, though this original town was later superseded by the current Newbury center and has become referred to as “Old Town.” The Old Town green lies at the base of the hill and gives its name to the hill itself.

Settlers in the 1600s cleared the top of the hill and placed a watchtower there. The site of the tower is currently cleared and provides attractive views of Plum Island, Newburyport, and points in New Hampshire and Maine. The site is also promising for hawkwatching in the fall.

Old Town Hill has been cleared for most of the period from the 1600s to the current time. A preacher in 1634 said in a Sunday sermon that Christians would be born in the Newbury region “...as long as any Sheep shall walk upon Old Town Hills, and shall from thence pleasantly look down upon the River Parker, and the fruitful Marishes [sic] lying beneath...” The pastor’s prediction continues to hold true, although sheep stopped grazing on the property more than a century ago.

Old Town Hill was mostly covered in pines in the late 20th century, but a powerful windstorm felled those on the upper part of the hill in the early 21st century, and much of the summit was then cleared, providing better views than those prior to the storm.

The property has grown from 125 acres since its acquisition by the Trustees of Reservations in 1952 to its current size of 530 acres, and it is likely that it will continue to grow. Information on the property can be found at the Trustees of Reservations web site.

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