Wildlife & Habitat
Parker River consists of 4,662 acres of diverse habitats including sandy beach and dune, cranberry bog, maritime forest and shrubland, and freshwater marsh. The most abundant habitat on the refuge is its 3,000+ acres of salt marsh, one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. The refuge marsh is part of the "Great Marsh," the largest continuous salt marsh north of Long Island sound. The salt marsh includes not only the vast grasslands you see, but also the mud flats and open water salt pannes.
The refuge is best known for its abundant bird life. Over 350 species of birds have been recorded here, and the refuge is known as one of the top birding sights in the country. The refuge is positioned at a key location along the Atlantic coast and at the mouth of Merrimac River. It attracts hundreds of shorebirds, waterfowl and songbirds as they seek to refuel during their migration. With beach, maritime forest, impoundments and saltmarsh, the Refuge is able to provide rest and nutrition to aid the birds on their long migration paths.
In the spring, warblers migrate through the refuge, American woodcock begin breeding rituals in refuge singing grounds, purple martins arrive, and peak numbers of American kestrels occur.
In the summer the refuge is home to a variety of breeding birds, especially federally threatened piping plovers and state endangered least terns, both of which nest on refuge beaches. Most of the refuge beach is typically closed at this time to limit the disturbance of these birds. Late in the summer, tens of thousands of tree swallows can be seen on the refuge gorging themselves on bayberry, a native bush with fattening berries that sustain the swallows through their long migration. Shorebird migration also begins in July, with numbers peaking in August. Click here for a slide show about the piping plover.
During the fall, waterfowl and songbird migration is at its peak. Waterfowl use the impoundments and salt marsh as foraging grounds and songbirds and warblers flock to the maritime forest to feast on berries. Peregrine falcons can be seen on the refuge from Mid-September through November.
In the winter, the snowy owl returns to the refuge, taking respite in our "warmer" climate. Rough legged hawk and short eared owls can also be seen. Loons, grebes, scoters, and other waterfowl also winter along the refuge shore. For a complete refuge bird list, please download our brochure here.
In addition to the bird life, the refuge is home to a variety of mammals, including deer, coyote, red fox, beaver, muskrat, weasel, skunk,and raccoon, as well as several species of insects and plants. Seals can be seen most often on the beach in winter, and from mid-July through mid-August the voracious biting greenhead fly makes its appearance on the refuge beach. A small variety of reptiles and amphibians including garter snake, snapping turtle, American toad, spring peeper also exist on the refuge. The refuge is home to one of the largest Massachusetts populations of spadefoot toads.