Difficulty: Easy. The 2.5 miles of trails travel over a few gentle hills and are mostly surfaced with cut grass or fairly even forest floor. Benches along the trails give visitors plenty of opportunities to sit, rest and watch for the many species of birds seen at the center.
How to get there: From the north, take I-295 Exit 10 and turn left on Bucknam Road. At the light, turn right onto U.S. Route 1 and continue south for 1 mile. After the blinking light at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 88, turn right onto Gilsland Farm Road. Follow the signs to parking.
From the south, take I-295 Exit 9 and drive north on Route 1 for 1.9 miles, then turn left onto Gilsland Farm Road.
Information: The Maine Audubon headquarters at Gilsland Farm is a peaceful 65-acre wildlife sanctuary located on the Presumpscot River estuary, not far from the bustling city of Portland. It features a large central building where nature programs take place, as well as 2.5 miles of walking paths that visit meadows, woods, a pond, an orchard and a salt marsh.
The trail network, which starts at the large trail map near the visitor parking area, has three main trails:
-West Meadow Trail (0.7 mile): From the junction below the trailhead, the trail continues straight to the edge of the estuary, then turns and climbs uphill to loop around the West Meadow, where you can view the estuary from high bluffs. The meadow is dotted with nest boxes. Along the loop, two observation blinds are accessible by spur trails.
-Pond Meadow Trail (0.6 miles): From the junction below the trailhead, turn left and the trail leads through the woods just below the apple orchard, then down to a pond where muskrat, ducks and frogs live. An observation blind at the pond helps visitors watch these animals without disturbing them.
-North Meadow Trail (1.2 miles): From the junction below the trailhead, turn right and the trail leads through the forest to the North Meadow, the larger of the two meadows on the property. The trail loops around the meadow, which is hayed annually in late summer, after the nesting birds have fledged their young. The trees and shrubs bordering the field are good places to find a variety of songbirds, according to the Maine Audubon website.
All trails are gentle with no steep grades, and most are surfaced with cut grass. The trails are mainly meant for walking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing — though the trails are not groomed for skis, so you’ll need to ski without tracks unless other skiers have already laid tracks. Dogs, bikes and off-road vehicles are not permitted. Hunting, trapping, collecting, camping and fires are also prohibited.
Because the trails aren’t marked with blazes or other obvious trail markers, they may be difficult to follow in the winter. However, it’s OK if you wander off trail a bit in the snow. The terrain is fairly open, so it’s difficult to get lost.
The property, with its diverse habitats, is ideal for bird watching. According to the Maine Audubon website, the meadows of Gilsland Farm are nesting habitat for bobolinks and meadowlarks, and in the winter, they’re a foraging spot for Canada geese and hunting grounds for red-tailed hawks and other birds of prey. The woodlands and shrubs on the property attract warblers, thrushes and finches, and the tidal flats see large flocks of shorebirds.
Additional wildlife seen on the property include weasels, red fox, white-tailed deer and black woodchucks, according to the Maine Audubon website. The sanctuary’s gardens attract a variety of butterflies, dragonflies and other insects. Honey bees are also kept on the property.
The sanctuary is located on land with a varied history. For thousands of years, the area was home to the Wabanakis and their ancestors, who dug shellfish out of the tidal flats of the estuary and fished the waters of Casco Bay, according to the Maine Audubon website. More recently, in the mid-1800s, Silas Noyes bought the property and built a red wood-frame house, which is still standing near the sanctuary entrance.
In 1911, David Moulton — a Portland lawyer and dedicated conservationist — bought the farm and named the property Gilsland Farm in honor of Sir Thomas de Multon of the Gils, a character in Sir Walter Scott’s novel “The Talisman.” On the farm, he kept a herd of Jersey cattle and developed nurseries of shrubs and flowers. During that time, one of the most distinctive features of the farm was the more than 400 species of peonies that grew over seven acres, according to the Maine Audubon website. Peonies can still be seen today throughout the property.
Gilsland Farm became a wildlife sanctuary through the generosity of the Freeman family in a series of gifts between 1974 and 1994. The Maine Audubon has grown over the years, and so has its headquarters space. In 1995, the Maine Audubon built the state-of-the-art, “green” environmental center, the center’s main building. Since then, the Maine Audubon Society has continued to improve the building to make it more energy efficient. Recently added solar panels now provide the majority of the electricity the center needs.
Hundreds of low-cost public programs are offered year round at the educational center, including day camps, guided nature walks, recreational workshops and presentations on a wide variety of topics. The building — open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday and Saturday — and contains rotating nature exhibits and artwork, the Maine Audubon Nature Store, Children’s Discovery Room, Teacher’s Resource Center and restrooms. Also, at the front desk, you can obtain a trail map and ask questions about the sanctuary.
During the winter, rental snowshoes are available at the center for $3 for Audubon members and $5 for nonmembers.
The Maine Audubon has seven chapters and eight wildlife sanctuaries in Maine. While the society has changed shape over the years, its roots reach back 150 years. Its mission is “to conserve Maine’s wildlife and wildlife habitat by engaging people of all ages in education, conservation and action.” To date, the Maine Audubon’s achievements vary from strengthening the state’s endangered species act to protect critical habitat to providing hands-on nature programs to more than 8,000 students a year.
To learn about Maine Audubon and its headquarters at Gilsland Farm, visit maineaudubon.org.
Personal note: While visiting Portland last weekend to attend a friend’s concert and try on bridesmaid dresses, I managed to fit in a trip to Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, a place I’d been curious about for quite some time because of all the nature programs they offer year round.
Following our second big snowstorm in a week, Saturday morning was comically windy, snowy and cold. When we arrived at Gilsland Farm and saw how open the terrain was, I was a bit nervous that our little adventure would end up being a miserable one. I’d counted on the forest to block some of the freezing wind, but the trails traveled around two large meadows. Also, I noticed the trails weren’t groomed for cross-country skiing. Uncertain what to do, I went inside the environmental center to ask for advice.
The woman at the front desk was cheerful and helpful, handing me a map and explaining the trails and where we’d likely come across some snowdrifts. She suggested we try our skis out around the building, and if that didn’t work, to opt for our snowshoes (which we also had with us.) Feeling more confident from the pleasant exchange, I headed back outside to strap on my skis.
Straight away, Derek and I realized that the skis were going to work just fine. We followed the snowy trail, previously packed with snowshoes, to the estuary and around West Field. In some places, the wind was so strong it pushed us along (and not always in the right direction), our bodies acting as sails. In other places, we were protected from the wind by the land and trees, and the sun warmed our frozen faces. And in a few spots, we sunk into snow drifts past our knees. It was certainly an adventure.
In the orchard, I stopped to switch out my camera lenses and take some photos of house finches, with their rosy heads and throats, and black-capped chickadees. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many chickadees. We also spotted a hawk soaring over the water, but it was too far away to get a good photo.
While I was charmed by the snowy winter landscape of the farm, I’m determined to return in the summer to see Gilsland Farm in full bloom and observe some of the nesting birds, wading birds and waterfowl that can be found there during warmer times.