Nelson Island, Rowley Marshes

An island surrounded by salt marsh, Nelson Island is essentially a hayfield, mowed annually, with a dirt road along the south side and a narrow band of trees and shrubs on the north side. Stackyard Road leads out to the island, following a narrow upland peninsula well out into the Great Marsh and offering views of the salt marsh from several places. The Rowley salt marsh, with its creeks, salt pans, wooded islands, and fields, is a feeding ground for dozens of species, many of which will be seen on a walk of the scenic Nelson Island property. The area is a favorite of birders.


6 Plum Island Turnpike Rowley, MA 1969

Driving Directions

Rowley lies between Newbury and Ipswich. From the center of Rowley at the traffic light on Rt. 1A, drive north on 1A about 2 miles to a dirt road on the right marked Stackyard Rd. Take this road and keep to the right when it forks. Follow to the end, about a mile from 1A, and park in the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge parking lot. (The refuge has much land on the west side of the marsh as well as Plum Island.) From here you can walk the dirt track out to Nelson Island, or back along the road to explore the marsh edges.


Notes & Advisories

Knee-high waders are usually necessary to walk the dirt track to Nelson Island; without them you must pay attention to the tides and plan to return to the parking lot well before high tide. There are no facilities, and dogs are prohibited at all times on Nelson Island. The salt marsh from late March to November is a feeding ground for the complete range of herons, egrets, and glossy ibises that summer in New England, especially at high tide when they can’t hide in the ditches. This is when they concentrate in the salt pans, some of which lie right beside the dirt track between the parking lot and Nelson Island. Shorebirds of many species also feed in these pans, while gulls, terns, and kingfishers course the surrounding marshes. Nesting marsh species are willets, killdeer, saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrows, and occasional seaside sparrows. The hayfield has nesting bobolinks and sometimes eastern meadowlarks and savannah sparrows. The fringes of the island feature nesting orchard orioles and willow flycatchers–maybe one or two pairs of each. This is one of the best places in the county to find orchard orioles. Winter highlights are the raptors: short-eared and snowy owls, northern harriers, red-tailed and rough-legged hawks, and occasional bald eagles. Horned larks, snow buntings, and Lapland longspurs may also be found on the island in winter.


  • Great Marsh
  • Natural Resources
  • Parks
  • Swimming & Boating


  • Parking Available