Sally Powers has volunteered at the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center for 20 years. But it took her a while to discover it.

“When people find out I’m a volunteer at the center, they say, ‘I’ve never been.’ I would say that is very common. I drove by it for years, and never stopped. I drove by it for 30 years before becoming a volunteer,” said Powers, a South Portland native.

The Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center turns 50 this summer. Housed in a former clam shack, the center’s education mission has grown to focus on the threats of climate change. It has developed a strong legacy of volunteerism over the years, with at least 75 volunteers currently helping Audubon educators to lead nature walks and boat tours.

“One of the things we want to highlight is how we’re looking ahead to the next 50 years. The marsh is a great indicator of climate change. If you look at the rate of sea level rising, it’s possible the marsh could not be here in 50 years,” said Melissa Kim, Maine Audubon’s communications director.

More than 260 species of birds have been seen at the marsh, which is fed by the Dunstan, Nonesuch and Libby rivers. But over the past 50 years, that bird life has changed.

A half century ago, glossy ibis, snowy egrets and willets were rare in numbers, but now are plentiful. And the unusual little egret, a native to Europe and Africa, has been appearing each year since 2011, according to Maine Audubon. The saltmarsh sparrow, however, has been in decline as a rise in sea level has affected the marsh grass where the birds nest.

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Linda Woodard, the nature center’s director of 32 years, said climate change is definitely a factor.

“We used to have megastorms where the shack would almost wash out – these 100-year storms every 15 years. Now they are happening more often. We are flooding almost every year. The parking lot is definitely flooding more often. It does beg the question: What will happen to the center?” Woodard said.

This summer a new exhibit will be installed showing what the center and marsh will look like in years to come.

“The salt marsh will look like the ocean. Salt marshes do migrate inland, but because it’s so built up here, there is no place for the marsh to go,” Woodard said.

In the early 1970s, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife became the owner of the 3,100-acre marsh – Maine’s largest contiguous salt marsh. In 1972 Maine Audubon began providing education programs at the former clam shack that sits beside the marsh. The building is still owned by the state, but staffed by Maine Audubon.

Woodard said people are often surprised when they enter the center, a two-room building that looks much like it did a half century ago.

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“It’s sort of funny, some people come in and are surprised, because it’s not that flashy, it’s not like Falmouth,” Woodard said of Maine Audubon’s headquarters at Gilsland Farm.

Jack Brockelman leads a small group of students from South Portland’s Memorial Middle School on an educational tour at Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Before the pandemic, the Audubon center hosted up to 8,000 visitors a year along with 1,500 schoolchildren. Those numbers dipped slightly the past few years, but as many as 6,000 people came to rent canoes or kayaks last summer.

The nature center’s four full-time and two part-time staff members are assisted by volunteers who do the work of two full-time staffers – or 80 hours a week over four months. They run the Audubon store, help rent out canoes and kayaks, lead paddle tours or bird walks and help clean up when it floods.

“The volunteers are amazing. One year we had a herbalist, she showed up and did a class on medicinal plants. A few years later, she moved on and someone else came along who was a basket maker who helped people make baskets,” Woodard said.

A guided canoe tour leaves from the center every day at 10 a.m. from June 22 to Sept. 5. Full-moon canoe tours offered three times a month quickly sell out.

Woodard has no trouble filling the ranks of guides who help lead these trips.

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Gary Roberts of Rockland, who started volunteering at the nature center 35 years ago when he lived in South Portland, described the marsh like a close friend to those who know it.

“Of course, it’s a totally different environment from any place else,” Roberts said. “The plants are unique in the marsh, the animals and birds are unique to the marsh. You have that meandering river. You just find the tone of the place is different.”

Bill Dunn of Hollis, a retired volunteer of 25 years, is one of many who is shocked by how few Mainers have experienced the Scarborough Marsh. With busy Route 1 running right over it, Dunn said, you would think the marsh would be dominated by the hum of traffic. Not so, he said.

“It’s very peaceful when it’s low tide. You don’t hear any road noise. You pretty much just hear the wind, the birds and water,” Dunn said of a paddler’s vantage point.

Sally Powers, a volunteer for the past 20 years at Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center, shows students from South Portland’s Memorial Middle School a 100-year-old taxidermy of a snowy egret during an educational tour at the center. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Deb Wright, a Saco volunteer of 10 years, moved back to Maine in the fall of 2012 and quickly decided she should investigate that place she noticed when she was a student at Thornton Academy in the late 1960s.

“It was a drive-up joint, like a clam bake. You’d go and buy a hamburger platter. On top of the building, there was an observation deck,” Wright recalled.

Now she’s a volunteer who helps others learn more about the marsh two to three times a week, four hours a day, without fail.

Powers, a retired nurse and instructor at Southern Maine Community College, said when she’s paddling down the Dunstan River with the marsh grass waving high above, she feels not only like she’s in a different place – but a different time in history, sometime after the glaciers retreated.

“Some of the birds – the glossy ibis and the egret – when they’re in flight, they look like pterodactyl dinosaurs,” Powers said. “I’ve taken out kids from drug court and United Nations delegates staying at the Black Point Inn. The kids who have seen rough times just light up when they’re paddling, learning about the salt marsh.”


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