A Mass Audubon guide points out the features of a red maple swamp to hayride participants.

If you’ve ever been to Mass Audubon’s Farm Day, held every fall at the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield, you’ve probably taken a hayride. Touring the historic farm in a hay cart pulled by an old-fashioned tractor is one of the highlights of this annual event. My son, Abel, enjoys the hayride so much that one year we did it four times in a row.

I was delighted to notice in the Audubon newsletter that hayrides aren’t just for Farm Day. In fact, they can be reserved pretty much anytime throughout the year, for private events like field trips, scout expeditions, and birthday parties. For a flat rate of $125, you can bring 30 guests along for a one-hour naturalist-guided ride.

So with fingers crossed for good weather, my husband and I decided to book a hayride for Abel’s fourth birthday.

And boy, did we luck out! Our date, a Sunday afternoon in mid-May, was sunny and warm. Our guests, about twelve of Abel’s friends plus at least one parent per child, numbered close to thirty. A guide, an assistant and a tractor driver greeted us when we arrived at the sanctuary. And once everyone was ready, we piled into the hay cart and set off across the fields.

At Farm Day, the hayrides are relatively short. You get a quick tour without much input from the guide. But for a private event, the ride takes a full hour, stopping along the way for discussions, interpretation and quick stops to view some of the property’s best features.

Riding the hay cart across fields that otherwise are off limits to guests, we stopped near the apple orchard to learn about what the land was like when Daniel Webster owned it. The property first belonged to the Thomas family, who were among the first European settlers of Marshfield. Webster owned it next, and later Edward Dwyer, who turned it into a thriving enterprise – a dairy farm that produced 4,000 quarts of milk per day and 30,000 bales of hay per year! Dwyer also kept 25 horses and more than 600 pigs.

From there we rode deeper into the sanctuary, learning about some of the birds that nest in the fields and trees. We paused again near the Green Harbor River. The guides led us onto a wooden bridge, from which we spied a turtle sunning itself at the water’s edge. We continued along a boardwalk into the red maple swamp, to learn more about the flora and fauna that surrounded us.

Next we reboarded the hay cart and proceeded to Fox Hill, which overlooks much of the sanctuary. There, we learned about some of the geographic features of the property, as well as the deer often seen in the fields, and the osprey, whose nesting area we could see off in the distance. Some of the children – and their parents too – found this unusual perspective on the town of Marshfield quite fascinating. Looking down the river valley toward Green Harbor, they could see how close Rexhame and the town airport are to the neighborhoods off Careswell Street. By car, it’s a long drive around, but as the crow flies, it’s just across the river!

From there, we rode back toward the parking area, stopping at an observation hut that overlooks a small pond. We piled into the small dark building and peered out the windows to see what we could see. “Can we come back here again?” was a popular refrain.

When our hayride was over, we took advantage of the beautiful day and enjoyed cake and ice cream in the shaded, grassy area near the entrance. There was already one picnic table on site, and we’d brought along a few more child-size ones of our own. The children were delighted to run and play on the open field before and after their treats. The adults were content to relax and chat, enjoying the view and the fresh air.

Abel is fortunate that his friends enjoying spending time outdoors as much as he does. As a parent, it made me feel good to provide an opportunity for my son and his guests to do something educational and nature-related. Birthday parties are supposed to be fun, and if the big smiles on the faces of adults and children alike were any indication, I think everyone had a good time.

Consider a nature-themed birthday party for your own child. For information about Mass Audubon’s hayrides and other birthday packages, call 781-837-9400 or email southshore@massaudubon.org. The South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell (www.ssnsc.org) also offers birthday packages. Or create one of your own! Select a nature preserve, and put together some fun, age-appropriate activities for your guests that will encourage them to explore and learn about the plants, animals and geographic features to be found there. Scavenger hunt, anyone? If you’re stumped for details, consider hiring a naturalist from either organization to lead your event.

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
July 2010

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 13 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com.