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Scarborough: They Called It Owascoag

Scarborough Marsh: "Land of Much Grass"

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aerial view of marsh
aerial view of marsh

Text by Bruce Thurlow
Images from Scarborough Historical Society, Bruce Thurlow, Friends of the Scarborough Marsh, Maine Audubon and Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center

To the Sokokis Indians, the area we call the Scarborough Marsh was known as Owascoag, the “land of much grass.” It is the largest contiguous salt marsh system in Maine, covering more than 3,000 acres and accounting for 15 percent of Maine’s total tidal marsh area. The marsh includes five tidal rivers, several smaller streams, some coastal freshwater marsh, tidal flats and less than 200 acres of upland habitat.

Salt marshes began to form many thousands of years ago when glaciers from the last ice age receded as the climate warmed. Silt from rivers and streams washed into low-lying, protected tidal estuaries and began to build up. Various organisms, plant life and marine animals were attracted to the resulting mudflats and seed from salt-tolerant grasses took root and began to spread. Thus began the growth and development of the marsh we know today.

The Scarborough Marsh is a very valuable, rich ecosystem. It is home to a variety of birds, fish, shellfish and mammals that either live their entire lives or live parts of their life cycles in the marsh; it is a food production and distribution system for marsh inhabitants; it is a nursery for various fish and shellfish; it is a resting place for migrating birds; and it acts as a filter or sponge for both the salt and freshwater meeting within it.

fish weirs
fish weirs

Life in a salt marsh depends upon the grass. Through photosynthesis the Spartina grasses (known variously as cordgrass, salt hay, marsh grass, or salt meadow grass) convert the energy of the sun into usable food for the many creatures in the marsh. As the grasses decay, the rotted material forms a nutrient-rich “soup” that feeds the plankton, clams, mussels, worms and some fish. These creatures in turn feed larger animals such as raccoons, striped bass and ospreys. Waste from animals living and dying enters the marsh to be recycled as fertilizer for bacteria and plants. In its twice-daily movement, the tide sweeps nutrient-rich water into the ocean and feeds offshore fish and their young. Additionally, the grass plants provide temperature and humidity control among their stems and act as a buffer against wind and currents.

Great Egret

In his book Secrets of a Salt Marsh, author John O. Snow beautifully describes life in a salt marsh, “a world of many different creatures as green crabs scurry among the shaded plant stalks, marsh wrens weave the grass blades into swaying nests, insects chew the leaves for their sugar before becoming food for hungry birds, and microscopic plants and animals drift with tide and feed siphon eaters, such as clams, and worms tunnel through the root-laced mud.”