Curious Heron:

A Cole Harbour Salt Marsh Adventure

1 h 30 min 3 km Moderate

Trail Info:

The trail runs through the Cole Harbour Heritage Provincial Park. This is an easy walk along a hard-packed trail built on an abandoned railway. It offers spectacular views of the marsh. About 1 km down the main trail is an outhouse and picnic area. This is a great trail for biking as it extends for 6.5 km to the West Lawrencetown Road. Though not essential, it is preferable to do this trail at lower tides so you can reach further out onto the marsh flats without being in the water. Check the tide tables here.

This trail is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers as it follows a rail to trail cinder path. There are places where activities take place down short side trails and these will need to be adapted. Parents should be careful to monitor children when they maybe wading in the water.


Cole Harbour Salt Marsh Trailhead
View in Google Maps

From Dartmouth, take Portland Street, which turns into Cole Harbour Road (Route 207), for 7 km and turn right on Bissett Road. It is shortly after the major intersection with Forest Hills Drive. Travel 3.2 km on Bissett Road to the third of the three trail parking lots on the left. There is a kiosk at the trailhead.

Trail Tools

  • Scope (instructions)
  • Stew pot (1 or 2-litre plastic container)
  • Underwater viewer (instructions)
  • Binoculars and camera (optional)
  • Blue or gray clothing to wear
  • Face paints or washable markers (black, blue and gray)
  • Adventure Journal
  • Sun block and bug repellant

The Great Blue Heron Challenge

Step off the trail either just before or just behind the trail kiosk.

Great blue herons have keen eyesight and can spot incredible things in a salt marsh. They’re always searching for food. Can you become a curious heron and discover some of the neat things in the marsh?11 Can you find heron food? If you are really clever, you’ll figure out a heron’s favourite food.

Herons are blue and gray with black feather plumes above their eyes. Put on the proper colours:

  • Paint black “eyebrows” on your forehead.
  • Paint blue and gray streaks on your face.
  • Wear your blue or gray clothes.

Their call is: “Quonk! Quonk! Quonk!” Try it.

This special oath can help you change into a heron. Take turns kneeling before the tree and repeat these magic words:

“With heron legs I want to walk.

With heron eyes I’ll see.

With a heron voice instead of talk.

A great blue heron I’ll be.”

Do the heron pounce to find small neat creatures on the ground:

  1. Drop suddenly to the ground.
  2. Push the leaves aside and search with your keen eyes.
  3. Examine what you find. Would you eat it?

Do You Know – Great Blue Herons

The great blue heron is one of the largest wading birds in North America and occasionally lives up to 20 years. They inhabit Nova Scotia from April to October and fly as far south as Central America in the winter. They are voracious eaters and enjoy fish, frogs, birds, eggs and small mammals. They hunt by remaining motionless for long periods and then pouncing with incredible speed when their prey comes close. They can also stalk prey while moving so slow that they seem still, yet their position changes over many minutes. They nest in colonies that can have several hundred pairs in the late winter or early spring. The major threats to blue herons are habitat destruction of feeding grounds and logging in nesting areas.

2. Fly and Spy

Return to the main trail. Practice your flying skills. Flap your wings and “fly” 100 m up the trail and take cover in a path on the right behind the big boulder.

Try using your sharp heron eyes. They take big, slow steps and use their telescopic eyesight to find prey. Use your heron scope to help you find the things below. Take 50 big, slow steps up the trail and search for the first thing on the list. Take 50 more steps and search for the next thing, and so on.

  • something yellow
  • a red leaf
  • a broken-off tree
  • something shiny
  • something that prickles
  • a plant with red berries
  • needles that smell like Christmas
  • a piece of litter (pick it up and place in receptacles at trailhead)
  • a cone
  • a tree with green hairy stuff on it

Continue looking for these things as you fly further up the trail.

Do You Know – Salt Marsh

A salt marsh is where land and sea meet. It is made up of grassy meadow-like areas that are influenced by the tides but also fed by freshwater. Salt marshes are very rich biological habitats. The Cole Harbour Salt Marsh is a stopover area for migrating waterfowl travelling to and from the North. 137 different bird species have been spotted in the marsh. You can spot geese, sandpipers, plovers and a variety of ducks.

3. Be a Nosey Neighbour

Continue 440 m while doing the scavenger hunt. Stop at the opening just past the start of the water on your right where you have a good view of the marsh to the right and can see the marsh on the left.

This is where the great blue heron lives. As an important marsh creature, make a big show strutting home:

  1. Lift your right foot high into the air and then place it down again.
  2. Do the same for your left foot.
  3. Bob your head back and forth as you walk.


A salt marsh is a haven for many kinds of birds. Each bird hunts for different kinds of food in different ways. Ducks paddle in shallow areas and eat aquatic plants, small fish and water insects. The long-legged heron wades in the water and spears larger fish and frogs. The seagull glides along scavenging for food. If all birds were built and acted the same, their food sources would be the same and would run out quickly. Differences in living things allow many life forms to survive. This is called

Learn about the Earthworks

4. Sniff Some Marsh Stew

Continue along the trail, walking next to the marsh for about 100 m. Take the first small grassy and gravelly trail down the bank onto the flats.

As a curious heron, check to see what the other birds are up to. Use your scope or binoculars. How many different birds can you see? Stop here to experience a salt marsh delicacy. It’s a hearty stew that gives the marsh its special smell. Take out your stew pot and follow this recipe (but watch out for poison ivy):

marsh stew recipe

  1. Put in four different types of seaweed or dead plant material.
  2. Add a handful of mud.
  3. Fill your pot halfway with salty broth.
  4. Drop in a shell.
  5. Stir it well and then sniff. What a marsh smell!
  6. Take turns trading and smelling each other’s stews.

Empty the stew for other creatures to enjoy when you’re finished. Take your stew pot with you.

Did you find a small periwinkle shell to add to your stew? Herons sometimes eat them. Look for one on the ground. Pretend to pounce on it and spear it with your beak. Good stuff!

Netukulimk— Clams

Clams are common on these mudflats. They were a major source of nourishment for the Mi’kmaq, particularly in the spring. Typically, a large hardwood stick was used to dig clams at low tide. In the winter, both low tides could be in the dark and a torch was required. Clams were eaten raw, boiled, baked, steamed, roasted, or dried. Clamshells were used as tools, utensils (especially spoons and ladles) and decorations. Some coastal First Nations even used the shells as currency. Clam digging was also a social event and large groups of Mi’kmaq would reunite during the spring through clam digging.

Learn about Netukulimk

5. Look Underwater

Return to the trail. Walk about 80 m to the Rosemary’s Way path on the left. Take it to a little cove with a wooden bench.

Herons sometimes look for food in the water. Use your sharp eyes to search for neat things with your underwater viewer.

  1. Take off your shoes and socks and roll up your pants.
  2. Slowly and carefully wade in and bend over at the waist.
  3. Push the covered end of the underwater viewer into the water.
  4. Don’t push it in so far that water comes over the edge.
  5. Bring your head down to the viewer and have a good look.
  6. Search for five neat looking creatures – an expert can find eight.

Draw one neat thing you saw in your Adventure Journal.

Do You Know?

The Mi’kmaq called the Cole Harbour area “Wampawk” meaning “still water” or “white water”. Originally, the eastern side of the harbour was settled by Acadians but abandoned when the British established Halifax in 1749. Cole Harbour settlement started in 1765 and by 1800 was a farming community producing food for the growing settlement at Halifax. Two attempts were made to dyke the marsh to turn it into farmland. The first began in 1847 but failed and the second, completed 30 years later, was destroyed in 1917. The railway was built between 1912 and 1916 and the first train from Dartmouth to Musquodoboit ran across the harbour the following year.

6. Go Silent Hunting

Continue along Rosemary Way, returning to the main trail. Walk 225 m and turn right onto a path at the kiosk just past the washrooms. Go down to the water’s edge just in front of the bench.

Can you hunt for food like a heron? Do some silent stalking. If you stand very still for a couple of minutes, creatures think you are a tree or a plant. They come closer so you can have a good look at them. Have everyone stand very still and silent for two minutes.

Did a creature come close while you were standing still? Sometimes herons freeze in different positions so their prey won’t see them. Try being heron statues:

  1. Assign someone to stand on the shore in front of the bench as the prey.
  2. Everyone else plays herons and spreads out near the water’s edge.
  3. The prey turns away while the herons get into a neat position.
  4. The prey turns around suddenly and tries to catch a heron moving.
  5. Each time the prey turns away, the herons change position.
  6. The first heron caught moving trades places with the prey.

Now search for real heron food at the water’s edge. Turn over a few rocks or look under some seaweed. Crouch down and look carefully for a nice plump crayfish (a mini lobster-like creature) or little worms. Make sure you put the rocks back just as you found them. Do the heron pounce and pretend to spear a crayfish with your beak. Mmm!

Protect the Salt Marsh

There are several challenges to protecting the Cole Harbour Salt Marsh. The old railway line, which is now the trail, blocks the free flow of water in and out of the harbour. Although the water still drains, it is restricted and this causes silt to build up near the mouth of the harbour. In recent years, nearby housing and industrial developments raised fears that sewage would pollute the harbour. Lands around the harbour were bought and protected and a major sewer line was constructed to prevent sewage from emptying directly into the harbour. Pollution has closed clam digging in the west marsh (the right arm of the marsh). The marsh can slowly return to health as long as no further development occurs on its borders.

7. Create Some Great Heron Art

Return to the main trail. Walk 160 m to the first bridge, Bald Eagle Bridge, and stop on the other side.

Herons build their nests high up in trees out of sticks and dead plant material. These nests are like sculptures. Can you build a neat heron sculpture out of dead stuff along the trail?

  1. Collect dead pieces of grass, small sticks and neat looking rocks.
  2. Search for material between the bridge and the wider spot on the trail about 30 m past the bridge.
  3. Build a fantastic nest sculpture no taller than two fists.
  4. Share your sculptures.

Earth Steps

Here are some ways to help protect salt marshes:

  • Conserve water by taking short showers instead of long ones or baths.
  • Buy food that is grown without herbicides or pesticides. These chemicals wash off farmland into the soil and water, move through the food chain, and affect birds and other salt marsh creatures.
  • Get involved with the Cole Harbour Parks and Trails Association and help protect this marsh.
  • Find out about protecting coastlines and reclaiming salt marshes that have been damaged by human activity. Visit the Ecology Action Centre’s Coastal and Waters web page and learn about salt marsh restoration efforts by the province.

8. Go on an Egg Hunt

Walk 180 m and stop at the second bridge, the Canada Goose Bridge.

This bridge is a good place to observe the marsh. Watch the swirling water as it flows under the bridge. Are there differences in the patterns on either side? Is the tide coming in or going out?

Herons build their nests in very tall trees. Use your scope to scan for a nesting site in a distant tree. Herons nest in colonies of more than 100 pairs. Could you find your eggs in such a large colony? Try this:

  1. Each heron finds an egg-shaped rock the size of a fist. (Remember where you found it.)
  2. Get to know its colour, shape and texture (how it feels).
  3. Put all the “eggs” in a pile and mix them up well.
  4. Find your egg again.

Now find your eggs in the dark: place all the eggs in a pile. Close your eyes and find yours by touch alone. Take turns and mix up the eggs each time.

Could you find your own egg this way?

Other herons and gulls will eat heron eggs. Hide your egg from the other herons.

  1. Decide on two hiding areas, one on each side of the bridge.
  2. Half of the group hides their eggs on one side and half on the other.
  3. Eggs must be fully visible and not covered by rocks or debris.
  4. Search for each other’s eggs.

Does the egg’s placement and colouring make a difference? That is one way birds hide their eggs from predators. Finish by making a little nest for your egg using dead seaweed. When you are finished, be sure to return your rock to where you found it.

Still hungry? The heron’s favourite food is often resting in the shallows below the bridge. Find the shallowest section under the bridge. Look for these creatures swimming at the edges of the rocks below the bridge on either side. Staying on the bridge, do the heron pounce and pretend to spear the mystery food with your beak. Gulp!

Black Communities Nearby

Just a few kilometres from here is North Preston, the oldest and largest Black community in Canada. It was settled in waves beginning after the American revolution when Black Loyalists who fought for the British fled the United States and were offered freedom from slavery and more than 100 acres of land per family to settle here. But the promises were broken, less than a third of the settlers actually received land and most of that was poor land for farming. Many arrived in the fall and spent their first winter in makeshift tents. Black workers were paid less than Whites. Some had to indenture themselves to survive and slavery was prominent in Nova Scotia until 1834. The African Baptist Church was central to the community as a source of hope and support and remains so today. North Preston is a very warm, close-knit and family-oriented community with a high homeownership rate, yet like all Black communities, it struggles with systemic racism, oppression and poverty, which are rooted in its history.

9. Find a Heron’s Favourite Food

Stay at Canada Goose Bridge.

Have you figured out a heron’s favourite food? The answer is on the hidden plaque on something wooden made by people. Use the side of your pencil or crayon to make a rubbing of it in your Adventure Journal. Take a favourite picture of the marsh and post it if you choose.

The plaque symbol is:



Please login if you would like to record your trail completion, provide feedback or upload photos to the trail gallery.

Login if you’d like to upload a photo to share in the Adventure Gallery

Congratulations, you have been a very curious heron! Use your curiosity to explore other neat natural places. If you are feeling ambitious and energetic, the Cole Harbour Salt Marsh trail extends for 6.5 km!

To read more about the history of the Cole Harbour area, check out A Tale of Two Dykes: The Story of Cole Harbour by Margaret Kuhn Campbell (Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1979) from the library.

Listen to the CBC podcast entitled The Resilience of North Preston to learn more about Black communities in the area and the people who are fighting for this community today.

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