A 39-acre nature sanctuary along the Aspetuck River in Westport was a favorite spot for actor, philanthropist and long-time Westport resident Paul Newman, who lived nearby until his death in 2008. He walked the wooded landscape with his children and grandchildren, and swam in the river.

Two dozen hikers got to see "What Paul Newman Saw" at the nature sanctuary that bears his name during an early-evening bird walk Thursday.

Milan Bull, director of science and conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society, led the hour-long hike through the Newman-Poses Preserve along marked trails through canopied woodlands and open meadow. Bull helped hikers identify the birds by appearance and song.

"This is gorgeous. Can you imagine what our world would be without birds? They add color and song," Bull said. They are also key habitat and environmental indicators -- "the canary in the coal mine, so to speak," he said.

He played bird calls on his cellphone, like the "churri cheerio" of the robin, and mimicked other songs himself, joined by Aubrey Benmosche, 5, of Westport, who impressed the group with her bird imitations. She showed as much interest in the birds as the adults.

They saw blue-winged warblers, catbirds, a black-capped chickadee, a Baltimore oriole and chimney swifts, the latter of which are aerial insectivores that are declining in numbers because of lost habitat, Bull said. Many other species make their home in the sanctuary including wood thrushes, prairie warblers, chats, towhees, screech owls and barred owls, he said.

A gentle rain fell on the hikers from time to time as they trudged through the mud and searched for birds. Bull also offered information about plants, trees, and the varied habitats included in the preserve, which is owned by the Town of Westport and maintained by the Aspetuck Land Trust, a local, private non-profit land conservation organization founded in 1966 to preserve open space in the towns of Westport, Weston, Fairfield and Easton.

The Newman-Poses Preserve is one of 44 nature preserves with trails and other conservation-only properties on more than 1,700 acres of land that are maintained by the Aspetuck Land Trust, which has more than 1,000 members.

Newman donated a large tract of the property to the Aspetuck Land Trust, and it has been preserved as public open space in what is the only public memorial approved by the late actor's family in his name. Newman's donation off Bayberry Lane was combined with land sold to the town by Lillian Poses, a Newman neighbor and friend who worked in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration and was one of the first women to graduate from New York University Law School.

David Brant, executive director of the Aspetuck Land Trust, said the meadow in the center of the preserve is a textbook example of an early successional habitat -- an old field growing back into forest. "Early successional woodlands provide great habitat for birds and small mammals because essentially it's a field with small trees and bushes and grasslands," Brant said. The grasses provide good vertical structure for ground-nesting birds. Birds like bushes and low-growing vegetation, he said.

"There's so little of this left in Connecticut. It's beautiful to see this meadow," said Rob McWilliams of Wilton, who writes a blog, McWilliams Takes a Hike.

Brant said the Newman-Poses Preserve is one of the larger open spaces in town, giving locals an opportunity to experience and explore nature. "It was a respite for the Newmans. That says a lot about the importance of open space as a place for people to unwind. There aren't many of them left and this is a beautiful one," Brant said.

"It's such a peaceful place," one woman said.

People are welcome to hike the property on their own. The entrance is between Nos. 307 and 313 Bayberry Lane, north of Easton Road/Route 136.

For more information about the Aspetuck Land Trust and a full list of its scheduled hikes, visit www.aspetucklandtrust.org.