Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Vernal Pools in Hawksnest State Park

Vernal pools on Cape Cod form in small, shallow depressions that intersect seasonally high water tables, and generally only exist during the wet spring months. During the dry months, the water table drops and the level of the pool lowers too, until it eventually dries up. Because of the seasonal drying, the wide variety of organisms that live in these pools are free from fish predation.

View Vernal Pools around Hawksnest State Park in a larger map

Many organisms breed in vernal pools, and some amphibians such as wood frogs (Rana sylvatica), marbled salamanders (Ambystoma opacum) and spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum), breed here exclusively.

If a vernal pool is destroyed, the pool-dependent species living there will be unable to find alternate breeding pools. Vernal pools also seem to be important to migrating animals, or those fleeing disturbed habitats.

Acid rain, contaminated runoff, and changes in runoff amounts can cause severe damage to vernal pool habitats, and often people fill pools because they mistakenly think the waters are lifeless.

In order to be legally protected, vernal pools must be mapped and certified by the Natural Heritage Program, but most are not currently mapped. Additionally, only those certified pools within lands subject to flooding and bordering vegetated wetlands can actually be protected under Massachusetts' Wetlands Protection Act.

Quoted from this source

Changing uses of Hawksnest State Park

Over the years, many different kinds of people have used the lands that now make up Hawksnest State Park, and the surrounding lands.  Here's a brief overview.


The coasts and harbors were the first areas of Cape Cod to be developed.  Eventually, as the population grew, people moved inland, where the climate was milder, and tried their hand at farming. 

Large areas were cleared--if you look at old deeds or walk about the woods, you can still see the faint signs of fences, home sites, or old roads.  Boundaries of land parcels were informally marked, as "so many rods from a stake, or from an old oak tree."  Or they were bounded by a plowed furrow.

But the soil proved sandy and unproductive--so most of the farms were abandoned.  Relatives and heirs didn't know about the Harwich lands that they still owned.  If they did, they considerred them almost worthless.

When I was a boy in Harwich in the 50's, Farmer Nickerson still had a poor farm near the NW corner of routes 39 and 137.  Round Cove Rd. was the northern boundary of his farm.  He raised corn and vegetables.  There was an abandoned farmhouse and barn on the north side of Nathan Walker Rd, with a cleared field sloping down towards Walker Pond.  Across the open field, and past the blooming roses, you could catch a glimpse of the blue waters of the pond.  Now, the field has grown up to trees, and the only visible trace of the farm are some exotic plants.

With their land abandoned, the remaining Cape Codders used the land as they wished for hunting, woodcutting, and dumping.


Around 1850, cranberry culture caught on.  Many of the wetlands were converted to this purpose.  Even small wetlands in and around Hawksnest became cranberry bogs.  The cove of Hawksnest, and a small wetland near the Walker Road parking area at Hawksnest were used for cranberries.  Oliver Pond also had cranberry bogs.  You can still recognize the signs--the "borrow pits," where sand was dug from banks for use in the bog.

By the 1950s, larger cranberry bogs were still being cultivated.  There was a large one north of Walker's Pond.  A network of rustic roads served these remaining bogs.   But the smaller ones had mostly reverted to nature. 

Because of these older uses--the farms and the bogs, there was a bewildering network of rustic roads crisscrossing the back woods of Harwich.  In the 1950s, some were still drivable, while others remained as ghostly scars on the landscape--large trees growing where formerly horse drawn wagons, or model-T Fords had formerly driven.

Today, just a handful of these rustic roads remain.  Round Cove Rd. in the 1950s served just one cabin at the current parking area near the Pond.  It was a simple frame structure with an outhouse, used by the Harwich Boy Scouts for outings.  Round Cove Rd. went all the way to the isthmus with Black Pond, where a simple duck hunting shack with fireplace had already collapsed before the 1950s.  The remaining outer porting of Round Cove Rd will probably be paved soon to the last house.

Seth Whitfield County Way still looks much as it did in the 1950s, but if present trends continue, it won't last more than a few more years.  Traffic is increasing, the southern portion has been widened, and the remaining other parts are eroding or starting to form deep puddles (from vehicles going too fast in wet weather).  Nathan Walker Rd is another rustic road that still survives much as it used to be.

These roads, if preserved, can help preserve the feeling of Harwich as it used to be, and provide rustic trails for equestrians, hikers, mountain bikes, joggers, and people walking their dogs.

Duck Hunting

In the late 1800s, Bostonians discovered ponds of Cape Cod as a great place for hunting ducks.  Shacks and blinds were built on ponds like Hawksnest and Black Pond.   Duck hunting lodges and clubs were established.   Local craftsmen filled a demand for decoys, carving them from wood. 

During this time, East Harwich resident Elmer Crowell was a decoy carver, and he also managed a hunting club.  But his decoys were a cut above the rest, and gradually his work changed from a simple craft to an art.  Elmer Crowell became the first carver of birds as art.  Some of his carvings have sold for over half a million dollars, and you can find them in major museums from Boston to New York.

By the 1950s, duck hunting was still practiced, but now many of the old duck hunting camps had decayed or morphed into summer homes.   The ponds were slowly starting to become popular.

Summer homes on the ponds

In the 1950s, Hawksnest was pretty much forgotten.  The Bell family from Boston were using a camp on the western shore; the Nickerson extended family were using Hawksnest Camp on the eastern shore (the only remaining cabin on the pond), and the Thompson family bought the Round Cove cabin from the Boy Scouts.  Round Cove Rd west of the four corners was now a private road.  Few people knew about the pond--fewer came exploring.

The Mid Cape Highway near Hawksnest was built from 1953 to 1959.  Now Hawksnest wasn't so completely isolated.  You could now catch a glimpse of the pond from Spruce Rd, which was constructed as an access road (frontage rd) for the highway.  But it served no purpose at all for many years, except as a way to access one end of Walker Rd.  Spruce Rd. as the road to nowhere.  To this day, many people to not know about this entrance and access to Hawksnest Pond, which is actually more convenient than the Round Cove Rd access that some people are clamoring to keep open.

When the summer people went home in the fall, Harwich residents nearby returned to reassert their interest.  They hunted and cut wood as they liked.  The hunting was no problem, and the woodcutting was but a minor annoyance for the owners of the land. 

In the 1970s, the Bells and the Thompsons sold to the State, creating the nucleus for Hawksnest.  Their cabins remained, though no longer used by either family.  Eventually, without any maintenance from the State, the two cabins fell down, and the remains were removed by staff from Nickerson State Park.

State neglect

When Hawksnest became a State Park, there were some initial plans to create a campground in the southern portion, but nothing came of those plans.   The entrance at Round Cove Rd. was gated for a number of years.

The State provided no services.  The road was not maintained, the two cabins fell down for lack of maintenance, and the park even lacked signs or boundary markers.  Again, it seemed to be abandoned land.

People who lived nearby year-round continued to exercise timeworn customs--woodcutting, hunting, and completely free access.  Contractors would dump whole truckloads of trash in the park.  As new motorized sports developed, the idea of "free access" changed to include the idea that off-road vehicles (ORVs) could have free access.  When water levels dropped during a prolonged drought, horses and ORVs going to the beach created severe erosion--now visible as the gully above the beach at the Round Cove Rd parking area.

Although Harwich began to receive yearly payments from the State, to make up for lost property taxes (from the cabins no longer at Hawksnest), Harwich likewise neglected the parklands.  Nevertheless, because the State neglected its responsibililties, Harwich began to feel it belonged to the Town.

The only attention from Harwich to the area was the creation of the Six Ponds district, which limits certain kinds of development (lots with homes must be at least 2.5 acres), and the purchase of some land on the NE side of Oliver Pond, contiguous to the State Park.  This land was purchased as an additional, potential well site, and to safeguard the headwaters for one of the Town's wells.  Hawksnest is a protected watershed area for Harwich wells.

Today, there is some talk of Harwich gaining title to the parklands from the State.  But would Harwich be a good steward for the lands?  And, would Harwich want to forgo the yearly payments from the State--which last year amounted to about $130,000?   With almost no services from Harwich except for an occasional police patrol, Hawksnest now seems to be a cash cow for the Town.

Still, neglect hasn't been entirely bad for Hawksnest.   Round Cove Rd is is such poor condition that it's difficult to drive unless your have a 4X vehicle.  This, plus the fact that the park is a well-kept secret for locals, has saved the park from high levels of traffic, to which it is unsuited.

Hawksnest on the brink

Times are changing for Hawksnest.  Some businesses and groups in Harwich are beginning to promote it.  Seth Witfield road has been widened, and part of Round Cove Rd will soon be paved.

The State as awakened to the danger of erosion from out of control parking, and is planning to make improvements or restorations to both parking areas.

Visitation is increasing, along with abuse.

In any town, city, or park, when use or population reaches a certain point, there has to be more regulation and planning.  You don't have the same freedoms in Manhattan that you have in Harwich.  With growth, eventually use has to be regulated.  The alternative--indifference and neglect--is destruction of the resource.  It's the old "Tragedy of the Commons" that Garret Hardin wrote about.

Still, the nostalgic notion that Hawksnest is a place "Where I can do what I want" persists.  It's still the old town swimming hole.  As most other beaches have become more regulated, with hefty parking fees attached, Hawksnest remains as free place, one of the last where you can bring your dog to roam or swim, off leash.

So the question remains--can Hawksnest continue to be the free and easy place with no rules--or will that kind of neglect ruin the place and pollute the best fresh-water swimming in the USA?

I'm afraid that if we continue as we have, the pristine pond, the solitude, the wildlife and the vegetation, will be compromised.

Some of the nearby residents want the longtime tradition of "free access" continued, so they can enjoy the resources of the park as they have for over a hundred years.  To them, that is "keeping the park as it was."  A few of these folks are still cutting trees in the park.  A few allow their children to ride ORVs in the park illegally.

The fact is, the State owns the park, and is duty-bound to manage it for the benefit of all residents of the State (and their guests). 

Others want to keep the water pristine--and avoid the toxic algae blooms that have occurred in nearby ponds like Long Pond and John Joseph's.   That's "keeping the park as it was."  Others want to continue the lax enforcement of rules, to keep the park as it was, as a party place.

But under the increased pressure of more people, Hawksnest is going to change, one way or another.  The people calling for more regulation now aren't the problem.  They are only the messenger saying: Problems are mounting.  We need to care for the park, and think about how to use it best in a ways that change it the least."  Unfortunately, sometimes the messenger with bad news is shot.

Future uses of the Park

When managing a park for recreation, the first principle is to conserve the resource, so the park will be there for the next generation to enjoy.

If the resource is fragile, or funds limited, the best tool for management is to close certain parts of the park, if they become damaged, and allow them to recover.  This is simply sound management, but it bumps against the concept of "open access" held by surrounding residents.

A similar concept is to limit use from the beginning in areas that are particularly fragile.  Fragile areas include certain portions of the lakesore and steep bluffs over the shore.   In other words, don't build trails to the tops of sandy bluffs.

Another important concept of management is to design trails, facilities, and rules of the park so the various groups of users don't conflict with one another.  You don't want horses ridilng where children are playing.  Perhaps horses and hikers should use different trails.  Perhaps dogs should be restricted to one of the two beaches, so that people afraid of dogs will feel at ease at the other beach.

The first step is to find out what legal user groups exist, then consult them to find out what they need to enjoy their pursuits.  Then, you design facililties so the various groups don't conflict with one another.

There's no question that young people looking for a place to party are one user group.  The question remains, can a way be found to allow parties without the resulting litter and problems resulting from no rest rooms?

Stopping the decline

When I talk to people enjoying Hawksnest about plans to solve certain problems like erosion, their first response is: "What problems?"  People like Hawksnest the way it is--with no management and no rules.

But when you have been coming to Hawksnest for over 60 years, you can see the slow decline:
  • Round Cove Rd , Seth Whitfield Rd, and road from Walker Rd to pond have steadily eroded and deteriorated.  Seth Witfield may soon be lost as a rustic road.
  • Parking areas have expanded and eroded at the end of Roud Cove Rd.
  • Trails to beach at  Round Cove Rd. are eroding. Erosion is a clear threat to water quality.
  • Wildlife like turtles are in decline
  • The pond is less clear than it used to be.
  • Surrounding ponds are suffering from algae blooms, warning of clear danger to Hawksnest from too many nutrients.
  • The zone of litter, broken glass, and discarded cans is slowly expanding.
Given these trends, NO CHANGE in the management of the park means continued decline of the resource.

Rivers of sand

About why ponds in Cape Cod are special...

The Everglades have been called the River of Grass.  Florida is barely above sea level--flatter than a pancake.  But Florida gets substantial rainfall, so runoff during the winter rainy season flows in a broad sheet towards the southern tip.  It's a river only inches deep, but many tens of miles wide.  It supports unique ecosystems, and millions of birds.

Unaware of this natural system, engineers built roads and canals across the River of Grass, blocking it's flow.  It began to dry up--the animals started to disappear.   Recently (until the recession) Florida and the Feds pledged billions to restore the River of Grass, because it was so special.

We have something similar in Cape Cod--a River of Sand, or better, a river through sand.  The rainfall sinks into the sandy soil, and flows slowly underground like a broad river, from areas of higher terrain and higher groundwater toward the coasts.  These reservoirs, or sources of groundwater, are called "lenses."  You may have heard of the Monomoy Lens, the one that's the reservoir for Harwich tap water.

There's an amazing chart that will tell you most of what you need to know about the Cape's groundwater flow.

There are other Rivers of Sand in North America--I'll introduce you to four others.  But only on Cape Cod do we have so many "windows" into the groundwater.  Those windows are the ponds.  That's why Cape Cod--and its coastal plain ponds--are so special.

Feeding wildlife at Hawksnest

Last summer, I was having a conversation with a regular visitor to Hawksnest.  We were at Bell's landing on the west side of the pond.  As we talked, he tossed a few pieces of leftover pizza into the woods, "for the coyotes."

It's true there are coyotes around Hawksnest.  I saw them twice last summer, both times close to Seth Whitfield Rd.

It's good to have wildlife on the Cape--and that's one of the purposes of state parks like Hawksnest.  Coyotes help restore the natural balance.  For example, they can prevent the buildup of pesky populations of geese, that litter parks with their droppings.

Feeding coyotes, whether intentional or not, will only lead to death for the coyotes.  Last summer, after complaints, the animal control officer in Chatham trapped and removed family of coyotes.

How homeowners provide food for coyotes
  • Leaving pet food in a dish on your patio
  • Leaving bags of petfood accessible in your garage
  • Scattered seed under your bird feeder---attracts rodents which coyotes feed on
  • Leaving small pets outdoors (or off leash), especially at night.
  • Leaving your garbage can uncovered
Coyotes are a good reason to keep your dog on-leash at Hawksnest.  They are known to attack and kill dogs--even dogs their own size.  They do this, not for food, but because dogs are seen as a threat to their territory or their den.

More stories about coyote attacks on dogs on the Cape.

Ponds around the world--Holland

Marten Scheffer, a biologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, grew up swimming in the clear lowland ponds of his country. In the 1980s, many of these ponds turned turbid. The plants would die, algae would cover the surface, and only bottom-feeding fish remained. The cause — fertilizer runoff from nearby farms — was well known, but even after you stopped the runoff, replanted the lilies and restocked the trout, the ponds would stay dark and scummy.

Mr. Scheffer solved this problem with a key insight: the ponds behaved according to a branch of mathematics called “dynamical systems,” which deals with sudden changes. Once you reach a tipping point, it’s very difficult to return things to how they used to be. It’s easy to roll a boulder off a cliff, for instance, but much harder to roll it back. Once the ponds turned turbid, it wasn’t enough to just replant and restock. You had get them back to their original, clear state.

Science is a graveyard of grand principles that fail in the end to explain the real world. So it is all the more surprising that Mr. Scheffer’s idea worked.

By applying the principles of dynamical systems, Mr. Scheffer was able to figure out that to fix the ponds, he had to remove the fish that thrive in the turbid water. They stir up sediment, which blocks sunlight from plants, and eat the zooplankton that keep the water clear. His program of fixing the Netherlands’ ponds and lakes is legendary in ecology.  Source

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Resource management planning for Hawksnest State Park

The Department of Conservation and Recreation held a public meeting on December 5 to announce their proposed their Resource Management Plan (RMP). The plan encompasses Nickerson State lands on Cape Cod, including Hawksnest State Park.

At the meeting they indicated they were accepting public feedback expressing concerns, issues or ideas. They gave January 10 as the deadline for comments, but said they would accept comments that came later.

The RMP serves as a guide for potential future actions by the DCR. The guidelines are often used as criteria for grants from other public or private agencies. These guidelines may help organizations like the Harwich Conservation Trust to find grant money to help buy property for conservation purposes. The RMP doesn’t include any funding for recommendations.

Please share your thoughts with the DCR

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The channel connecting Black and Hawksnest ponds

Black Pond and Hawksnest Pond are very different.  Black Pond is shallow, filled with vegetation, and high in nutrients, while Hawksnest Pond is deep, mostly free of aquatic plants, and nutrient poor. 

Yet Black Pond is about a foot higher than Hawksnest. When water levels are high, a strong current flows from Black to Hawksnest.  This probably imports a lot of nutrients into Hawksnest.

In the 1950s tthrough the 1970s, the two ponds were connected only during very high water.  Even then, I did not notice much flow between them.  High bushes on the isthmus must have filtered any water that did flow from Black Pond.
Looking from Black to Hawksnest.  Grass in the water indicates strong flow.