Spring arrives with the vernal equinox on March 20th. Soon the woods will be peeping with spring peepers as they wake up from the mud, those raucous little frogs that cheer us up every spring, reminding us that winter is a thing of the past.
Spring peepers are back every year, but only if we remember to take care of their habitat. So what better way to shake off the winter doldrums than a walk to visit vernal pools?
Alan Decker, Director of Land Preservation with Buzzards Bay Coalition (BBC) will be leading a vernal pool exploration during the last week of March at Parsons Reserve in Dartmouth as part of BBC’s “25 Years of Buzzards Bay.” BBC will be offering free monthly walks and lectures on the South Coast’s environment as part of their anniversary celebrations.
Parsons Reserve is owned by the Dartmouth Natural Resource Trust (DNRT); it’s a 32-acre property assembled by DNRT between 1992 and 2005. The Reserve is located across from Dartmouth Landing, with access off Horseneck Road, just south of Russells Mills village.
What’s a vernal pool?
Vernal pools are sometimes as small as an overgrown mud puddle in the woods, but they provide the water and nutrients for a host of frogs, freshwater shrimp, and salamander eggs here on the South Coast. They are protected by law because they are so ephemeral that it is easy to miss them during the dry months much of the year. In fact, many vernal pools have been lost for that very reason.
Yet they serve an important function for the many threatened, rare and endangered aquatic and amphibious species that need the special combination of rain water, snow melt, mud, and leaf litter in just the right amounts to nurture eggs and tadpoles free from predation by fish. In fact, a key feature of vernal pools is absence of fish.
While spring peepers may be able to use other wetlands in addition to vernal pools, some species are more dependent on them. Marbled salamanders, blue spotted salamanders, Jefferson salamanders, Blandings turtle and wood turtle are some of the species protected by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act which exist only in vernal pools.
Wood frogs are another denizen of the pools, although they’re so common in Massachusetts that they are not tracked or protected. These are easily identified by their loud croaking. Wood frog eggs are “obligate” evidence that the pool is a vernal pool when getting it certified by the State, meaning that if wood frog eggs are there, it clearly has the making of a vernal pool.
Recognize and protect
Jake Kubel, biologist for the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP), is responsible for approving vernal pools for certification. NHESP does not perform the survey or gather evidence, but reviews the information provided upon request for certification. Once certified, it is the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and local conservation commissions that regulate them under the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act. A certified vernal pool cannot be altered without a permit by the State DEP and local conservation commission.
Often it is the community’s conservation commission that applies for certification with NHESP. Occasionally it is a land developer or land trust that finds one on their property and needs to have it identified. State law also protects the area one hundred feet from the edge of the pool from alteration, including filling or excavating. In fact, the Massachusetts Forest Cutting Practices Act regulation prohibits cutting more than 50% of the trees within 50 feet of the pool’s edge and disallows any other forestry activity in the pool area, even when dry.
In addition to approving the evidence supplied with requests for certification, Kubel also performs endangered species surveys for the State. He has a small group of volunteer biologists and wetlands experts that he also calls on to notify him when they come across rare and endangered species in the regions. “It allows us to make decisions about conservation strategies while staff is limited.”
When exploring vernal pools, Kubel has one piece of advice:
“If you find an animal, it doesn’t need to be rescued,” advises Kubel. “Even if it’s out of place, it’s best to just leave it where it is. They have instincts and will take care of themselves.”
Where are the vernal pools?
For information on the field walk, visit Buzzards Bay Coalition at www.savethebay.org or DNRT at www.dnrt.org. To learn more about vernal pools visit NHESP at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/nhesp/vernal_pools/vernal_pools.htm, and to find one in your community, contact your local conservation commission.