Posted May 14, 2020
Written by Mike Perrin
As spring is in full swing, the expected warm and sunny days seem to be far and few between. To celebrate one of these days, I headed out to Douglas S. Westgate Conservation Area to do some wildlife watching and exploration of the natural history and ecology of Wareham.
While studying Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, I learned about the “layer cake” approach to assess the natural history of an area: start with the soil and move through the ecological layers up to the birds. Natural history is defined as the study of nature through non-academic observation. Because everything in an ecosystem is connected and interdependent, it is important to identify all biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) features, or layers, of an area to understand their relationships. Wanting to dive deeper into the natural history at Westgate Conservation Area, I applied this approach.
Like most of the soils in Wareham, the soil at Westgate is extremely acidic and very sandy. These soil conditions lead to the growth greenbrier, alder, and highbush blueberry. The thorny thickets and tangles created by these species creates habitat for small mammals like field mice, meadow voles, eastern cottontail, and eastern chipmunks. As highlighted by the scat around the property, these small mammals are a prey source for coyotes and red foxes. The chewed and grazed stems of saplings and piles of small, round poop indicate that deer roam the forest. The combination of thorny understory, mice, and deer creates ideal habitat for dog and deer ticks, so always remember to tuck pants into socks and do a tick-check after the hike.
The sandy and acidic soils enable the growth of trees like eastern white pine, red oak, and yellow birch. White pines drop acidic needles which decay and replenish the acidic soils, and the oaks and birches provide fruits in the form of acorns and samaras. Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers create holes in dead or rotting trees in search of ants, termites, and other protein-rich insects. These holes are repurposed by songbirds such as Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Tufted Titmouse as nesting holes or places to cache seeds and nuts for the winter months. Eastern gray squirrels also use these holes for storing snacks. During the spring and summer, tall pine trees present perfect perching branches for singing Ovenbirds in their attempts to claim territory or attract mates. Great Crested Flycatchers can be heard yelling “vreep!” from the tops of trees as one tries to munch bugs and caterpillars attracted to the flowering and budding trees.
Human impacts also influence the natural history of the property. Evidence of land use change can be inferred from forest type and existing built infrastructure. The retired cranberry bogs on the property create open field habitat for grasses to grow and insects like grasshoppers and butterflies to live and forage. The retired bogs influence the hydrology of the property, as the past damming practices have created two human-made ponds that are home to green frogs and painted turtles. Cranberries still grow along the bog cells and provide great ground cover to keep the habitat open, which adds to the diversity of habitat types. Eastern white pine and yellow birch are referred to as “pioneer species” meaning they are some of the first species to grow in areas that were previously cleared. Since most forests in Massachusetts and New England were cleared at least once for agriculture or cattle, we can deduce that the Westgate Conservation area experienced the same land use changes. Now that white pine nearly dominates the property, pine-loving species like Pine Warbler and Eastern Pine Elfin can be found along the trail.
Picking through the layers, it is easy to see that all of the ecological aspects of the property have a place and purpose in the larger ecosystem at Westgate. The layers work in harmony, just like the different flavors and textures that form an extravagant, wonderfully balanced cake. By tasting only one layer of the cake, or exploring only one layer of the natural history, the observer receives only a hint of the larger picture. Examining each layer paints a complete story, from ants to pine to humans, and develops a greater understanding and appreciation for the functionality and intricacy of the natural world.