Four local naturalists share their favorite places to savor the arrival of spring.
Spring comes slowly to Cape Cod. Still, we know our surroundings are changing, waking up, and bursting with new life and activity. Coastal springs are perhaps defined by the annual arrivals, hatchings, comings, and goings of nature: Open water ducks such as Eiders and Buffleheads disappear, the ospreys return to high nests, and the Nantucket Shadbush bursts with tiny white flowers as one of the first blooms of the season. These patterned dances have become part of our local lore and history: Residents and visitors alike have been standing on the edges of our riverbanks for centuries, marveling at the herring as they run.
The Cape and Islands have some of the country’s best conservation areas; national, state, and local parks; and innumerable trails and beaches—a veritable outdoor buffet for those of us who are ready to get out and stretch our legs after being cooped up all winter. We have a vibrant network of nonprofit groups, conservation trusts, nature preserves, and sanctuaries, whose staffs and volunteers work diligently not only to protect, restore, and expand the lands in their care, but also to share these spaces with the public. The best way to appreciate our world is to experience it. To celebrate the season, we have asked local naturalists to share some of their favorite spring walks—places to explore the traditional sights, sounds, and creatures of springtime on Cape Cod.
BANK STREET BOGS NATURE PRESERVE, Harwichport
Located right in the heart of Harwichport is the Harwich Conservation Trust’s largest property: the Bank Street Bogs Nature Preserve. Created in 2001, the Preserve comprises 66 acres surrounding Cold Brook, a stream that runs all the way to Saquatucket Harbor on Nantucket Sound. “It’s a series of former cranberry bogs,” explains Michael Lach, director of the Harwich Conservation Trust. “We’re actually managing them to restore and enhance wildlife habitat and water flow.” The preserve has about two miles of open, flat trails that wind through a diverse range of ecosystems, including small meadows, stream habitats, pine forests, and freshwater wetland habitats, including a red maple swamp. As such, it is a great place to see and hear wildlife. Along the pasture are 44 nesting boxes, mainly populated by tree swallows and bluebirds. “If you walk the preserve in April, May, or June, you’re in for a real treat because you get to see the aerial acrobatics of tree swallows—they’re all taking insects on the wing—it’s just mesmerizing,” says Lach. “You’ve got tree swallows wheeling about and the bluebirds flying back and forth, and it’s just alive with bird activity.” Later spring birds include the towhee, the Northern Oriole, and the Great Crested Flycatcher in the treetops. Lach recommends early morning visits—at first light or soon after—as the best times for bird watching. The Bank Street Bogs are also notable for the population of American Woodcocks that perform their unusual mating spectacle as early as March. “Open areas with low growth and nearby freshwater seeps are ideal habitat for American Woodcocks,” says Lach. “It’s a fun courtship display to watch right around dusk every evening in the early spring.” HCT has a full slate of walks, guided tours, and programs (many of which are free). For more information on upcoming programs, go to harwichconservationtrust.org.
From the Mid-Cape Highway (Route 6) take Exit 10 on to Route 124 South. Take a left onto Route 39 then a right onto Bank Street. Follow for 1/2 mile south and turn left at the Harwich Harbormaster’s Workshop, #203 Bank Street. Park and begin walking at the trailhead kiosk.
Barnstable Great Marsh wildlife Sanctuary, West Barnstable
Newly opened in 2012, the 114 acres of this Mass Audubon sanctuary—which boast protected salt marshes, forested uplands, man-made ponds, and freshwater wetlands—await discovery. The spring months of March and April are ideal times to explore the sanctuary’s five trails that meander through the marshes and ponds, offering views of Sandy Neck. “There are two really nice freshwater ponds,” says Ian Ives, who has been working as director of Mass Audubon’s Mid and Upper Cape sanctuaries since 2006. “It’s a great place to see raptors such as Northern Harriers as well as Great Horned Owls and Screech Owls in early spring.” The salt marsh is one of the region’s most active and biologically rich ecosystems, supporting a wide range of birds, plants, and marine species including spartina grass, striped bass and bluefish, and shellfish such as quahogs, clams, and mussels. While passing the freshwater ponds and wetlands, look out for otters and listen for early spring amphibians like wood frogs, salamanders, and peepers. Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary has a wide range of adult and family programs including guided walks, kayaking, boat cruises, interpretive tours, and more. “We encourage people to come on a walk,” says Ives, “learn about [the area], and then you can go out on your own.” For more information, go to massaudubon.org.
From the Mid-Cape Highway (Route 6) take Exit 6 on to Route 132 North. Follow to Route 6A in Barnstable and take a right. Travel one mile heading east and look for 2444 on the left just after Barnstable-West Barnstable Elementary School entrance. Follow driveway to parking area. Parking area can accommodate roughly four vehicles; please be courteous and avoid blocking private driveways.
Quashnet River Component, East Falmouth
Witnessing the herring take their annual journey up freshwater streams to spawn is one of the classic Cape Cod rites of spring. As the largest source of fresh water to Waquoit Bay, the Quashnet River stretches from Mashpee to Falmouth and supports strong populations of eels, eastern brook trout, and herring. Oak and pine forests dominate this conservation area, with abandoned cranberry bogs lining both sides of the river. The property is part of 486 acres purchased by state from 1987 to 1988 and subsequently added to the Waquoit Bay Reserve. “In spring, there is a lot going on,” says James Rassman, stewardship coordinator for the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. “There’s a new batch of brook trout, herring running up the river, osprey returning. Anywhere the herring are—that’s tons of energy that attracts other animals.” This quiet spot features an easy 2.5-mile trail that follows the river and continues through the forests. Rassman is quick to point out the current restoration project undertaken by Trout Unlimited, a conservation group dedicated to native trout as a species. “They have transformed this cranberry bog channel back into the productive river it is today,” he says. Spring is an ideal time to visit Quashnet, not only for the fish, peepers, frogs, and lady slippers, but also to avoid the mosquitoes that accompany the hot summer weather. Herring typically arrive in late April while osprey can be seen in late March. For more information, go to waquoitbayreserve.org.
From the Mashpee Commons Rotary take Route 28 heading towards Falmouth. In about two miles, take a right onto Martin Road. Parking and trailhead will be on your right. Be aware that Martin Road is a short loop off Route 28. If you miss the first road, take the second and the trailhead will be on your left. Parking is limited.
Hatches Harbor, Provincetown
People know Race Point Lighthouse as one of the quintessential symbols of Provincetown and the Outer Cape. What is less well known is that it is also one of the best spots on the Cape—and most likely the East Coast—to see right whales up close. “They’re literally right there, maybe 50 yards off shore,” says Jesse Mechling, marine education director of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. “It is bar none the best place to see some of the most endangered animals on the planet.” Right whales typically arrive off our shores anywhere from February to April. “They usually peak at the end of March or the beginning of April, but can come earlier,” says Mechling. “Last year, we had more right whales in the bay in February than we usually see.” The best way to reach the lighthouse is by walking through Hatches Harbor, a salt marsh in the process of being restored. (One effect of the restoration is the control of Phragmites, an invasive species of grass.) Following an old fire road for about a mile and a half, the flat, hard-packed dirt makes for an easy walk through dunes, cranberry bogs, and freshwater wetlands. Look out for plovers in the spring, while terns arrive later in summer. The best time to go is in good weather when it’s not too windy. Mechling recommends checking the PCCS Facebook page, where the organization posts updates on recent right whale sightings. PCCS also offers weekly walks and tours starting in March and April. Viewing the whales from land can be preferable. “Many people don’t realize that it’s illegal to get close to right whales,” Mechling says. “If you’re on the water, you can’t get within 500 yards. So on land is actually a better way to see them.” And if you can’t make it to Race Point Light, the parking lot at Herring Cove Beach is the next best vantage point. For more information, go to coastalstudies.org.
From Route 6, take a right onto Province Lands Road. Drive past the Herring Cove Beach parking lot entrance toward Race Point. Three quarters of a mile past the parking lot at Herring Cove, there is a small dirt parking lot on the left side of the road at the bottom of a hill. The trail begins at the parking lot.