RESOURCES OF THE RESERVE - Natural Resources
The Reserve encompasses 1,286 acres of upland, including notable pine barrens and sandplain grasslands. Pitch pine/scrub oak, Pinus rigida/ Quercus illicifolia, barrens occur on dry, acidic, nutrient poor, well drained soils in the Waquoit Bay watershed and other coastal outwash plains. Examples of pitch pine/scrub oak barrens are found throughout the Reserve. Typically, a dense understory of scrub oaks and huckleberry, Gaylussacia baccata, grows beneath the pitch pines and excludes other plants. Often patches of lowbush blueberry, Vaccinium augustifolium, bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, sweetfern, Comptonia peregrine, or lichen grow in the open spaces between oaks. This pine barrens community has adapted to occasional fires for its maintenance as nutrients, generally scarce in the poor soils, become more available in the ashes of a fire.
Sandplain grasslands are open, treeless grasslands on dry, sandy soils. These grasslands are found in areas of glacial deposits in southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod and the Islands, and a few places in Connecticut. Prairie grasses are the dominant species of these grasslands. Bird’s foot violet, Viola pedata, which grows extensively on the Sargent Estate within the Waquoit Bay Reserve, is an indicator of sandplain grasslands. A large population of New England blazing star, Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae, inhabits Washburn Island. This species is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Massachusetts. The federally endangered sandplain gerardia, Agalinis acuta, is also found within the Reserve.
Marine and Freshwater Resources
The Bay is home to resident finfish populations, serves as a nursery area for other species of finfish, and supports a cadre of diadromous fish. Invertebrates are also well represented by species such as quahogs, Mercenaria mercenaria, soft-shell clams, Mya arenaria, and blue crab, Callinectes sapidus. Other species of the open water include sea ducks in winter, ospreys, Pandion haliaretus, each spring and summer, and harbor seals, Phoca vitulina.
Approximately 300 acres of salt marsh are located within the Reserve, mainly around Hamblin, Jehu, and Sage Lot ponds, at the head of Great River, along the shores of Washburn Island, at the head of Waquoit Bay and Eel Pond, and at the mouth of the Childs and Moonakis rivers.
Estuarine channels and tidal creek habitats link the open bay environment to the smaller, more tidally restricted salt ponds and their associated salt marshes. The estuarine channels and tidal creek beds within the Reserve are primarily sandy mud with a layer of macroalgae growing over the bottom. They are home to ribbed mussels, Geukensis demissa, blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus, and lady crabs, Ovalipes ocellatus.
About 2.5 miles of beach and sand dunes extend along the southern shore of Washburn Island and South Cape Beach. A portion of the barrier beach at South Cape Beach State Park is used for public recreation. The balance is undeveloped and supports a diverse community of species. On the limited-access Washburn Island, beach plants grow in profusion.
The fresh water wetlands of the Waquoit Bay watershed are rich in plant and animal species. At South Cape Beach, freshwater marsh species include the common cattail, Typha latifolia, and reed grass, Phragmites australis, as well as twig rush, Cladium marascoides, and water lily, Nymphaea odorata. Patches of bogs have such species as sheep laurel, Kalmia augstifolia, sweet gale, Myrica gale, and Sphagnum sp. Many waterfowl are solely dependent upon wetlands for their breeding, feeding and migratory needs. Ospreys forage for fish in freshwater areas. Many upland wildlife species, including game and song birds, opossum, raccoons and white-tailed deer, are seasonally dependent on wetlands.
Coastal plain streams provide important sources of water for upland species and are prime habitat for fish, turtles, ducks and geese. The Quashent River is an important habitat for alewife, Alosa pseudoharengus, blueback herring, A. aestivalis, and American eel, Anguilla rostrata, and holds one of the last remaining sea-run brook trout, Salvetinus fontinalis, populations in the United States.
The Reserve includes approximately 1,359 acres of estuarine waters, several freshwater ponds, tributary streams, vernal pools and substantial groundwater resources beneath its lands. Freshwater resources in tributary streams, ponds and vernal pools support unique vegetation and animal communities including amphibian and anadromous fish populations. The open waters of the bay once supported one of the most diverse estuarine fish communities in the state (Curley et al, 1971). These waters are still significantly important to commercial and recreational shellfish and fin fish fisheries. The Bay waters also enhance the value of the surrounding real estate and provide valuable recreational activities, including swimming, boating, windsurfing and kiteboarding.
The watershed's fresh water resources, as well as Waquoit Bay itself, are impacted by eutrophication resulting from excessive nutrient loading. This problem seriously threatens water quality in the Bay and is expected to continue to worsen until alternatives to wastewater disposal can be implemented on a large scale in the watershed. Additionally, freshwater resources are threatened by toxic contamination moving through groundwater from the nearby Superfund site at the Massachusetts Military Reservation. In addition to threats to the quality of water resources, future population growth on Cape Cod threatens the quantity of freshwater resources. Groundwater withdrawal from the Waquoit Bay watershed’s sole source aquifer could potentially lead to drops in water levels that could seriously impact habitats in streams, ponds and vernal pools.
The Reserve has no management authority over the open waters of the Bay or upstream freshwater resources. However, the Reserve influences water resource protection via research, education, stewardship demonstrations, and the translation of research for policy-makers. Since marine and freshwater resource problems and their solutions are complicated and go beyond the scale and jurisdiction of the Reserve, the Reserve cooperates with outside groups, including municipalities and other state and Federal agencies, to address them. The Reserve works to make science-based information available to policy-makers and decision-makers through workshops and direct communication. WBNERR also comments on reports, proposed projects and proposed policy changes that could affect the Reserve’s water resources. Additionally, Reserve staff participate on local and regional planning committees that make decisions that affect marine and freshwater resource management in the Reserve and the surrounding area.
Artifacts collected on Washburn Island indicate that the island was recurrently occupied over a period of as much as 5,500 years. Artifacts inventoried from the Island (site 19-BN-575) indicate Native American activity from Late Archaic (ca. 6,000 – 3,000 years ago), Early and Middle Woodland (3,000 - 1,100 years ago), and Late Woodland (1,100 – 400 years ago) times. The range of implements and edge tools suggests that Washburn Island served as a habitation site as opposed to some type of special purpose site, e.g., kill or butchering. The sites also may have served in part as lithic workshops, as they have yielded quantities of lithic flaking debris, cores and preforms, indicating stone tool manufacturing. The remains of a 30-year old Native American from an unknown temporal period were also found on Washburn Island.
There are vestiges of more recent history on Reserve land as well. Cellar holes and building rubble mark the location of two of three 19th century farmsteads on Washburn Island. A brick foundation is all that remains of an elaborate estate that was built in 1900 by the son of the founder of the Bryant & Sturges shipping firm, which is credited with opening up the Pacific Northwest to trade. The estate was destroyed by fire in 1926. Some concrete exposed at the dune’s edge at the far southern end of the island has been identified as the site of a garage belonging to a family that had their beach cottage moved from the Island to Central Avenue in Falmouth in 1942, before the army took possession of the island.
Between 1942 and 1945 the island served as the Camp Edward’s Engineer Amphibian Command. In this capacity the island became one of the Army’s principle amphibious training grounds. Washburn Island has been referred to as “the cradle of our European invasion” (Enterprise 1953), as the men who trained on its shores went on to spearhead the assaults at Normandy, France; Oran, Algeria; and Salerno, Italy. Toward the end of the war the base was used as an “R & R” center for convalescing soldiers from nearby Camp Edwards. Many deteriorating concrete foundations and slabs located toward the northern and central portion of the island are associated with this military use. The asphalt roads and the bridge abutments on the northwest shore of the island are also military features.
On the mainland, at the head of Waquoit Bay, is the Reserve’s headquarters site, sometimes referred to as the Sargent Estate. The main house was built between 1880-1890 by Ignatious Sargent in the Shingle Style of late Victorian construction and used as a summer “cottage” for family vacations until it was damaged in a hurricane in 1938. The mansion features sixteen rooms with ornate fireplaces and mantels and exotic woods on the first two floors. It included one of the first central vacuum systems. Following the 1938 hurricane, the building was boarded up for almost fifty years until it was acquired by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1987 for use by the Reserve. The estate also includes a carriage house, gate house, boat house, and chicken coop. All of these buildings, except for the chicken coop, have been adapted for new uses by the Reserve.
The Reserve’s headquarters are located within the Waquoit National Historic District. The Historic District was established in 2004 in recognition of the area’s significance as an isolated Falmouth Village that reached the high point of its development in the 1850s with industrial, marine, agricultural, and summer tourism components.
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