By Joshua Rose
A few towns north of Amherst is the town of Montague. Most Amherst residents know it for the Montague Mill, source of all of those bumper stickers about “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find”. Naturalists know Montague for another reason though: the Montague Sandplains.
The Montague Sandplains are one of the most remarkable natural areas not just in the Valley, but in the whole state. The same glacier-related processes that formed the prehistoric Lake Hitchcock deposited a great deal of sand in this part of Montague. Designated an Important Bird Area by Massachusetts Audubon, the dry, sandy soil and history of fires have resulted in a community of many rare plant and insect species as well as noteworthy birds. The biology of this area in some ways more closely resembles the Pine Barrens of New Jersey than anyplace in Massachusetts. In recent years, with natural fires becoming a very rare event, the state – which runs 1500 acres of the plains as a Wildlife Management Area - has applied prescribed burning and mowing to maintain the community.
The Eastern Towhee is one of the bird species that is more common as a breeder in the Montague Sandplains than the rest of the Valley.
Common breeding bird species of the sandplains that are rare elsewhere in our area include Prairie Warblers, Field Sparrows, Eastern Towhees, and Brown Thrashers. UMass researchers have banded some of the Prairie Warblers here. Open, grassy areas, such as those around the nearby Turners Falls Airport, have Grasshopper Sparrows and Vesper Sparrows. But perhaps the most intriguing birds here are active at night, when Whip-poor-wills are usually chorusing in late spring and summer. Whip-poor-will was recently listed by the state as a Species of Special Concern, as the species has declined and disappeared from most of Massachusetts; Montague has one of the six largest populations remaining, and four of the other five are in the far southeastern corner of the state.
The Vesper Sparrow is a grassland specialist that breeds in the more open areas of the Sandplains.
The Brown Thrasher is another species that breeds more often in the Sandplains than elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley.
The Field Sparrow is another species that breeds more often in the Sandplains than elsewhere. All of these species need early successional habitats. For the Towhee and Thrasher, this means shrubs; for the Grasshopper and Vesper Sparrows this means grasslands. These species tend to be crowded out by forest regeneration and succession unless their habitat is maintained by fire, mowing, or other processes.
The rarest denizen of the Montague Sandplains is a wetland plant, the Northeastern Bulrush, a federally listed endangered species. At least 8 other recognizably rare plants have been documented here, ranging from the American Chaffseed, found here historically but now locally extinct, and Spreading Tick-Trefoil, listed as endangered by the state, through Fringed Gentian and White Rattlesnake-root to Spring Rock Spikemoss. Elfins, small butterflies with very short flight seasons, can be found here for a few weeks in the spring, the Eastern Pine Elfin breeding in the pine trees, while the Brown Elfin favors the abundant lowbush blueberries, and the rarer Frosted Elfin requires Wild Lupines. The Barrens Buck Moth, a large, spectacularly patterned day-flying moth, takes wing in the autumn; the rest of the year it can be found only as spiny sting-defended caterpillars, often in groups, munching on Scrub Oak. Eleven other moth species of concern have been noted here, most of them associated with pine barrens habitat. Loose sandy soil makes this area great habitat for other intriguing insects like tiger beetles, Cicada Killer wasps, and the wingless wasps called Velvet Ants. It also has one of the state’s healthier populations of Eastern Box Turtles.
The Eastern Box Turtle is rare and declining in most of the state. Like many of the sandplain species, it benefits from the loose sandy soil, which is easy for digging nests and hibernation sites.
The Day Emerald (Mesothea incertata) is one of the more common moth species of the sandplains.
Tiger beetles like this Twelve-spotted (Cicindela duodecimguttata) are often more common in habitats with sandy soil, where it is easier for their larvae to dig burrows. They are predators: the adults chase down their prey, and the larvae use their burrows to lie in ambush.
Amid all of the natural curiosities here is at least one inescapably human landmark. If you turn at the sign for the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area, you will find yourself at the Mohawk Ramblers motorcycle club. On some nights the social activities here might drown out the Whip-poor-wills, at least close to the building. Fortunately, during the morning hours when the wildlife is most active, the club is pretty quiet.
Directions: The easiest access into the Montague Sandplains is from Lake Pleasant Road. On a good night Whip-poor-wills can be heard without even leaving your car. Visitors can easily walk through the habitat via any of several dirt roads and a few powerline cuts. Bartlett Road, the largest and most visible of the dirt roads, can be driven easily as far as Mohawk Ramblers, getting more adventurous past that point. Grassland birds can be most easily seen from just outside the fence at the Turners Falls Airport, either by the main entrance or along W Mineral Road just to the southeast.
Joshua Rose is a naturalist who lives in Amherst next to the Amethyst Brook Conservation Area. He is a Hitchcock Center member and a board member of the Hampshire Bird Club; he regularly leads programs for local nature-oriented groups. Before moving to Massachusetts he was program director of the World Birding Center in south Texas.