Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team

Vernal Ponds, Discovering Vernal Ponds, and Vernal Pond Certification Reporting Process

Vernal Ponds

Vernal ponds are also known as vernal pools and spring pools. They are confined basin depressions with no permanent inlet or outlet; small, shallow, freshwater, temporary fishless wetlands that have a unique ecology. Vernal ponds provide more food for forest wildlife than any other type of wetland. As vital pieces of the larger forest ecosystem, vernal ponds are critical wetland habitat for countless species. 

Vernal pools host many species of animals, some of which are obligate species -- they require vernal ponds for their survival. The spotted salamander, blue-spotted salamander, Jefferson salamander, marbled salamander, wood frog and fairy shrimp are obligate species in Massachusetts. 

On Cape Ann we are the home to just three of these obligate species - spotted salamanders, wood frogs and fairy shrimp. In our home area the breeding activity by either the spotted salamander or the wood frog, or the presence of fairy shrimp, is evidence of a vernal pool. 

In the spring, wood frogs and salamanders migrate to the ponds to breed. Most of them will return to the same pond every year, and if the pond has been destroyed or disturbed, that specific population will cease to breed. In addition to the species that depend on the specific ponds for survival, there are numerous other invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals that depend on vernal ponds for food. 

Because vernal ponds are often small pools of water that dry up in the summer, their significance is sometimes passed over. There are hundreds of vernal ponds on Cape Ann

Our Calling All Critters pages spotlight Cape Ann's obligate species along with other amphibians and invertebrates that are found in our vernal pools. Each page begins with a lovely full-sized photograph followed by an in-depth description of the animals features, habits, and habitat. The page will leave you with a video displaying the activities and sounds these creatures make while singing and mating.

If you are interested in learning more about our local vernal pools, join us for one of our daytime or nighttime field trips. To learn more check out Vernal Pond Field Trips on the About Our Activities page. If you're a woodland dog walker read our Dear Fellow Dog Owners recommendations page.

Vernal Ponds Definition:
Vernal ponds are temporary wetlands that fill with rainfall and snow melt.  They become the seasonal breeding and feeding grounds for many intriguing amphibians and insects, as well as the reptiles, birds, and mammals that depend on them for food. 

Learn more about vernal ponds from the Mass Wildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program vernal pools page.

Discovering Vernal Ponds

Venturing out on your own to find vernal pools is a great way to get outside and make some new discoveries. It's pretty fun and can be done solo or with friends and family. What a rewarding way to have your own adventure from start to finish. By getting into the backwoods and deep into nature, you may decide to help protect these wetlands someday.

Our avid member Adam Bolonsky wrote the article below entitled Oliver to the Rescue for our 2020 Spring Newsletter. Read it and learn more about discovering vernal ponds.

OLIVER to the Rescue by Adam Bolonsky
Reprinted from the Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team 2020 Spring Newsletter

When the team first began identifying Cape Ann vernal pools in the early 1990s in Rockport, Gloucester, Manchester, and Essex, we relied almost exclusively on local knowledge. If you were a woodsy, outdoorsy Cape Ann landowner, say, you’d probably noticed there were vernal pools on your property. And if you knew Rick Roth, you’d let him know about them.

If you were a hiker who’d been through Dogtown, Lanesville, Ravenswood Park and other wooded areas, and had an affinity for peering into pools of water, you probably knew what a vernal pool looked like. If you spotted one, you noted its location, contacted a team member, and returned in March or April to measure the pool’s width, length and depth, photograph its relevant egg masses, make note of what kind of vegetation you were in, and did your best to mark the pool’s location on a map. Note:  March and April are the only time you can find the egg masses in the pools.

Our efforts were very grassroots. There really wasn’t any other way to get the job done. We hiked around in the woods. We looked around. We made mental or handwritten notes, and simply passed the word.

Our efforts have changed a lot since. Thanks to the state’s comprehensive Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, and geographical information systems (GIS) and the availability of a variety of specialized online maps, we can work a lot faster.

How do we do it now? We download from the state’s helpful OLIVER website, predictions of the exact locations of hundreds of potential vernal pools in any area we choose, from Rockport to Lynnfield. We load the locations into our handheld GPS units, gather up our cameras and our field notebooks, and head out into the woods knowing exactly where to look. We start by looking at ones that lie close to public roads and well-marked hiking areas.

On the left you’ll see the map marking the locations of all the vernal pools we have certified since we began this work almost thirty years ago. In total, we’ve certified over three hundred: each dot on the map represents a pool we took samples from, and reported to the state through its observation portal.

Doesn’t look like there are a lot of dots on that map, does it? Well, as Hamlet said, There’s the rub. Vernal pools on Cape Ann are often so close to one another (sometimes just 10 or 15 feet apart) that a map small enough to fit in the newsletter piles dozens of those dots on top of one another!

The map on the top right shows how many more pools we need to investigate in the coming months. There’s a lot of dots there, aren’t there? To give you an idea of just how much more work we have left to do, the map doesn’t include the potential Cape Ann vernal pools lying west of Route 1A or north of Ipswich. Would you believe me if I told you we still have 466 pools to assess? Well, believe me. We do!

Consider this an invitation to join Nick Taormina, Rick Roth and me in March, when we head back into the woods. We’ll show you how to download potential pool locations into our GPS units from OLIVER, how to use the GPS route to find the pool, and finally how to examine, measure, and asses a vernal pool so it meets state re- porting requirements. A team can investigate a dozen pools a day using our new resources.


Data is collected in the field for the pools we are working to certify. Vernal pond surveys include photos of the pond (full of water in the spring), evidence of obligate species - usually wood frog or spotted salamander egg masses, and a description of the pool; length, width, depth and location - GPS coordinates. Field work is completed by our Team.

Certification information is entered by our Team into the database of the Vernal Pool & Rare Species (VPRS) Information System maintained by the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NHESP). NHESP is part of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. NHESP's overall goal is the protection of the state's wide range of native biological diversity using six methods - three of which CAVPT accomplishes through field surveys, land protection, and education. 

The window of opportunity to collect the necessary data to certify pools is short. Evidence is documented most easily in the spring when amphibian egg masses such as wood frog and spotted salamander are in the pools. This time can be a matter of 3-4 weeks. This is why it is important to have trained volunteers and a good strategy when locating and surveying vernal pools. We often get notified about pools from volunteers and citizens who lead us to some of their favorites. Some pools are found using maps generated by Dan Wells.

If you know of a vernal pool please Contact us.

Vernal Pond Certification Map of Cape Ann

Salamander drawing by Ollie Balf

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Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team    *    366 Main Street #2    *    Gloucester, MA  01930

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