Known as the Masquetuck Reservation, after the Wampanoag name for the Quaise region of the island, this property provides an excellent opportunity to view Nantucket’s diverse natural habitats within a small area. Although compact in size at only 13.5 acres, the property contains grassy fields, shrub thickets, hardwood forests, freshwater bogs, and salt marshes and is a perfect location for taking a short walk with children. A series of walking trails start from the parking area and meander through the forest, eventually leading to the edge of the marsh overlooking West Polpis Harbor.
Masquetuck is located at the end of Quaise Pastures Road. From the Rotary, follow Milestone Road ¼ mile and turn left onto Polpis Road. Follow Polpis Road for 3 miles and turn left onto Quaise Pastures Road (Not Quaise Road which you will see shortly before Quaise Pastures). Follow Quaise Pastures Road approximately ¼ mile to a cul de sac where there are a few parking spaces. The NCF property is to the right and well marked. Either of the openings in the fence will lead to the main trail.
Hardwood forest ecosystems dominate this property. Forests composed of 40-50 foot high stands of red oak, white oak, black tupelo, red maple, sassafras, American beech, and hickory trees are rare on Nantucket. Such habitats tend to occur in small depressions scattered across the northeastern portion of the island that were formed during the last glacial era approximately 12,000 years ago. The forests that developed in some of these low areas are locally called “hidden forests,” because they are somewhat hidden when viewed from a distance. The trees found at these sites can grow relatively taller than other forests on Nantucket because they are partially protected from the constant salt spray and high winds that occur on the island.
Red oak, hickory, American beech, and white oak trees dominate the drier areas of the forest, while black tupelo, sassafras, and red maple are found in pockets of wet, low areas. Some of the trees at Masquetuck are very old. Because much of the land on the island was cleared and used for agriculture at some point during the last three hundred years, large, old trees are relatively rare on Nantucket.
Growing below the tree canopy and forming the next vertical layer in the forest are woody shrubs such as high bush blueberry, inkberry, winterberry, and swamp azalea. Below these is a third layer of flowering plants and ferns, including wintergreen, whorled loosestrife, Canada mayflower, bracken, and cinnamon fern. These arrangements of different vegetation levels influence the types of songbirds that nest and feed in the forest. Different species utilize different layers for habitat, thus allowing many species to occur in relatively close proximity. Birds frequently observed in the forest at Masquetuck include the black-capped chickadee, yellow warbler, gray catbird, downy woodpecker, red-eyed vireo, and great-crested flycatcher.
In the southern portion of the property is a natural freshwater bog wetland. The bog contains dense mats of Sphagnum, a group of mosses that are capable of holding up to twenty-five times their weight in water. As the top portions of these plants grow, the underlying portions become deprived of sunlight and die. In this way, thick mats of Sphagnum slowly built up over time and become compressed by the weight of the waterlogged plants on the surface, forming thick layers of peat. Over time, the surface of bogs such as this rise as the Sphagnum grows and accumulates, resulting in the top layers becoming more and more isolated from the underlying water table, which carries a supply of minerals and nutrients. Eventually, the elevated bog wetland stays wet primarily through rainwater and melting snow, which is very low in minerals and nutrients. Therefore, the plants found growing on the surface of bogs are adapted to growing in nutrient-poor, oxygen-depleted, acidic conditions.
Shrubs observed within the bog wetland at Masquetuck include leatherleaf, sheep laurel, and bog rosemary, all of which are members of the heath family. They form extensive, efficient root systems that obtain oxygen and nutrients with the aid of beneficial fungi associated with their root hairs. Sundews, a variety of carnivorous bog plant, are also known to occur at this site. These small, inconspicuous plants bear a rosette of leaves with sticky, glandular hairs that entrap insects that land on them. Special enzymes produced by the plant then “digest” their captives, providing a source of scarce minerals and nutrients.
In the eastern portion of the property, a long, thin peninsula of upland extends along the edge of West Polpis Harbor, bordering an extensive salt marsh system to the west. This unique, wind-sheared maritime forest contains mature sassafras, white oak, and black tupelo trees, surrounded on three sides by harbor and salt marsh. The narrow beach facing the harbor makes an excellent location for viewing belted kingfishers, ospreys, mergansers, Canada geese, and many other species of shorebirds and waterbirds.
Tidal cycles that create the twice daily ebbing and flooding tide make salt marshes one of the most productive and valuable ecosystems on earth. Each rising tide brings in a flux of new nutrients, algae, bacteria, fungi, and tiny marine organisms that form the base of a very complex and productive food chain. Many varieties of marine animals that spend their adult lives in the open waters of the harbor, sound, and ocean use salt marshes as “nurseries” for their young, including mollusks, saltwater fish, and crustaceans.
The plants and animals living in the salt marsh must be able to cope with drastic daily fluctuations in water levels and salinity. Two zones can be distinguished on the marsh by differences in vegetation: the high marsh and the low marsh. The high marsh typically experiences inundation by salt water twice a month during the higher spring tides. Salt meadow cord grass and spike grass are the most common plant species in the high marsh. Groundsel tree, seaside goldenrod, sea lavender, salt marsh aster, and saltwort can be found at the upland edge of the high marsh. The low marsh is typically inundated with salt water twice daily at high tide. Very few plant species can stand being exposed to such extremes in water and salt levels, leading to much lower plant species diversity in the low marsh. The most common grass in this zone is salt marsh cord grass. This grass is usually the tallest in the marsh and can be found growing along the edges of tidal pools, creeks, and other wet areas that are regularly exposed to tidal fluctuations.
Many types of nesting and migrating birds feed on organisms and organic matter found in the marsh’s damp, spongy peat and mud flats. Plovers, yellowlegs, dowitchers, whimbrels, and sanderlings represent some of the shorebirds that feed on the small marine organisms brought in on each rising tide. American oystercatchers use their large, orange bills to pry open mollusks and crustaceans found along the marsh’s edge, while great-blue herons, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, and great egrets feed on small fish that live in the tidal creeks and pools. Because salt marshes are relatively rare on Nantucket, this site is an important feeding and resting area for these and many other species of birds.
Purchased by NCF and a gift of Mr. & Mrs. Robert D. Jay