View of open water at Hawley Bog. (All photographs by the author).
Hawley Bog in the town of Hawley in western Franklin County is not what one might call a prime birding location. With a few exceptions, one can expect the usual array of birds found in the higher elevations of Berkshire County. What is almost unique about this location is the bog itself, a 63-acre northern sphagnum-heath bog in its natural state. It is owned and maintained by the Nature Conservancy along with the Five Colleges Consortium (University of Massachusetts, Smith, Amherst, Hampshire, and Mount Holyoke). It serves these institutions as an outdoor classroom. It is open to the public, although my understanding is that permission is required for organized, large group visits. For further details check the Nature Conservancy website.
Besides being a lovely place to explore, the bog offers great opportunities for botanizing as well as birding and butterflying. Here one may find a group of plant life that is unique to acid bogs—in this case the highest-elevation acid bog in the Commonwealth.
Although somewhat remote and not wheelchair accessible, the bog itself is easy to reach from the parking area. After walking a short distance through a mixed wood, one will come to a well-constructed boardwalk that extends about 300 yards into the middle of the bog. The boardwalk was overhauled in 2012, allowing visitors to easily, safely, and dryly visit the bog without disturbing the fragile plants that grow on the bog.
Over the course of several visits to the bog, mostly in spring and summer, I have recorded over 90 species of birds that include 13 breeding wood warblers. A list of 40 or more species for a single morning in June is not hard to achieve. Many of these species, such as Blue-headed Vireo and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, are common summer residents. Some, like Black-billed Cuckoo and Wilson’s Snipe, undoubtedly breed here but are more difficult to detect. May, June, and July are the optimal months to visit.
Known as “Cranberry Swamp” on topographic maps, Hawley Bog occupies a shallow glacial lake basin. Over hundreds of years, sphagnum moss grew from the shoreline and spread out toward the center of the lake. Because the lake was poorly drained and accumulation of sphagnum peat—partially decayed moss—exceeded decomposition, the water became acidic, which further inhibited decay to produce more and thicker layers of peat. Over many, many years, the sphagnum slowly accumulated both vertically and horizontally, extending its reach farther and farther toward the middle of the lake. It is now at the point where there is only a small pond of open water in the middle of the bog. The mat of sphagnum peat is reported to be over thirty feet deep in places. The several vegetation zones that demonstrate bog succession are found here, from the central open water of the pond to the surrounding spruce-fir forest.
And if all this is not enough to encourage a visit, parking for the bog is on the former town common of Hawley, established in 1794. A few years ago, the Sons and Daughters of Hawley established the former town common as an archaeological site. The cellar holes of several former dwellings have each been researched, cleaned up, and labeled with placards that identify the former properties and give some of their history. The town of Hawley migrated to its present site in or around 1848, when a new meetinghouse was built farther to the west on East Hawley Road. A kiosk at the parking area should have a brochure that includes a crude map and brief descriptions of the various properties that once existed here. A self-guided tour of the Old Town Common is peaceful and enjoyable and will certainly add a few more birds to one’s list.
The parking area is at the intersection of East Hawley Road and Forget Road in Hawley. From Route 2 go to Route 8A in Charlemont. At the stop after the train tracks, go left and take the first right onto East Hawley Road. Continue for approximately four miles to the parking area marked by a small rock monument in a clearing. Alternatively, take Route 116 to Union Street in Plainfield. Turn left onto North Central Street, and then take an immediate right onto North Union Street. In about 7/10 of a mile, bear right onto North Street. North Street will become Plainfield Road and then East Hawley Road. The parking area is 4.7 miles from the turn onto North Road and about 1.4 miles from where it becomes East Hawley Road.
Although Hawley Bog is a lovely place to visit at any time of year, spring and summer offer the best opportunities for birding and botanizing. (Later in summer is probably a better time for butterflies and odonates, but that is not within the purview of this article.) An early morning in May or June will offer American Redstarts, Ovenbirds, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, and Red-eyed Vireos singing in the woods surrounding the parking lot. Across the road from the parking lot is a summer cottage that was built on the former site of the Longley Tavern. Watch and listen there for Purple Finches, Goldfinches, and Chipping Sparrows.
Boardwalk at Hawley Bog
There are two trails that begin at the parking area. The trail to the right will start with a tour of the Old Town Common. If you haven’t heard it in the parking lot, listen for Least Flycatcher here. The trail will eventually bring one to the abandoned Old County Road, which can be walked through deciduous woods for a mile or more. Use caution–it is possible to wander too far and become lost.
From the parking area, the trail to the left will lead to the bog. This trail goes down a short, gentle slope through hardwoods. Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Blackburnian warblers are often seen and heard along this section of the trail. Eastern Wood Pewees can also be heard. After going around a chain barrier you will come to a kiosk with a placard describing a few of the plants one can find on the bog. There is also a sign-in book where the Nature Conservancy would like you to document your visit. Because signing in helps the Nature Conservancy determine approximately how many people visit the bog, we usually sign the book.
Farther down the trail on the edge of the bog, one will come to the beginning of the boardwalk. Starting here, Canada Warblers will sing during May and June. Here, also, several Northern Waterthrushes invariably nest on both sides of the boardwalk. Canada Warbler and Northern Waterthrush are dependable here. The latter is often seen by scanning the top branches of trees, scattered along the perimeter of the bog to the left. The Canada Warblers are more challenging to see in the dense cover to the right, but they are almost as vocal as the waterthrushes. Magnolia Warblers are also expected after the start of the boardwalk. Cedar Waxwings are often seen anywhere along the boardwalk.
In May, there will be marsh marigolds in full bloom. The curious phantom crane fly is often seen here, slowly hovering in the low vegetation. As one continues on the boardwalk, Alder Flycatchers and Swamp Sparrows perch prominently in several places. During early June and again in late August, Olive-sided Flycatchers often visit the bog during their migration. Given the regular visits of these flycatchers and the breeding Eastern Phoebes, as well as possible visits of Yellow-bellied Flycatchers on migration, it’s possible to err by assuming
that any flycatcher is an Alder. Along this stretch, if your hearing can pick up the sound, you may hear Ruffed Grouse drumming repeatedly from the forest edge.
Continuing on the boardwalk, look and listen for a Red-Shouldered Hawk. Off in the distance, we almost always hear a Yellow-throated Vireo singing from the top of a tree on the edge of the bog, but we are rarely able to locate it with our binoculars. You will more likely hear the Wood Ducks calling as they fly away. White-throated and Song sparrows are common. At any time of year listen for Evening Grosbeak. I have had fly-overs here several times. By late fall, most of the summer residents have left, but you may see Tree Sparrows and Pine Siskins from the boardwalk.
Northern Pitcher Plant
In the middle of the bog, you will come to the end of the boardwalk, which loops around on itself. Here is a panoramic view of the bog and surrounding woods. It is peaceful here, and you will often find yourself alone. Tree and Barn swallows often work the nearby pond. Check the pond for Mallards. Great Blue Herons do not nest here, but they will visit in summer. Listen for Common Ravens, since there is almost always one calling. Scan the trees on the far side of the bog for hawks. Please do not venture off the boardwalk onto the mat. The mat is fragile and you will be trampling tiny, rare bog plants, such as the round-leafed sundew. The mat surrounding the pond, which is relatively thin, is also treacherous for people to walk upon.
Here is where the northern pitcher plants grow. They are exquisite carnivorous plants whose leaves form a vessel that holds rainwater. Insects are lured into the pitcher and can’t get out. They drown in the water, are digested, and thus become plant food. Later, in early to late summer, the tiny round-leafed sundew, another insect-eating plant, can be found by carefully inspecting the mat on both sides of the boardwalk. A magnifying glass may be helpful. Also visible here are a few species of wild, bog- loving orchids. White-fringed orchid and rose pogonia are two of the orchids you may encounter, depending on when you visit. These are small orchids, not the large, tropical kind that are sold in flower shops. Nevertheless, these orchids are beautiful. If you are interested in the orchids, bring a camera with telephoto capability.
As you retrace your steps back toward the edge of the bog, scan the spruce snags for finches, flycatchers, and woodpeckers. Black-backed is not here, but I have seen six species of woodpecker. Keep your ears open for a possible Boreal Chickadee—at least once I’ve heard a song that suggested this rare visitor but was not able to locate it. Brown Creepers and both nuthatches are residents. Also listen for Great Crested Flycatchers. Flowering plants along the boardwalk include wild cranberry, yellow loosestrife, and bog laurel.
Back at your vehicle, there are a few ways in which you can extend your time in this area. As mentioned above, you can take the other trail and explore cellar holes as well as an old logging road that allows relatively easy walking through the woods. In your car, if you drive west through the main section of Hawley, you can turn left onto Ashfield Road. This road quickly ascends to an area of potato fields. During the spring and summer, Vesper Sparrows can be found here. Continue on Ashfield Road and bear left onto Hawley Road. After passing Apple Valley Road on the left, you will come to Bear Swamp, a Trustees of Reservations property, on the right. Park along the pulloff and walk into this property, where there is relatively easy hiking on marked trails, with a spectacular variety of blooming native wildflowers in early to mid-May.
Robert Wood was born in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and grew up on the Jersey Shore. He discovered birding in 1982 when Phil Bedient took him to see a Gyrfalcon while he was living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He has lived in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, since 1987 and works as a Psychiatric Emergency Services Clinician for the Brien Center in Pittsfield. Robert Wood is a member of the Hoffmann and Allen bird clubs and lives in Windsor.