May 21, 2013

Historic Moore's Swamp in the Crosshairs

Moore's Swamp, highlighted by a winter's sunset
Concord is in the throes of deciding the fate of Moore's Swamp, a large and historic wetland that wraps itself around Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and is partially bisected by Bedford St./Rte. 62, which was constructed in the mid-1800's during Thoreau's lifetime.

On June 19, Moore's Swamp will once again be the focal point of a Natural Resources Commission public hearing to rule on a Notice of Intent (DEP File #137-1178) filed by Concord's Dept. of Public Works.  The DPW has proposed to clear and re-engineer clogged drainage culverts and effectively drain the swamp in an attempt to address some current and possible high water concerns.  Many are concerned that such action could fundamentally alter this important habitat for the town's rare Blanding's turtles, a growing and thriving great blue heron colony, an active beaver population, and a great diversity of wildlife and woody and herbaceous plants who make their home in transitioning red maple swamps.

Rootball tip-ups of blown over red maples in Moore's Swamp.  Tip-ups provide ideal micro-habitats for young Blanding's turtles under water and pioneering plant seedlings above the surface.
In his Journal, Thoreau left us a detailed description of Moore's Swamp more than 150 years ago, making it clear that it was, even then, a well established wetland with significant water depths, even in it's driest seasons when a thick crust of vegetation and debris covered its surface.  His observations are instructive and give us insight about the natural processes that are the focus of our town's concerns today, though now blamed on the beaver:

July 6, 1853.  I can sound the swamps and meadows on the line of the new road to Bedford with a pole, as if they were water.  It may be hard to break through the crust, but then it costs a very slight effort to force it down, sometimes nine or ten feet, where the surface is dry...The larch grows in both Moore's and Pedrick's swamp.  Do not the trees that grow there indicate the depth of the swamp?...I drink at the black and sluggish run which rises in the Pedrick's Swamp and at the clearer and cooler one at Moore's Swamp, and, as I lie on my stomach, I am surprised at the quantity of decayed wood continually borne past.  It is this process which, carried on for ages, formed this accumulation of soil.  The outlets of the valley being obstructed, the decayed wood is no longer carried off but deposited near where it grew.

View of Moore's Swamp from Sleepy Hollow cemetery, at its low-lying northern extension. This portion of the cemetery was built on a section of the swamp that was filled in 1959.
Thoreau's account continues, documenting with some amusement, the engineering challenges encountered when the town tried to run the new Bedford road through the swamp:

...Part of the Bedford road in Moore's Swamp had settled a few days ago, so much more that the water was six inches deep over it, when they proceeded to cart on more sand...half a dozen rods in length suddenly sank before their eyes, and only water and sand was seen where the road had been...As I calculate, at least ten feet in thickness of sand have been placed on this swamp, and the firm mud could not have been less than a dozen more...The weight of sand suddenly jerked this tremendous weight of mud right back onto the road, bottom up...a few rods more, with the culvert went down so that it was a full four feet under water, making it some seven or eight rods in all. Here was probably once a pond, which as filled up and grown over, but still a relic of it survives deep under the mud in the deepest part....There are thus the relics of ponds concealed deep under the surface, where they are little suspected, perchance, as under cleared and cultivated swamps or under roads and culverts.  

Join me now for a brief tour through Moore's Swamp beginning in the winter of 2013.  I will continue to add new photos as warm weather and new life return to the wetland.

Overlook of swamp from Author's Ridge, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
Beaver sign on the shoreline
Beavers create new habitat that promotes healthy species diversity both in and around wetlands
Varied understory habitat within the swamp
Coyote and fisher cross paths
Moore's Swamp is becoming an active and growing great blue heron colony

Many tip-ups (fallen trees) provide ideal habitat pockets for young Blanding's turtles and pioneering plants
Willow-herb seedlings growing in February
Fall down areas let in more sunlight and create opportunities for a greater diversity of swamp life
Pileated woodpecker activity creates new homes for nesting swallows, chickadees, great crested flycatchers, red-breasted nuthatches, screech owls, and other cavity-nesting birds
Several lichen species on fallen limbs help to fix and transfer nitrogen to the swamp
Fallen, old-growth tree now home to wildlife and tree fungus
Blizzard moving in, 2/8/13

Sixteen nests were counted in the swamp last winter, with twelve being occupied by late April.  I took these photos of the first returning pair going through their courtship rituals of display, caressing, and nest repair on March 21st.  

Spring dawns - great blue herons caressing on the equinox

Presenting a twig for the nest
Letting him have the pleasure of weaving it in
Resident beaver swimming below, responsible for much of the diverse life flourishing around and above him.
On March 24,  I returned to take check the colony and, while observing the nests, the initial pair  began to mate.
The male mounted the female and held her (gently, I hope) in place with the tips of his beak

After stepping off, he spreads one wing over her
Then for nearly five minutes they moved together with perfect synchronicity, beginning with a beak caress.
...followed by preening
...and finally a quiet paired stance
By mid-May, the swamp is a green, glowing expanse filled with birdsong and frog calls. Thirty-one heron nests can now be counted with twenty-four occupied.  Chicks are gaining size and strength and keeping their parents very busy.

One foraging parent returns and greets its mate
The tending parent leaves to forage, while the chicks feed on regurgitated food from the one just returned
Swamp ambiance

Pink ladyslippers and Canada mayflowers in bordering woodlands
3/16/16 update:  Matters of swamp drainage, hydrological management, and the critical impact this may have on this unusually diverse wetland and Blanding's turtle habitat and nursery will be up for a final critical review at a Natural Resources Commission meeting at 7 pm on Tues., March 16, 2016 in the first floor meeting room at 144 Keyes Road.  There is serious concern about the current proposal under consideration, by both area citizens and scientists.   Please come out to express your support and concern.


  1. Beautiful post Cherrie, I think you should also write some of this to a Letter to the Editor. Or perhaps, we can get some type of story going in the paper.

  2. Great Post! How do I get to Moore's Swamp ? I'd like to see if the blue herons are nesting there this year too. Thanks,