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Northern Harrier flying
Northern Harrier © Kyle Wilmarth

Important Bird Area: Quabbin Reservoir Watershed

Map of the Quabbin Reservoir Watershed IBA site.

Nominated By

Chris Buelow, David Small


145,000 acres

Towns and Counties

Barre, Belchertown, Hardwick, New Salem, Orange, Pelham, Petersham, Shutesbury, Ware, Wendell; Franklin, Hampshire, Worcester


Department of Conservation and Recreation, MassWildlife, Trustees of Reservations, Mass Audubon, Harvard University, municipal, private

Major Habitats

northern hardwood forest, oak-conifer forest, early successional shrubland, conifer forest, emergent freshwater marsh, shrub-scrub wetland, lake/pond, river/stream Hardwick area: 75% oak-conifer transition forest, 10% northern hardwood forest, 3% early successional shrubland, 3% cultural grassland, 3% conifer forest

Land Use

hunting/fishing, agriculture/livestock, forestry, undeveloped

Serious Threats

residential and commercial development

Minor Threats

non-native invasive plants

IBA Criteria

  • Category 1: Sites important for long-term research and/or monitoring projects that contribute substantially to ornithology, bird conservation, and/or education.
  • Category 2: Sites containing assemblages of species characteristic of a representative, rare, threatened, or unique habitat within the state or region.
  • Category 4: Land Birds: The site is an important migratory stopover or seasonal concentration site for migratory land birds (e.g., warblers). Sites may also qualify on the basis of supporting exceptionally high densities of breeding species as shown from point counts or other surveys or if they represent "migrant traps" relative to surrounding areas. Strong consideration will be given to areas with consistently high overall species diversity..
  • Category 5: Sites regularly holding significant numbers of species of high conservation priority in Massachusetts.

Site Description

The Quabbin Reservoir Watershed (including the reservoir itself) covers 120,000 acres: 64 percent of this area is owned by DCR; the remaining 36 percent is permanently protected by state agencies and nongovernmental organizations including MassWildlife, Mass Audubon, TTOR, and Harvard Forest. The 29 percent of private unprotected lands consist of 24.1 percent forest, 1.4 percent open land, 1.2 percent agriculture, 1 percent open water, 1 percent wetland, and 1 percent residential development. The centerpiece of this watershed is the 27,000-acre Quabbin Reservoir. Surrounding the reservoir is a prime example of central New England forest. This IBA also includes the "Hardwick area", bordered on the west by the Quabbin Reservoir Watershed. The significance of the area is that it creates an intact corridor from the Quabbin to the Harvard Forest/Brooks Woodland Preserve area, and ultimately to the Ware River Watershed. Contained within the area of this roughly 25,000-acre section are the important watersheds of Moose Brook, Muddy Brook, and the East Branch Swift River. The habitat is almost exclusively high canopy, unfragmented, mixed forest on steep, hilly terrain that holds a great representation and density of interior forest-breeding birds.

Current Conservation Status

Because this IBA is the primary public drinking water supply for over 2.5 million Massachusetts residents, there is an extreme amount of interest in this land. The close proximity to large population centers also creates the need for a land-management plan that is supplemented with a public-access plan. These plans are periodically revised to reflect the most up-to-date scientifically based management guidelines. The presence and expansion of non-native invasive species has been identified by the DCR Office of Watershed Management as a potential threat to the landscape of the Quabbin Watershed. The locations of several species designated by the Massachusetts Natural Heritages Endangered Species Program (NHESP) as invasive were mapped (Small 1997), and DCR instituted a policy on invasive plants that is part of the land management plan for all of its watersheds. The majority of the Hardwick portion of this IBA is under private ownership, and thus the most serious threat is residential/commercial development. The East Quabbin Land Trust is working with some landowners, especially farmers, to obtain conservation restrictions on certain important properties.

Ornithological Significance

Three species of birds listed by the NHESP have been documented as successfully breeding at Quabbin. The Common Loon and Bald Eagle have been breeding at Quabbin since the 1980s, and the Pied-billed Grebe was confirmed in 2000 (W. Petersen, personal communication). Thirty-five species, on the Partners in Flight Priority Bird species list, are known to breed at the Quabbin and Hardwick area. These birds represent a range of forest-interior and obligate early-successional species. The Quabbin IBA represents the largest block of protected central New England forest in the region. Fluctuation of the reservoir level sometimes results in exposure of the old valley floor. At such times, the extensive flats may attract large numbers of migrating shorebirds, and grasslands may attract nesting birds reminiscent of the old valley before it was flooded to create the reservoir. The Hardwick area is dominated by mature, unfragmented, upland forest, composed chiefly of Red and Black Oak, Sugar Maple, and Black Birch, along with emergent White Pine and stands of Eastern Hemlock. This large block of forest represents the transitional/northern hardwood forest community and is currently supporting large numbers of breeding birds that inhabit these communities.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation, cooperating with MassWildlife, supports the annual collection of Breeding Bird Survey data. Employees of DCR participate in data collection of both road-based and interior-forest transects, documenting use of the Quabbin by songbirds. Several area colleges and universities use the Quabbin for research activities including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire College and Harvard University. These research projects have built a vast collection of information about the Quabbin and provide baseline data for future study.

Other Flora or Fauna of Significance

Through contract with the University of Massachusetts, DCR has developed comprehensive cataloging of rare plants and rare natural communities for the entire Quabbin. Species of special concern-the Wood Turtle and Triangle Floater (a freshwater mussel)-have been recorded in the Hardwick area.

Data Sources

The area was surveyed by Chris Buelow with the intent of establishing an Important Bird Area beginning on June 21, 2001, and surveying concluded on August 20, 2001. The methodology was generally to conduct a systematic walk-through of each area, typically in the peak vocal times of early morning or late evening, noting the number and activity of all species encountered. Wetland habitats, namely cattail beds, were surveyed between July 30. 2001, and August 5, 2001, either by foot or by kayak, and by use of playback tape for target species. Supplementary observations and records were used when past personal observations within the site from previous years could not be duplicated this year.