The EwA Vernal Pool

Awareness & Protection Project

Field Protocol

Community-based Citizen Science in a Massachusetts Urban Woodland

EwA is focused on ecological ethics, and consequently asks its citizen scientists to follow ethics rules that are stronger than those listed in most guides & recommendations. In this sense, the EwA protocol does not replace the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program’s Guidelines for the Certification of Vernal Pool Habitat (NHESP-VPCERT), but adds to it. Theses guidelines outline the protocol that the State of Massachusetts recommends for certifying vernal pools. The EwA protocol extends these guidelines in that it also includes EwA field ethics recommendations and rules of conduct so as to further minimize human disturbance during the documentation process. Additionally, it provides good tips for increasing the chance to find vernal pool evidence and to improve the quality of the documentation. This protocol also adapts a few tips, descriptions and recommendations from great Vernal Pool Guides (for the New England range).

Prior to going “in the field”, please study both this EwA VPP field protocol, and the NHESP-VPCERT.

Once you have gathered all the necessary field documentation, we recommend that you submit your evidence and documentation through the Vernal Pool & Rare Species (VPRS) Information System.

Protocol Details

Vernal Pool Definition & Documentation Overview        2

Physical characteristics of a Vernal Pool        2

Biological characteristics of a Vernal Pool        2

Massachusetts Vernal Pool Methods of Identification        3

Obligate Species Method        3

Facultative Amphibian Species Method        4

Vernal Pool Location Documentation        5

Photos for Locating a Pool at a Later Time        8

Physical Evidence Documentation        8

Indicator Species Documentation        8

EwA Pool Sampling Protocol *        9

Equipment        9

Etiquette        9

Process        10

Tips for Photographing Evidence for VP Certification *        11

Know your Camera / Sharpen your Photography Skills        11

Pool Photos (Physical Evidence)        11

Amphibians & Reptiles (Tips for Taking Photos for Identification)        12

Organism Photos (Biological Evidence)        12

‘Pond’ Investigation Resources        13

NHESP Vernal Pool Field Information Form        18

References & Further Reading        19

Vernal Pool Definition & Documentation Overview

Physical characteristics of a Vernal Pool

Biological characteristics of a Vernal Pool

Vernal pools indicators are the species that require or use vernal pools for part of their life cycle, respectively.

For a pool to be characterized as a vernal pool, it needs to support at least one primary vernal pool indicator, or a certain number of secondary vernal pool indicators and lacks a viable fish population.

  1. Primary vernal pool indicators – presence or physical evidence of amphibian breeding (wood frog, marbled salamander, spotted salamander, Jefferson salamander, blue spotted salamander complex) or presence of fairy shrimp.
  2. Secondary Vernal Pool Indicators – presence or physical evidence of amphibian breeding (spring peeper, gray treefrog, american toad and Fowler’s toad).

Other useful indicators for tracking potential vernal pools include -but not limited to- caddisfly larvae and cases (Limnephilidae, Phryganeidae, or Polycentropodidae), clam shrimp and their shells (Laevicaudata, Spinicaudata), fingernail clams and their shells (Sphaeriidae), aquatic beetle larvae (Dytiscidae, Gyrinidae, Haliplidae, and Hydrophilidae), dragonfly larvae and exuviae (Aeshnidae, Libellulidae), spire-shaped snails and their shells (Physidae, Lymnaeidae), flat-spire snails and their shells (Planorbidae), damselfly larvae and exuviae (Coenagrionidae, Lestidae), and true fly larvae and pupae (Culicidae, Chaoboridae, and Chironomidae).

Massachusetts Vernal Pool Methods of Identification

Obligate Species Method

This is the most direct method way to certifying a vernal pool in Massachusetts.

NHESP-VPCERT‘s Biological and Physical Criteria & Evidence Accepted for Certification:

Facultative Amphibian Species Method

Since facultative amphibians can use a variety of wetland habitats it is especially important when using this method that the pool photos demonstrate the physical characteristics necessary to sustain a vernal pool environment (e.g., depth, size, vegetation). If there is any doubt, the NHESP may require additional evidence.

NHESP-VPCERT‘s Biological and Physical Criteria & Evidence Accepted for Certification:

Vernal Pool Location Documentation

NHESP-VPCERT‘s Mapping Requirement

3 types of maps are required for certification and the pool locus must be clearly delineated and identified (your pool name or tracking #) on each map:

1. U.S. Geological Survey topographic map (copy) (1:24,000 or 1:25,000 scale) - topos can be downloaded from MassGIS at - scroll down to “Browser Based Mapping Applications”, then to “Quick Links” and select “USGS Topographic Maps”.

2. Color orthophotos (copy) (1:12,000 scale or better) - orthophotos can be downloaded from MassGIS at

3. One additional map or form of location data to help clarify the pool’s location, as follows:

  • Sketch map - directions and distances from landmark(s), readily identifiable in the field, should be marked and clearly described on the map; if submitting a breeding chorus, the location of the chorus (pool) and recording site can be delineated on this map , OR
  • Assessors map - available from local tax assessor’s offices, include the map and parcel, OR 
  • Professional survey, OR 
  • GPS longitude/latitude coordinates.

Precise mapping of the vernal pool location is essential for its documentation and protection. Maps and descriptive information should enable others, unfamiliar with the area, to locate the pool for verification, follow-up observations or protection. Before you go “in the field” to survey vernal pools, study the maps you need for documentation (e.g., GIS maps, topographic maps).

The following information will help pinpoint the vernal pool:

Box.1 -  Writing directions to a location

A good written description should include:

  • a)  a precise description of a logical starting point for a person walking to the pool, (e.g.,
  • “Start at the intersection of Mill Rd. and Spring Lane, 1.2 miles north of Brookfield Town line...”);
  • b)  the distance from the starting point to the pool, in feet;
  • c)  the direction of travel, including compass bearing;
  • d)  distinctive permanent landmarks along the path of travel and/or at the pool.

Detailed Location Information – this information should show the relationship of the pool to at least two permanent landmarks, preferably within 1,000 feet of the pool. The landmarks may either already appear on the map or be drawn in by you. The necessary information may be provided in one of the following ways:

a) You may sketch onto the tax map the locations of two permanent landmarks. It is helpful to provide:

  • compass bearings from landmarks to pool;
  • measured distances from landmarks to pool;
  • a written description of the landmarks.

b) You may submit an aerial photograph on which you have marked the location of the vernal pool and permanent landmarks, as well as other pools in the area.

Fig.1 -  Example of a topographic map

Box.2 -  Sketch Map

The Field or Sketch Map – should include the following information:

a)  the bearing and distance to the pool from a logical, specific starting point (such as the road or trail you walked to get there);

  • b)  distances and bearings from at least two permanent landmarks within 1,000 feet of the pool. Show on your map the point from where you took your bearings;
  • c)  the approximate size and shape of the pool, including compass orientation;
  • d)  locations of sightings of indicator species, such as salamander egg masses;
  • e)  any other significant identifying features, such as fallen trees in the water, rock out- crops, distinctive stands of trees (e.g., Atlantic white cedar), etc.;
  • f)  the point location(s) from which you took general photographs of the pool.

EwA Tip: Better, you can use a trail tracking app to record the shape of the pool (e.g. Gaia app), then edit it, adding annotations recording distances, sightings, etc.

Photos for Locating a Pool at a Later Time

Taking a photograph of a general view of the pool will make it easier for others to locate it in the future. To be usable, a photograph should include identifiable permanent landmarks, if at all possible. In addition, you should note the following information in your field notebook for later transfer to a printed photograph or file name:

Physical Evidence Documentation

– Photos or Video of Pool Holding Water and Dry

NHESP-VPCERT‘s Physical Documentation Requirements

  • Photograph(s) or video of the entire pool including any inlets or outlets (e.g., any streams, culverts) are required and must be of suitable quality (resolution, focus, scale) so pool features can be reliably assessed. One or more identifying landmarks (e.g., stand of trees, stumps, boulders, rock walls, etc.) to authenticate the pool location must be included. If unable to photograph the entire pool in a single photo, take a “panorama” series. (See Photo Tips)
  • Photo(s) or video must be labeled with pool location (town), pool name or tracking # (e.g. VP#1, Elm St. VP), date taken, & observer’s name.
  • Documentation must be collected within 3 years prior to submittal date to NHESP.  

Indicator Species Documentation

– Photos, Video, or Audio of Amphibians Breeding Evidence or Fairy Shrimps

NHESP-VPCERT‘s Biological Documentation Requirements

Photographic prints are the preferred method of documentation but video of evidence or audio recording of chorusing frogs or toads are acceptable. Field notes are encouraged and helpful, but are not accepted as the sole source of evidence.

  • Photos, video, or audio must be of suitable quality (resolution, focus, clarity, indicators of scale (e.g., coin, lens cap, ruler) so species identification can be confirmed. (See Photo Tips) 
  • Photos, video, or audio must be labeled with pool location (town), pool name or tracking # (e.g. VP#1, Elm St. VP), date taken, & observer’s name.
  • Each individual egg mass or mated pair required for certification (e.g., all 5 wood frog egg masses) must be photographed or videotaped. If more than the minimum required number is observed, photo the required number, and count or estimate the total number and indicate this on the Vernal Pool Field Observation Form.
  • Only audio tapes of full amphibian choruses (calls are constant, continuous & overlapping) are accepted (see Protocol Description at: provided the location of chorusing (i.e., exact pool location) and the location of your recording site are accurately mapped.
  • Documentation must be collected within 3 years prior to submittal to NHESP.

There are particular species that use vernal pools during specific life stages only or most of the time and they are considered indicator species, which includes certain amphibians and macroinvertebrates.

EwA Pool Sampling Protocol *

To get a good, recognizable photographic evidence you might have to enter the pool for collecting temporarily a specimen, or you might have to handle a specimen.

In all cases the citizen scientists need follow strict rules so as to protect both themselves, and the specimen and generally the species of that specific habitat. Pictures of an animal in the hand are acceptable, however in such case it is imperative to follow impeccable and unharmful handling etiquette.


  Make sure that you clean thoroughly your gear and equipment between pools, so as to avoid any possibility of spreading of invasive species, and of contaminating sites.



 At all time, follow the EwA Herping Rules when visiting, investigating pools or when gathering evidence for the certification of vernal pools.

Move slowly and carefully and minimize handling of animals. Strive for only minor and temporary disruption of the pool.

Handle animals very carefully; keep your hands moist, keep the animal cool, be careful of a salamander’s tail – it can easily detach. Work quickly, do not detain the animal longer than necessary. Never handle animals if you have used insect repellent on your hands or body! No dog can be onsite either.

9 Gentle ‘Herp’ Rules

To observe around any kind of

amphibian & reptile

 Goto Rules  » 

We also encourage you to study our EwA Wetland Rules, to get familiarized with these fragile habitats, and learn how to protect them.


1. Visually survey the pool from the shore; look for emergent vegetation along the shore and within the pool (these could be attachment sites for spotted salamander egg masses), look for open areas (these could be sites for wood frog egg mass deposition)

Listen for calling frogs e.g., Wood frog 🔈, Spring peepers 🔈, Eastern gray treefrog 🔈, and American toad 🔈(*)

2. Enter the pool and start in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Visually search for eggs and tadpoles or larvae on the leaf litter on the pool bottom.

3. Using either the net or plastic tub, periodically take a scoop of the leaf litter and search for tadpoles, salamander larvae and fairy shrimp.

4. Walk along the shoreline at a water depth of about 1 foot; check aquatic emergent vegetation either in deeper water or towards the center of the pool as you encounter it.

5. Leave the pool at the original point of entry if possible.

Documentation should be ongoing as you move around the pool. Obligate and facultative organisms may either be photographed in situ or captured and photographed in the plastic container and then released.

Tips for Photographing Evidence for VP Certification *

(*) Sources: NHESP-VPCERT (page 9) + Identifying and Documenting Vernal Pools + EwA Wildlife Documentation Photography Essentials.

The biological and physical evidence required for vernal pool certification must be documented by photos and/or video (or audio for frog/toad chorusing) of suitable quality (resolution, focus, indicators of scale) so species identification can be confirmed and pool features be reliably assessed. Because this often requires close-up photographs in generally poor lighting conditions, some general “rules of thumb” are included below to help you produce good photos/video.

Be sure to include in your field notes the date, location and comments regarding any photographs you take.

Know your Camera / Sharpen your Photography Skills

Know the limitations of your camera. The use of digital cameras has made photography easier by allowing you to see your photo before you leave the area. It doesn’t make things easier when the animal is only around for a couple of seconds. Many fixed focus (point and shoot) cameras cannot focus closer than three or four feet. Read your instruction manual to be sure. Make sure you know how to focus your camera on closer objects. Even some smartphone cameras can take excellent close-up photos.

A flash can greatly increase your chances of getting a useful photograph, except that the flash will reflect off of any wet surfaces and eliminate some of your intended subjects. Take multiple photos and submit the best.

Hold the camera as steady as possible or use a tripod to avoid blurred images.

Take several photos, or extra photos using different backgrounds and light settings, to be certain you end up with a clear photo.

Process or view your photos immediately so you can return to the pool for better photos, if needed.

Pool Photos (Physical Evidence)

Photographs of the vernal pool need to be clear and show as much of the pool as possible.

They must include a landmark to authenticate the pool location (e.g., stand of trees, stump, a boulder, rock wall, etc.).

If unable to photograph the entire pool in a single photo, try to photograph the pool in a “panorama” series.

When photographing pools ‘holding water’, also include photos of any inlets or outlets (e.g., streams, culverts) observed entering or leaving the pool.

Amphibians & Reptiles (Tips for Taking Photos for Identification)

Here are a few guidelines are provided to help you take photographs of amphibians and reptiles that can use used to identify the species, where possible.

Although snakes and turtles are not vernal pool indicator species, they may be encountered. For the process of certifying a vernal pool, photographs of any amphibian or reptile you observe are encouraged.

Frogs. Virtually all frogs can be identified by a three-quarter view, where you are slightly above and off to one side of the animal. This view will show most identifying features, such as a mask, spots, warts and dorso-lateral folds.

Salamanders. Most salamanders are easily identified from a photograph that is taken directly above them. Since most species are small, try to get as close as your lens will allow. Try to show all legs. It is best to place the salamander on a neutral colored background (a leaf, light bark or backpack) for contrast. A picture of the underside is helpful for identification of some species.

Turtles. Most of the time a good picture of the top shell (carapace) will suffice. The young of some species of turtles have a different pattern from the adults, so be sure to get a clear shot. A picture of the bottom shell (plastron) is also recommended.

Snakes. As a group, snakes have a wide variation in colors and patterns, even within members of the same species. Hatchling and juvenile snakes can be dramatically different from adults in color and pattern, and some species have various color morphs as adults. It is best to photograph from above from as close (and safe) a position as possible.

Organism Photos (Biological Evidence)

Biological evidence from the pool needs to be documented by photographs/video that confirms amphibian breeding (i.e., mated pairs of frogs/toads, congressing salamanders, spermatophores, egg masses, larvae, or transforming juveniles) or the presence of fairy shrimp (see NHESP-VPCERT  Certification Criteria for specific requirements).

Mated pairs of wood frogs and congressing salamanders typically need to be photographed at night. A flash can sometimes illuminate the water surface, impeding the view underwater, so a flashlight can be used to illuminate subjects underwater (however generally minimize the use of white light so as to reduce stress, and favor red light when moving around at night).

Spermatophores are found on the bottom of the pool. Reflections on the surface can sometimes block underwater images and can be eliminated in two ways: 1) position an object (or person) to cast a shadow over the area you are photographing, or 2) use a polarizing filter on your camera.

To photograph egg masses, place a light-colored background (e.g., yellow foam meat tray, Frisbee, white board) behind the masses so they are clearly visible against the dark water and more easily identifiable; they should not be removed from the water and only minimally disturbed. Also try and include something in the photo for scale (e.g., backing tray with measurement markings, a hand, net, etc.).

Larvae and fairy shrimp usually need to be briefly removed from the pool to be photographed. Place larvae or fairy shrimp in a small container (e.g., margarine tub, foam meat tray, clear plastic baggie) filled with pool water or photograph in your hand.

‘Pond’ Investigation Resources

See the References section for a few great guides that we use when exploring ponds and investigating potential vernal pools.


For those who travel light in the field, below are a few handy resources to have with you and to show to an audience when investigating pools...

Timing of use by Vernal Pool Primary Indicator Species

Source: Identifying and Documenting Vernal Pools  by Marchand, M. (3rd edition)

Vernal Pool Indicator Species (during the Breeding period) / Key

Source: Identifying and Documenting Vernal Pools  by Marchand, M. (3rd edition)

Eggs and Larvae of Amphibian Vernal Pool Species

Amphibian Eggs

Source: Identifying and Documenting Vernal Pools  by Marchand, M. (3rd edition)

Characteristics of Frog and Salamander Larvae

Source: Identifying and Documenting Vernal Pools  by Marchand, M. (3rd edition)

Characteristics of Larval Amphibians Using Vernal Pools

Source: Identifying and Documenting Vernal Pools  by Marchand, M. (3rd edition)Source: Identifying and Documenting Vernal Pools  by Marchand, M. (3rd edition)

NHESP Vernal Pool Field Information Form


The 2-page Vernal Pool Field Information form is located at the end of the NHESP-VPCERT guidelines.

References & Further Reading

EwA Etiquette: EwA’s Herping Etiquette

EwA Etiquette: EwA Wetland Rules 

EwA Nature Activity: Ephemeral Living » Vernal Pool Explorations 

Regional Certification Process Documentation 

Vernal Pool Guides

The 2 book guides have very good species profiles that come very handy in the field. The Audubon ‘Pond Watchers’ trifold is an invaluable resource in the field, with short descriptions of the pond & pool cycles, and their resident species. All 3 are great teaching resources. ✉

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