Helping Vermont's migratory amphibians survive their spring awakening
There are no more welcome sights to a Vermonter’s eyes than the first signs of spring. Brave purple crocuses poke through the dusty ground, feisty robins stab the earth for plump worms, and pasty-white joggers break in their new running sneakers and clog the sidewalks.
But one harbinger of the changing season is largely hidden — the annual amphibian migration. On early spring evenings when warmish rains fall and the temperatures stay above freezing, salamanders and frogs hit the trails, moving from the upland wooded areas that have served as their homes over the winter to the vernal breeding pools where they will mate and lay eggs.
In other words, they’re on the move for some amphibian nookie. Judging by what these slimy little guys go through to get to the pools, it’s an epic booty call. Often their migration involves clambering over heaps of melting snow, steering clear of dive-bombing barred owls and dodging cars as they slink across busy roads.
That’s a lot to deal with when you’re no bigger than a stick of gum. But, thanks to herpetologist and University of Vermont adjunct professor Jim Andrews, they don’t have to go it alone. We can help the amphibs in their pursuit of some hot tail.
Ten years ago, Andrews, who created the online Vermont Reptile & Amphibian Atlas, found an amphibian crossing area in Salisbury that was ripe with diversity. There were blue-spotted, spotted, red-backed, four-toed and Jefferson salamanders, not to mention wood, mink and northern leopard frogs, spring peepers, and Eastern newts, among others. All were making their way across the road to get their breeding on.
“It’s a rite of spring, and everyone’s happy to get out,” Andrews says.
The crossing provided a perfect public education opportunity — everyday folks could observe the migration, help with the monitoring, and, in the process, learn a little more about conservation and this uniquely northeastern phenomenon. With Warren King of the Otter Creek Audubon Society, Andrews established two amphibian escort sites — one at the original crossing in Salisbury and one on North Street in New Haven. A third monitoring location on the Monkton-Vergennes Road is the site of a future amphibian underpass, thanks to a $150,000 federal highway improvement act.
At the first two sites (the third is too traffic heavy), volunteers of all stripes — college students, partents and their children, wildlife enthusiasts — assist with three or four migration movements each spring. This year, one of those escorts was me.
I can’t say I’ve ever given salamanders, newts or frogs much thought. If you asked me to elucidate the difference between an amphibian and a reptile, I can’t guarantee I’d nail the answer. But the idea of watching the little things hop and slither across the road piqued my interest. And the fact that I would be helping them get some action — I’d be a wildlife wingman of sorts — made the prospect of amphibian escorting all the more attractive.
On April 4, the first night of the migration, I headed down to New Haven with the official escort instructions, a multitude of flashlights and my friend Michael McDonald, a master’s candidate in natural resources at UVM. Michael knows everything about animals and had already participated in amphibian monitoring, so I figured he could serve as my human field guide.
When we arrived at the North Street section to be monitored, Barb Otsuka, president of Otter Creek Audubon and coordinator of this escort, met us and gave us our marching orders. She explained what species we might see and how to identify them.
Then she told us how to handle the creatures as we helped them across the road — gently and always with wet hands. Amphibians need to be moist, which is why they choose to make their move when it’s raining, or at least damp out.
Otsuka handed us monitoring sheets so we could keep a tally of how many amphibs we saw during the nearly two-hour escort period. Then, at 8:15 p.m., we were off.
The goal was to walk up North Street (the crossing is nearly a mile long) and count how many of each species we saw. But the only illumination on the road came from headlamps and flashlights, and it was hard to see anything except what was immediately in front of us.
Michael and I started our slow amble up the road, surveying the pavement with our flashlights and taking care not to tread on any critters. Immediately, my escorting partner-in-crime spotted a wood frog making a break for it near the yellow center line. After a few hops, the frog paused in the middle of the lane, clearly winded by the effort.
Depending on the species, Andrews explained later, amphibians travel between 600 and 1000 feet during migration. When the weather conditions are conducive to travel, they wake from hibernation, shake off the duff under which they’ve been snoozing and get moving. But they’re cold and tired, plus they’re tiny, so walking a distance equivalent to three-quarters of a running track is tough work.
Before the frog could get motoring again, Michael scooped him up and pointed out his identifying characteristics. Wood frogs tend to be dark tan with a black mask behind their eyes and about 1 to 2 inches long.
A fellow volunteer was in charge of our tally sheet. She noted our find, and Michael released the frog on the side of the road closest to its destination. Then off the little frog bounded toward his watery love shack.
As we walked, we saw a frog here, a salamander there, but no mass rush across the road. The temperature was about 48 degrees, and the rain had stopped a few hours earlier.
About half an hour into the movement, amphibian activity started to heat up. Michael, an apparent salamander whisperer, spied a dozen fat, black-spotted salamanders in short succession; these are easy to identify by the prominent yellow dots that cover their bodies.
At this point, I was merely watching Michael and other volunteers shepherd the amphibians across the road. But then I was asked if I wanted to ferry a minuscule spring peeper myself. I said yes, despite being somewhat squeamish when it comes to unpredictable wild creatures. Granted, handling a frog the size of a gumball is not as scary as, say, holding a cobra, but still.
The spring peeper, identifiable by a small brown X on its back, was not all that into accepting a ride from a total stranger, which I can understand. I’m not sure I’d take a ride from me, either. I cupped my hand on the ground and encouraged him to hop into it. Like a truculent 2-year-old, he wouldn’t budge. I tried gingerly tapping his little bum, but he wasn’t having it. He tried to escape.
When I finally got him in my wet mitt, the peeper protested his capture by squirting slime all over my palm. This is a defense mechanism, Andrews explained — the amphibian’s last-ditch effort at self-protection. I was only trying to help the little guy, and he gooped me. Jerk.
As the evening progressed, more amphibians descended from the hills, and more volunteers filled the road. It became difficult to walk without crunching a salamander or a frog. In fact, a flashlight sweep of the road revealed a handful of smashed amphibs, victims not only of speeding cars — which seemed to take no notice of the dozens of people with glowing headlamps signaling them to slow down — but also of clumsy volunteers. In an email report on the evening, Andrews upbraided careless observers for driving up the mortality rate.
Still, we didn’t do so badly. My group tallied more than 100 amphibians and helped them cross safely. In the process, we contributed to a rough survey of amphibians in Vermont.
“Ideally, the hope is that those people who volunteer will start looking around for other places and report activity in those places,” Andrews said.
For the next couple of weeks, if you see salamanders and frogs crossing a road, you’ll know why — because they’re getting some. Maybe stop and give them a hand. And if they leave it slimy, well, don’t take it personally.