Sunday, July 27, 2014

13.Help a Salamander Cross the Road

One of the best things that happens when you open yourself up to new experiences is that you discover little worlds populated with events and creatures (human and otherwise) and customs that have been operating all around you, but you just never noticed.  Such is the case with New Thing #13. Although I never knew it till this year, every spring there is a migration that takes places over a couple of nights that is secretly assisted by a tiny army of volunteers.  Although it will happen every year, the exact date is determined by the weather, and so these volunteers must be at the ready, waiting for the onset of warmer weather and then the first warm(ish) night of rain.  For that is the night that many of Vermont's frogs and newts and salamanders go on the move, making their way to the vernal pools where they will mate and lay eggs for the year.  The catch is that there are lots of human-created obstacles -- roads especially -- in their way.  And this is where the volunteers come in. Unbeknownst to me, for years there have been folks who know some of the key places where amphibians are most vulnerable in their crossing, and they return, like the little critters, to those spots to patrol.  This year, I got to join them.

In case you were wondering, this is what a spotted salamander looks like.  How could you not want to help a little guy like this get to his hot date at the vernal pool?

Of course, in Vermont, the weather is always tricky, so in fact, I joined them twice.  The first night, April 22, started out as significantly warmer than the days that had preceded it, and the forecast was for rain.  Jon and I joined our friend Caitlin (and a host of people ranging from parents with little children excited to be staying up past their bed time to a group of three older women with walkers who told us they come every year) on Pond Road near Shelburne Pond and began our patrolling. Alas, very quickly the cold rain turned into hail and snow.  Some amphibians had made the same mistake we had, though, and put their bet on the wrong night, so we spent an hour or so walking up and down our stretch of road and moving some little guys across the road and out of harm's way.

Jon and Caitlin braving the cold and hail and snow to hang out with our amphibian friends.

The next night, though was the real thing.  A much warmer rain was following, and so we returned to our crossing, this time with our friends Amanda and Julia in tow.  Jon was able to increase the rest of our amphibian knowledge and vocabulary, pointing out various types of salamanders and toads and their egg sacks, and increasing our vocabulary with words like "amplexus" (basically, foreplay for salamanders). We relocated teeny spring peepers, and larger (but still small) wood and leopard frogs, as well as spotted salamanders and red spotted newts.

The tree frogs we gave escorts to were as cute as a button -- and not much bigger.

Next year, the plan is to assemble a Salamander-Team-in-Waiting that will be on call for the big night so we can have dinner together and then head out for a few hours of crossing guard duty.  Until then, I'm always on the lookout for my favorite amphibian, the adolescent version of the eastern newt, the red eft.  Red efts live on land during their young adulthood, until they head back to the water and change to their adult form.  They also have a charming habit of showing up during hikes and on approaches to rock climbing cliffs in Vermont, and I think a great day becomes a perfect one if it includes a red eft spotting. 

Our lone red eft encounter during the two nights. As you can see, this little guy was starting to darken up and assume his adult form.  I guess he had decided to put away his childish things and come sit at the adult table (or vernal pond in this case).

The takeaway is this: if your age was in single digits the last time you hung out with frogs and salamanders, it's time to get outdoors.  There's a whole hidden-in-plain-sight world of creatures (and people who know tons about them) all around us, and it's a really worthwhile endeavor to get plugged back into it. 

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