Ralph Gardner Jr: I Brake For Salamanders

Apr 6, 2019

Spotted salamander
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

One should always exhibit caution when driving at night. But especially during March and April in these parts. That’s when some of our favorite amphibians – though I should probably speak only for myself – can be spotted crossing the road to get to the other side.

And why are they crossing the road, you might ask yourself? And if you don’t you should because there are few things that rouse our spirits and redeem our natures as much as allowing ourselves, no matter the challenges of life, to remain susceptible to the marvels of the natural world.

They’re crossing the road to reach vernal pools to breed. Or perhaps returning from them since some frogs already appear extremely pregnant.

It’s actually a full-blown migration, though the critters rarely travel more than a few hundred feet; then again if you’re a northern spring peeper approximately one inch long and most at home in trees and underbrush dodging traffic on blacktop, a few hundred feet can feel very far and exhausting indeed.

And what are vernal pools, you might ask? As I did when I joined Arianna Ferrario of the Columbia Land Conservancy on a recent evening in the hope of finding peepers, wood frogs and salamanders and saving them from the vicissitudes of steel-belted radial tires.

So vernal pools are small, temporary, woodland bodies of water. And they constitute essential breeding grounds for amphibians because they don’t have to worry about being gobbled up by fish that, for obvious reasons, avoid bodies of water that all but dry up during the summer months.

Ms. Ferrario, a Conservation Easement Stewardship Assistant with the Conservancy, cautioned me that the conditions weren’t ideal when we ventured out just after nightfall because it wasn’t raining. Perhaps unsurprisingly, amphibians, who have an especially life-affirming relationship with H2O, prefer rainy nights to facilitate their odysseys.

However, the temperature was right: at or above forty degrees after sunset and it was moist, having rained earlier in the day.

Ms. Ferrario had also suggested I come equipped wearing a headlamp and a reflective vest, so I wouldn’t get pancaked by a pickup truck; to wit, become a statistic of just the sort we were hoping to help our toad friends avoid.

I did her one better, arriving with a spotlight that cast a powerful beam up and down our mostly deserted country road.

I recommend such a device to everyone. If you’re the type who fears there are creatures lurking in your woods, you’ll find your paranoia ameliorated when armed with a trusty rechargeable lamp approximately the intensity of those searchlights employed during the Battle of Britain.

Shining the spotlight also served to warn the few cars that passed us during our hour rescuing frogs and salamanders to slow down.

If any of them thought it unusual to happen upon pedestrians wearing headlamps, carrying clipboards and shooing frogs along a country road they didn’t let it show.

But if they had stopped what we’d have told them was that amphibians are declining around the world. The greatest threats to our local populations include habitat loss, pesticides, disease and, of course, roadkill.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Cornell University, in conjunction with conservation groups such as the Columbia Land Conservancy, has created a program where volunteers go out to amphibian migration road crossing in early spring both to catalogue the tiny, slimy beasts and move them out of harms way.

On the DEC website you can even download official Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Data Collection forms to enter information such as the current and past precipitation conditions, traffic volume, and, of course, the kind and quantity of salamanders, frogs and toads you encountered.  

It wasn’t long before Ms. Ferrario and I spotted our first candidate, a peeper sitting in the approximate geographic center of the road. Ms. Ferrario, who grew up in Brooklyn and moved to New Hampshire where she earned a masters degree in environmental studies and conservation biology before migrating herself, to the Hudson Valley in November, did her best to determine which direction the pepper was heading and send him on his way.

Obviously, it would have been counterproductive to return him from whence he came, and probably also highly frustrating for the frog who’d just have to retrace his or her steps.

However, sometimes it wasn’t easy to tell.

Nonetheless, we rescued ten wood frogs and thirteen spring peepers.

It wasn’t until we were heading back to my house that we spotted our first salamander. He, or perhaps she, was a handsome dark grey specimen with bright yellow spots. And not small, either. Six inches or longer.

Ms. Ferrario took its photograph, explaining that you can identify individual salamanders by their spot patterns.

We found two more of them before the evening was done. However, no Jefferson or marbled salamanders, or for that matter, the garish reddish-orange eastern newt.

And while you may want to shield the tender ears of children, we also encountered four deceased wood frogs and two peepers, the animals probably having perished just in the amount of time we walked a half mile or so down the road and back again, undoubtedly to motorists, even though no more than three or four cars passed during our outing.

As I was saying, if you’d like to join the project you can find more information, as well as a volunteer handbook and forms on the DEC website.

You might even get to hold a salamander in your hand. They’re cute and slippery with dexterous little feet. I’d recommend the experience to anybody.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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