Last night, in the final hours of March, the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills experienced a mild, soaking rain. The temperature reached in the mid-to-upper 40s and the prospect was excellent for the "big night" that kickes off the amphibian migration. This is one of the great movements of wildlife that few people recognize though it happens in our very backyards. I jumped the gun a week or so, when we had rain enough but the weather was a few degrees too cold, but I was certain that this night was the one. Once again bundled the children into their boots and pajamas and with flashlights in hand headed out for the back roads and byways of Sheffield Massachusetts and Salisbury Connecticut on the trail of the spotted salamander.
The grand movement of several species of mole salamander from their dusky upland hibernacula to the inky waters of downslope vernal pools is an annual New England event that for me heralds the real beginning of Spring. Their close companions on this journey are wood frogs, who like the rare Jefferson's and blue-spotted salamanders (which hybridize in this portion of their ranges) and the yellow spotted salamanders are obligate species for these ephemeral wetlands that hold water long enough for their eggs to hatch and (usually) for their larvae to mature without predation from fish and other denizens of permanent ponds. On early spring nights, the salamanders and wood frogs may be serenaded by spring peepers or co-occur with gray tree frogs, but those little amphibians do not require vernal pools to reproduce. By emerging this early they avoid some of their bigger, gluttonous competition, such as the green or bull frogs, but they still run a gauntlet wherever they must cross a road, as so often they must on their journey of up to 1/2 a mile from the high ground to the low. This is a great drama of death and renewal, and the hardest part about sharing it with children is that there are many broken bodies in the places where we delight in finding living creatures.
Emily and Elias were prepared, though, and as I turned onto the first of many local roadways we stopped to roll down the windows and hear our first chorus of peepers. We also found a wood frog, laden with eggs, hopping across the road, and more of them in a vernal pool I knew about, down along a dark field edge and under the silent trees. There were no salamanders in the pool, yet, but I knew they were out there, and sure enough as we took a crossroad lined with seepage wetlands and deep forests I saw a familiar shape and pulled the car over.
It was a spotted salamander, cold and sluggish and just passed the center line. We scooped it up and brought it over to the side of the road where the children observed it in the headlights. It was fat and wet and much bigger than the red backed salamanders we often find under rotten logs in the summer. The children named it Spotty and were thrilled to have saved it and helped it on its journey. It was the first salamander of the night, though not the last.
We found a Spring peeper and some wood frogs as well at this crossing, as well as a number of amphibian casualties. On Undermountain Road, a state highway that runs beneath the Taconic Plateau and above the Schenob Brook wetlands, we came upon a scene of carnage where many frogs and salamanders had been struck. I hoped to spare the children this sight, but there were living amphibians, too, and we found half a dozen spotted salamanders and numerous frogs that we could move out of the way of the heedless cars. It was growing late, and I took a back road home, when suddenly the road was carpeted in tiny gray tree frogs and numerous salamanders. There had been very little traffic here and most of what we saw emerging from the woods and crawling or hopping across the road were safe and sound.
On the way hope, two hours past their bedtimes, Emily and Elias were full of plans for a salamander crossing guard club that they would organize among their friends to help Spotty, and all the other spotties and their frog companions, reach their destinations on the first warm spring night, next year, when it rains. Maybe they will even get one of these towns to put in a tunnel at one of the heavy crossings.