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Friends of Frogs, Savers of Salamanders: A Helping Hand for Amphibians Crossing the Road



Sunday, May 11, 2014
Whether they’re carrying toads across busy streets or tracking down vernal pools, for those trying to protect amphibians and their habitat, timing is key.

“Big nights,” when the animals migrate en masse, are difficult to predict. But on a rainy spring evening warm enough to melt snowpack, it’s a good bet salamanders, frogs and toads will be making their way to breeding pools.

After mating and laying their eggs, they return to the woods, where they stay until the following spring. Amphibians generally breed in the same pools year after year, often returning to the place they were born.

Recently, “crossing brigades” have sprung up to help those whose migratory paths cross heavily traveled roads.

Liz Masure and her family caught the bug last year after training at the Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory, which organizes crossings in southwest New Hampshire. Rather than drive to those sites and risk squashing amphibians along the way, Masure, who lives in Charlestown, found a spot closer to home — a “nice big stretch” of Route 5 in Springfield, Vt., along the Connecticut River. It’s busy with fast-moving traffic, so she and her husband, Craig, take their children out one at a time.

“The kids absolutely love it,” she said.

On April 22, over the course of 21/2 hours, the Masures and Liz’s father, Derek Simpson, carried 59 peepers, 47 spotted salamanders, 43 toads, 42 wood frogs, and five eastern newts to the marshy area alongside the road.

“Not as many as a couple of weeks ago, but definitely a lot more than I had expected!” Masure, who also saw her first redback salamander and giant water bug that night, said in an email. “We were very happy.”

Kerry Rochford Hague and her family have a name for the crossing craze: “salamander magic.”

“Once you get to hold the salamanders and look into their faces, you get hooked,” said Rochford Hague. “You hold this creature in your hand and you say, ‘Wow.’ ”

Every spring, she and her mother, husband and daughter carry critters across Oak Street in Newport. It’s a great opportunity to have a “really hands-on experience of nature,” said Rochford Hague, who home-schools her daughter, Jaeda. “Now we have such a heightened awareness about them, and being involved in the crossings, it connects us to the cycle of the seasons.”

Though their towns are a bit beyond its catchment area, Masure and Rochford Hague report their sightings to Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory, in Keene. Such “citizen science” data help scientists monitor amphibian populations and track rare species. Sightings can also be reported to the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas and New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program.

Volunteers also play a part in efforts to document vernal pools, habitat for numerous species of amphibians, insects, reptiles and plants. Steve Faccio, a conservation biologist with the Vermont Center for Ecological Studies, is working with volunteers to confirm more than 4,000 prospective vernal pools across Vermont, a first step in conserving the ephemeral waterbodies.

“They are such a valuable resource for the amphibian population, but there is not a statewide map for them like there is for other wetlands,” Faccio said. The information will be used to develop a monitoring system for vernal pools, “so we have a handle on what’s going on long-term, especially with climate change and how that might affect these species.”

It could also influence development. While it’s highly unlikely that a single vernal pool or even a cluster of vernal pools would stop a development, their presence may prompt some modifications, such as moving a driveway or a building a little bit, he said.

The best time to identify the pools is mid-April through June, when eggs are present, and before August, when they usually have dried up. “If you see them at that time of year, you might not even realize that it’s a wetland,” he said.

The pools are fed primarily by surface water such as snowmelt and runoff, with no permanent connection to other wetlands. That isolation makes them unsuitable for fish, which eat salamander and frog eggs.

Amphibians that evolved in permanent ponds have toxic eggs and larvae, which protect them against predation by fish. But that’s not the case for the handful of amphibian species, including wood frogs, spotted salamanders and Jefferson salamanders, that rely on vernal pools as their breeding sites.

“If we lose vernal pools, we are likely to lose local populations of these species,” Faccio said.

In addition to vernal pools, amphibians can also breed in gravel pits and man-made ponds, and even roadside ditches. Often affected by salt, erosion and roadside pollutants, ditches are not ideal — the water quality is poor and amphibians are very sensitive to toxins, said Brett Amy Thelen, program director of Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory. “But they do hold water and don’t have fish, which is often what salamanders are looking for.”

While amphibians have already reached their breeding pools this year, the season for frogs on the road isn’t over. Unlike other species, green frogs and bullfrogs breed in permanent bodies of water. But on rainy summer nights, they “might be out and about,” said Thelen, who encourages people to watch for the animals, especially near ponds, lakes and wetlands, and drive less on such nights.

Masure said she wished more people knew about the crossings.

“If people are more aware, they might decide not to go out in the rain, or slow down or help out,” she said. It would also save her the trouble of trying to explain her unusual volunteer work.

One night, during a frog migration, a police officer stopped to ask Masure if she was all right. Showing him the salamander in her hand, she explained what she was doing. “I think he thought I was a little crazy,” she said, laughing.

Mass amphibian migrations may be over for the year, but those who want to help vulnerable animals will have a chance during the upcoming weeks: Turtle activity is expected to peak from late May through early June, Vermont Fish and Wildlife officials said in a recent news release. To avoid “painful encounters with snapping turtles,” volunteers are advised to use a stick or shovel to push the reptiles across the road in the direction they’re heading.



Editor’s note: For more information about the mapping project, go to www.vtecostudies.org. To contact Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory, visit www.aveo.org. To find out about New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program, call 603-271-3421. For information about the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, email jandrews@middlebury.edu. Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.