Wood frogs lie frozen in suspended animation. Salamanders wait below the frost line for the signal to return where they were born. A trifecta of thawing ground, favorable temperature and rain cues them to emerge and migrate to vernal pools for nights of communal courtship and explosive breeding.
When they do, Keene, N.H., is committed to making sure they don’t land under the wheels of passing cars.
For the second year, Keene’s City Council unanimously voted to set up road closures and barriers on nights of major amphibian migration. It’s a two-way gift: nature returns the favor, leaving lasting impressions on those who thrill to see hundreds of frogs hopping out of the woods.
“This is the only time of the year when they come above ground and move, which is what makes it feel really kind of magical,” says Brett Amy Thelen, science director of Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock, N.H.
Thelen obsessively monitors weather and keeps a Five-Day Salamander Forecast on the center’s website. This year’s first big amphibian migration probably took place in the wee hours of April 8 while folks were slumbering. Fortunately, migrations happen over multiple nights, and on April 12, after some nail-biters, conditions finally looked promising for action during human waking hours.
The Keene Public Works Department got the green light from Thelen, put the word out on social media, and set road barriers and signage in place: North Lincoln Street would be closed to help an amphibian migration.
The prospect of a “Big Night” — when hundreds or thousands of amphibians might cross at a time — generates much excitement. Thelen hears from a lot of people — even those who won’t brave cold and rain, but feel proud of Keene for taking the step. One woman from across the state wrote:
“It gives me hope that Keene would do something like this . . . it gives me hope in a time when we don’t have a lot of hope about things.”
Since 2007, volunteers trained by the Harris Center have shepherded about 43,000 creatures across roads in the Monadnock Region of southwestern New Hampshire. Other programs exist across the country, some in warmer locales that swung into action earlier than Keene. The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area shuts down River Road to protect breeding amphibians; East Brunswick, N.J., has the Beekman Road crossing; and outside Philadelphia is the Schuylkill Center’s Toad Detour program.
Schuylkill saw its first action on the Ides of March, when 30 American toads and an unusual number of pickerel frogs made a showing. Volunteer coordinator Claire Morgan and helpers escorted them to a reservoir to lay eggs amid a backdrop of cattails and blackbirds.
In six to eight weeks, she says, volunteers return for a second phase to assist as hatched eggs turned “toadlets” make an arduous hop up the reservoir, across the road and back to the woods to perpetuate life anew.
Program directors agree that road closures are not as effective as more costly permanent solutions.
But a $347,000 price tag didn’t stop the townspeople of Monkton, Vt. After considering mortality data at one high-density crossing site, Monkton made the leap from brigades to infrastructure to assist unusual species, such as the blue-spotted salamander.
Through 10 years of determination buoyed by foundations, wildlife grants, fundraising and a Transportation Enhancement Grant, Monkton built culverts under the existing roadway with fencing to funnel in the tiny critters.
Jim Andrews works with Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, which keeps data on the state’s herptiles. He has seen the project’s success via camera: Before, hundreds might cross in a few hours nightly. Now, he says, a few thousand would not be surprising going in each direction.
To be fair, these residents of the forest were crossing here long before the advent of the retail store and resultant traffic now invading their stomping grounds.
Exactly how long?
Andrews’s estimate is mind-blowing, and he’s happy to rope in a few colleagues to confer:
Vermont was covered in ice until about 13,500 years ago, retired Vermont state naturalist Charles W. Johnson says, and the Champlain Sea covered much of the Lowlands until about 9,000 years back, adds Ray Coish, emeritus professor of Geosciences at Middlebury College. Then, allow a thousand years for a small creature to work its way up the Hudson River Valley to Monkton. All conclude the spotted-blue salamander has crossed here at least 8,000 years — a detail Andrews deems “suitably impressive.”
No surprise that Ambystoma laterale are unlikely to self-redirect any time soon to accommodate Homo sapiens. Some amphibians exhibit astonishing site fidelity — the phenomenon of returning to the same location year after year.
Consider Johnson’s conservationist friend who built a cabin on a hill only to find a parade of gray tree frogs the next spring, crawling up and over the house, heading for the woods.
“She realized with some chagrin and misgivings that she had positioned her house directly in their ancient migratory route,” Johnson said.
When the “Big Night” arrives in Keene, a child’s cry marks the first yellow-spotted salamander sighting of the season. “I see one, I see one.” Volunteers take photos for tracking, and Thelen thinks she recognizes one by the unique pattern of spots on its back.
An otherworldly scream — barred owl, a local assures — cuts through a chorus of chirps from the breeding pool. The sky grows darker, and spring peepers begin to dot the road. Raincoat-clad children, with parental guidance, help straggling frogs make the crossing, depositing their slimy finds on a ground sprinkled with pine needles and leaves.
The night brings back memories for Sarah Wilson, who kept buckets and jackets handy for outings when her daughter was younger.
“Sometimes it would just be the two of us on this dark sort of maybe-wet night walking back and forth on this road. And it would be quiet except for the peepers,” she says.
Emily Wilson, now a sound design graduate student at Yale University, attributes her “excitement for listening” to this special time bonding with her mom on rain-soaked nights.
Dozens of people have come and gone by 10 p.m., when City Councilors Maggie Rice, 25, and George S. Hansel, 33, arrive with friends in tow. Both attended training at the Harris Center and are game for some post-dinner fun.
The rain picks up. Frogs abundantly fill patches of lantern light. Kids have gone home to sleep, and grown-ups scurry with unabashed delight, cupping sticky critters in their palms.
“There’s something really powerful about holding a wild animal in your hand and knowing that you’re doing so in a helping way,” Thelen earlier reflected.
About midnight, the few remaining fix to leave, but stay to ogle when someone spots a wood frog amplexus — a pre-fertilization embrace. Male clings to female and gets a ride to the wetland to boot.
All in, the brigade counts 9 spotted salamanders, 336 wood frogs and 275 spring peepers (2 found dead past the barricades).
It’s quiet now, but for the chirps.
As this reporter takes chilled hands to the wheel and prepares to back up toward the gate where cemetery meets road, she pauses. Extra caution is in order, one being now a smidgen wiser to nocturnal dances underway, when the ground thaws just so and a few degrees move in the right direction.