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Passage in the night: Volunteers guide salamanders to safety in annual migration

  • Jonathan Hills (left to right), Alexis Hills and David Northcott admire the spotted salamander Alexis holds along Glebe Road in Westmoreland as part of the Salamander Crossing Brigade program on Thursday night, April 12, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Children hold a spotted salamander found during the annual crossing. Each spring, when the conditions are just right, amphibians emerge en masse from underground.

  • Volunteers placed a sign along Glebe Road in Westmoreland as part of the Salamander Crossing Brigade.

  • Tiffanie Hills (left) makes a record of the spotted salamander her 14-year-old son Jonathan (right) found on Glebe Road in Westmoreland as part of the Salamander Crossing Brigade program on Thursday night. Photos by Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • A volunteer moves a spotted salamander across Glebe Road in Westmoreland as part of the Salamander Crossing Brigade program on Thursday night, April 12, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Six-year-old Molly Rent of Keene moves a couple of frogs and a spotted salamander from her blue bucket.

  • Volunteers move amphibians across Glebe Road in Westmoreland as part of the Salamander Crossing Brigade program on Thursday night, April 12, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Alexis Hills, 11, of Westmoreland bends down to pick up a tiny spring peeper frog found on Glebe Road in Westmoreland as part of the Salamander Crossing Brigade program on Thursday night. Photos by Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, April 14, 2018

Armed with a headlamp, reflective gear and a sturdy pair of rain boots, 11-year-old Alexis Hills bent down and picked up a spotted salamander the length of her palm.

“He’s a squirmy one,” she said before walking the creature to the edge of the pond on the other side of the road.

Hills and her family, of Westmoreland, joined more than a dozen other volunteers in the pitch black Thursday to aid an annual amphibian migration taking place right in their backyard.

“We had no idea that this went on on the first spring rain. No clue,” said mother Tiffanie Hills during Thursday’s warm, wet night as she recorded the number of salamanders and frogs her children ferried to safety.

The critters were crossing Glebe Road, moving from the woods that make up the back of the Hills property to Harvey Pond and the surrounding wetlands, unseen in the dark but marked by a chorus of spring peepers.

The volunteers are part of the Salamander Crossing Brigade, organized for the Monadnock region by the Harris Center for Conservation Education. Each year science director Brett Amy Thelen has mobilized the small army, now at about 150 people, once conditions are just right, something that varies greatly.

“The amphibian migration is weather dependent,” she said.

After spending the winter underground, amphibians like wood frogs and spotted salamanders emerge en masse each spring for their own mobilization to return to the vernal pools and wetlands they are wired to breed in.

For the Concord and Monadnock areas this generally happens in April or early May, but specifically it takes place during the first few warm, rainy nights when temperatures are above 40 degrees and the ground is completely thawed and snowless.

“When everything comes together it’s a pretty spectacular phenomenon because you’ll have hundreds of animals moving at any given site,” Thelen said.

Unfortunately when those sites involve a busy road, mortality rates skyrocket for the amphibian population, which is important for the local ecosystem.

“The big message around amphibians is that they are incredibly important in our forest food webs. They are food for nearly every vertebrate – snakes and birds and turtles and bears… nearly everything you can think of eats amphibians, and in turn amphibians eat an incredible amount of insects and invertebrates, so they are smack in the middle of the food web,” Thelen said.

“They’re really central to the functioning of northeastern forests.”

Since the program started in 2006 to counterbalance the losses, volunteers have collectively moved more than 36,000 amphibians across roads in the region. New this year, the city of Keene has closed off a portion of North Lincoln Street to allow for uninterrupted amphibian and human pedestrians during the “Big Nights.”

The Harris Center program is centered around the Monadnock region but a few other programs have popped up in the state. Thelen holds information sessions in early spring and often fields questions from people wanting to help in their local areas. She strongly advises people to seek training to best handle the sensitive amphibians and most importantly for their own safety.

Standing on a dark, rainy road in the fog is dangerous for humans, just as it is for animals.

Anyone who goes out should wear bright, reflective clothing and have a bright light. Volunteers should not attempt to stop traffic because that’s even more dangerous. Their job is to pick up the small frogs and salamanders and quickly help them across the road.

“We move them across the roads faster than they can move themselves,” said Thelen.

Finding precisely the right night to go out isn’t as easy as it sounds, which is why Thelen keeps the website updated with amphibian migration forecasts for her region and offers tips on predicting “Big Nights” for those outside southwestern New Hampshire.

Besides volunteering to be an amphibian shepherd, everyone can do their part by avoiding roads near water on warm, rainy nights not just during the spring migration but through to the fall.

“They are many other amphibians who are not necessarily migratory but who are just out and about on warm rainy nights in the summer,” Thelen said.

(Elizabeth Frantz can be reached at 369-3333, efrantz@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lizfrantz.)