Tuesday, June 2, 2020

In search of spring salamanders

By Thompson Tomaszewski, Lead Naturalist, Paul Smith’s College VIC

Every resident of the Park marks the changing of the seasons in their own way. We all joke about the “12 seasons of the Adirondacks” that include second winter, false spring, mud season (followed by third winter) and so on as if we are bothered by the seasonality of our landscape, but that is far from the truth. Us blue-liners have come to terms with our seasonal lives, and find excitement in the signs of seasonal changes.

The call of spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) (pictured at left) is by far my favorite sound; no noise of any other critter compares. I could sit and listen for hours on end to their high pitched peeps. This, to me, is the song of spring in the Adirondacks.

Laced into this soprano song is the clucking call of the wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Their rough tune is starkly contrasted with that of their neighbor’s but is equally a part of this choir that I’ve come to know and yearn for each April.

This choir is my favorite for two reasons: 1) it’s pleasing to the ear, and 2) it means that salamanders are getting ready to move.

When temperatures of about 40℉ and rain come together in the boreal forest, yellow-spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) stir. These incredible animals spend most of their lives underground or hidden deep in rotting logs, munching on insects and remaining largely unseen and forgotten. Once a year, in order to reproduce, they show themselves.

Yellow-spotted salamanders breed in the same vernal (or temporary) pools that spring peepers and wood frogs do. As they make their pilgrimage to the very same pools that they were born in, these salamanders often have to cross roads and trails built by humans. In New York state, roughly 40% of amphibians are killed by human traffic before they reach their destination.

On a night when these conditions are forecast, shivering in the wind and being pelted by cold rain, my roommate, coworker, and I look to help them cross the road safely. I stand in full rain gear, headlamp aimed at the ground in front of me, flashlight in my (mostly numb) hand, searching for salamanders and frogs. The Adirondack choir rattles off endlessly as we search, echoing off pools of water that can’t be seen through the darkness.

If we find salamanders or frogs sitting in the road, we safely carry them out of harm’s way. When we find them on the move, we simply watch them make their journey and avoid touching them when we don’t have to.

Do our efforts count for anything? Do we manage to decrease the mortality rate of mating amphibians by 10%? 5%? Anything? Probably not. However, we manage to save some. In doing so we’ve become bonded with these animals, with this stretch of road, with these pools of melted snow and fresh spring rain that will cease to exist in another few weeks. We’ve marveled at the intense volume of the Adirondack choir. We’ve oohed and ahhed at the diversity of yellow shapes on slimy black backs. We’ve wondered at the ability of teeny tiny toes to keep moving in the low temperatures of the evening when our own fingers have been cold and fumbling for the last hour.

There are marvelous things that happen in the woods when nobody is around to bear witness. This is my third year watching this migration take place, and every year it gets better and better. Each time I observe a salamander crawling, determined, across paved roads or see them swim up from the bottom of vernal pools to catch a breath of air at the surface I am struck with pure childlike wonder. Every time I hold their soft bodies in my hands and move them from harm’s way I feel deeply connected to them.

2019 Salamander Crossing program at the VIC. Photo by Jesse Adcock

By the end of the night, we may be chilled to the bone, sopping wet, and exhausted from our late night excursion, but all of us are smiling. Over the years I’ve taken dozens of people out with me to experience this feat of nature and I’ve never had someone leave disappointed. These moments make us better stewards for the environment; they give us reason to fight for wild spaces and protections for animals that need them.

If you are lucky enough to live near wetlands or wooded areas with vernal pools, take a few moments to step outside after dusk and listen. Do you hear the Adirondack choir?

Want to see more of our wildlife encounters? Check out this series of videos!

Editor’s note: This post originally ran in the “Adirondack Naturalist” blog of Paul Smith’s College VIC. See more here: https://www.paulsmiths.edu/vic/naturalists/

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

3 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Excellent article! I wish everyone could bond a little more with Natures’ less furry critters. We all need a little more wonder in our lives.

  2. Jim says:

    I enjoyed the article very much. My question might not be on target, but please indulge me, anyone with an answer. Early last October we were hiking in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, from Putnam Pond as a base camp. The was an almost continuous din from all around, of what sounded like spring peepers. And it seemed to be around most of the day, not just at dusk. Could those really have been peepers or other frog species at that time of year? I’m no naturalist, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t crickets.

    • Boreas says:


      Hard to say, but I would consider migrating songbirds in October – especially if the weather was foggy/rainy and winds from the south. Southward migrating songbirds often migrate in huge flocks – often at night, often mixed species. They can be seen on weather radar! “Calls” from migrating birds do not sound like their summer “songs”. They are typically one note, repeated every so often, and are often used for navigation and also just keeping track of each other. The reason I mentioned the weather is that fog, rain, and wind from the wrong direction can down thousands of birds in what we call a “fallout”. They will wait around to refuel and when conditions become favorable, off they head south again. Just a suggestion.

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