Amphibians crossing! - BlueStone Press
May 23, 2019

Amphibians crossing!

The Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Project

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The word “migration” evokes images of birds flying thousands of miles over vast tracts of land and sea. Yet there are migrations each year that cover distances of from a half-mile to a few hundred feet, unnoticed by almost all human beings. All, that is, except for people like Laura Heady, Rosendale resident and conservation and land use coordinator for the Hudson River Estuary Program, and the 30 or more volunteers from several counties, including a couple from Kerhonkson, who gathered in New Paltz on a recent evening. They were at DEC headquarters for a workshop Heady was running called the Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Project.

The focus of the workshop was a class of animals ranging from small to tiny that you might never know existed unless you venture out on a damp, early spring night on a road through the woods that happens to pass near a small forest pool. Salamanders that normally burrow underground, eating insects, worms and snails, get the urge in early spring to revisit the place where they were hatched to mate and lay their eggs, and if they have to cross a road, they do it. Spring peepers, wood frogs and other species can also be seen on the right night, hopping across the road in force, driven by the urge to mate in the body of water where they were hatched. The AMRCP is a volunteer effort to try to keep the slow-moving little creatures from becoming roadkill by actually going out on a night when they are on the move, picking them up and putting them safely on the side where they are headed.

“There's not enough staff, so you guys provide many more eyes on the road,” Heady said. Part of the AMRCP is the documentation of prime habitat and road crossing locations.

“Every little town, village and city is making its own decisions about what’s going to happen to the land for eternity,” she said. If information about easy-to-miss natural events like amphibian migration and habitat loss are not known to local governments, they will not know protection is needed. But if, Heady said, “we’ve been out there collecting, and we can demonstrate that this is a really high-priority area,” it might be possible to get a road closed on a night of migration or even get funding to build salamander tunnels to help cut down on mortality. “Really document it well, because that's how you make a case for these kinds of measures,” she said.

For the present, “you can help by carefully moving these amphibians across the road so they don’t get run over,” Heady said. Volunteers are also asked to record information about the weather, the traffic, the species they're seeing, and how many are alive and dead.

Heady showed images of four types of salamander and several frogs and toads. Not all of them, of course, migrate on the same night (although all are nocturnal travelers). “It can be difficult to predict. Between climate change and nature being full of surprises, it's always tricky, but in general, it's when air temperature after sunset stays above 40 degrees; also, when it's raining,” or at least really foggy. And it really can't happen until the ground is thawed. Freakish late-winter events, like thunderstorms in February, could fool some animals into migrating too early, and if temperatures drop again suddenly, they won’t survive.

When the conditions are just right, Heady said, “you'll get hundreds and hundreds of salamanders all moving toward the pool. Ideally, they're in the forest and don’t have to cross any roads.” She described the type of habitat that suits these amphibians. “What's a woodland pool? It’s isolated, no streams flowing in or out, and drying up” in the summer, so no fish can live in them. “Without fish, these amphibians can make their long trek through the forest to get to these pools, they can go through courtship, the females can lay their eggs and leave, the eggs can hatch, they can develop, and they don't have to worry about fish preying on them,” although turtles and herons may snatch a meal. The forest pools are “teeming with life, with aquatic insects breaking down the leaf litter. The basis of the food chain is whatever leaves drop into the pool in the fall.”

Heady talked about the salamander's role in carbon sequestration. “Because they're eating the insects on the forest floor, those insects can't chew up the leaves and release their carbon” into the atmosphere. We’re still learning about the value they have in the larger ecosystem.”

Someone asked if the AMCRP has mapped out the locations of these seasonal wetlands. No, but Heady had plenty of suggestions for finding them. For one thing, vernal pools can be seen on Google Maps.

“They just show up black,” Healy said, “surface water, nothing growing in them.” Better than Google Maps: “A lot of you live in communities that have done mapping projects as part of your town's comprehensive plan [as Rosendale and Rochester have].” Land trusts are another possible resource. However, the basic strategy is simply to “drive through areas that are forested and have wetlands!”

Heady remarked that it wouldn’t be wise to put the locations of crossings on the web because there are people who want to collect “unusual and interesting animals for the illegal pet trade.” She described reptile and amphibian pet shows where “they’d have legal stuff on the table, and illegal stuff [literally] under the table.”

Some wetlands are protected by the DEC but, Heady said, not if they are under 12.4 acres. However, municipalities can enact local laws if they choose to protect smaller ponds of particular importance as habitat.

“Also land trusts are helping conserve these places,” Heady said. “And landowners, once they're educated, can be better stewards. So there are tools in the toolbox, but they're not commonly used, because a lot of people think, ‘Oh, that's just a mosquito breeding ground, let's fill that in!’ But if wetlands are not being disturbed – that is, if their water levels are allowed to fluctuate, and biodiversity is maintained – they actually have better mosquito control. It’s when we create stagnant pools that they become a breeding problem for mosquitoes.”

An intern with the program, Emma Clemente, went over identification of the different species of salamanders, toads and frogs, some hard to tell apart. The last part of the training was devoted to a mock lights-out, hands-on practice session. Little amphibian stickers had been placed on the floor of the darkened room. Everyone donned reflective vests (a must), took out a flashlight, and tried to identify the images. There were exotic-looking creatures with rows of bright yellow spots (spotted salamander) or orange with red spots (juvenile eastern newt), or toads so camouflaged you would never notice them unless they moved. The spring peeper, so often heard and so rarely seen, was the smallest of all.

The Rondout Valley has plentiful woodland pools; anyone can participate in the Amphibian Migrations & Road Crossings Project. Heady recommended looking at the guidance and resources at the project website: https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/51925.html. On that web page, they should also subscribe to receive project emails and migration alerts through DEC Delivers. “We’ll be uploading the volunteer handbook, 2019 data form, and other materials by early March.”

 

Frogs, Amphibian

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