By Margaret DiBenedetto
The car moves slowly through the drizzly darkness, low beams light the rescuers ahead. They bend and scoop their way down the road, depositing delicate catch into a bucket, saving the little creatures from being flattened by an occasional car on this empty stretch of rural highway. Each year since the children were young, we’ve found ourselves players in this activity, which is the most exotic wildlife expedition one can hope to find in the northeast.
In the springtime, amphibians of the Catskills and much of the world are drawn to participate in the ancient ritual of getting to water, sometimes very specific water, to breed and begin a new generation. This in itself can provide enthralling entertainment. I’ve not witnessed it myself, but the mating of the Jefferson’s Salamander has been described by a New York State DEC leaflet as “a sort of pasture-pond square dance (the observer needs warm clothes, stout boots, a good flashlight, and some would suggest a weak head)”. The mating dance of the Spotted Salamander is called “a real wing-ding compared with that of the Jefferson’s, as there are often as many as 100 individuals in the squares and the water seems to literally boil with the activity.” Much as a dog is always on the wrong side of the door, the little crawlers seem to be on the wrong side of the road. Each spring, large numbers of amphibians are negatively impacted as they are drawn to navigate vast expanses of pavement in search of their true life force: mating. Which happens in water. The largest contingents go into action on warm, rainy nights in April, May, and June. They move slowly, often stopping to feed on small moths and insects that are abundant on the moist roadways. It takes a long time to cross even our smaller roads; the carnage of the flattened little bodies is evident with the next morning’s sunrise and serves as breakfast to crows and other scavengers.
Most of the nighttime rescued along my road are the Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum); 6-8 inches long and black with yellow spots. Occasionally a Jefferson’s (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) enters the mix. She looks the same, but without the spots. My favorite is the common Red Eft (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens), the 2-3 inch long, bright orange, may I say adorable salamander that is a great introduction for children to the amphibian world. The Red Eft is what I call the ‘teenage phase’ of the Red-spotted Newt, which begins and ends its life in a lake or a pond, but rebelliously opts for terrestrial life in between. Frogs and toads are part of the rescue as well, out for a supper of moths or insects; and snakes, out for a supper of frogs and toads.
Careful driving on warm, rainy nights can save a good number of little lives, even whole pockets of populations.
Early on, the children learned a good lesson not just for this activity, but for amphibians in general, and even for removing fish from a hook: moisten your hands before you pick them up, so as not to remove the delicate and essential skin slime. Also important is the instruction to put the rescued creeper (this goes for turtles, too) on the side of the road to which it was headed, not the side from which it started. Imagine the frustration – and danger – of getting halfway across, only to have to start all over again. Last of the rescues complete, and finally home, we take satisfaction in having helped to ensure another generation’s salamander square dance and the continued presence of amphibians in our valley.