Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

The Big Night: Jeepers Creepers, here come the spring peepers and hoppers and salamanders too

Raindrops bounce from the roadway, like marbles dropped on a tile floor. The sky is dark, not just because the sun already set, but because thick clouds obscure all light from the moon and stars. It’s a warm, spring evening. Water pools on the surface of the saturated, thawing ground. Streams and rivers are swollen, and basements are certainly flooding from the deluge.

Drivers struggle to see through their windshield, and wipers set on high cannot clear the water quickly enough. Limited visibility focuses motorists’ attention towards safe travel and respecting the yellow dividing line. The light from halogen headlamps cuts a tunnel through the darkness, and makes the raindrops glow like comets streaking across the heavens.

Occasionally, a single droplet of rain curiously bounces two to three times in quick succession, defying reason. Focusing on the ground is difficult amongst all the distractions, but small rocks, presumably washed onto the road, also appear to haphazardly move. The approach of an oncoming car shifts attention back to the horizon. Sensory overload must be playing tricks on the drivers’ eyes.

Men and women wearing reflective vests and holding flashlights, walk carefully along the shoulder of the roadway. They are focused on their task, but extremely mindful of their surroundings. Their lights reveal cream colored stains on the road. Some splotches are no bigger than the small marshmallows you find melting in a cup of hot cocoa. Others resemble the common moon jellyfish that washes onto shoreline beaches throughout the summer.

As they patrol, the group scans the roadway from edge to edge, pausing briefly to inspect the stains peppering the asphalt. Sporadically, one member might stop to pick up a small object and shuttle it to the side of the road, releasing it amongst the leaves and debris. They yell to one another “Three peepers and two woods. None alive.” “Salamander rain” is awakening hibernating amphibians from their winter burrows beneath rocks, logs, and the leaf litter that blankets the upland forest’s floor. Beating against the ground, the raindrops call like ceremonial drums, luring the animals from their hiding places. Instinct compels them to begin a march toward vernal pools, where they will gather en masse to pursue courtship.

The earth is soaked, ensuring these creatures remains moist, a necessity for animals that breathe through their skin. The blackness of night offers protection from predation by birds and small mammals.

Emerging from their slumber in considerable numbers, the frogs and salamanders innately know which direction to travel to find the vernal pools where they must lay their eggs. The passage is perilous, but necessary for the continuity of their species. When roadways cut through these migration routes, a difficult journey can transform into a massacre.

Also called “The Big Night,” the first springtime torrent occurring when evening temperatures approach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, triggers this primeval event, typically mid-March in Connecticut. Heavy rain draws animals from the ground, but torrential rain can ignite massive migrations.

John Picard, Vice-President of the Menunkatuck Audubon Society, describes the mini-migrations local amphibians endure as epic events, even though they may not exceed 1,500 feet. Unlike mammals or birds that can procreate multiple times throughout the year, these amphibians have a single chance each spring to reproduce. The success of their journey is critical to the species survival. “These guys only get this one opportunity.” says Picard.

Vernal pools, temporary bodies of water filled from melting snow and spring rain, vary in size. A typical pool might measure 10 to 20 feet across. Devoid of fish, these temporary motels in the woods are a safe place for amphibian eggs to hatch, and larvae to develop. By August, the pools are dry due to evaporation and absorption from surrounding trees, such as red maples and highbush blueberries. A shallow, bowl-like depression filled with twigs and leaves is all that remains.

When vernal pools are set deep in the timberlands, amphibian migrations take place in solitude. Unless you are intentionally looking for them, they simply go unnoticed. It’s not until these animals need to cross a road to get to a vernal pool, that their undertaking becomes evident to the average person. Picard notes “Many people are not aware that this migration occurs every year.” He mentions that when vernal pools are beside heavily travelled roads, hundreds of frogs and salamanders can be crushed by cars. Repeat this slaughter on roads throughout the state, and a “big night” quickly becomes a “big loss.”

Three species of amphibians dominate the early spring migrations: the spring peeper, the wood frog, and the spotted salamander.

Connecticut’s smallest frog, the spring peeper, is less than one inch in length. This is the frog you typically hear singing while you drive by wetlands with your windows rolled down on balmy evenings. When large numbers of male peepers congregate calling for mates, their chorus is near deafening.

The dark mask that conceals the eyes of the two inch long, brown bodied wood frog, gives it the perfect camouflage for hiding amongst fallen leaves. Like the peeper, sugars in this frog’s blood allow it to freeze solid. When thawed, it is unharmed.

With the exception of a few rainy nights each year, the spotted salamander stays hidden from the world. This six inch mole salamander’s deep black/grey back is speckled with vibrant yellow spots. Buried in the ground, or covered in thick piles of leaves, for most of its life, it is a magnificent creature few people ever gaze upon.

For several years, John Picard has monitored a two and a half square kilometer area in Madison through his involvement with C.A.M.P., the Connecticut Amphibian Monitoring Project.

Picard organizes volunteers to accompany him while he walks the roads in his assigned area on rainy spring nights. These citizen scientists record the number and type of amphibians found, and note whether they were dead or alive.

C.A.M.P.’s 15 year (1998-2013), volunteer led effort is collecting baseline data to determine amphibian population trends at 13 sites across the state, and highlight conservation issues surrounding amphibians. Known as an “indicator species,” amphibians are extremely sensitive to outside influences, and declines in their population often disclose degradation within the environment. Picard compares them to “the canary in the coal mine.”

Multiple vernal pools border the roads that comprise the Madison study plot. Peepers, wood frogs and salamanders are typically encountered on evening prowls. As volunteers attempt to identify and count the assortment of crushed amphibians, live animals are picked up and safely moved across the road, always in the direction they were headed. Picard says “If you turn them around, they will turn back around, because they know where they need to go.”

During large migrations, several hundred squished frogs and salamanders can be recorded during an evening’s sampling. The dead greatly outnumber the living. Picard recognizes the importance of his work, but adds “It is depressing to see.” The drive to survive and reproduce is so intense that maimed animals with missing limbs continue to drag themselves across the road towards the pools.

By morning, the remains of the killed animals are gone. Their delicate bodies were either rinsed away by the rain, or eaten by opportunistic nocturnal predators like raccoons or skunks. “It’s deceiving. There were lots of dead animals, but when you go back in the morning, very little evidence remains.” notes Picard.

He offers this advice to motorists. “If you don’t have to go out on these rainy nights, stay home, because there are a lot of animals moving on the road.” He adds “If you do have to go out, get back home before dark.” And finally, “If you have to go out after dark on these rainy nights, try to pick a route that does not go along the wetlands where these migrations are occurring.”

Amphibian migrations continue throughout the Spring, though few are as dramatic as the Big Night movements. Following the peepers and wood frogs, grey tree frogs, green frogs and bull frogs emerge. If witnessing some of the states most secretive amphibians appeals to you, and you don’t object to getting a little wet, contact John Picard at camp@menunkatuck.org or get more information at www.menunkatuck.org