A passage project to protect polliwogs  

— Photo by Brian Gratwicke
The wood frog: In 2018, volunteers counted 515 live wood frogs as part of the Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Project. 

VOORHEESVILLE —Each spring — and lately, the early winter — across the Northeast — New York in particular, the Hudson Valley to be precise — groups of forest-dwelling amphibians come out of their quasi-hibernation to make the trek to their birthplace to begin again the circle of life.

For the last decade, volunteers have served as crossing guards and data collectors for amphibians migrating to vernal pools to mate. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Project spans the 10 counties along the tidal portion of the Hudson River, from Troy to New York City.

“Amphibian declines globally and in New York State are considered to be a result of habitat loss, disease, but also road mortality — and climate change is also a concern — but the road mortality, we felt like that’s something that we actually can do something about,” said Laura Heady, conservation and land-use program coordinator for the DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program.

In 2018, fifty-two volunteers across seven counties helped about 1,770 salamanders, frogs, and toads to make their way to vernal pools to reproduce.

Over the 10 years of the project, Heady said, about 370 people have volunteered. This year, the training sessions were so popular that two more — in Ulster and Westchester counties — had to be added to the two sessions taking place already in New Paltz, in Ulster County, and in Voorheesville, which took place on Jan. 31.

Heady said that 110 volunteers signed up for training this year.

“It’s really a unique group of volunteers,” she said. They are on their own, out on the roadways, reliant on what they’ve learned from Heady and her colleagues. At the training, Heady said, volunteers are taught amphibian identification and documentation, and are subjected to a simulated migration.

“They’re not live amphibians,” Heady said. “We have laminated photos we spread out on the floor, we turn off the lights, and we have [the volunteers] put on their safety vests and use flashlights so they can really understand what it’s like to fill out a data form when they’re trying to identify [amphibians]. They have to work together on that.”

A lot of migration takes place within forests. If a forest is large enough, Heady pointed out, amphibians in those areas are rarely vulnerable and seldom have to cross roads.

“But in the Hudson Valley, the patterns of development have really disconnected a lot of those habitats,” she said, adding later: “And so, this project was aimed to raise awareness about the importance of these habitats.”

Now that the animals have to cross roads, the idea is to locate the places where there is the highest concentration of migration, and get volunteers to those locations to help with the crossing and documentation of weather, traffic, and species type.

The spotted salamander and wood frog are the most common species that make the migration, Heady said.

“These species basically hunker down in the forest floor for the winter,” she said. “Wood frogs … become a little ‘frogcicles’ … They start this migration as soon as the conditions are favorable.” Migration in the Hudson Valley, Heady said, usually takes place in late March or early April.

The spotted salamander and wood frog migrate from their homes in the forest to vernal pools to reproduce.

“Vernal pools are unique wetlands,” Heady said.

They are small and isolated, and they dry up in the summertime, she said, which makes them a high-quality habitat for breeding because the dried-up pools don’t support a fish population, which means there are no predators. Predators are a problem because it takes about a month for tadpoles or salamander larvae to develop.

“Vernal pools are relatively unprotected by any state or federal laws,” Heady said. “And so, we’re really trying to raise awareness so that local communities … and landowners understand what they might be able to do to be stewards of these kinds of habitats.”

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