Conserving Vermont’s Amphibians with Jim Andrews

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by Sandra Murphy

It’s the weekend after Easter, and thirteen students are on hands and knees on a forested hillside at the southern end of Snake Mountain, clustered in twos and threes. We’re doing what our teacher, herpetologist Jim Andrews, calls “turning cover”— rolling logs and rocks in search of salamanders. It’s basically the best Easter egg hunt ever. 

After giving us data sheets and clipboards, Jim sets us loose on the hillside, with some parting advice. The bigger the cover, the better the chance of finding salamanders. Look carefully, because the salamanders will likely be motionless. If you find one, don’t lay the rock or log back on top of it when you’re done looking—that could end really badly. Move the salamander out of the way, replace the cover, then put the salamander next to it, so she can make her way back under on her own terms. 

I grab the edge of the first wide, flat rock I see and tilt it back. Little vole-sized tunnels furrow the compressed soil underneath, but no salamanders. I ease the rock back and turn to a fat log nearby. It takes two of us to roll it over. White patches of fungal mycelium, an earthworm, more tunnels. No salamanders. We roll the log back. I lift one end of a smaller log beside it. The soil underneath is pale and dry, so I can tell right away I’ll come up empty.

I look around, trying to think like a salamander. They’re under logs and rocks because that’s where the moisture is. If I’m a red-backed salamander—a species Jim says we’re likely to see since they’re common terrestrial forest-dwellers—I don’t have lungs. Instead, I breathe through my skin, and that can only happen if my skin is moist. On this dry, rocky hillside, I need big, juicy cover to get the moisture I need.

DeKay’s brown snake. Not an amphibian, of course, but a mighty sweet find in the leaf litter. This is about as big as they get.

Ira, one of my group mates, and I roll back another big rock that looks promising and, bonanza! A red-backed salamander gleams like a twisted cord on the soil. By the time Jim whistles us back 20 minutes later, my group has found seven red-backed salamanders and, in a surprise coup, a gray snake the length of my forearm and thin as a pencil, which Ira pegs as a DeKay’s brown snake.

This field trip has been a long time coming. Jim started teaching this 23-hour course, Conserving Vermont’s Amphibians, through Vermont Family Forests’ Hogback Community College back in February of 2020. We had just finished the indoor lecture portion of the course when the Covid pandemic took hold, so Jim postponed the three spring field trips. A full two years later, we’re picking up where we left off.

After we finish our show-and-tell of the beings we discovered by turning cover, we crest the hill and drop toward a wide wetland. It’s mid-April in this forest, and Dutchman’s breeches, hepatica, bloodroot, and spring beauties embroider the brown humus with knots of yellow, white, purple, and pink, under a leafless canopy of shagbark hickory, white ash, sugar maple, and oaks.

Checking for amphibians in the pitfall traps along the drift fence.

We make our way among the flowers, toward a 100-foot-long sheet of aluminum flashing, fastened to wooden stakes, that forms a foot-high wall between us and the wetland. Jim set up this drift fence many years ago to survey amphibians migrating to and from the wetland. When a frog or salamander encounters it, he walks the length of the metal barrier, searching for a way around. At either end of the fence, and halfway in between, Jim has buried lidded buckets—pitfall traps—their rims flush with the soil surface. When he’s not actively surveying, he seals the lids. When he’s surveying, he opens the buckets, puts a little water in the bottom, then returns the next morning to see who dropped in. After a rainy springtime night, the buckets can be thick with frogs and salamanders.

Jim and Ira had opened the traps the previous afternoon. The night was dry, so we find just one salamander in the six buckets. But he’s a mighty special one—a four-toed salamander, with a state natural heritage ranking of S2, meaning he’s rare in Vermont. This particular one is also tailless. Turns out that the tail of a four-toed is weakly attached—you can see a constriction spot at the break-off site, topped by a thin black line on the belly. Jim calls it the “tear-here” line. He says that, when facing a predator, the four-toed will actually raise its tail as an offering. Better to lose your tail than your head, right? Especially when you can grow another tail. How utterly cool is that? 

Four-toed salamander, minus a tail.

We set the stubby salamander in the humus nearby, clean and seal the pitfall traps, and turn to the wetland. The day before, Jim and Ira had laid several minnow traps in the wetland. Today, Jim checks the first trap while we all watch and learn, then we head out in our study groups to survey the rest. Hauling ours in by its thin green cord, I meet a gleaming heap of eastern newts and year-old green frog tadpoles. We draw the salamanders out one-by-one, note their sex on the data sheet, and drop them into the water. (If you’re wondering how to sex a newt, you’ll just have to sign up for Jim’s next workshop.)

And so the day unfolds—a seamless blend of science, awe, curiosity, humor, and deep appreciation of the remarkable assemblage of beings we live among. Jim’s passionate about protecting reptiles and amphibians When you spend a day with him in the woods looking for them, it becomes clear that amphibians need big, downed woody debris and stable, protected vegetation around wetlands and vernal pools. 

To be a good neighbor to amphibians, leave big logs in the forest, and big undisturbed buffers around vernal pools, streams, and wetlands. If the forest doesn’t have big logs, then create them. Fell trees—at least 16 inches in diameter and leave the logs to do all the essential things logs do in the forest community—including sheltering salamanders. The more the merrier, but a minimum of four per acre.

As we stroll back to our cars in the late afternoon, we meet up with Ian Worley, whose land we’re walking through. A beloved professor of botany and environmental studies at the University of Vermont, Ian helped create UVM’s Environmental Program in 1972 and served as its director from 1994 to 2008. Jim introduces him with highlights of his many accomplishments, but Ian focuses on his current passion—being a keen observer of his home place. If you drove past this land, he says, it wouldn’t strike you as anything special. And yet, he’s seen (if I remember correctly) 162 species of birds here. I think his take-home message could be distilled to this simple encouragement: Pay attention to the remarkable beauty and diversity and wonder of your own backyard, your own home place. It’s all right there.

Back at the cars, we pile minnow traps, clipboards, tape measures, and pencils in the back of Jim’s car. It’s well past the scheduled 3:00 pm end time, and I’m pooped after more than 6 hours in the woods. On his itinerary for the day, Jim had listed a visit to the Salisbury Swamp in the afternoon, in case we had time, and one student asks him if we’re still planning to go there. 

The obvious answer is no—it’s time to put feet up and rest, especially if you are the instructor and had prepared and guided and explained all day long. Instead, Jim says he’s up for it if people want to. 

As I turn my car toward home, I can see Jim’s car in my rear view mirror, waiting to lead a handful of students on a new amphibian quest. What a teacher, conservationist, and friend of the forest. Thank you, Jim.