One dark and rainy night: Up close with Spotted Salamanders

Featured image for “One dark and rainy night: Up close with Spotted Salamanders”

by Sandra Murphy

Water rose around my boots as I stepped through the meadow grass by the little pond on VFF’s Anderson Guthrie-Bancroft land in Lincoln. As happens each spring, snowmelt and rainfall had saturated the meadow soil around the pond and blurred the boundary between water and land. On that wet April night, wood frogs chuckled and clucked in a melee of conversation at the pond’s north end. Across the pond, the shrill shrieks of peepers pierced the darkness. 

My headlamp lit the ground just ahead of my feet, and I scoured it for signs of movement as I circled the pond. Here and there, fat night crawlers glistened pale pink atop the matted grass. When I reached the side of the pond closest to the forest, I spied what I’d been hoping for—a plump, dark salamander about as long as my hand, dappled with bright yellow dots, pressing steadily through the moss and grasses toward the water. I crouched down and came face to face with a spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatum. 

First spotted salamander of the evening.

Since 1999, herpetologist Jim Andrews has led the monitoring of amphibians and reptiles on VFF’s Anderson lands in Lincoln, part of an on-going ecological monitoring project, the Colby Hill Ecological Project, initiated by Lester and Monique Anderson in 1998. To get a sense of trends in amphibian populations, Jim and his crew count egg masses of wood frogs and spotted salamanders in four small ponds, including the one I was visiting that night. Jim had been to the pond the previous week and noted plenty of wood frog eggs but no spotted salamander eggs. That meant the salamanders hadn’t yet arrived at the pond, so chances were good of seeing them on the move when conditions were right.

Finding the right conditions for migration at a convenient time for observing that migration can be tricky. But that April night was close to perfect. Amphibians move at night, and they move when it’s wet, preferably actively raining, so their skin stays moist. That night, the rain had stopped around 7:00, but the dirt road by the pond and the surrounding vegetation were still wet by 8:30, when it was fully dark. A steady breeze was drying things out quickly, but for one sweet hour, enough wetness remained to coax the spotted salamanders to emerge from underground, where they live most of the year (which is why you’re unlikely to see one other than during this springtime migration), and return to their breeding pond.

After spying that first spotted salamander by the pond, I moved up to the dirt road, just 20 feet away, since that would offer an open vista for seeing the salamanders on the move, and I knew that some salamanders were likely to cross the road since it bisected the forest habitat where the salamanders likely lived when they weren’t breeding. 

Over the next hour, 25 spotted salamanders crossed the road. When I spied one, I noted it in a little waterproof notebook, then carried it to the side of the road near the pond, both so that it was out of the road path and so that I wouldn’t accidentally count it twice. What a privilege and joy to hold a spotted salamander. For the moment or two between grasping and releasing, their cool, moist bodies rest in your hand, sometimes still, sometimes crawling slowly forward, and then slide off your fingers into the moist duff of fallen leaves by the roadside—a breath-taking encounter with an utterly different being. 

Along with the 25 spotted salamanders, I counted five wood frogs and one eastern newt as well that evening. Many more surely escaped the beam of my headlamp, sliding into the water in the cover of darkness. There was a palpable sense of purpose in the air, a magnetic draw to that water. The calls of the peepers and wood frogs rose up from the pond like music drifting through the open windows of a party, heightening the sense of anticipation.

I’ve seen the spotted salamander and wood frog egg masses in the ponds at VFF’s Anderson lands many times before, but never witnessed the migration to those ponds. It’s one thing to imagine that migration, as I can easily do since I’ve seen it happen elsewhere, but another thing altogether to witness it. 

Don’t miss the chance to witness the movements of the amphibians who live near you. You won’t always be successful—I had come to the Anderson ponds a number of  times before and seen no amphibian movements at all—but that unpredictability just makes the successful sightings all the sweeter.