Calling All Salamander Lovers


Spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatum

By Ted Watt

Just imagine … its pitch dark, 41 degrees, pouring rain, and you’re out there. Sound like fun? Pretty tough conditions for us warm-blooded mammals, but amphibians love it; especially spotted salamanders. They choose these conditions for their annual breeding migration. Even if we still have some snow, the animals know when it is time to move. Their biological clocks inform them. They walk from their forested uplands, where they live underground, throughout the year, to the temporary spring (vernal) pools to breed and lay their eggs. Although they have poison glands on their skin, they are still vulnerable to predators. I believe they have adapted to choose these conditions in answer to the question, how many self-respecting mammals are out hunting?

So put on your wool sweaters, hats and mittens and then, over all, wear the best waterproof rain gear you can get. And come on over to Henry Street to join in this annual reminder that spring really is coming. Bring a flashlight with a red lens; these are less disorienting to the animals during their journey. When you are there watch carefully where you step because there are always some animals who get into the roads. Seeing my first one each season is always a thrill!

Since the early 80s and probably before, salamander lovers would congregate at Henry Street in bucket brigades, as they called themselves. Under the leadership of Bob Winston, affectionately known as Commander Salamander, they would load salamanders into buckets on the east side of Henry Street and carry them across and release them on the west side of the street to keep them out from under the tires of passing cars. This way the animals could continue their journeys to the breeding pools.

salamander tunnel

One of the Henry Street Salamander Tunnels.

In 1987 the first amphibian tunnels in North America were installed under Henry Street. The tunnels guide the animals under the roadway so they don’t get crushed under the passing car tires. The animals don’t know to use the tunnels on their own, so we also put in small fences, called drift fences, that guide the animals to the tunnel entrances. We’ve been observing the animals as they use these tunnels since 1987 and have learned some things about how to improve their design to make them more appealing to the critters.

salamander volunteer

Volunteer John Mileski clears leaves away from the drift fence.

There is invariably some damage to the drift fences during the winter. So each spring, before the migration, we get out there and repair the fences, clean out the leaves and winter road sand from the tunnels, and get everything ready for their appearance. And we observe the animals, help those that get over or around the fences, and promote pedestrian safety, always a concern with automobiles in those rainy dark conditions. If any of this sounds like fun to you, please contact the Center and we’ll let you know when things begin to happen.

salamander fence

Fencing is ready for Big Night!

And remember it has to be dark, raining, the harder the better, and 40 degrees or above! If you’re not sure when the migration will happen you can call the Center’s outgoing voicemail, (413)-256-6006, after 4 pm, and you will hear our best prognosis for what we think will happen that night.

Ted Watt is a highly skilled naturalist and Hitchcock educator who helps children and adults understand the unique habitats and ecosystems of New England through hands-on instruction and mentorship.

2 responses to “Calling All Salamander Lovers”

  1. Laura Marjorie Miller says:

    I would love to know when the migration night is happening, and help! If you send out a mass email alert, please add me to the list. Yours, Laura

    • Jessica Schultz says:

      Hi Laura, We typically do two things each year when we believe conditions are right for the amphibian migration. We leave an outgoing message on our phone and we try to post to our website and social media. This year, conditions were right for the migration last night. But, you can still join us for a vernal pool exploration with Ted Watt on April 9th!

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