On Sunday night I went out in the rain to witness a ritual far older than Easter, or even the pagan rites that were held at this time of year for untold millennia before the Christian era. I’m speaking of the annual migration of amphibians to the seasonal, or vernal, pools where they breed. Wood frogs and spotted salamanders are two protected amphibian species that require such seasonal waters that don’t support the fish that would prey upon their eggs and larvae. While most people are aware of the long-distance migrations of birds and Monarch butterflies, few notice that frogs, toads and salamanders undertake an odyssey just as perilous and as epic in its own way as the one made by high-flying geese.
My aim that night was two-fold: I hoped to glimpse the obscure spectacle of dozens of salamanders churning the waters of a pool, and I also wanted to help a few of these humble creatures across a road, by far the greatest hazard and obstacle they face on their journey. Conditions seemed about right for a mass movement of amphibians: it was the first rainy night so far this spring with temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (between 50 and 47° for the time I was out). Perhaps I’d be rewarded for dragging myself out in the rain with a poncho, clipboard, camera and headlamp with the kind of “big night” observers sometimes report, in which hundreds of these creatures are seen.
I chose the “Testimonial Gateway,” the medieval-looking stone tower whose archway frames the passage between the Wallkill Valley and the Shawangunks, as the focal point of my vigil. Parking well off of Gatehouse Road, I walked slowly towards the gateway, sweeping my headlight beam back and forth across the road. Soon enough I spotted what looked at first like a wet branch on the asphalt, but soon revealed itself to be an eight-inch long spotted salamander, thick-bodied, long-tailed and black with yellow spots, heading south across the road towards the sound of spring peepers rising out of the darkness. Later on, I followed that siren song myself to its source, a vernal pool in the woods. I saw just one spotted salamander in the pool, who disappeared among the oak leaves at its bottom, but I knew there must be many, many more. Mainly, though, I contented myself with providing safe passage to a dozen spotted salamanders, three wood frogs with distinctive chocolate-colored “masks,” four miniscule spring peepers with X’s on their backs and two American toads. Luckily, Gatehouse Road sees very light traffic, so it was easy to walk and pick up these amphibians. They felt cool and curiously dense in my hand (which I made sure to wet before I touched them) as I carried them across the road in the direction they were headed, and set them down carefully at the forest’s edge. Spotted salamanders surprised me with the jauntiness of their movements, bracing their short legs on the pavement and curling their tails to advance in a kind of sashaying motion. I found, walking that stretch of road back and forth, one salamander and one spring peeper that hadn’t been so fortunate, but was glad to have helped a few of these primordial but vulnerable animals survive to breed again this year.
I returned to walk past the Testimonial Gateway, built in 1908 in honor of Albert and Eliza Smiley’s 50th wedding anniversary the year before (1,200 of their friends raised the money to build it), to see those salamander pools from another point of view, this time by the light of day. How different they look now, with their marshy edges where cattails and sedges grow, from the ornamental “lily ponds,” they were a century ago. Now their fountains are stilled, and their lily pads gone, but frogs and salamanders are using them for their own purposes. I walked further along this drive, an “allée” of pin oaks that are also over a century old, having been planted in 1909. How much more open the view from this drive of the ridge and Skytop must have been in the early years of the 20th century, giving travelers bound for Mohonk Mountain House in horse-drawn carriages a thrilling foretaste of the scenic splendors they were to enjoy. But how fortunate we are today, in this century, to be able to walk past these now-stately trees knowing that the newly acquired Foothills where they stand, with their diversity of wildlife habitat, including grassland and marsh, will belong to Mohonk Preserve and to all of us, for all times to come.