I was lying in bed, trying to drift off to sleep, when something on my mind caused me to produce a loud, dramatic sigh.
“What is it?” my husband, Derek, said, looking over at me.
“I’m trying to decide if I should go out and look for salamanders,” I replied, staring up at the ceiling.
To anyone else, that sentence may have been a surprise coming from a grown woman in her pajamas at 11 p.m., but Derek just replied: “You should do it.”
After a few seconds, he followed the encouraging words with, “But I won’t be joining you.”
In the springtime, on rainy, warm nights, salamanders and frogs migrate between wetlands under the cloak of darkness. These mass migrations, which start happening in April, are known as the “Big Night,” even though they happen on multiple nights.
The citizen science project Maine Big Night enlists volunteers to monitor more than 300 locations where amphibians cross roadways during this time. Wearing reflective safety gear and lights, they count and identify amphibians during rainy nights in April.
People can also contribute to amphibian studies by submitting their amphibian and reptile sightings to the Maine Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project, one of the longest running citizen science projects in New England. That’s what I’ve started doing.
On May 5, snuggled under my bed covers, I knew it was past prime time for Big Night activity. April had come and gone. However, I’d seen multiple social media posts that indicated that many amphibians were still on the move.
So I climbed out of bed, found a headlamp and rainboots, then headed out into the night. My first stop was a snowmobile trail that leads to vernal pools not far from my house. I parked at the start of the trail, then made my way into the woods on foot.
You know how the moon can bathe the landscape in a silvery light? This wasn’t one of those nights. Rain clouds blocked the moon and stars. The forest was inky black and filled with a thick fog. So I relied entirely on my headlamp, which cast a small circle of light a few feet ahead of me.
It was a familiar trail, one I’d walked many times. As my headlamp illuminated the mossy stumps and unfurling ferns, I reminded myself that nothing had changed other than the position of the sun.
Then I started to think of the coyote poop I so often see on the trail, and the giant black bear that my neighbor had spotted on his trail camera. While those animals rarely bother humans, I knew it would scare me to run into one in the dark. So, after looking into a few vernal pools, I decided to turn around. My bravery had reached its limit.
On the way back, I was kneeling to inspect a cluster of salamander eggs in a pool when a spotted salamander swam out from under a bed of dead leaves. At the edge of the pool, the creature froze, its tiny, nearly transparent fingers digging into the muck. “Wow,” I whispered.
My nighttime adventure could have ended there. After all, the spotted salamander is a Big Night favorite. Growing 6 to 10 inches in length, it’s a fairly big salamander. Its body is black and gray, covered with big, bright yellow spots.
But I couldn’t call it quits just yet. I wanted to check out a stretch of road that was just a minute or so away. Located near a large wetland area, I suspected it would be a good place to find amphibians crossing the road.
Back in my car, I drove slowly down the road, dodging anything that looked even remotely like it could be a frog or salamander. The short trip was so stressful that I think I’ll just walk next time.
A loud chorus of spring peepers announced the wetland. I pulled to the side of the road near a small lump, which turned out to be an adorable gray tree frog. Its skin was bumpy and patterned like tree bark, and it had round pads on the end of its toes, a feature that helps it hold onto objects such as tree branches.
Next, my headlamp shone on a green frog, another of Maine’s nine species of frogs and toads. It had smooth olive green skin and beautiful golden eyes.
A few spring peepers caught my eye after that. Maine’s smallest frogs, they only reach to about 1.5 inches in length and are often smaller than that. It’s amazing that they can produce such a loud call.
While I’d heard spring peepers plenty of times, I’d never been able to spot one in the vegetation of a wetland. So it was a real treat to see several of them hopping across the road. I was confident in my identification because the frog’s scientific name, Pseudacris crucifer, refers to the cross pattern on its back.
A pickerel frog came next. Covered in dark splotches, it can be challenging to differentiate it from a leopard frog, another Maine species.
And once again, making a dramatic entrance at the eleventh hour, a big spotted salamander strutted across the road. And just beyond, a smaller one did the same. Three spotted salamanders in one night? I certainly felt lucky.
I returned home around 12:30 a.m., crawled into bed and tried to show Derek some of the photos I’d taken on my phone. Half-awake, he looked at one or two before closing his eyes.
Later that morning, as sunlight streamed through the window and we lazed about in bed, I said, “I found so many salamanders and frogs last night.”
“Oh yeah,” Derek said, laughing. “I thought that was a dream.”