"March Madness" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Yes, I am a big fan of college basketball’s annual tournament, but as a naturalist, March Madness is all about salamander and frog magic! It’s about the rainy nights spent watching and protecting one of Cleveland Metroparks most sensitive resources – amphibians!
My staff and I spend countless hours on spring nights, in the rain, by the light of a flashlight, watching this spectacle unfold. Those who know about this annual spring amphibian migration flock to witness this ritual of spring. I cannot describe it any better than Wendy Weirich, Director of Outdoor Experiences wrote in an email to me following one of these spectacular nights last April – “When I saw all of those people last night, in the rain…reverent. Reverent. Honored to be in the presence of this magical thing that happens on our planet. Wow! They were whispering as they held the hands of their little ones, conscious of the damage their feet could do. Whispering out of respect of this phenomenon. And, you could see they wanted to try to capture this magic by making sure the next generation saw it, at least once.” They say people remember experiences, not information. What a thrill it is for me to help park visitors experience such an amazing natural occurrence!
So what is this amphibian march all about? Spring is the time amphibians emerge from the woods and move to the vernal ponds, the exact pond where they began their life. I can’t explain how they know, except it’s built into their DNA. The important thing is they know which pond to journey to. This time they will be mating and the females laying eggs, continuing the success of their species. The amphibians most often seen are wood frogs, spring peepers, spotted salamanders and Jefferson salamanders.
Mating wood frogs
To witness the magic, flashlights are a must, as we do not want the frogs and salamander to be stepped on. Temperatures must be just right, warmer than 45 degrees, or the amphibians will not emerge. Since amphibians absorb oxygen and water through their moist skin they will only migrate when it is raining. And finally it must be dark.
Standing near a vernal pond can be deafening as hundreds of wood frogs and spring peeper males call in hopes of finding a receptive female. Spring peepers are small tree frogs with a dark X on their back and their call is a high pitched peep sound. Wood frogs are much larger than spring peepers and have a dark mask through their eyes. They sound like quacking ducks. Because I deeply care for, and have such a great appreciation for these amphibians, it is with extreme caution that I am sharing this with you. It is the most incredibly awesome experience to witness, yet I know how delicate these creatures are as they slowly move to their breeding ponds. Handling or stepping on the amphibians could potentially be fatal to them. It is a fine line, but in the end I’m hopeful those who read this blog will understand the respect necessary to witness such a reverent display.