Every spring in the northeast, as the snows melt and the ground begins to thaw, frogs and salamanders move out of their upland overwintering habitat down and into wetlands to breed and lay their eggs (and no, salamanders are not actually lizards, so please excuse my turn of phrase). Unfortunately, when roads cut between breeding wetlands upland forests, many of these endearing amphibians can be killed during their seasonal back and forth travels. If a road has enough traffic, entire populations of amphibians can be lost over time as even a single vehicle can kill dozens, or even hundreds of amphibians in one night. In areas with very light traffic, the same roads also open the door for people to witness the migrations with their own eyes and get a close look at some species that will spend the rest of the year hiding underground. For children especially, getting a close look at a large salamander on a rainy spring night can be a life changing experience and has inspired many, including myself, to pursue careers in conservation. In recent years, more and more people are venturing out to see the salamander migrations for themselves, but most people don’t know where to start. If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right! In this post I will walk you how to find a good spot to witness these remarkable amphibian migrations for yourself, but first we have to go over some safety and ground rules.
In order to find an amphibian on a road, that means you will be walking on roads. Wear a reflective vest and never look for amphibians on busy roads. Never run out in front of traffic to safe a frog or salamander. The risk is too high. Lots of amphibians are killed every rainy spring night. You need to be prepared to see dead frogs and salamanders and accept the fact that you will probably see some get hit by a car with your own eyes. Don’t add yourself to the list of animals that are killed on a given night by putting yourself at risk. The objective here is to find a rural low traffic area to safely look for amphibians and you might see some hopping across busier roads on your way there. If you find out that a high traffic road has lots of amphibian activity, avoid using that road on rainy nights in the future and report your observation to your state wildlife agency. If you cannot get to a rural area without driving over large numbers frogs and salamanders to get there, you might just want to stay home. This will be most challenging for people residing in urban and suburban areas. People who live “in the country” should be able to find a good spot and avoid driving through a high traffic amphibian hot spot with relative ease.
Other Ground Rules:
Do not collect amphibians you find. They are not pets and it is likely illegal in your state to collect without a permit. Plus, keeping a wild animal as a pet and later releasing it can introduce disease that can devastate wild populations.
Also, be mindful about people’s property and try to avoid getting out of the car in front of people’s houses. Dogs will bark then lights in the house come on. Remember, if you’re walking around at the end of someone’s driveway in the middle of a rainy night with a flashlight, your behavior will be suspicious and alarming to a sleepy homeowner. Some people may call the police or come out to see what you are doing and not everyone is friendly about it. On major highways it is usually unlawful to pull over on the side of the road and walk around and is not safe to do so anyway, so don’t. If there is any question about this you can call your local police department to find out. Some states (like Texas) have very strict laws about looking for animals on roads and many require permits or a specific type of reflective vest. In populated areas or places where I have been approached by police or border patrol in the past I like to phone them in advance to give them a heads up that I’ll be the creepy guy out on the roads doing suspicious things that night. Then, if they get a call about some weirdo in the rain with a flashlight, they can inform the caller about what you are doing and it will spare you the trouble of needing to explain yourself to law enforcement in the rain while they blind you with a flashlight that is probably much brighter than yours.
You are responsible for your own safety, and common sense applies. Don’t do anything illegal, and don’t do anything stupid. With that, here’s how to find a good spot.
Stage 1: Find a spot
Predicting where amphibians will cross roads is pretty easy if you know what to look for. Because most of these early spring breeders overwinter in woods and breed in wetlands, such as Blue-spotted Salamanders and Wood Frogs, all you have to do is open a road atlas or browse Google Maps and look for a place where a road passes directly between woods and water. Amphibians like marshy habitat with a lot of vegetation, so look for that instead of a manicured lake or pond with open beach front. The earliest amphibian movement will typically happen at lower elevations below south and west-facing slopes, but that will not be relevant later in the season. You will be looking for the animals on foot, so you need to find a rural low traffic area to do this; safety is the number one priority. I like using USGS topographic maps or Gazetteer road maps because they show marshes that might not be visible on Google Maps, but most people are going to use Google Maps, or something like it. If you do want to use topographic maps though, this is a good place to find them.
Below is an example of the sort of places to look for on a topographic map. I have never been to this site but based on its location in southern New Hampshire, would guess that it might have Wood Frogs, Spring Peepers, Blue-spotted, Spotted, and Four-toed Salamanders all crossing in the early spring. The two pins mark places where a rural road passes between a wetland or pond. And if you are not comfortable reading topographic maps, you can learn here, or just use maps that have aerial imagery.
Looking at the zoomed in areal imagery of the more western site you can see that there appears to be a wetland, possibly a beaver meadow, below the road.
The same is true of the more eastern site marked on the first map.
For species that overwinter in rivers and lakes and breed in floodplains, such Northern Leopard Frogs, or species that live in the water and forage on land during rain (like Green Frogs and Bullfrogs), you would want to look for a place where a road lies between a river or lake and flat valley fields or wetlands. Roads that bisect wetlands and flood planes are good too. Aside from some Leopard Frogs, these sites usually don’t have much action in the early spring, but are pretty froggy in the summer.
Below is a good example of a site where a road bisects a river and floodplain.
And again, look for a low traffic area. Busy highway = bad. Dirt or lightly traveled paved town road = good.
As far as finding a spot, that’s pretty much it! Some of the spots you pick out will be duds, so try to pick a few so you’ll have a backup if the first doesn’t work out.
Stage 2: Know when to look.
Ok. You’ve found some spots to check out. Then what? Wait to go out until a rainy night when the snow has mostly melted (at least 50% ground visibility). Amphibians can move whenever roads are wet and temperatures are above freezing (even when it is snowing), but unless the spring is late the busiest amphibian nights generally have steady rain and air temperatures above 40F. Usually in Vermont that’s late March, but the precise start to amphibian season might vary by more than a month in either direction. Once the season starts, amphibians will be out on roads whenever it is raining, but as the year progresses the species change and the amphibians you will find might be foraging rather than moving to or from breeding habitat.
Stage 3: Do it.
While in a car it is very difficult to spot certain species and it will take you a little while to develop a search image for amphibians, especially small ones like Four-toed and Red-backed Salamanders. The truth is that really small amphibians cannot be seen from a parked car, let alone one traveling at 50 mph. The idea is to to to the spot you picked out ahead of time and search on foot, but you might find a good spot on your way there. Larger salamanders that are not moving often look like broken sticks that point up at one end and frogs that are not moving can look a lot like rocks or leaves. While driving around, if you notice a couple large amphibians close together, it’s time to park the car and check the road on foot with your flashlight if traffic is light enough to do so safely. Don’t forget to wear reflective vests so passing vehicles can see you, and also to turn on your car’s hazard lights.
While driving around, roll down your windows if it’s not raining too hard and turn off the radio so you can listen for frog choruses. Loud choruses close to the road mean it’s a good spot to slow down or get out of the car even if you haven’t seen anything on the road yet. Once you are on foot, you can walk back and forth on the road scanning for frogs and salamanders with a flashlight. If there is any traffic at all, stay on in the road margins and only venture into the road to observe or move amphibians if there are no approaching vehicles. Never run out in front of traffic to save an amphibian from an oncoming car. If you want to move animals off the road, move them in the direction they were headed and make sure your hands are clean of any oils, lotions, and bug spray as that can all be absorbed through an amphibian’s skin and can be very painful (if you don’t like getting it in your eye, assume an amphibian won’t like it on their skin).
Some amphibians, such as Spotted Salamanders, secrete toxins from their skin that is very sticky and will sting badly for several minutes if you get it in your eyes, so be very careful not to touch your eyes after handling amphibians.
Keep track of the how many of each species you find and where. The data you collect can be used by states and conservation organizations to prioritize habitat restoration and road mitigation. You can use apps like iNaturalist or HerpMapper for this, or submit directly to your local herp atlas.
Be prepared to see some sad stuff. You’ll probably find dead and dying amphibians. Finding a dead salamander is one thing, but finding a severely injured animal thrashing around in the middle of the road can be really difficult to witness. Some people choose to put them out of their misery, others don’t. I won’t tell you what to do here, and laws vary from state to state, just be prepared to see it.
If you want to hold/observe a frog or salamander for a few minutes, put it in something like a Tupperware container so you can look at it or show children without stressing the animal too much. Do not let amphibians become dry! They breathe through their skin and some do not have lungs, so if their skin is dry it is very bad news.
Here’s a short material list of what you’ll probably want to bring during your road searches. It’s not all required, but it’s what I bring. At the very least bring a flashlight, reflective vests, some sort of map (smartphone will do if you don’t have something better), and something to write on.
A strong flashlight – These days strong LED flashlights are cheap and easy to find. Head lamps are useful but most are not strong enough to spot things well up the road. Most people who use a head lamp on their first road search switch to a more powerful flashlight on their second. The light on your phone is NOT going to cut it.
Reflective vest – You need to wear reflective vest so you can be more easily seen by oncoming traffic. Even if you do not think you will need one due to sparse traffic the vest is a courtesy to drivers who will appreciate being able to see you from greater distances.
Extra batteries – this is especially important if you’re not using an LED light, but even if you are. Most people use their house flashlight once in a while and only for a minute or a two at a time, so years go by between changing batteries. Take that same flashlight on an amphibian hunt and it is dead after an hour of use. Bring extra batteries.
Road atlas – I cannot recommend a Gazetteer state atlas strongly enough. I can find a good road crossing site way better using a Gazetteer than I can using the map app on my smartphone. If you don’t have or can’t find a good road atlas, you can use your phone or Google Maps, but you’ll probably miss some spots. Online topographic map services such as this one are great and include all the same info as a Gazetteer. Many atlases and road maps do not show wetlands other than lakes, large ponds, rivers, and streams. Gazetteers show marshes and differentiate between woods and open fields on a large scale. You can also print maps from google (the areal imagery helps a lot!), but if you plan on driving around larger areas nothing beats a good atlas. Vehicle GPS units help as well, especially if you don’t know where on a map you are, but they aren’t very useful in finding road crossing sites.
Notebook – A good field notebook is the best friend of anybody wanting to record their findings or submit reports to a conservation institution. Keep in mind that it will be raining so you will want a way to protect your notebook from the water or use one that is made with rain-proof paper. The brand, “rite in the rain” is great and you can get a decent notebook that fits in most back pockets for about $6 on amazon. As a bare minimum, the sorts of data you might want to write down include the date, location, time, species, and quantity. Other useful information might include weather conditions, the sex and size of each amphibian, and GPS coordinates. Smartphone keyboards go bonkers when wet, even if you phone is waterproof, so assume you won’t be able to use it to enter data in real time.
GPS unit or app – Coordinates are about the best kind of data you can record. Some phones will embed coordinates into the data of every photo you take, but free apps such as US Topo Maps are great, as are standalone handheld GPS units if you have one. If you cannot collect coordinates, write down approximate distances from nearby intersections for each area you find amphibians so someone can put a pin on the map afterward.
Tupperware container – These are useful to temporarily store amphibians to show other people or to observe while you identify the species. It allows for you to easily see the underside of salamanders and can be especially useful if you want to show a small salamander to kids, some of which do not have gentle hands. If you need to hold onto a salamander for more than a minute you should put it in a container with a little bit of water to minimize stress.
Field guide – especially when you’re just starting out, having a good resource to help you identify the amphibians you find is essential. It does not have to be a book, there are plenty of online resources to help you with ID and apps such as iNaturalist will attempt to identify animals in pictures for you, but having a book for the reptiles and amphibians of your region comes in extremely handy. The Peterson guide to the reptiles and amphibians of the eastern United States will get you by pretty much anywhere in eastern half of this country, but I like guides that are specific to smaller regions because they only show species in your area and provide more details about each species. For Vermont, I recommend the New York guide, but The Great Lakes guide is awesome too.
Friend – having a friend along to help makes a trip much more enjoyable and if you are driving, most importantly, they can help you navigate and get out of the car faster to catch a frog that is hopping across the road.
While witnessing the amphibian migrations can be a very rewarding experience, it is even more rewarding if your observations help your state plan habitat restoration projects or develop amphibian road mitigation plans. Feel free to print out and use this datasheet to record your observation. Where you submit the data will be specific from state to state, but here are a few good places to start if you are in the northeast:
Looking for amphibians during the spring migrations is a very rewarding experience and can be especially fun for children who will benefit greatly from being exposed to such things early on in life. Good luck out there, I hope I have provided you with enough information to get you started in your quest for migrating amphibians. And remember, your safety comes first.