It happens every year like clockwork. The harsh ravages of winter begin to mellow, and merciless snow gives way to blessed rain. Where I live now, in the southeast, winter’s icy composure can crack anywhere from mid-February onward; but in the Northeast where I grew up, it was usually in March when Spring’s harbingers emerged. I’m speaking, of course, of the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) – at least that was the dominant Ambystoma where I grew up in Connecticut, though there are a few other species that may be more abundant at other eastern US locales.
Many-a-naturalist’s year starts with those early spring rains when, flashlight-in-hand, they go to drive sleepy country roads or hike a forest path in search of spotties. The yearly spotted salamander migration is, in some ways, the epitome of all the best things about herping. It is not about finding the coolest, meanest, rarest venomous snake; it’s about interacting with a world that’s usually hidden. A world that comes out to play on just a few nights a year when conditions in the heavens and on earth are just right and spotties frolic like the naiads and dryads of ancient myth. It’s an interaction that lets you bring friends and family along and see the fascination on small children’s faces when they witness hundreds of salamanders pass over the road and ask “why is this night different from all other nights?”
And the old timers amongst us can tell them: these salamanders are doing the same thing they’ve been doing ever since the glaciers receded and left us with a landscape pockmarked with vernal pools – wetlands that fill up with the spring thaw and dry up by late summer. They are traveling from their comfortable upland homes to these temporal, watery habitats to breed; to make more spotted salamanders to continue the species and mark the coming of spring. So, if you’re weary of winter and anxious for warmer days, make ready your boots, camera and flashlight and be vigilant – soon it will time for spotties!