Like many natural phenomena easily taken for granted, you’ve probably witnessed Big Night and didn’t even know it.
No doubt you would have if you were driving Middle Ridge Road in Bridgton between 8:30 and 10 p.m. last Friday night and happened upon a large group of people wearing headlamps aimed at the road surface, their eyes peeled for amphibious creatures making a perilous journey back to the vernal pool in which they were born.
Perhaps you had to slow way down and wait until one of the more than 40 Big Night Road Watch participants ferried a slithering salamander or croaking wood frog across the road to the other side. And though you didn’t know it at the time, your slowing down, no doubt prompted by the blue lights of Bridgton police charged with traffic control that night, aided a future generation of amphibians.
Big Night Road Watch, sponsored by the Bridgton-based Lakes Environmental Association, is the night when conditions are just right so salamanders, tree frogs and peepers make their way from the woods to a vernal pool to find a mate and start the regeneration process all over again. It’s a big night for humans as well, those who have come to appreciate this annual spring ritual, and those who want to protect the delicate creatures as they cross these man-made deathtraps known as country roads.
“Big Night is all about migration,” said Bridie McGreavy, conservation and education director for Lakes Environmental Association. Frogs and salamanders are migrating back to a vernal pool.”
Big Night came early this year because of the unseasonable weather this spring, with ice-out coming a month earlier than usual and warm temperatures occurring on a steady basis throughout March.
Historically, Big Night occurs the third week of April, but this year reports of migrations started coming in March 22. And rather than taking place on one climactic night, Big Night has taken place over several nights this season.
“They’re on a mission, and the road is in their way,” McGreavy said. “Our goal is to help them cross the road so they can be on their merry way.”
McGreavy said several conditions have to come together to allow for Big Night. After wintering in holes they’ve dug to buffet their cold-blooded bodies from winter’s blast, amphibians will wait until the first warm, wet night, a.k.a. Big Night, to make their first foray back into the world.
But the little creatures won’t come out until a host of conditions allow for it. McGreavy said it must be raining. It must be nighttime. Temperatures must be at or above 40 degrees. And the ground must be thawed. Once those conditions have been met, frogs and salamanders will come out of their winter hideaways all for the purpose of mating at the pool’s edge.
WHY VERNAL POOLS?
Amphibians such as toads, frogs, and salamanders congregate in vernal pools due to the lack of predators.
“There are no fish in vernal pools. These are bodies of water that dry up during the summer,” McGreavy said.
She also said amphibians will migrate to the same vernal pool year after year, with a 95 percent fidelity rate, hence the reason environmentalists have emphasized the pools’ importance over the last few years and why the state has protected them from development so as not to disturb the mating process. Salamanders can live 20 years, McGreavy said.
And if the way is blocked to their preferred pool, McGreavy said most likely they will find another, but perhaps not. She cites an anecdote she heard about a school that was built over a vernal pool.
“The spring after they built the school building, salamanders were lining up at the door waiting to get in,” she said.
Though she grew up in Maine and enjoyed the sound of peepers each spring, McGreavy only recently discovered Big Night after reading about it in 2003 in “The Swampwalker’s Journal” by David M. Carroll, a New Hampshire-based wetlands expert. The next spring, she went out on her own to area vernal pools to catch a glimpse of the migration and said the experience was “incredible.”
Ever since, McGreavy has been leading Big Night expeditions for locals and Lakes Environmental members. And with the record number of Road Watch participants this year, as well as an e-mail contact list for Big Night that tops 100 enthusiasts, Big Night seems to be catching on locally.
“It’s really a training session, crossing guard training,” said McGreavy. “We have several indoor training sessions where we focus on safety and then we’ll go out on Big Night. But then the idea is that they go off on their own after that, because there are many vernal pools and obviously many roads where these creatures cross.
One family already familiar with Big Night and who have documented past years are the Woodsons of Casco.
Brian Woodson first heard about Big Night from McGreavy several years ago, started reading up about it in preparation for taking his son Benjamin, who loves finding amphibians and other creatures in the woods. Big Night has become a special time of adventure and discovery for the family.
“It’s a lot of fun for Benjamin. We’ll drive and as soon as start hearing the high pitch of peepers we’ll pull over, throw on the flashers, and start walking the road,” Brian Woodson said.
Benjamin has high functioning autism and has really taken to Big Night and amphibians in general, his father said. He especially loves to handle the little creatures and is fearless of them.
“He’s always been really into catching them, and that’s why we got into it to begin with, but it’s a great way to teach him about the conservation thing, that we don’t have to keep what we find but just help them get to where they’re going, the vernal pool,” Woodson said.
For the past several years, the Woodsons have kept a detailed journal regarding Big Night. Usually, depending on weather conditions, the big migration takes place around April 18-22, they’ve discovered. This year, they first spotted salamander migration on March 22 and so far this year, Big Night has taken place three times.
“It’s been happening piecemeal,” Woodson said.
Another Casco resident and Lakes Environmental Association member, Alice Darlington, who lives on Kettle Cove of Sebago Lake, has a vernal pool on her property and therefore doesn’t have to go far to witness the wonders that occur there in the spring.
“It’s amazing, I just love it all,” Darlington said. “I love learning more and more about nature. I go down every day to see what’s going on.”
Darlington said the sound emanating from the pool can be deafening in the spring as the resident amphibians make their mating intentions known.
She’ll even call her relatives in Mexico and stick the phone receiver out the door so they can enjoy the sounds as well.
“It’s a real concert,” Darlington said.