Area volunteers help amorous toads escape certain death

Local Life April 12, 2013 1 Comment

The fate of thousands of these hoppy little toads (“Bufo americanus”) in upper Roxborough are in the hands of human volunteers, who save many of the little critters every year through their intervention.

by Grace Cipressi

Thought Romeo and Juliet were up against it? Think again. They’ve got nothing on our star-crossed American Toads.

To mate, these “Bufo americanus” have to venture out of 325 acres that surround Roxborough’s Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, navigate around a formidable stone wall and hike the steep hill to the waters of Upper Roxborough Reservoir. All while trying to avoid getting hit by cars on Port Royal Avenue.

“For a road that’s not that busy, it gets a lot of traffic,” commented Derek Colquhoun, a weekly volunteer for Toad Detour (aka the DETOUR Project — Detour for Emerging Toads of Upper Roxborough), an initiative adopted by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Thanks to this program, these toads enjoy a better fate than Shakespeare’s famous duo. Many are killed by cars every year, but many also survive because of their human benefactors.

Volunteers survey the intersection of Hagy’s Mill Road and Port Royal Avenue from March to June to watch for crossing toads. Once the toads start to migrate, volunteers block off the road and count the cold-blooded vertebrates. Last year, nearly 2,000 were recorded.

The toads, which need a warm, moist environment to start their mating migration, usually appear on the street in mid-March. However, because of the unseasonably nippy weather, the first toads were only sighted for the first time on Easter Sunday.

Once they start, the amorous animals take about three days to cross the street. After mating, the toads wait six weeks as their offspring, or toadlets, become strong enough to hop. The multigenerational trek back to the woods takes about three days.

The Toad Detour project highlights the increasing reality of habitat infringement. Dr. Keith Henderson, a professor in Villanova University’s Geography and the Environment Department, told us about how human development changes the landscape of natural habitats and challenges native creatures. “Without human interaction you wouldn’t have toads anymore,” he said. “It can serve as a case study for larger phenomenon like suburban sprawl.”

Although major deforestation hasn’t taken over the woods where the toads spend most of the year, the small imposition on Port Royal Avenue changes their habitat and the way in which the toads and humans are able to interact with the land. In fact, the juxtaposition of humans and toads living in a modified habitat ignited the creation of Toad Detour in the first place.

Lisa Levinson, a former Roxborough resident, thought she saw brown leaves on the road one spring. Curious as to why there would be falling leaves in the spring, Levinson got out of her car to discover these were not leaves, but toads. That night, Levinson called a police car to block the road. She then obtained a permit and ran the Toad Detour program until passing it over to the Schuylkill Center when she moved to the West Coast.

Following her original model, volunteers patrol the road from 6:45 to 9 p.m. on spring nights. Anyone and everyone can volunteer. Interested parties can contact Claire Morgan, the volunteer coordinator at the Schuylkill Center, at cmorgan@schuylkillcenter.org or 215-482-7300, ext. 120. Volunteers can also learn more at the Facebook page, “Toad Detour at the Schuylkill Center,” or the Toad Detour website www.schuylkillcenter.org/programs/public_events

The toads obviously benefit from the work of the volunteers, but these woodland friends have a surprising way of helping their human counterparts. Toads balance insect populations and help gardeners. And, lets admit it; they’re just downright cute. Volunteer Derek Colquhoun is excited to bring his wife and children so they can, “just see the toads and experience the wildlife.” Being able to watch a migration presents a great educational opportunity for families to teach the values of volunteerism, habitat preservation and respect for nature to their children.

For those wishing to learn more about this unique initiative but unable to make the nighttime hours, a new documentary about Roxborough’s Toad Detour has just been created by filmmaker Burgess Coffield. Also, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, open 9-5 Monday through Saturday, offers many resources to learn more about the American Toad species and their habitat.

As Morgan summarizes, “This is a pretty unique situation, we have acres of land plus some adjacent property, and they have to lay their eggs in water, so they found this unique reservoir. They are nocturnal and move at night, so by protecting them we prevent them from becoming endangered in this region. We also protect their babies. We are protecting thousands and thousands of toads. And they are very important to the ecosystem.”

Grace Cipressi is a junior Communications student at Villanova University. Interested in environmental education, Grace enjoys studying and explaining the relationship between city-dwellers and the environment. She has lived in the area for the past 17 years and was educated in Chestnut Hill, having attended grade school at Norwood-Fontbonne Academy. She can be reached at gcipre01@villanova.edu.

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  • L. Lucas

    What a great story and amazing picture.