CAUTION! Salamander Crossing!

Our street is a one lane road with a 20 MPH speed limit. It is a quiet country lane, only traveled by the fifteen or so families that live here, the school bus, mail carrier, and the occasional oil truck. Hence it is not a frequently traveled thoroughfare and we are lucky enough to walk each day without the threat of fast traffic and passersby.One early morning last week I took my daily walk with the dog up the hill, undisturbed and not passed by any cars. Up to the top of the hill and then back, we approached something in the road that was not there on our way up. I was perplexed to be approaching what looked like a nest of white worms in the middle of the road. Now, if it had been there before the dog would have been all over that! What was it?

As I came upon the mound in the road, I was shocked by what lay next to the heap (of worms?). It was black and blended in with the pavement, so I didn't notice it until I stood right over it. I was looking at something I had NEVER seen before in my life! I nudged it with my foot. It moved its long tail only slightly, perhaps from reflexes, but this critter was drawing its last breaths.

I was astounded! Was it a baby alligator? Something from the Jurassic era? It was fat and squishy, with bright yellow spots running along both sides of its spine. Its snout was rather pugged. I looked around in excitement, eagerly wanting to tell or show somebody! But no one was around yet. I ran home with the dog to grab a styofoam take-out container, intending to run back to scoop up the critter (minus the intestines!), to find someone who could tell me what it was

In the two minutes it took me to run to the house and come back to fetch it, it was gone! Only the white mound of intestines remained. Were they eggs? Surely some crow or other scavenger beat me to it. Disappointed, I shuffled back to the house, took a reference book from the shelf, and leafed through it until I spotted my spotted salamander. Yep, there it was all right.

I have been an outdoor enthusiast and naturalist ever since I can remember. As a child I would turn over rocks and collect the coppery little salamanders, pluck praying mantises from leaves for inspection, and pick Dutchman's Britches in the woods at springtime. In all my exploring, and observing, I thought I knew my environment, and had seen every creature known to our area in the Northeast. I absolutely love learning something I never knew before. But how could this creature exist unbeknownst to me?!I took my National Geographic Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians across the street to my neighbor, who has lived here, I think, forever. She is a master gardener and avid nature lover. I walked into her house with the book in my hand. She noticed I had a book and asked, “Well? Have you identified our mystery bird?”

“Noooo,” I slowly replied and held up the book. She could have guessed that I was going to show her a turtle or snake, but my mouth nearly hit the floor when she blurted right out, “What? Did you see a spotted salamander?”

Is she psychic too? This was almost more amazing than seeing the creature!

She said that yes, they were more plentiful years ago and are on the decline, but was deeply saddened when I told her it had been squished by something. Apparently someone leaving his or her driveway had run it over, but I didn't remember seeing a car pass.

I blurted out my tale to anyone who would listen for the next few days. I called a friend from the Ithaca area who loved my story, was very familiar with the spotted salamander, and sees them often in the spring. She even told me that Cornell University is all over this topic and is actively trying to save the creatures that cross the roads to get to ponds to lay their eggs. Like the deer, they have ancient paths ingrained in their DNA. Cornell is seeking ways to build under-the-road pipes to let the salamanders get across streets.

Have I been living under a rock? My son on Fisher's Island, just off the coast of Connecticut, said: “Oh yeah! Spotted Salamanders! I can take you for a ride right now, to a specific spot in the road where we see them squished all the time! You've never seen one of them?”

Okay, so I have been living under a rock! But, I was happy to read in last week's issue of Chronogram, that another person was pleasantly shocked to have spotted one for the first time also.

Now I understand the name of a former folk band called Salamander Crossing!

According to the National Geographic Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians:

The species spends most of its adult life underground and are rarely seen. Acid rain over the years has polluted the water in some northeast ponds, so that eggs may not develop and populations are on the decline.Their size ranges from 6 to 9 or close to 10 inches in length. They breed in March to April and the heavy spring rains and warming temperatures lure them to migrate to breeding ponds. Females lay eggs in milky masses that contain about 100 eggs, which hatch in one to two months.The salamanders give off a milky odorous substance to ward off enemies.Habitat: hardwood forests and hillsides around pools and flooded depressions.

Yes, we have those in our backyards here in Clinton!

Pat Laine is a 9 year resident of Clinton. She owns and operates Little Creek Therapeutic Massage. She shares her home with her Maine Coon cat and collie dog. Whether walking in the woods, or along Little Wappingers Creek and its environs, she observes the miracles of wildlife and plant life on a daily basis.

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