So far this year, the Schuylkill Center’s annual amphibian love-fest has more help than ever: it’s drawn about two-thirds as many human volunteers as toads, Toad Detour Leader Claire Morgan said on a warm, slightly drizzly night in late April.
That’s partly because, starting with a special Toad Detour badge for Girls Scouts of Southeastern Pennsylvania last year, word has gotten out to local schools and other organizations about this kid-friendly after-dark nature outing, and the young volunteers are coming out in droves.
“It’s a citizen science thing,” said Morgan, the Schuylkill Center’s volunteer coordinator. “We do collect data.” Even grade-school participants carry small clipboards to tally the number of frogs and toads they spot hopping from their winter hibernation in the woods to their breeding grounds in the old Roxborough reservoir across Port Royal Avenue.
So far in 2016, about 600 toads have been tallied, said Morgan, who spends at least two nights a week out at the detour through the toads’ migration season. And they’ve had about 400 human volunteers to help them, thanks in large part to groups including Girl Scouts from across the region, Boy Scouts, and, on one evening, about 160 volunteers from the Perelman Jewish Day School (kids and grownups).
Morgan hopes that these youngsters will grow up with an appreciation for nature and take active roles in hometown conservation efforts.
Before the Port Royal Avenue barricades went up at Hagy’s Mill Road and Eva Street, where the pavement runs between the Schuylkill Center woods and the reservoir, Morgan gave a brief program for the assembled volunteers, from kids to grandparents.
This is the eighth year for the Toad Detour, founded by Lisa Levinson and formally adopted into the Schuylkill Center’s programming a few years ago. It runs for a few weeks in April and May (timing depending on the weather: the toads like it warm and wet) as adult toads hop to the reservoir to breed, and again for a few weeks in June, as the tiny toadlets make their way to the woods.
The American Toad has a lifespan of about 10 years, helping us out along the way by dining on mosquitos, Morgan explained, and after they metamorphose from tadpoles to tiny toads, it takes about two or three years before they’re ready to lay their own eggs.
Last year, the detour counted about 1,300 adult toads. In 2014, they got 2,400. The 2016 toads got an early start with a warm spate in March, but the migration halted for a few weeks as cold temperatures returned in April.
Morgan instructed about 20 volunteers in fluorescent vests to wait until the sun went down at 7:47 p.m., and the birds went quiet. That’s when the toads begin their march, and the barricades, manned by adult volunteers, go up to protect them.
After Port Royal Avenue was blocked off at Hagy’s Mill Road, Morgan spoke with several motorists, some of whom honked horns with frustration.
“What’s the deal?” one driver demanded. Morgan explained the conservation mission, and got an enthusiastic response.
“Save the toads!” the driver cried as he pulled away.
Among Friday night’s volunteers were sisters Tina and Linda Tran, of North Philadelphia. It was their first time in the neighborhood.
Tina, 20, is a biology major at Penn State, and came out to the detour for some extra credit on the suggestion of her animal-loving organic chemistry professor.
“This is a new experience,” she said of why she chose to spend a night with the toads.
Linda, 24, is a recent University of the Sciences graduate bound for medical school in the fall. No stranger to volunteering on her path to med school, she thought she’d give the detour a try.
As dusk gathered, the small army of volunteers, carrying flashlights, buckets, and clipboards, began to scour the west side of Port Royal Avenue. Many an unsuspecting toad found itself on an impromptu trip all the way up the hill, borne by enthusiastic youngsters who had to share their finds before releasing them.
Krystal Meagher and her husband Roger Allaway, avid Philadelphia Zoo members who love to observe animals, came all the way from Warminster for their first night at the Detour.
“It’s a free night out,” Meagher added.
Roxborough residents Stan and Nancy Szostek have made a tradition of bringing their grandkids, Aubrey, nearly three, and Alex, a veritable toad expert at age seven, to the detour.
“Alex has been doing this since he was three,” said Nancy, a former Schuylkill Center staffer. “He looks forward to it every year.”
For his part, Alex had no time for anyone but the toads: “If you see anything hopping, let me know!”