It was a hot Saturday night in Roxborough, and the party was underway by dusk.
“As soon as we put the barricade up, they started coming, as if they knew,” said Roxborough Toad Detour volunteer Terry Cinque.
Each March and April, as Roxborough’s American toads go from the Schuylkill Center woods to their breeding grounds in the old Roxborough reservoir, the volunteers of the Toad Detour (founded in 2008 and overseen by the Center since last year) usher them safely across the road while keeping traffic at bay with city-sanctioned barricades. And in May and June, volunteers are back on the job as thousands of toadlets smaller than a dime hop from the water to the woods.
Our friend, the toad
Like all amphibians, toads need water to reproduce. After their winter hibernation underground, warmer temperatures bring the toads back to the surface. With warty skin loose from their long, hungry sleep, they hop and crawl to the water.
The males usually get there first, dip their toes, and then sing to the females, who soon join them. Each female lays thousands of tiny black eggs in long, twisted strands that cling to the reservoir’s underwater vegetation.Depending on the temperature of the water, tadpoles hatch out of the eggs in as little as three days, though it can take up to twelve. Their distinctive brown markings begin to appear before their legs do. In about 50 days, tiny toadlets begin to climb out of the water.
On their march back to their proper home in the woods, the miniature toads are very vulnerable to predators, and like to wait for the cover of dark, when it’s harder for birds to see them. Of course the toads becoming dinner for some animals is part of the forest’s natural life cycle, and part of the reason so many of them hatch, but one major threat to the toads is by no means natural: heedless cars can crush hundreds of them in a single pass.
Since insect-gobbling toads are vital members of the local ecosystem, their survival is important. The babies grow fast: in as little as two years, they’ll make their own trip back to the reservoir.
So each year, in spring and then again in early summer, Toad Detour volunteers, armed with clipboards, orange traffic vests, and flashlights, erect barricades to stop non-resident motorists from driving the stretch of Port Royal Avenue that runs between the reservoir and the Schuylkill Center woods.
“Watch where you’re walking, the toadlets are out!” Cinque, a horticulture student at Temple, admonished a pair of passing teenagers walking up the hill.
She comes from Abington, Pa. to help the toads, and participated for the first time earlier this year, as the adult toads made the trip to breed.
“Help the toads cross the road? Yeah!” she said of hearing about the project, though her kids were skeptical. She decided lending a hand was a “bucket list” item.
On Saturday, about seven volunteers spent two and half hours manning the barricades and stepping carefully up and down the east side of Port Royal Avenue, where two-inch slugs and singing crickets dwarfed the toadlets hopping in the grass.
Some carried plastic cups or buckets, goading the toadlets to hop inside with careful fingers, and then releasing them safely on the other side of the road.
“I like all animals – even the ones that try to eat me,” Mt. Airy resident Elan Robert Josephson-Wolovoy, aged “five and three-quarters,” announced of why he likes helping his fellow creatures.
His mom Stephanie Josephson, an HIV social worker, who was having her first night at the Detour, said she heard about the initiative and was curious. “It sounded funny,” she said, describing herself and her son as “huge animal lovers.”
“It sounded like something we could do together that we would both love,” she added.
Still time to help
This year’s toadlets were somewhat delayed by the unseasonably cold weather in May, and have started their march a little late. Volunteers are still needed for nights in June, and can sign up through the Schuylkill Center website. To find out how to volunteer, go to this website. For the Schuylkill Center’s toads page, click here.