Toad Detour round II: saving Roxborough’s newborn toadlets

One day, when this NewsWorks reporter was in the third grade, the boys, in a well-coordinated mass attack, put earthworms in the desk of every girl except one.

I was the girl they left out. It turned out I didn’t get a worm because the boys, knowing my fondness for small creeping creatures, figured that it wouldn’t have scared me. Why waste the worm on a non-shrieking girl?

Twenty years later, I’ve met my kindred spirits in the volunteers of the Toad Detour, an effort founded in Roxborough a few years ago by animal enthusiast Lisa Levinson, who noticed hundreds of migrating toads getting crushed by cars on Port Royal Avenue as they made their annual trek from the woods to the reservoir to mate. Volunteers man police-approved evening barricades that keep motorists off roads bordering the reservoir, in an effort to aid the toads’ passage.

This spring, the Schuylkill Center for Environment Education adopted the Toad Detour into its own programming, under coordinator Claire Morgan.

In her first year at the helm of the program, Morgan says that during the March-April migration of adult toads to the reservoir, volunteers counted about 2,000 toads, which is on par with the numbers of previous years.

The toads weren’t about to let Morgan ease into her duties. Probably due to this year’s early warm spell, about a third of the total number of toads – 700 in all – were spotted on the Detour’s opening night, the first official day of spring.

Morgan says that a new online system for signing up volunteers, as well as new social-media efforts, have boosted the number of volunteers involved, though one challenge of shepherding the toads will always remain: it’s impossible to predict exactly when they’ll march. Volunteers eager to see some toads could spend an entire evening fruitlessly scanning the pavement, while on other nights there is a veritable flood of the lumpy brown creatures.

Round II 

For now, the toads’ romance is over and the adults have returned to their woodsy home. But the second leg of the Toad Detour just launched this week, with orange-vested volunteers back on the street, ready to protect the new toadlets who are just emerging from the reservoir, determined to cross the road.

“I know they’re going to get run over, so I come out,” says three-year Detour volunteer Tony Gordon, who comes all the way from Mayfair to aid the toadlets’ journey.

A little-league baseball game illuminates the fields opposite the reservoir as I stop by to see the toadlets for myself this week, the soft sounds of the ice cream truck mix with the crack of the bat followed by families’ cheers.

The toadlets, most of whom have yet to make their way to the woods, can be found exploring the old stone-paved ramp on the north side of the reservoir in the warm and humid dusk.

“Did you find any frogs?” cries a group of boys tumbling down the grassy bank from the baseball field as Gordon and Schuylkill Center Marketing Coordinator Naomi Leach join me on the ramp.

“Toads!” Leach replies.

“Ribbit, ribbit!” screech the boys, getting down on all fours to leap away across the grass.

“Watch for movement,” Leach advises. At first it seems like an impossible task to spot the tiny brown toadlets, smaller than your little fingernail, in the gathering dusk. But sure enough, within seconds, moving specks prove to be the hopping babies, undeterred by the beams of the flashlights.

Safe transport

Leach and Gordon each carry large plastic cups of the kind favored by college partiers. In a few deft movements, they crouch down and with a nudge of their fingertips, urge the babies to hop into the cups. Once the bottom of the cup is teeming with tiny amphibians, they are carefully borne across the road and down a shaggy, well-worn path at the corner of Port Royal and Hagys Mill Roads to the Schuylkill Center’s garden, where volunteers gently release the toadlets to a welcome-home symphony of spring crickets.

The folks involved admit that the ride in the cups may not be strictly necessary – someone even suggests that migrating baby toads existed long before plastic cups did. But the barricades aren’t up yet, cars are speeding by, and there is something appealing about the courageous babies, so tiny that you can barely feel their toes as they walk across the skin of your palm.

As we work our way to the top of the ramp and the sounds of the baseball game fall away, gentle slugs ten times the size of the toadlets ooze across the stones, and when you keep absolutely still, hundreds of tiny hops can be heard pattering last fall’s leaves.

Back at the bottom of the ramp, Gordon appears, full of excitement. At least one amphibian didn’t get the migratory memo: Gordon found a full-size toad wandering the wrong side of the street.

After a brief but intense discussion of the toad’s fate, Morgan decrees it would fare well in the quiet grass of the Roxborough Presbyterian Church’s cemetery, and Gordon fades back into the dark to release his anxious cargo.

“Are you guys lookin’ for frogs?” the boys yell as we return to the street.

“Toads!” Leach says.

Volunteers are still needed to help secure the toadlets’ way every night until June 30. Amphibian sympathizers can sign up online through the Schuylkill Center’s website.

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