Toads stop traffic for annual detour in Roxborough [gallery]

Debbi Carr still remembers that springtime Friday evening about eight years ago when she got a distraught phone call about toads in Roxborough. At first, the situation the caller described sounded so outlandish that Carr wondered if it was a hoax. 

The caller was Lisa Levinson, who had noticed something strange while driving near the corner of Port Royal Avenue and Hagys Mill Road. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of toads were making their way across the road, and they were getting killed in droves by every passing car.

“I love all animals,” Levinson told NewsWorks in a 2011 interview about the Toad Detour, a program she founded in 2009 that formally came under the umbrella of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in 2012. 

“It’s such a tragedy to see them squished in the moment of their greatest glory,” she added of the toads’ post-hibernation journey to start the next generation.

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Why now? Why here?

When Levinson called Parks and Recreation for help, Carr didn’t know what to think. Could there really be so many toads on the move all at once in Roxborough? Since the woods and ponds of the Schuylkill Center grounds are the toads’ natural home, what were they doing all hopping across the road at once?

But then it hit her, she explained, chatting with NewsWorks on Port Royal Avenue during a damp and chilly night in the first week of 2015’s Toad Detour.

“I was like, wait a minute, the reservoir!”

She realized that the toads, waking up from their winter nap in the Schuylkill Center woods, were making their way to the old Roxborough reservoir to lay their eggs.

So Carr, who now volunteers with the program, and her husband, wildlife photographer Doug Wechsler, decided to see for themselves. They got a pair of lawn chairs, some Chinese take-out, and sat down to observe. Levinson hadn’t been exaggerating.

Too many to count

Now, the Toad Detour program (and its helpers from across the region), helmed by Schuylkill Center volunteer coordinator Claire Morgan, helps millions of toads every year maintain their important place in the local ecosystem — including the favor of eating mosquitos that pester us.

The migration goes in two waves that depend greatly on the weather. For about three weeks in April, the adult toads unearth themselves, cross to the reservoir, and hop home again, with the help of a City-approved barricade on Port Royal Avenue. Then, for about three weeks in May or June, millions of tiny toadlets make the journey from the reservoir to the woods.

Last year Toad Detour volunteers donated 300 work-hours and counted 2,400 adult toads — about double the number they observed in 2013, according to Morgan. (This doesn’t count the toads that don’t cross during the Detour’s peak hours of 7 to 9 p.m.). Since each female toad can lay up to 20,000 eggs, that puts the toadlet count into the millions.

The next generation of helpers

This year’s Toad Detour kicked off on April 3, and on Tuesday, 10-year-old Roxborough resident Natalie Antrim, searching the west side of Port Royal Avenue with her flashlight, spotted the night’s first toad.

She said it startled her when it came hopping out of the brush.

Searching with her, her dad, Mark Antrim, said they discovered the Detour when they drove by the barricade one night. “Oh my God, the ground is moving!” he remembers thinking when he saw all the toads.

“I grew up in the neighborhood, now she’s growing up in the neighborhood,” Antrim said, as Natalie, too busy to talk, continued her search.

There was also a group of 13 elementary-school girls on hand: the West Mt. Airy Brownies and Daisies.

This year marks a new partnership between the Toad Detour and the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania, Morgan said. The Scouts can earn a special Toad Detour badge by coming out to volunteer.

The immediately popular program is already full, she added. There are plans to expand it for next year.

“I have toads in my garden. I think toads are quite wonderful,” troop leader Miriam Peskowitz said.

Humbled by toads

Volunteers Maureen Breen of Northeast Philadelphia and Kevin Cannon of Horsham were also on duty. They’re both first-year participants.

“I’m vegetarian, so I care a lot about animals,” Breen said. She thinks we should always do what we can for them, especially the little ones.

“You used to see toads everywhere, but now you don’t so much,” Cannon said of what brought him out.

Two warm, wet days in a row scored high on the toad roster, Morgan said of Sunday and Monday nights, when volunteers counted about 300 toads in total. But Tuesday, when the temperature dropped to about 50 degrees, didn’t prove nearly as tempting to the amphibians. Volunteers spotted about ten toads, plus a pickerel frog or two.

But Breen and Cannon each found one, which they carried carefully across the road. “I find it so humbling to take care of other living creatures,” Breen said.

Second-year volunteer Lety Ramirez, who lives in Center City, said the Detour is just the right fit for her when it comes to helping animals. She likes releasing every toad she finds with her own personal benediction to live long, prosper, and procreate — and she avoids her personal problem of wanting to adopt too many animals when she volunteers.

“This is perfect, because I can’t keep them,” she said of the marching toads.

For more information about the Toad Detour, or to sign up to volunteer, visit the website.

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