When Chewonki Vice President Greg Shute talks about Big Night, his eyes shine. For Shute, Big Night–the night when salamanders, wood frogs, spring peepers, newts, and other amphibious species make their way en masse from the sylvan hideaways where they live to the vernal pools and ponds where they mate–is a wondrous moment of the year.
“It’s something like the caribou migration in miniature,” says Shute. And another reminder of the forces of nature at play as we go about our distracted human lives.
The amphibians who participate in Big Night travel to the same waters each year to breed. Some only need to get to a nearby vernal pool while others make high-risk journeys across roads to reach the right place. Shute and his wife, Lynne Flaccus, former staff naturalist at Chewonki, who attend Big Night every year both to marvel and help, “know right where [the amphibians] are going to cross the road” as they head to a neighbor’s farm pond. So on a rainy April night, Shute and Flaccus were shooing the critters toward the pond, lifting some to safety, and directing traffic around dawdlers.
In a salamander-like way, Shute has a sixth sense about when Big Night will occur. Spring came late this year and the woods were still snowy, but “It was raining and the temperature got up to about 50F,” he says. “I knew it was coming.”
Shute and Flaccus saw spotted salamanders, four-toed salamanders, spring peepers, wood frogs, red efts, and even a couple of toads making the pilgrimage. “The toads were a surprise. They usually come a little later,” Shute says.
“We help them all, including the toads. But we’ve definitely got a soft spot for the spotted salamanders,” he admits. “They’re just so beautiful. And they seem to have the most trouble getting from one side of the road to the other.”
Once their eggs are ensconced in a pool or pond, these amphibians make their way back to the forest. They don’t form the same procession on their return trip, however. They take their time meandering home on their own schedule–as anyone might after a big night.