A Big Night for little critters

The Big Night group poses at the LEA building in Bridgton before heading out into the rain on the night of Friday, April 21. 

BRIDGTON — An annual nighttime pilgrimage to help amphibians safely cross the road was successful, leaving volunteers wet from the rain but happy they were able to assist salamanders and frogs in their journey. 

“We saved a lot of creatures. This was a successful Big Night,” said Olive Smith, 7, of Bridgton during her first experience at the yearly event that took place on Friday, April 21. 

For about a decade, the Bridgton-based Lakes Environmental Association has held “Big Night,” an event that allows people of all ages to learn about amphibians like salamanders and frogs up close while helping them make their annual trip from wooded areas and into vernal pools – temporary pools often formed by rain and melting snow that provide critical habitat for the animals to spawn. 

The volunteers carefully pick up any amphibians that they find in the road and carry them to the side that the animal is facing. That way, fewer salamanders and frogs are struck by cars. It’s hard for drivers to see the small critters crossing at night.

“If you don’t like creepy crawly things, don’t come to Big Night, teacher/naturalist and Big Night organizer Mary Jewett said with a laugh before the group embarked on its journey into the rainy night. The volunteers were outfitted with headlamps, flashlights, reflective vests and a shared interest in the aforementioned creepy crawly things. 

The group of about 15 volunteers and LEA staff met at the organization’s office on Main Street to carpool to the nearby Masonic Hall to park. From there, they walked through a field – carefully, so as not to step on the terrestrial red-backed salamanders that can hide in the grass – and down a private dirt road named Memory Lane. 

Memory Lane eventually runs into Dugway Road, where two Bridgton Police officers were waiting to escort the group down the paved road and to temporarily stop cars to protect the group and any amphibians that might be crossing. 

Officer T.J. Reese has enjoyed being part of Big Night for the last seven or eight years, working to keep the volunteers safe without completely blocking motorists passing through on the road. 

“We try to stay with the group, obviously, on each side, so if a car comes we can get everybody out of the road, warn the motorists, and get them around safely,” said Reese, who patrolled the road last Friday night on foot with fellow Officer Brad Gaumont. 

Set to a chorus of spring peepers – small but vocal frogs – the group walked slowly down Dugway Road in a line across the two lanes, looking for any amphibians to help cross.

For about the first half of the walk, it seemed like this Big Night might be a big bust.

Despite the echoing melody of peepers on both sides of the road, the group had yet to spot a single spotted salamander or frog. But that changed shortly before the turnaround point, as peepers slowly began hopping out one-by-one into the roadway and a spotted salamander was found to have already to made its way to one of the pools. 

Activity warmed up from there on the chilly night. According to Jewett, the final count was three spotted salamanders, 12 peepers, one wood frog and at least 10 red-backed salamanders (all 10 found later in the field near the Masonic Hall). 

While those numbers were down from last year – when Big Night volunteers found 19 spotted salamanders, almost 100 peepers and more than 50 red-backed salamanders – Jewett was pleased with the haul this year considering the cool temperatures. Amphibians are cold-blooded and generally more active in warm weather. 

Jewett also thought that many amphibians may have already made their trek to the pools during the late-night rains that happened earlier in the week. She said it’s impossible to predict ahead of time when Big Night will happen each year because the crossing is so weather-dependent. The amphibians cross during the early warm rains of spring, and there’s no exact schedule for their departure. 

“They can’t tell the weather any better than we can,” Jewett explained about the animals. She manages a Yahoo Group to alert interested volunteers when its time for the event. 

In order to prepare for Big Night, LEA also holds a training session in advance where the volunteers can learn more about the animals, how to handle them properly, and how to stay safe in the road. 

Two new Big Night participants and self-described best friends, Grady Kemp of Casco and Danny O’Kane of Naples, said they would be back next year and encouraged others to join. The 12 year-olds both attend Lake Region Middle School. 

“You get to see cool amphibians that you might have not seen before,” said Kemp. 

“I liked the peepers and the salamanders because it brings me back to times when I was a kid, because I had a pet that I really loved that was a peeper,” said O’Kane. 

Apparently Big Night, including a trip down Memory Lane, can even make a 12-year-old feel more like a kid again. 

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

The Big Night group poses at the LEA building in Bridgton before heading out into the rain on the night of Friday, April 21. 

A big part of Big Night is watching where you step, which is what the group had to do as they walked through a field by the Masonic Hall. 

Big Night volunteers scan Dugway Road for amphibians that may be crossing to reach vernal pools. 

A group of volunteers huddle around an amphibian found in the roadway. 

LEA teacher Mary Jewett, center, shows Olive Smith, 7, of Bridgton, and Molly Nichols, 16, of Casco, how to safely pick up a spring peeper. 

A spotted salamander spotted on Dugway Road during Big Night. These black and yellow amphibians can live to be as old as 30. 

A spotted salamander spotted on Dugway Road during Big Night. These black and yellow amphibians can live to be as old as 30.