Volunteers work to protect annual toad migration in Northwest Philly.
It’s an improbable journey, yet one that matters. To everyone.
These useful little fellows sense when it’s time. They awaken and emerge from twelve inches deep in the ground in a densely wooded place and begin the race of their life to the nearest pond.
In the case of perhaps 2000 American toads racing to their breeding pond at the old Roxborough Reservoir, however, the tough journey is especially perilous. It crosses heavily trafficked streets used as shortcuts to avoid Ridge Avenue.
At about 10 p.m. on March 6, Judy Stepenaskie counted about 100 dead toads on Port Royal Avenue, between Hagys Mill Road and Eva Street. There were others, still struggling to make it.
Spring migration for bufo americanus was underway.
Operation Toad Detour shifted into high gear.
Toad Detour is in its third year. Founded and coordinated by Lisa Levinson, the organizing committee includes representatives from numerous civic and environmental organizations, as well as the Philadelphia Department of Parks & Recreation, the Philadelphia Police Departments 5th District and the Philadelphia Streets Department.
The goals of Toad Detour include establishing ways to protect the life cycle migrations of these important ecological partners and to increase public awareness about why, according to Levinson.
Temporary road detours are set up during the periods of peak migrations, she said.
Road blocks are supported by the Streets Department and staffed by volunteers from a growing mailing list of about two hundred citizens, some from as far away as Phoenixville. They’re generally set up at 7 p.m. for a couple of busy traffic hours. Volunteers distribute informational brochures to drivers.
“Toads prefer to move on wet, warm nights,” explained Doug Wechsler, a scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, where he serves as director of VIREO, the largest collection of bird photographs in the world.
“Toads are beautiful little animals,” said Wechsler, author of more than 20 children's books on wildlife.
“Part of the food chain, toads eat a lot of insects and help control outbreaks of insect populations,” Wechsler explained.
Some toads also become the food supply to sustain larger animals in the ecosystem, such as owls.
As amphibians, these toads lay their eggs in the Reservoir, where approximately 10 days later, they hatch into tadpoles. Growing from nutrients in the pond, tadpoles either become nourishment for other wildlife in the ecosystem or metamorphose during two months into tiny toads.
The toadlets–generally smaller than a penny–then migrate out of the pond area, up the steep banks and down the wall, where they must cross the same dangerous streets their ancestors crossed, in order to get to the wooded areas where they will mature.
Wechsler said it’s all part of a great energy cycle of the biomass.
“The area needs protection for the yearly migrations," he said.
Tom Howard is a Toad Detour volunteer from the neighborhood surrounding the Reservoir. He reported escorting an albino toad across Port Royal Avenue last week.
Volunteer Randy Shields said "the simple act of blocking off streets for a few hours to save the lives of thousands of animals is a simple, worthwhile way for people to make a difference.”
Janet Lippincott, another volunteer, is a real estate agent in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill.
“The adults look like leaves blowing across the street," she said. "It takes a good eye to notice, and then you get used to it.”
Lippincott said she stays out late, even after the detour barriers come down.
“I get to 100, and then I say, 'no, I’ll get to 125.' Oh, but then I think the next one’s not going to make it. How about 150? It’s so hard to walk away.”
Four educational Toad Walks are scheduled for the public, according to Debbie Carr, director of environmental education for the Philadelphia Department of Parks & Recreation. Co-sponsored by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, these hour-long walks are led by naturalists and take participants up to the Reservoir to learn about these animals and listen to their hair-raising mating calls.
More than 120 people attended similar Toad Walk programs last year, Carr said. Teens on one Toad Walk nicknamed a particular toad Edward in a nod to the popular Twilight character, she added.
Toad Walks will take place from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. the next two Friday and Saturday evenings, March 18, 19, 25 and 26.
“Rain or shine. Bring a flashlight,” Carr said.
Meet at the corner of Port Royal Avenue and Lare Street just off of Ridge Avenue, and park at the side of the ballfield along the Port Royal.
For more information, visit www.toaddetour.com or call 215-683-0218, 215-685-9285, or 267-719-3546.