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Salamanders

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Every year, every spring, on the first rainy night above 40 degrees and no snow on the ground, the spotted salamanders migrate. Hundreds of the slimy amphibians come crawling out from under their musty logs and damp rocks and slowly make their long and arduous journey down to the vernal pool, which can be up to a quarter mile away. They were born in that vernal pool, and they have come back to it every year, drawn by the tantalizing prospect of having sex and making babies.

It’s become a tradition for our family. We invite all of our friends crazy enough to come out in the frigid rain, and drive up to Virginia Woods, five miles away. It’s always incredibly dark, and the moon only rarely flickers through the mass of clouds.

The trail is dangerous, with fallen logs and dead branches, the result of last year’s mini-tornado, which you don’t see until you've tripped over them. Surprisingly, there’s always another one or two nutcases wandering about, hunting for salamanders as well.

We act as if we know each other, trading our expert salamander spotting tips and trying to find one. Our group is usually the ‘noob’ group, the one that has to ask “Is this a Salamander, or a leaf?”

The vernal pool in Virginia woods isn’t actually a vernal pool, meaning it sticks around all year instead of evaporating. Sometimes we get lucky, and we can see a little spotted salamander wallowing in the muck with a pretty Ms. Spotted Salamander, caught embarrassed in the bright glow of our flashlights. Usually, we just see the beginnings of the ‘party’, with a couple of over eager salamanders waddling as fast as they can into the water before my mother says we can’t stay out an longer and we have to go to bed.

Once, we really hit the jackpot, and our salamander count soared all the way to at least eighty, with various friends and other spotters shouting across the pond “Look, I see one”, and “That makes 58!”, and “Whoa, get a room!”. There was even more crawling into the pond, and if you looked closely, you could see tiny clusters of floating you-know-what waiting to come into contact with a female’s egg.

Once, also, we saw, like, three, and we ourselves didn't find any. We relied on the eagle eyes of the people we met along the road. That rainy night above 40 degrees and no snow occurred in the middle of February, and I guess some of the salamanders were old enough and wise enough to know that chances are it was going to snow, the pond was going to freeze, and their lucky night wasn't coming until march, when the migration usually happens.

This is the only night in the year that you can see the salamanders. The little buggers crawl back to their logs and rocks and little caves after the fun’s over, and they don’t move for the rest of the year! Okay, sure, they might crawl out for food or something, but still, a whole year! The sheer boredom!

Keep in mind, if my amazingly persuasive article actually managed not to horribly gross you and actually interest you, make sure there are actually spotted salamanders near you before you go tromping out into the first forest you see. We made that mistake once, and spend two hours wandering the closest woods to our house looking for the things. We didn't know yet that that forest was un-inhabited by salamanders. Oops.



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