It was a “perfect storm”. An early March warm spell. The daytime temperature rose into the low 60s (Fahrenheit) and then it rained all afternoon. This is the magic formula that stirs the mole salamanders into action. When darkness prevails, out of the earth they climb and then trek toward their breeding sites … vernal pools, small ponds, and temporary streams. They are charged with energy and excited with anticipation. For on this single night, they will mate with vigor, in a frenzy of concentrated activity not only worthy of our attention, but also our deepest reverence and praise.
I feel so fortunate to be here on earth, alive with senses, able to witness this extraordinary event. It is such a special celebration, yet it so easily passes unnoticed as many of us while away these cold, wet nights in the warmth of our homes, hovering over our computers and dreaming of a better world. It is so critically important that we tune-in to these rituals and move our bodies, minds, and spirits out into wild nature, to feel the cold rain on our skin, to smell the rotting leaves underfoot, to hear the din of the spring peepers, and to become immersed in the wonder with our entire beings, as if this is exactly what we have been born to do.
I gathered the above video clips at the Bull Pasture Pond breeding site on the Cornell University golf course, here in upstate New York. My clips are not the greatest (partly because it was raining), but they get the point across (see below for better video). I managed to get some underwater footage, but darned if I didn’t aim the camera too high. Oh well, I really wish I had concentrated on on getting more underwater footage because it is more intimate and reveals quite a bit more detail.
On this night (March 10-11), both Jefferson and Spotted Salamanders were on the move. Many of the Jefferson Salamanders were actually leaving the breeding area, having bred sometime during the one or two weeks prior. This was the largest migration I’ve witnessed here in over three decades. As you can see from my video, the mating frenzy was quite impressive! Mating activity peaked around 10:30pm. By midnight, with temperatures rapidly dropping into the low 40s, there was far less activity. I would guess that eighty percent or more of this Spotted Salamander population bred during a three-hour stretch, from 8-11pm on this wet and cold early March night. How ephemeral this is, a silent explosion of activity so forceful that it reverberates the surroundings. Yet, within hours, it evaporates into time, leaving but a few traces behind. The Spotted Salamander is truly a mayfly of the amphibian world.
Here I am talking about the experience with my scratchy voice (from throat cancer treatment):
Below are two additional videos that celebrate the two species that were on the move last night. Go here for relevant natural history information for the Spotted Salamander.
Spotted Salamander – Species Portrait:
Jefferson Salamander – Species Portrait:
I live in the mountains of Western North Carolina and one early spring night I was fortunate enough to see this mass migration from a wooded area across a highway to a swamp below. It was phenomenal. I have lived there 60 plus years and had never seen it. My daughter and I spent hours moving them across the road so they would not get run over. There were so many you could not driver without hitting them. That was about 15 year ago and I have checked every spring and have never been lucky enough to see them again.… Read more »
Awesome! Thank you for filming and posting this beautiful time in nature.
Oh, the memories of tromping in the mud and the spring streams of northern Mass. I was 8-10 years old! I have reached 65 now, but your beautiful photography takes me there. What fun to witness the wriggling mass of salamanders! Here in Fla. we have chameleons, and we can watch them hooking up by 2’s in their mating rituals. Thank you so much for sending me your videos!
I love watching Anoles do their “push-up” display, with expanded gular fold (colorful fold of skin on the neck).
Hello – I just read that the males have the enlarged cloacas at breeding time. The females also are larger in size than the males.
I think I saw in a program that the males arrive before the females.
Yes, the males arrive first on the average. But during a large and sudden migration such as the one I just observed, both sexes were on the move together.
Some of the salamanders seem to have sacs on them (eggs?)
Not sure what you’re referring to. Females that gather up spermatophores swim off and lay eggs on their own. None of my videos show this behavior, though I’d sure like to capture it.
Hi Lang. Love your nature video blogs. We have a pond in SW rural Wisconsin, but things are still quiet. No spring peepers or other signs of life. The Sandhill Cranes are just starting to return. No significant rain which might be a factor??
Rain is a biggie with amphibians … allows them to migrate safely to their breeding spots. You’re fortunate to have Sandhill Cranes in your area! Do they breed there, or just pass through?
Yes, this is where we are meant to be and be part of, this miraculous wild Earth in all of her beauty and mystery. Thanks for your passion and generosity in sharing.
Hi–we are in Ithaca and I would love to see this. Where are some great vernal pools and about how many nights would this happen? Thanks for your information!
Lisa: The very best place to take kids is the Cornell golf course breeding site. Though breeding is pretty much done in the Ithaca area now, you might want to go out there during the next moist or rainy night with temps in the 50s. Possibly next Monday or Tuesday evening? At that time you might very well observe good numbers of salamanders leaving the breeding pools and heading for the forest.
Thank you so much!!
Incredible photography, both above and in water. And such a gift to all who have never witnessed this amazing ritual. Thank you for such a vivid glimpse into “sally-meandering.”
Thank you Mary! And for anyone reading, check out Mary’s wonderful blog: http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com
Thank you Lang! Our kids grew up in downtown Ithaca with red-backed salamanders, but these, with their spring drama that you’ve captured so well, seem to be in another world. When you say the female ingests the spermatophore, you mean grasping it by the sides of her vent, right?
Here’s a quote from a web page at Loyola University (cited below). This is the way I understand it to happen in Ambystoma maculate. But perhaps I’m wrong?: “As females enter the pools, the males approach them with a courtship dance that results in the females picking up the sperm caps with their cloacal lips (a cloaca is a common opening of the reproductive, excretory, and alimentary systems). Sperm are stored in small pockets inside the females’ cloaca called spermathecae and are released to fertilize eggs as they move through the cloaca.” FROM: http://www.loyno.edu/lucec/natural-history-writings/spotted-salamander-ambystoma-maculatum In other words, the female ingests… Read more »
Fascinating, Lang. Love the photo of you too.
Thanks, Lang! Harper and Row’s Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife gives the same description as you and adds that the sperm sacs can be stored in her spermatheca for several years! How did they figure that out?
Ruth: I was just listening to your bird song haiku poems accompanied by your wonderful song imitations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuVSt6Om2aw&feature=youtu.be
Thanks again, Lang! I have friends in WA, NJ, KS and ME who I know would enjoy your amazing recordings. May I send them all your link?
Ruth: Yes, please send them links!
Lang, your words are so alive, vivid, sense rich, sensitive, drenched in gatitude, and they are compelling. Your deep value of nature’s cycles and rituals is a beautiful thing in this overly synthetic world. I leave your site inspired and with my senses turned on and up. Oh yeah, your videos are great too. Thank you.
The number of salamanders, the density, the intensity of the activity…truly amazing! Thank you for the beautiful, close view of what’s going on in the water! Wendy and I have seen them migrating to the pools, but haven’t been in a place where we could get close enough to see the details of what happens once they’ve arrived.
Lisa: Of course, seeing “details” is pretty difficult, considering how all those individuals are moving all about, swimming over and around one another in a tight mass. I believe most are males, but it’s very difficult to discern. I believe scientists say that there can be actual courtship between a single male and female, but to me it looks more like a crap shoot. A female entering the fray just needs to find and ingest a spermatophore, then she’s free to swim off by herself to lay and fertilize her own eggs. But is she led to a spermatophore by… Read more »
How beautiful nature is and we look at it through you Lang.
Such an amazing, ephemeral event. I feel its antiquity, a process that has occurred since the dawn of time here on earth. Thanks so much for sharing it, Lang!
This footage is truly amazing. Are these the only creatures that move their front right leg and back left leg at the same time, and then their front left leg and back right?
Toilette: I’m not sure and haven’t really thought about it. What do dogs and horses do?
From San Miguel de Allende, Mexico…thanks for the Spring event, Lang. It made me a bit homesick for Western New York! Looking forward to seeing you again this summer at Chautuaqua Institution’s Bird, Tree and Garden Club.
Oh how I wish I had been standing next to you. Thank you for sharing!
Migration at the golf course pond is actually quite a social event, human-wise. I’m sure that at least thirty or forty people attended at various times through the night. I left human voices in on my video to provide a reality check. Yep, my friends Karen and Joe were right next to me, with Joe asking whether or not the salamanders would swim into the underwater housing (I think he was concerned for their safety). Normally, I go out alone into wild nature. But not so last night.
Awesome. The underwater segment is really compelling — like being there with them.
Thank you for sharing this. I’m at my computer, wishing I were there
Hey Robin … viewing my video clips and reading my prose is almost as good as actually being there. Right? NOT!
Awesome videos! Nothing like going a-salamandering on a cold wet night in early spring.
“sally-meandering” is what I call it! Good to hear from you Ed.
Great footage! Good to see such a strong congress.
Yes, and a congress that actually gets something done!
The Internet is great. I can watch what’s going on in a pond 4,000 miles away! Thanks so much for showing us the coming of spring.
You’re welcome Mark! Whereabouts are you?
Suffolk, east coast of England. Land of heaths, fields of potatoes, carrots, onions and barley. And big reedbeds which I am hoping to get to visit in a few weeks to do some recording. First time for 3 years, due to arrival of children. Can’t wait to see March Harriers displaying again.
I so agree! We’re still deep in snow and though the days are getting warmer and the sun finding its way back to its summer home, we still have at least 6 weeks of winter to get through. I love the sights and sounds of a long awaited Spring to come. Thank you so much!
MaryAnn: Where is all the deep snow? Rocky Mountains? Up in Canada somewhere?
Oh my gosh, Lang! Even though I was right there with you, the underwater camera takes it to a whole new level of spectacular. What a gift you are as a friend, and as a guide to the world of nature for all.
I only wish I’d gotten more underwater footage. Right after you guys left, I realized that I’d left a critical piece of equipment at my office. So I had to go retrieve it, losing about 45 minutes. By the time I got back and set up (near midnight), there was far less breeding activity. I got one single chance and goofed it because the underwater camera wasn’t aimed correctly (this is a hit-and-miss thing because I can’t actually see what’s being filmed). I looked around for another half hour but couldn’t find any good congresses. My conclusion is that you… Read more »