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Levin: Way Too Soon

This year I made a bet with a friend about when we’d first hear spring peepers in our respective valleys. At one thousand, three hundred feet in Pomfret, she picked April 16th. Lower and wetter, at nine hundred feet in Thetford Center, I conservatively, and smugly, chose April 14th. But my date was two days off the mark, and I glumly accepted defeat.

We both would have lost if we’d wagered with anyone in the Champlain Valley, where peepers were heard on February 25th.

Granted, it was just a few males, and not with maddening urgency, but at nearly seventy degrees and raining, the tincture of spring had struck these frogs an astonishing seven weeks before the Upper Valley peepers stirred from their amphibian dreams – remaining still underground, nearly rock-solid and comatose.

Jim Andrews, coordinator of The Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, tells me that peepers began serenading five western Vermont towns during that extraordinary February warm spell and continued through March 2nd, when temperatures again dropped like an anvil, turning the ground to stone.

They didn’t pipe up again in the Champlain Valley, says Andrews, until April 3rd.

On March 1st, Andrews posted on the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Facebook site that ten Salisbury volunteers had already recorded 20 blue-spotted salamanders, 26 four-toed salamanders, 28 red-backed salamanders, 5 spotted salamanders, 20 wood frogs, and 5 spring peepers – the earliest report ever of a major spawning migration in Vermont.

The previous earliest record at that site was March 8th, 2012. Before 2008, the earliest date was March 24th, recorded in both 2004 and 2007.

Based on Andrews’ data, the earliest amphibian species now reach the nuptial pools two-to-three weeks earlier than just a decade ago. Or put another way, the trend is definitely earlier - by weeks.

Apparently, a changing, less predictable, almost schizophrenic climate is triggering a series of primal signals in late February, causing a wave of early emerging amphibians to arouse from hibernation to leave their warm, saturated soil, wet from snow-melt and rain - only to succumb to subzero temperatures a week later if there’s no insulating blanket of snow.

As I stand on the porch under an early May sky, I contemplate how the peepers survived both the Age of Dinosaurs and the Age of Ice, and I wonder if they’ll survive the Age of Us.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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