by Louise E. Wright
Warm, moist spring evenings in northwest Philly set the stage for the annual Toad Detour, a project orchestrated by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (SCEE). The detour diverts traffic from two city streets, enabling toads to cross safely.
Impelled by instinct, sexually mature toads leave the forests of SCEE and surrounding areas and return to their birthplace, the old Roxborough Reservoir, in order to mate and lay their eggs. Without the detour, many would fail to reach their destination because the reservoir is bounded by Summit and Port Royal Avenues and by Lare and Eva Streets.
The brainchild of Lisa Levinson, the detour dates to 2009. Levinson has since moved to California, but Chestnut Hill resident and realtor Janet Lippincott recalls its early days: she attended a vegan dinner at which Levinson spoke movingly of driving home one night and realizing that the “dead leaves” tumbling across the road were actually toads attempting to cross. The sight of flattened toads “broke her heart. She wanted to organize a toad detour,” Lippincott said. “Lisa got hold of area police, obtained permits to close the streets and came up with a logo.” She also lured television stations “to get out and cover” the event.
The detour, which closes Port Royal below Hagy’s Mill Road and Eva west of Summit, starts at 7 p.m. and usually lasts for two, sometimes three, hours. Claire Morgan, SCEE’s Volunteer Coordinator who organizes it, explained that “the toads move at dusk because there are fewer predators” and that, after 9 p.m., traffic tends to die down. Lippincott, however, remembered times when “Lisa and I were out there till 4 a.m. because there were toads still crossing, and we couldn’t bear to leave them.”
The majority of drivers respect and support the detour, Morgan reports, but a few “disgruntled” ones insist on passing. When that happens, volunteers permit them to do so but request that they drive slowly and carefully. Previously, according to Lippincott, volunteers took a more active role, “running along beside the cars and making sure there weren’t any toads in the way.”
In addition to diverting traffic, volunteers often give the toads a lift, collecting them in buckets and shuttling them across. In the past, lucky toads got an assist around the reservoir wall, too high for them to hop over, or up what Lippincott refers to as “the yellow brick road” that marks the entrance to the site.
Lippincott still participates in the detour but does so unofficially because of the demands of her day job. She also directs her efforts closer to home. Having noticed “a lot of flattened toads” on Gravers Lane, she realized that “they need help, too.” On rainy nights, she rescues those returning to their breeding grounds in Pastorius Park.
In December 2011, Levinson, about to move west, asked SCEE to take over the detour, and the center agreed. Each year, Morgan applies to the city for a permit to close streets March through June. The four-month window allows for fluctuations in temperature, thus ensuring the toads’ protection during all phases of the reproductive cycle. When they emerge from hibernation and begin mating is dependent on the weather, requiring a temperature of at least 50º at 7 p.m. This year, owing to the severe winter and cold spring, the toads did not start moving until April 3, a week later than last year. By mid-month, 800 toads had crossed.
Once the adult toads reach the reservoir, they linger for a few days, sometimes as long as a week, before heading back to the forest. After the adults have mated, there is a lull of about eight weeks during which tadpoles emerge from fertilized eggs and develop into toadlets. This process also depends on the weather: the warmer the temperatures, the faster the toads develop. Fully formed yet no bigger than a thumb nail, the tiny creatures must then retrace their parents’ path from reservoir to forest. Two or three years later, when sexually mature, they complete the cycle, returning to their birthplace to breed. Toadlets usually begin migrating at the beginning of June, and Morgan expects them to be finished this year by the end of the month.
Detour volunteers also conduct an annual toad census. Despite heavy winter snowfall, 2014 proved a banner year for crossings. The 2,400 migrating adults, more than twice the previous year’s amount, brought the total number of toads assisted since the detour’s inception to 9,300. Only adults figure in the census. “There are so many babies,” Morgan said, “we don’t try to count them.”
Each February, Morgan conducts a training session for prospective volunteers. It includes a power point presentation as well as a screening of “The Toad Detour.” During Levinson’s tenure, Burgess Coffield, then a student at Temple University, wrote and directed the documentary, which is on sale at SCEE. Thanks to the efforts of three Philadelphia University students— Korie Rogan, Felicia Branagan and Gabrielle Lent — Morgan knows that “people really learned from the presentation” this year. As part of a project for their Natural Resource Management class, taught by associate professor Anne H. Bower, the students conducted pre- and post-training testing.
Representing different age groups and backgrounds, volunteers have included senior citizens, college students, Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts. “Troop leaders are teaching them to care for nature,” said Morgan. “Toads form an important link in the food chain, and we as humans have created a problem through development, loss of habitat, increased traffic, so we have an obligation to help fix it.”
Lippincott admits she never had a particular interest in toads until she began helping with the detour. “Now I’m very fond of toads,” she said. “I love hearing them trilling at night out my back window. It’s truly wonderful.”
Interested in helping these “truly wonderful” critters? The best way is to use VolunteerSpot (click on Donate, then Volunteer, then Toad Detour) on SCEE’s website: www.schuylkillcenter.org. More information: Claire@schuylkillcenter.org or 215-482-7300, ext. 120.