“I’ve always been looking for this,” says Ben Lay, a local musician from the Quechee/West Hartford area
who coordinates the efforts and activities of the Hartford Salamander Team. Since 2020, the Hartford Salamander Team has been engaging adventurous locals to identify hotspots of amphibian migration and help save frogs and salamanders from being hit by vehicles as they make their journeys on warm, rainy nights in spring. Though this remains its major focus, the Team has grown in diverse ways over the last three years as members share not only their knowledge, but their desire to learn more about the natural world around them.
Quechee resident Nathan Thoele, a close friend of Lay’s, was there with Lay at the inception of the group. “Before the Hartford Salamander Team truly formed, Ben and I would go on long hikes through Section 5 Wilderness in Quechee,” Thoele says. On these hikes, the two talked about things like civic engagement, citizen science, and environmental awareness. Thoele, a long time environmental educator, and Lay, a relative newcomer to the naturalist scene, both wanted to do something to make social change. This was when Lay first articulated his plans for the Hartford Salamander Team.
Inspired by a Suds and Science event on amphibian conservation hosted by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies at the Norwich Inn in 2022 which featured Brett Amy Thelen from the Harris Center for Conservation Education, Lay set about to organize the first night to help protect migrating amphibians with Thoele’s support.
Thoele and Lay identified hotspots of amphibian crossings and went out. Thoele remembers running into other people looking for amphibians on multiple occasions, “It was a delight to swap stories, share notes, and work together.” Some of the folks he met on these nighttime outings ended up joining the Salamander Team.
“The group started as a way to keep talking about amphibians outside of the migration season,” says Lay, but he immediately saw a willingness for people to invest in expanding their knowledge of wildlife species in central Vermont, beyond amphibians in March and April. He was also struck by the level of expertise among ordinary citizens from fungi to wildflowers, tracking to spider identification.
Fungi is where Lay got the idea to expand the Salamander Team into a group of people who regularly meet to learn about nature. “Mushrooms are gnarly,” he says, noting that his degree in neuroscience has led him to an interest in cell biology. “If I had a microscope and slides, I would try to be a cell biology educator by way of fungi.” Most of all, Lay wants to grow as a naturalist, and sees the Hartford Salamander Team’s expanding network as an opportunity to do so, and to encourage others to branch out as well.
Crowdsourcing is a big theme of the Hartford Salamander Team. The nearly 300 members are invited to monthly meet-ups, where a local volunteer facilitator shares their skills in finding and identifying wild species. The meet-ups tend to follow the phenological calendar, focusing on different aspects of the region’s natural history during the appropriate time of year. In June, Michael Quinn of Windsor led a “Spider Safari” along the Ottauquechee River where participants learned to identify different families and common species. The safari started out at the gazebo on the Quechee green and continued along the path by the community garden, a section of forest that makes a corridor between the green and the river, Lay says. The group found a small number of spiders including six spotted orb-weavers and a couple of webs with spider parents guarding their egg-sacs. “That forest section was a perfect well-contained space for people to follow the beams of their headlights naturally wherever it lead them, into little alleys and corridors carved into the forest – lots of little nooks and crannies and details to explore.” Lay says that despite the wet weather, the nighttime spider safari was a success, “Ultimately the moisture made for a beautiful event with a sort of pause of the hunting activity we might have been able to find on a drier evening.”
Thoele recalls a night with a similar pause in hunting that has resulted in a favorite memory for him: “I decided to stop searching the road for a few minutes and walked over to the wetland that had some frogs that had been migrating, too. I waded into the cattails and immersed myself in the chorus of spring peepers and wood frogs.” He noticed a spring peeper on a cattail next to him, singing away: “I watched it for a long time,” he says, “expanding its throat repeatedly as it sang. That moment is pleasantly burned into my memory.”
When at a meet-up, Lay encourages everyone to ask questions, and tries to model the vulnerability of not always knowing the answer. If the Hartford Salamander Team had a badge of membership, he says, it would be to always show up in a question-asking state of mind. There’s so much that we don’t know – that not even experts know – about the natural world, and it never hurts to ask.
Thoele notes that Lay values teamwork and collaboration. “Ben strongly encourages members of the team to own it just as much – or at least almost as much! – as he does. The salamander team is not a specific and unchangeable thing; it’s a setting and a tool that exists for members to use for whatever civic engagement, environmental conservation, or other creative reason they can come up with.”
As for the salamanders themselves, the best thing, Lay says, is “don’t drive on warm rainy nights in spring.” This is when the amphibians’ peak migration occurs, and therefore when they are at the greatest risk from being hit by cars. The Hartford Salamander Team website hosts a crowd-sourced map that tracks about one hundred identified migration road-crossings, all local to the Quechee-Hartford area. If you’d like to go out and help these animals make it to their breeding grounds, check the map. “The goal is to find the closest crossing you can walk to,” emphasizes Lay, in order to avoid putting more amphibians at risk by driving. Learning to identify potential crossing sites is helpful too – so that you can help keep the map updated. In collaboration with the North Branch Nature Center’s Amphibian Monitoring Program protocol, the Team has rescued nearly 700 amphibians to date.
The Hartford Salamander group is not restricted to Hartford, and it’s not restricted to Salamanders. Thoele jokes that he and Lay considered changing the name to the “Upper Valley Sally Group.” In all seriousness, Thoele wants to remind readers that while large amphibian crossings happen in the spring, the group is active year-round. The monthly education nature walks present an opportunity to learn and share bits of knowledge with one another. “It’s a low-key, low-stakes nature walk with people who just want to hang out in the woods and learn, even if the learning is everyone in the group experiencing something cool or funny for the first time, having no clue what they’re looking at.”
Just recently, Lay had a small group explore Section 5 in Quechee looking for mushrooms as part of the “side-quest” to record local fungi species in the trail system. “We have a separate project to atlas the different fungi species that live locally that we refer to informally as the “Loose Morels Fungi Club,” or the Upper Valley Fungi Team,” Lay shares. He’s already planning to get back out there again at the end of the month for the August meet-up: “It should be pretty exciting!”
If you’re interested in joining the group, visit their website, hartfordsalamanderteam.org.
The group also maintains a Facebook page, where monthly meet-up events are posted, and a mailing list, which can be joined by emailing email@example.com.