In Bucks, volunteers await duty as salamander escorts

Devich Farbotnik with a field guide on the road through Great Quakertown Swamp that the amphibians cross in mating season. Richland supervisors have agreed to limit road access on the crossing nights.
Devich Farbotnik with a field guide on the road through Great Quakertown Swamp that the amphibians cross in mating season. Richland supervisors have agreed to limit road access on the crossing nights. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 08, 2012

On a warm and wet March night, Devich Farbotnik was heading home to Quakertown on a back road when his headlights caught something shiny spilling across the macadam.

He hit the brakes.

Farbotnik, an environmentalist, quickly realized that he had chanced upon - luckily, without also flattening - a surge of salamanders in the heat of their annual breeding rite. Jumping out of his truck, he kept oncoming traffic at bay as he shepherded the slithery paramours from one swampy side to the vernal pool on the other, there to hook up.

A half-dozen mating seasons have passed since then in upper Bucks County, and Farbotnik, now 31, has presided as crossing guard at each. On the first mild, rainy evening of late winter or early spring, he heads for the 518-acre Quakertown Swamp, a favored haunt of not only salamanders but also frogs, toads, birds, and muskrats.

During the salamanders' few nights of canoodling, he posts himself at the tiny amphibians' most beaten paths on rural roads through the swamp in East Rockhill and Richland Townships.

Upwards of 1,000 salamanders might be out and about. "Just one person going through at the wrong time," he said, "could kill a lot."

This year, Farbotnik will get some help.

The Doylestown-based Heritage Conservancy and a brigade of volunteers are planning to set up amphibian-crossing signs at five locations where the salamanders - eight documented species ranging from three to eight inches long - typically traverse the roadways, along with frogs and toads. The seasonal pools become nurseries for their fertilized eggs.

Similar amphibian rescues have taken place in the city's Roxborough section, in Chester County, and Delaware Water Gap. Approached by Farbotnik and Laura Baird, a resource protection specialist for the nonprofit conservancy, township supervisors agreed to provide highway assistance. In Richland, roads will be closed, except to locals, on crossing nights. In East Rockhill, the township has promised to reduce traffic.

The Quakertown Swamp volunteers - about 25 so far - also will be out with clipboards and headlamps doing a census of sorts, counting the salamanders stepping out on date nights, as well as frogs and toads. It will be a baseline for determining, year to year, if the population is declining. "It's taken a few years to finally pull the right people together," said Farbotnik, also a carpenter and an avid birdwatcher who pursued that avocation to every state but Hawaii. Later this week, he will head to Alaska just to look for a dusky thrush.

At the moment, the salamanders are hibernating in the swamp, just south of Quakertown. But in a couple of months, they'll be in Farbotnik's sights.

The salamanders, which live both on land and in water, play an important role in the life cycle of the swamp, the largest inland wetland in Bucks County. The Heritage Conservancy owns about 80 acres of it. With permeable skin that easily absorbs toxic chemicals, the salamanders are a critical indicator of the swamp's well-being. Their very presence, Farbotnik said, "pretty much means there's a healthy ecosystem."

Standing guard over them is easy work, Farbotnik said. But the devil's in the timing.

"They only move when it's raining," he said. And while the larger ones are obvious, spotting the smaller ones can be tough. "You have to really look for them."

Once the salamanders finish doing what they do, they hightail it out of the water and back to the marsh, leaving their progeny to their own devices. But the return trip isn't as potentially calamitous because not all depart the vernal pools at the same time.

Farbotnik said he signals to surprised motorists, who usually know nothing about the annual breeding rite, to stop, and explains what he's doing. The salamanders, he said, are probably just as surprised to see him. "They probably think it's a predator," he said. "I'm sure they don't realize I'm trying to help."


Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at elounsberry@phillynews.com.

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