CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- Not all migrations in nature involve thousands of miles of flight, or marathon swims from the depths of an ocean to the spawning shoals of an inland river.
In the case of the spotted salamander, the annual migration from winter burrows to the seasonal pools in which they will mate and breed seldom involves a trek of more than a few hundred yards -- but it can still be a sight worth beholding.
"If you catch the migration during its peak, you can see hundreds of spotted salamanders crossing the road at night," said Master Naturalist Rob Bailey of South Charleston, who has been watching the yellow-speckled amphibians make their annual spring trek since his childhood.
Bailey, a retired Union Carbide laboratory technician, said his grandfather introduced him to the annual springtime crawl of the spotted salamander and other wonders of the natural world. "I've enjoyed doing this kind of thing ever since," sometimes in the company of his own grandchildren, he said.
Although spotted salamanders are the most abundant salamander species in the state, found in every county and every elevation, they are not that easy for people to, well, spot.
They spend most of their lives underground, emerging from burrows or from under rocks or fallen trees only at night to feed on worms, spiders and millipedes - or to march to the same mating pool in which they were born, by the same route each year, in late winter or early spring.
Spotted salamanders generally begin migrating to their vernal mating pools during the first relatively warm, rainy nights after the ground has thoroughly thawed.
During a brief period on Monday night, Bailey counted 17 spotted salamanders crossing a road in Kanawha State Forest, en route to their breeding pools.
"The migration has started, but it hasn't peaked yet," Bailey said. "That may happen this weekend, when it's expected to warm up a little."
After receiving an email from Bailey Monday night informing them that at least some spotted salamanders were on the move, fellow Master Naturalists Frank and Carolyn Barker got out of bed, dressed, grabbed flashlights and got to Kanawha State Forest shortly after midnight.
There, at the first vernal pool they checked, they saw a number of male spotted salamanders ganged up in piles called "congresses" or moving in and out of the leaves at the bottom of the pond. A few additional individuals were seen in small ponds along aptly named Spotted Salamander Trail.
"The females should arrive shortly after this gathering," said Carolyn Barker. "If the weather warms up and we get more rain, I am sure they will be moving."
While temperature and precipitation provide clues, catching the spotted salamanders during the peak of the spring migration "is more of a lucky guess," Barker said. "The first year Frank and I saw the migration, they were everywhere. There was a group of us walking in the rain with umbrellas and flashlights, checking out the vernal pools in the forest. It was raining all night, and I know people thought we were crazy, but it's still fun to us."