"Aw, he's kind of cute," someone says as a toad stumbles out of the brush and onto the pavement. A few of us gather round and conclude that he (or she, we don't pry) is, in fact, pretty adorable.
Love is in the air in Roxborough near the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, but the dozen or so people slowly walking up and down a stretch of Port Royal Avenue one March evening aren't looking for frogs to kiss, hoping they'll turn into princes. They're helping the local toads - whose mating season has just started - get from one side of the street to the other, where they'll hopefully mingle with one another in the Roxborough Reservoir and make more little toads.
It's not easy being green, a famous amphibian once said. That's never been more true. Over the last few decades, frog and toad populations around the world have been declining at an alarming rate and nearing extinction. The fungal disease chytridiomycosis has caused some of this, but more common, less-attention-grabbing issues - habitat fragmentation and road-kill - are at fault, too.
We're not talking about the occasional unlucky toad getting run over. When roads cut off animals from places they absolutely must get to to eat and breed, the results can be devastating. In 2008, researchers in Indiana tallied nearly 10,000 frogs and a few hundred salamanders killed in just a year and a half on an 11-mile stretch of road. In the U.S. and elsewhere, road-kill has even led to local extinctions.
The toads that live on the 340 acres belonging to the Schuylkill Center face a risk like this every year as they cross Port Royal and other nearby roads to get to the Roxborough Reservoir, where they mate and lay their eggs from March to June. The toads start to head over and back as the evenings warm up, and six weeks later, their bouncing babies - toadlets about the size of a dime - follow them home to the center's forests and ponds.
The journey can be perilous, but for the last eight years, the toads have had help from the center's Toad Detour program, which blocks off a stretch of Port Royal Avenue and Eva Street around the reservoir to give the toads a reprieve from cars and a safe space to cross.
"We're undoing a problem that people have created," says Claire Morgan, the volunteer coordinator at the Schuylkill Center, who oversees the detour. "There's less habitat for toads because of development. We have this habitat, but it's surrounded by roads, and we're trying to compensate for that."
The detour program began in 2009, when Lisa Levinson, who lived nearby, was driving past the center and noticed something in the road. It looked like leaves blowing across the pavement, but she quickly realized they were toads trying to cross. She also saw other toads that weren't so lucky, flattened by passing cars.
Levinson got a permit to close the streets for a few hours every evening during breeding season and recruited volunteers to staff the barricades, divert traffic, and help the toads get where they were going without, well, croaking. The Schuylkill Center took over the detour in 2011 when Levinson moved to California.
The first toad of the year was spotted March 9, one of 172 to make the crossing so far. The night I helped the volunteers last month, Morgan expected we would see plenty more.
It's the last day of March, pretty warm even as the sun goes down, and there's a chance of rain, perfect weather for the toads. As Morgan sets up the barricade at the corner of Port Royal and Hagy's Mill Road, about 10 volunteers suit up in reflective vests and grab clipboards to keep tally (detour volunteers counted 1,300 toads last year, and 2,400 in 2014).
"Toad watch?" a man in a car calls to us as he rolls up to the corner. He gives us a thumbs up when we nod.
Another guy comes by, walking his dog, and asks when the show will start. The toads work on their own kind of schedule, Morgan says. As the sun sets and birds in trees above us settle in for the night and quiet down, their chorus is replaced by toads' calls and the soft thumps of their hopping in the leaves.
Just 10 minutes after sunset, Tajiana, who is here on her first volunteer shift for a community-service project for school, spots the first toad of the night. A few of us huddle around for a look, but it has no time for us and, slowly but steadily, marches across the street.
I spot one a few minutes later, hopping along Port Royal, but showing no interest in crossing. I decide to take a play out of Susan's book. She's another first-time volunteer who lives near the Schuylkill Center and decided to come help out after she came across a toad one day while walking her dog. She's not shy about picking up the more reluctant toads and shuttling them across the street.
I follow her lead and grab the one at my feet. It's cold and kind of rubbery feeling, like cheap lunch meat, or one of those Boglin toys from the '80s. It doesn't squirm, and I like to think it appreciates the ride.
Later, another volunteer one-ups us all and ferries a group of 10 toads across the road in a bucket, less a toad crossing guard and more an amphibian UberPool service.
By the end of the night, we've found about 160 toads. In the next few weeks, Morgan says, she expects the numbers to tick up - to as many as 800 a night - especially when it rains. When the toadlets make the reverse trip later in the season, Morgan says, volunteers won't even bother counting them. A female toad can lay a few thousand eggs, and the deluge of tiny toads emerging from the reservoir is too big to put a number on. And when those toadlets grow up and go looking for mates themselves in a few years, Morgan and the Toad Detour will be there to make sure they hit the street under someone's watchful eye - and not under a car's wheels.
Want to Volunteer With the Toad Detour?
Volunteers are needed evenings, usually 7 to 9 p.m., through June. All ages are welcome. One of the program's old pros is a 7-year-old who has been detouring for four years. Anyone interested in helping can learn more at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (8480 Hagy's Mill Rd.) or at the Toad Detour Facebook page, or contact Claire Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 215-482-7300, ext. 120.