How to protect amphibians during spring gardening season

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Riding my bike through the MetroParks trail near Brandywine, it certainly felt like the first day of spring. The bike trail that winds from Steels Corners in Stow, Ohio, up to the rocky ridges and deep narrow ravines in Penninsula, Ohio, was filled with sounds of spring. But the chorus of spring peepers stood out most.

I don’t know if I was more surprised to hear them already or to hear them at all. Starting out in town, the only signs of wildlife could be found in the areas between businesses that are too swampy to build anything. Here, the peepers could be heard despite the commotion of businesses and traffic, if you listened closely. Advancing into a high line utility corridor, I noticed birds and small mammals flitting here and there, in addition to the amphibian melody. Then came the jog through the residential areas — starting with smaller 1960s developments, betrayed by the popularity of the split level home and ending with the massive million-dollar homes that dot the top of the ridge on the portion of the trail that cuts through a wooded area near Brandywine. The theme of chipmunks, squirrels and birds continued until we got close to the ravines on either side of the bike trail. However, once under the cover of a mix of bare-branched deciduous trees and evergreens, little wildlife could be seen. Still, the peepers sang their song, which was even more apparent echoed out of and amplified by the walls of the ravine.

It got me wondering how protected the small ecosystem at the bottom of the ravine is. On one hand, the drop is so steep it seems almost out-of-reach for human beings and other predators. On the other, runoff from the manicured yards at the top of the ridge could easily wash down into the stream below and have a deadly impact on the wildlife who rely on it.

Amphibian activity during spring

The cries of the peepers reminded me of the cries of the whos in Horton Hears a Who!. Even if the message isn’t meant for human ears they seemed to be yelling, “we are here, we are here.” That makes sense in the spring as they wake up from hibernation in search of mates to reproduce. They’re going to be laying eggs in protected bodies of water, such as small streams and creeks and vernal pools. Then those eggs will hatch into tadpoles, who will rely on these bodies of water until they reach adulthood. Next year this new generation will return to the same areas to sing along and start the cycle all over again.

Meanwhile, human beings are waking up from hibernation, cleaning their houses and grooming their yards and gardens. They’re spreading fertilizers to help their grass grow and using herbicides to target unwanted weeds in their gardens. Let’s not forget the insecticides to keep the pests out and the soap used to wash vehicles. And doing all of this on sunny days in between periods of spring rain.

Incidentally, spring gardening and other activities can have a huge impact on the health of the habitats amphibians rely on for reproduction. As fertilizers, detergents and chemicals are washed away by seasonal rains into smaller waterways, they are absorbed by the wildlife within them. Amphibians have highly permeable skin that allows liquids and gasses to pass through easily, making them sensitive to pollution and especially so during the early stages of development. Pollution, loss of habitat and disease have made amphibians the most endangered group of wildlife on earth with one-third to half of the amphibian species worldwide at risk of extinction.

Adapt your spring gardening habits to protect amphibians

Minimize use of chemicals. Instead of using pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in your garden, consider non-chemical management techniques. Pull weeds and consider planting native plant species that do not need extra fertilization and are less susceptible to disease. Additionally, native plants typically attract beneficial insects.

Apply chemicals at the right time. If you need to apply fertilizers or pesticides, sunny, non-windy, dry days when animals are less active are ideal. Make sure rain is not expected for a few days. When using herbicides, consider how long they can remain in the soil. Applying them late in the growing season can impact eggs and tadpoles the following spring.

Control runoff. The more rainwater can be filtered through vegetation and soil, the cleaner it is when it filters into drains and waterways. You might try installing a rain barrel at the end of your gutter to direct runoff into a rain garden.

Create habitat. You can provide shady, damp areas away from heat and direct sunlight by planting native plants in quiet shady areas of your lawn that are not mowed frequently. You might also create shelter for them by building a brush or rock pile, leaving a layer of leaves for them to hide in or propping a clay flowerpot up with rocks for frogs and toads to hide under.

Leave shoreline habitats. Shoreline habitats are vital for amphibian survival. If you live on a lake, pond or river ensure frogs and toads have access into and out of the water by extending a downed tree or log into the water or planting native plants along the shoreline instead of installing seawalls and rock rip rap. Leaving plants along the shoreline reduces erosion and eliminates the need for a seawall or rock rip rap that makes it nearly impossible for frogs and toads to reach shorelines to rest and feed.

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