It’s the season for loving on the dark roads around Lake Roland in Baltimore County. A little night music, a cool breeze, a soft drizzle, and the whole lot of them are in the mood.

They are dozens of American toads. The small males affix to the backs of the larger, friskier females, trying to cross a busy road for a weeks-long spawning party in a shallow pool. Once they’re spent, the toads will cross back, living the rest of the year in woods, puddles and backyards — until their internal GPS tells them it’s time to mate again.

For 25 years, Lisa Lewenz and a small army of “toad ferries” have helped to gather the toads on one side of the busy road and carry them to the other side, where they can then reach their spawning grounds. Like the toads they help, the toad ferries are hard-wired for a signal to move — in this case, a text from the “Grandee Toad Ferry” that the amphibians are ready for romance.

Lisa Lewenz. (Rona Kobell/for the Baltimore Banner)

That call is getting both urgent and earlier. A U.S. Geological Survey study recently found that frogs, toads, salamanders and other amphibians could disappear from half of their habitats in the next 20 years, and some as soon as in six years.

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Warmer temperatures, increased development, pesticides, a loss of their habitat and a recently discovered toxin have all brought a decline and an earlier call for migration. Lewenz saw toads on the earliest date yet in 2023 — to be precise, Feb. 16, the night salamanders and frogs often begin their bacchanal, which she calls Newt Year’s Eve.

When people run over these little creatures, they think they are just going to go on forever. But they are not going to go on forever,” Lewenz said as she heard the “thwack” of a toad being smashed in the road.

American toads are nature’s Orkin Man. Each one of the species, known as Anaxyrus americanus americanus, translated from the Greek as “King Toad,” can eat 25 mosquitoes a night — and each mosquito can produce more than 500 larvae. Toads can survive up to 20 years in the wild; Lewenz has some grandes dames she recognizes from previous years, including a regal black toad she’s nicknamed Nefertiti.

Though toads enjoy some protections, their habitats often do not. Vernal pools, the ephemeral water bodies where toads spawn every spring, fall into a grey area of the Clean Water Act. The Trump administration weakened vernal pool protections for the oil and gas industry.

Toads don’t wait to reach their vernal pool spawning grounds to get busy. Lisa Lewenz often picks them up while they are mid-mate. (Rona Kobell/for the Baltimore Banner)

Even before that, developers often could fill these temporary pools in with a permit, or remove woodland around them to impact their flow. California alone has lost 90% of its vernal pools, and with it many species of amphibians. When Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring,” that was the scenario she feared; a change in seasons without the birds singing and the toads trilling.

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“The sound of the American toad is this little beautiful quiet trill that haunts the night,” said Scott McDaniel, executive director of the Susquehannock Wildlife Society in Harford County. “When we hear that call, we know there’s life and food.”

American toads and their eggs are essential to nature’s food chain. Since Lewenz began ferrying in 1999, armed with only a trash bag and an umbrella, the toads she has gathered have increased from 300 to 3,000 in the six-to-nine week migration. As those numbers increased, the Ferries have noticed other wildlife has returned to the area, including beavers and birds that eat the eggs.

Some states, like New Jersey, have closed roads to usher amphibians across. In California, the U.S. Geological Survey is studying how to build tunnels and bridges to help the amphibians reach the spawning grounds. Both McDaniel and Lewenz welcome that effort here.

Since her solo outing in 1999, Lewenz has amassed a core group of 30 toad wranglers, and better gear: fluorescent vests, rechargeable flashlights, visible road signs and markers. Weather apps make timing the migration more precise, though inclement weather does not deter her.

On a recent Saturday night, Lewenz calmly collected toads as hail fell in her hair and the wind whipped so hard that a tornado landed just 50 miles away.

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Newcomers like Gina Takaoka, 33, are amazed at the operation. “I definitely have not seen this many toads in one place,” said Takaoka, a tattoo artist studying to be a master naturalist. She was able to work only after she told Lewenz how she “came into the circle” of Toad Ferries (a neighborhood listserv). Lewenz keeps the location somewhat private to protect the habitat and her grassroots operation.

McDaniel acknowledges that’s an issue and he resolves it with one or two group hikes to more public locations, then a “virtual tour” of an undisclosed one. Interest is growing. The Maryland Herps Facebook page, on which he is an administrator, has 3,400 members.

Veteran toad ferry Stacey Chambers said she’s sometimes brought dates to the toad party, but the passion for protection often doesn’t take: “This isn’t for the weak-willed.”

Chambers, who sells clothing out of a funky bus at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market, keeps coming because “I care about the environment. I am always kind of game for something. I think it’s important to support strange women doing wondrous things in the world.”

Rona Kobell is the editor-in-chief of the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative. Reach her at rona@ejji.org.

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