"Are they out yet?" a driver yelled out the window of a tomato-colored Scion, addressing the group of volunteers at the intersection of Port Royal Avenue and Hagys Mill Road. In Roxborough, people aren't the only ones who have been anxiously waiting for warmer weather. Last year, after a mild winter and early spring, Schuylkill Center Toad Detour volunteers counted about 700 toads crossing the road on March 1, the very first night of the detour that blocks non-resident motorists from taking Port Royal Avenue where it skirts the old Roxborough reservoir on one side and the edge of the Schuylkill Center woods on the other. But this year, the hibernating toads delayed their annual march to the reservoir, their ancestral breeding site, in the unusually chilly spring. A dozen volunteers who showed up this year on March 1 were disappointed. Then April began to slip by, and still there was nary a toad.
Start your engines
But when the warm weather broke early last week, and temperatures soared into the 70s and 80s, the tardy amphibians reappeared, much to the delight of their waiting helpers. On Wednesday night, Toad Detour shift manager Chris Derer estimated that 600 toads had crossed Port Royal Avenue and clambered up the steep slope to the reservoir during the past two nights. With another balmy evening and a rainstorm threatening to the Northwest – perfect toad weather - Derer predicted that the Wednesday night march would bring hundreds more.
A resident of Blue Bell, Derer has been volunteering with the Schuylkill Center for several years. "I have great respect and admiration for wildlife," he said. During the day, he makes a career of advocating for animals as the Director of Development for the American Anti-Vivisection Society, but gratifying as that mission is, he was still longing for a more hands-on way to "help wildlife in any way possible." He found out about the Toad Detour a few years ago, when he happened to drive by the barricade, and has been lending a hand ever since.
The downside of the detour
After giving instructions to a group of about ten volunteers of all ages, outfitted with flashlights, toad-counting clipboards, and reflective traffic vests, Derer conceded that not everybody is as "patient" with the detour as he'd like. While volunteers always make a point of speaking nicely to motorists frustrated by the temporary detour, some drivers are less than appreciative. A few minutes later, as if to prove Derer's point, headlights blared in the gathering dusk and an angry driver's car horn echoed down Port Royal as tires squealed away.
The inaugural toad
As the sun set and the breezes of an ominous thunderstorm wafted the smell of spring blossoms, first-time volunteers Karen Schoedel and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Alexis Homer, ventured along the side of the road.
"It sounded exciting," the Deptford, N.J. residents said of why they signed up for the Toad Detour. Ever since they'd seen videos of people rescuing animals during the Gulf oil spill, they'd wanted to help out some of their own wildlife.
A brief patter of rain swept the area, and, as if drawn by the moisture, determined rustling noises began to emanate from the dead leaves on the west side of Port Royal Avenue.
Training their flashlights toward the noise, the mother-daughter pair was thrilled to discover their very first toad, hopping and crawling toward the pavement.
Further up the hill, Derer spotted one large toad climbing the bank to the reservoir at an astonishing rate, while another languished at the bottom with a series of desultory hops.
"Hey, buddy, stay with me," he said, gently picking up the toad and carrying it halfway up the slope.
After about an hour of rumbling flashes, the skies opened on toads and humans alike. Rich Giordano, the Vice President of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, came to NewsWorks' rescue, waiting out the first thunderstorm of spring in his car with this reporter. Giordano, who lives just a few minutes away from the detour site, said he watches the weather and comes out "when I think the night is right."
"People are pretty intense about this," he added, peering out at Derer, barely visible in the sluicing rain as he continued to man the barricade.
About twenty minutes later, the storm had passed, leaving muddy rivulets coursing down the sides of the road.
Above and beyond
Derer wasn't the only volunteer who braved the storm without a second thought. "I should've worn water-resistant pants," was all another helper had to say on the matter.
Derer insisted that because visibility is at its worst during a rainstorm, that's when the toads need him most. He was grieved to discover that despite his best efforts, two toads had been squashed by passing motorists during the deluge.
When asked if staying out in a thunderstorm jeopardized his own safety, Derer shrugged.
"There were guys out there," he said. Never leave a toad behind.
On Wednesday night, volunteers counted about 300 toads in all. These helpers will be on the job through early summer, until the toadlets reverse their parents' journey, crossing from the reservoir to the woods. Volunteers can still sign up through the Schuylkill Center website, and watch the Detour's Facebook page for updates.
This story was reported through a partnership in news coverage between NBC10.com and NewsWorks.org.