The Maine Big Night Project is Coming to Runamuk!

maine big night project

This spring the Maine Big Night project is coming to the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm! Amphibians and reptiles played an important part in my childhood, fostering my love for wildlife at an early age. Even today, these keystone species continue to hold a special place in my heart. I am super excited to be able to bring this citizen science project to this part of Maine.

I Love Frogs and Turtles!

Runamuk loves amphibians and reptiles
Caution: We brake for turtles.

As a young girl, I was the proverbial tomboy. I spent a lot of time playing outside with my younger brother. We played in the dirt making mud-pies or cakes, creating cities for his matchbox cars or digging with his tonka trucks. We found secret forts, explored the forested landscape that surrounded our home, and climbed trees.

My absolute favorite thing to do, though, was to seek out the nearest pond or wetland habitat, to catch frogs, salamanders, and turtles. I liked hanging out by the water’s edge watching the wriggling tadpoles. It was a treat to see a turtle sunning itself on a log. And I was forever turning over rotted logs and heavy rocks to look for salamanders. If ever we did not come when my mother called, she knew exactly where to look for my brother and I, lol.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by these animals. My science reports, in school, were always about amphibians or reptiles. I was so taken with herpetology that I researched it extensively, even after I graduated high school. Whenever I went hiking, there was always a field guide for amphibians and reptiles in my pack. In fact, until I became obsessed with bees, amphibians were my major passion. I wanted to save the frogs.

The Problem Facing Frogs

Maine Big Night Amphibian Monitoring Project
Amphibian populations are declining. Photo credit: Greg LeClair.

Amphibians’ complex water-and-land life cycle makes them more vulnerable than most animals. Because of their permeable skin, frogs and salamanders are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment. Amphibian eggs have no protective shell, making them susceptible to harmful UV levels. Their mucousy skin easily absorbs harmful pollutants that might be in their watery habitats. Climate change is causing higher levels of disease among populations, while habitat encroachment results in the loss of important breeding grounds.

We’ve been watching the decline of these animals since the 1960’s. Even in protected national parks and wildlife refuges, the average population decline of amphibians is 3.97% each year. In some regions, the population loss is even more severe. Scientists predict that within the next 20 years, some species will disappear from at least half the habitats they occupy.

Note: Check out this article from the USDA to learn more about Why frog and toad populations are declining.

Why Frogs Matter

Amphibians and reptiles are important members of our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. They serve as both predator and prey, transferring energy between the two systems.

Viewed as indicators of wetland health, amphibians offer us an early indication of ecosystem change when monitored over long periods of time. Populations of amphibians may exhibit measurable changes in site occupancy, distribution, abundance, species richness, and increases in both disease occurrence and malformations. These changes cause a ripple effect on other aspects of the ecosystem. Predator, prey, and competitor populations, for example, as well as energy flow and nutrient recycling.

What is the Maine Big Night Project?

Volunteers record data about species found at sites across Maine. Photo credit: Greg LeClair.

The Maine Big Night (MBN) is a citizen science project led by scientists and UMaine specialists. Programs like these rely on community involvement for data collection, and also provide direct relief to conservation issues. MBN seeks to identify important crossing sites, and relieve pressure from road mortality at the same time.

The project has 3 main goals:

  1. Identify significant and vulnerable migration routes for amphibians across the state of Maine.
  2. Provide direct relief of road mortality to local amphibian populations.
  3. Create an opportunity for Maine citizens to participate in wildlife conservation and natural sciences.

At 286 sites throughout the state, community members can participate in the Maine Big Night project anytime between April 1st and April 30th. Participants are required to complete a brief training course and pass a quiz with a least 80% accuracy. Don’t be intimidated, though, it’s an open-book test, and you can retake the quiz as many times as needed to pass.

Once you’ve signed your liability waiver, you can adopt the site (or sites) you’d like to survey. These are 1000-foot sections of roadway which tend to encompass a wetland or forest, usually within range of a significant vernal pool.

But…What is a Big Night?

“What’s a Big Night?” David asked, trying to understand why I was so excited.

We were at the Whittemore homestead again for Sunday supper. Deron was at the stove cooking (a man who cooks! pretty sexy, right ladies?), while I sat at the table across from his 80-year old father.

“It’s that night in the spring when the frogs are all over the road,” I explained.

Maine Big Night Project
Mass numbers of frogs, toads, and salamanders make their way to vernal pools on a Big Night. Photo credit: Greg LeClair

We’ve all seen it─that first “warm” rainy night in the spring, coming home late and there are frogs all over the roads… It generally happens once the ground has thawed and the nighttime temperatures are consistently above freezing. Then the rains come. This is when amphibians begin migrating to breeding grounds.

A true “Big Night” is when immense numbers of migrating amphibians move simultaneously. For that to happen it needs to be around 45-degrees, and rainy, though you will still see smaller numbers of amphibians moving in temperatures as low as 32-degrees.

I knew that to many of that older generation the idea would sound preposterous. I couldn’t help grinning prematurely at the reaction I expected to this next bit, “This is a citizen science project that involves helping frogs cross the road.”

He looked at me across the table for a moment, then said flatly, “You’re going to help the frogs cross the road.”

I giggled and grinned happily, “Yep! I sure am!”

He glanced over his shoulder at Deron and asked, “Where did you meet this chick anyway!?”

Maine Big Night Comes to Runamuk

Maine Big Night at Runamuk Acres
Volunteers wanted! Photo credit: Greg LeClair.

Believe me, I know it sounds ridiculous. I don’t care. I’m going to take my 14 year-old son out after supper some night in April─along with whomever else I can convince to help me. We’re going to put on reflective vests and headlamps, set our cars along the roadside with 4-way flashers blinking in the night, and stand out in the rain to help frogs and salamanders cross to and from their breeding grounds.

Personally, I just don’t feel good about running over frogs on the road. I never have. And I absolutely cannot imagine a world without frogs or salamanders. The MBN project is one small way I can help. Plus, it’s a great way to get my kids (and yours!) engaged in natural science and community involvement.

With that goal in mind, I’ve enrolled Runamuk to serve as a host organization for MBN volunteers in this part of the state. This means certified participants can sign-out safety gear, data sheets, and ID card for free at Runamuk Acres. I just have to have the materials back by May 30th so I can send them back.

Greg LeClair, Project Coordinator, told me that Runamuk is the northernmost organization to participate in the Maine Big Night project. There’s a real need for data collection in this part of the state, so that we can know that status of amphibian populations in the Kennebec River and Western Maine regions. Once we know what we’ve got, then we can begin monitoring those populations, and monitoring the health of the ecosystems they represent.

If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer click here to go to to the Maine Big Night homepage for more info. OR click here to go directly to the Volunteer Materials & Training page.

I took the training course right away, and have adopted 3 sites in the surrounding area: a site on the Bog Road on Route 16 (just a few hundred yards away from the farm), one over on the Deer Farm Road here in New Portland, and another on the 4 Mile Square Road in North Anson. Locals are invited to join Runamuk’s Maine Big Night excursions, or you can work independently and create your own MBN adventure. I sincerely hope you will.

Thanks so much for following along with the story of this #femalefarmer! It is my privilege to be able to live this life, serve my community, and protect this scrappy patch of Earth through wildlife conservation. Check back soon for more stories from Runamuk Acres, and be sure to follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram or Facebook! Much love, my friend!!