Searching for Salamanders Makes Winter Fun!

We are at that time of year when many of us join our animal counterparts in hibernation. Now that the holidays are over and the depths of winter have set in, it is too irresistible to not spend our free time snuggled up with a warm mug, blanket, and our favorite loungewear or fuzzy slippers. Even those of us who live and breathe the outdoors are having trouble finding a reason to face the cold and wander outside. 

However, winter is the time when some animals are becoming more visibly active in Western Washington. In fact, mid-January is the start of the breeding season for amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders. So, leave those fuzzy slippers by the door, put on a pair of mud boots or waders if you got ‘em, and let’s go ‘herping’. The word ‘herp’ comes from Herpetology, the study of amphibians (including frogs, toads, salamanders, newts) and reptiles (including snakes, lizards, turtles). Herpetology comes from the Greek word ‘herpien’, meaning to creep. So, ‘herping’ is a term we use to walk around with the intention of finding herptiles (amphibians or reptiles).

Snohomish County has 12 amphibian species you can look for (11 native and one non-native/invasive). Of the 12 amphibians that live here, there are:

  • 5 frogs - Pacific tree frog, Northern red-legged frog, Cascade frog, tailed frog, and American bullfrog*
  • 5 salamanders - Northwestern salamander, giant salamander, long-toed salamander, Western red-backed salamander, and Ensatina
  • 1 newt - rough-skinned newt
  • 1 toad - Western toad

(*Bullfrogs are not native to our region and are extensively eating many of our native amphibians). 

“But, I don’t live near a wetland,” you say. Not a problem, you can still go herping. One of the biggest misconceptions about frogs and salamanders is that they live in wetlands all year long. In fact, almost all of our Western Washington amphibians spend only a few months each year in the water (wetland, pond, or stream) to lay their eggs. The rest of the year they spend on dry land (forest or meadow) to look for food. A few salamanders even live and lay their eggs completely on dry land, so it’s quite possible to find amphibians on or near your property if you don’t live near a wetland. Here are some tips on where and when to find frogs and salamanders – from eggs to adults.

Where to Find Amphibians

1. Look In and Around Ponds, Streams and Wetlands

 A Northern red-legged frog has found some water to sit in.

A Northern red-legged frog has found some water to sit in.

Most of our native amphibians breed in either still water or streams. If you happen to be near a wetland or pond, walk slowly around the edge, paying special attention to shallow water areas with emerging vegetation. You may see adults laying their eggs on the stems of these plants. This area is also where tadpoles look for food and take refuge from predators. Amphibians that have just recently developed into their adult form will spend time in the moist soil and dense vegetation around the water’s edge before moving on to land. 

Frogs and salamanders that breed in streams tend to prefer those that are three to nine feet wide and are rocky on the bottom. Check smaller pools that are created from slower moving water, and carefully turn over rocks within these pools and riffles. Streams are also common resting places for amphibians during their migrations because they are a great place to find moisture and food. 

2. Check under Decaying Wood, Rocks and Leaf Litter

A northwestern salamander blends in with leaves.

When amphibians aren’t breeding, they use meadows and forests as places to look for food, hide from predators, and keep cool and moist. While herping, try these tips: 

  • Gently turn over medium to large-sized decaying wood where a salamander might hide and/or munch on insects, and return* 
  • Inspect around rocks that can create shelter and maintain high relative humidity 
  • Carefully pull up piles of leaf litter, root balls, and moss-mats, and return* 

*(Please remember to put what you moved back to its original location and position so these important parts of the ecosystem remain for all the creatures that live there). 

3. Identification Guides give you Animal- Specific Tips

Bringing a field guide will give you more tips on how to find and identify your new friends. Here are some to consider:

  • Amphibians of the Pacific Northwest, edited by Lawrence Jones, William Leonard and Deanna Olson
  • A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians - Third Edition, by Robert C. Stebbins
  • Amphibians of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, by Corkran and Toms
  • The Washington Department of Natural Resources has an online Herp Atlas with great amphibian fact sheets at: http://www1.dnr.wa.gov/nhp/refdesk/herp/speciesmain.html

4. Manage your Property to Attract Amphibians

Use these easy suggestions from Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, by biologist Russell Link.

  • Maintain woodlands, wetlands, meadows, stream corridors and shorelines
  • Protect buffer areas next to streams, lakes or ponds 
  • Wherever possible, protect migration paths between uplands and breeding sites 
  • Leave a portion of your grass unmowed 
  • Preserve leaf litter under trees and shrubs 
  • Retain stumps, logs, rootwads, rock piles and other debris that provides a cool, moist habitat for amphibians
  • Consider building a pond 
  • Fence large ponds to prevent access by livestock
  • Avoid using pesticides and herbicides

When to Look for Amphibians

A Pacific tree frog sits on the branch of a Devil's Club.

1. Know their Migration and Breeding Seasons

Mid-January to May is the best time to find adult frogs and salamanders. This is when our native amphibians are making their way to wetlands to lay their eggs. You can often find the adults migrating to (as well as in and around) the edges of streams and ponds looking for mates. This is also the best time to find egg masses. Amphibians prefer water temperatures slightly above freezing to lay their eggs in. As the water warms, the eggs begin to hatch into tadpoles. March through August is the best time to find tadpoles and juveniles. Tadpoles will develop into land-dwelling juveniles during this period and begin to explore beyond the wetland or pond as they journey onto dry land. 

2. Amphibians are Most Active on Warm Rainy Nights

On warm rainy nights, there is no chance of amphibians drying out, so they are more active on land and are therefore much easier to spot. This is especially true during spring and fall along trails, roads and other openings when adult amphibians are on their way to or from nearby streams, wetlands or ponds. 

3. Stay Safe, Bring a Friend

Wear proper attire. Stay warm and wear mud boots or waders if walking around wetlands. Always tell someone where you are going and bring another person with you. Wetland edges can be mucky and unstable so it’s a good idea to go with a friend in case you get stuck in the muck. Slipping into a stream or pond in the winter can quickly lead to hypothermia. Having a friend with you can reduce the risk of you getting hurt or sick. 

Be Careful Handling Frogs and Salamanders

It is not suggested that you touch or pick up amphibians, but if you do - please be very careful and wear gloves. Handling amphibians can be hazardous to their health and yours. Amphibians absorb things through their skin much more easily than we do. Don’t wear any lotion, bug repellent, or other chemicals – all can be harmful to amphibians if it gets on their skin. Some of our native amphibians excrete toxins when they think they’re in danger (for example, when we pick them up). Touching your mouth or eyes after handling amphibians with these toxins can make you sick. Now that you know all the secrets to the wonderful world of frogs and salamanders, dress warmly, grab a friend and rain or shine, go see how many you can find. 

Article and photos by Lauren Grand, WSU Extension, Forestry Program Coordinator