By Sam Prickett
Nature lovers of all ages will gather at Shades Valley Community Church on Saturday for the annual Salamander Festival, an event that mixes arts and crafts, music and education in an effort to raise awareness of Homewood’s ecological diversity.
The event is sponsored by the Friends of Shades Creek, an organization dedicated to the protection and maintenance of the 56-mile-long stream that flows through Homewood, Mountain Brook, Hoover, Birmingham, Irondale and Bessemer. That group, founded in 1998 as an offshoot of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, has been a steady presence in the Homewood area, offering a variety of educational programs and advocating for protection of the creek and its many tiny inhabitants, such as the spotted amphibian that gives the Salamander Festival its name.
“Alabama has over 132,000 miles of rivers, and some of them don’t get treated very well,” said Friends of Shades Creek co-founder and current President Michelle Blackwood. The all-volunteer group has worked over the past two decades to combat some of the problems threatening the creek’s ecosystem.
“Some of Shades Creek’s main problems are trash, litter and pollution,” Blackwood said.
“A lot of the pollution is sediment, and a lot of that comes from improper development and flooding that causes riverbanks to erode and fall into the creek,” he continued. “When there’s a lot of sediment in rivers and creeks, that smothers out the insects and other small animals that live in that stream, and when they get smothered out, then the fish don’t have anything to eat. So it just goes on up the chain.”
Friends of Shades Creek have advocated to stop many of those problems, Blackwood said, by supporting initiatives such as the Homewood Forest Preserve, which resulted in the permanent protection of 65 acres of woodland near Homewood High School.
The group also worked with Samford University to stabilize creek banks near the college’s soccer fields, partnered with an engineering company to install erosion-reducing stone in a tributary of Shades Creek, and collaborated with the Nature Conservancy to create and raise awareness of a Shades Creek watershed management plan.
“Sometimes it’s just reporting on things so that other agencies like the Cahaba Riverkeeper or the Jefferson County Department of Health can take it from there,” Blackwood said. “We put some of those issues in their court, but we continue to monitor and watch things. Because we really don’t have any official jurisdiction, we can’t really enforce things. But there are people in the city that can, and we make contact with them.”
Education is the Key
Instead, most of the organization’s efforts fall into the educational realm. It hosts 10 informational meetings per year at the Homewood Public Library – on the second Thursday of every month, excluding June and July – featuring “speakers on relevant conversation topics,” Blackwood said.
The organization also hosts an annual canoe trip on the Cahaba River, of which Shades Creek is the largest tributary, to see the blooming of the river’s famous lilies.
“That’s our main source of promoting safety and conservation on the river,” Blackwood said. “Anyone who wants to come can participate. We really feel strongly that when you get out on a river or out on a stream, that really helps you have an appreciation.”
The group has seen a slow but steady growth in its numbers, Blackwood said. “We used to average around 10 to 15 people at our meetings, and now we’ve been averaging 25 to 35 people at our meetings.”
But the group reaches the most people through the Salamander Festival, which celebrates its 16th year this month. The festival is a retooled version of an event the Friends of Shades Creek started in 2000 but rescheduled to coincide with the migration of the spotted salamander.
Part of the festival’s goal is to promote awareness of the salamander itself, which spends most of its life underground in nearby forests.
Time to Mate
“We probably wouldn’t even know they were there if not for their migration,” Blackwood said. “And when they come out it’s usually on a rainy night, so there’s not a lot of opportunity to get to know them unless you happen to turn over a log at just the right time and happen to see one.”
When it comes time to mate, however, the salamander begins a dangerous trek to the vernal pools near Shades Creek that can lead it into harm’s way, for instance by crossing Lakeshore Drive. Friends of Shades Creek’s efforts have included putting up barriers on that road when they know the migration is in progress to prevent the species from being destroyed by traffic.
“I would say that’s been a win for us, to actually get people engaged in that,” Blackwood said.
But the salamander also serves as an icon of the creek and its surrounding wetlands, partially because it can be so fragile.
“They represent a lot of other creatures that are living out there that depend on wetland areas, creeks and rivers,” Blackwood said. “We think it’s important for people to realize that we’re not just protecting the water, but the riparian areas and the forest near the rivers.”
The festival, which will take place Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Shades Valley Community Church, offers free admission and a variety of activities, including a family nature hike; storytelling by herpetologist Jay Eubanks; dancing with Edgewood Dance Center’s Alessia Lovreglio, which is meant to evoke the mating dance of the spotted salamander; and music from local bluegrass group Rob Angus and the Over the Hillbillies. There will also be interactive displays from approximately 20 environmental groups.
“It’s an educational get-together, and you’ll be able to learn a lot while you’re there,” Blackwood said.
For more information about the Friends of Shades Creek or the 2020 Salamander Festival, visit shadescreek.org.