By Ginny Cooper
Journal staff writer
An annual festival in Homewood is making the humble salamander the star of the show.
The Friends of Shades Creek will host the 10th annual Salamander Festival at the Homewood Senior Center from 3-5:30 p.m. on Jan. 25 to celebrate the little critter’s unique characteristics.
Michelle Blackwood, president of Friends of Shades Creek, said the nonprofit organization recognized the ecological importance of the spotted salamanders and has fought to protect their natural habitat in Homewood.
Four years ago, the group obtained a conservation easement on the land near Homewood High School. The land is now called Homewood Forest Preserve. The easement means the spotted salamanders are safe from the threat of construction or other development that might destroy their habitat.
Blackwood said seeing a mass migration of animals is something that is increasingly rare today.
“In this country we used to have a mass migration of animals such as buffalo,” Blackwood said. “But we’ve pretty much stopped that with development. This is one migration you can still see in great numbers.”
Blackwood said spotted salamanders are unique little creatures with beautiful skins.
“They are actually very delicate animals,” she said. “Their exterior is a shiny dark, dark brown with yellow dots that kind of look like someone painted them on.”
Salamanders also have the capability of living very long lives, compared to many similar creatures, with a lifespan of 30 to 40 years, Blackwood said.
Another unique aspect of the salamander is the variety of ecosystems they need to survive, she said.
“Their relationship with the forest is very interesting,” Blackwood said. “They eat grubs and things, but they also need the wetlands to reproduce. If one of those parts is missing, the spotted salamander is going to be missing. It’s a good way to show how the ecosystems work together.”
Spotted salamanders are also known for their mating dance, an intricate event where the salamanders spiral around each other as part of their mating ritual.
The Salamander Festival marks the season when salamanders migrate from the mountain of Homewood Forest Preserve by Homewood High School to a wetland pool to find mates and lay eggs.
While the festival doesn’t officially kick off until 3 p.m., Friends of Shades Creek is hosting a nature hike at Patriot Park beginning at 2 p.m. to look for birds and other animals.
A program following the nature hike will include an awards presentation, the story of the spotted salamander and a chance to see the special salamander dance.
University professors will also be on hand to talk and answer questions about salamanders. Educational displays will cover fish, recycling, composting, gardening, fossil tracks, native plants and wildflowers.
Animal exhibits will include live salamanders as well as fish, turtles, and other creatures. Festival-goers will have a chance to hold the salamanders, an activity Blackwood encourages.
“You can really see how delicate they are,” she said. “They don’t bite, the don’t scratch. They are perfectly safe to pick up.”
The festival is free, but there will be a small charge for food at the chocolate foundation.
For more information, visit shadescreek.org or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.