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Passion for newts drives her mission to save them

By Lisa M. Krieger

lkrieger@bayareanewsgroup.com

LOS GATOS » More than 2,695 California newts have lost their lives this winter along a 6-mile stretch of a rural road, their small colorful bodies flattened like discarded banana peels.

Anne Parsons knows this because she documents every death.

It is a grievous task: slowly scanning the asphalt twice a week for tiny corpses, then logging each specimen into a gruesome photo gallery and spreadsheet in hopes that the ever-growing tally will drive authorities to find a solution.

“I have wanted to quit a hundred times,” said Parsons, 63, a Sunnyvale biologist and retired software engineer and database designer who has made it her melancholy mission to walk the miles, sometimes in wind and rain, when the newts’ deaths are most fresh.

“It breaks my heart. You see the little bones, the broken spinal cords and little hands,” she said. “But I keep going, because no one has known the extent of it.

Anne Parsons holds a newt along Alma Bridge Road at the Lexington Reservoir near Los Gatos on Wednesday. More than 2,695 newts have been killed on the rural route since November, the start of the creatures’ winter migration.

PHOTOS BY ANDA CHU — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Above: A sign encourages drivers to watch out for newts crossing Alma Bridge Road.

Left: Anne Parsons documents dead newts on the road in hopes that authorities will take action.


Most people have no idea.”

The road is called Alma Bridge Road, a modest route along the back side of Lexington Reservoir that takes drivers to a quarry, a rowing club, hiking trails and some rural Santa Cruz Mountain homes. The spot is prime habitat for the orange- bellied newts, which live throughout the moist coastal counties of California.

The road splits the newts’ habitat in half. Most of the year, the animals live in the steep dry woodlands and chaparral of the Sierra Azul Open Space District. But every November, they start their winter migration, making a treacherous journey down to low-lying ponds, next to the reservoir, to breed and lay eggs.

Newts are less charismatic — and much smaller — than other species commonly killed on our roads, such as deer, coyotes, bobcats and puma. South of Monterey County, the bulgy-eyed amphibian is classified as a Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

No population studies have been conducted in the Lexington Basin, so it’s not known whether newt numbers are flourishing or depleted, said Julie Andersen, Wildlife Program lead for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

Some are killed on their way to the reservoir; others die while returning.

They’re vulnerable because they’re so slow.

Yet the plodding pace of the creature — Taricha torosa, commonly referred to as the California newt or orange-bellied newt — has carried them through 300 million years of evolution and near-catastrophic extinction spasms, surviving even when faster, bigger and smarter creatures died out.

But they’re no match for speeding cars. Over the years, the growing population and popularity of this mountain route has brought increased traffic to a oncew ild place. The deadliest stretch of road is between two canyons, where the animals travel alongside rushing creeks, according to Parsons’ data. Along this short route, dozens of bodies are clustered.

“I saw one with its hands crossed across its chest. It reminded me of a baby sleeping,” Parsons said. “Some are curled up, like they were trying to defend themselves. Many are bloody, with guts oozing out. It is quite traumatizing to see.” The final moments of one creature remain seared in her memory.

“Its tail was smashed to the asphalt, so it couldn’t move,” she said. “It lifted its little head up and looked around, then dropped it, exhausted from the effort.

“Some people would have put it out of its misery, but I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I felt complicit in the whole mess. I was crying. I had to walk away.”

The worst day was Jan. 21, 2018, when Parsons counted 4 57 carcasses along a single 1.8-mile stretch.

Twice a week, she drives from her home and parks her blue Honda to walk 3 to 6 miles of the road, checking both sides.

She leans over each discovery with her Nikon camera, snapping an image and collecting GPS coordinates. She also photographs other roadkill, deer and raccoons, birds, frogs, toads, snakes and beetles.

Her work is meticulous, reflecting a long career as a computer operator at San Jose’s O’Connor Hospital and a programmer and software tester at the biotech companies BD Biosciences and Celera Diagnostics.

Once home, she moves the photos to her desktop computer, sorting them to separate the fresh kills from the old decomposing carcasses. Then she uploads them — slowly, five or 10 at a time — to the database of iNaturalist, a biodiversity app and website. Each image is annotated, noting the location, weather conditions, traffic and other factors relevant to the death. Finally, she counts the photos and logs them into a spreadsheet, which tallies the seasonal and cumulative deaths, tracking trends.

In a smaller, separate analysis, Parsons is studying the characteristics of carcass decomposition — how tissue decays and bright colors fade over time. It’s important information to prevent doublecounting deaths on different visits.

“It’s tedious. I have to compare thousands of pictures, to make sure they haven’t been counted before,” she said.

And she knows her tally is an undercount, because she’s missing deaths. Some are eaten by scavengers. Others are whisked away, embedded in tires.

Parsons was alerted to the plight during her work as a trail volunteer for Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. She collected some data last year and shared it with the district. But when no action was taken, she started anew in November, vowing to document each death until the migration season ends in May.

“She is enthusiastic, and she is passionate. I applaud her effort,” said Andersen, the Midpeninsula wildlife biologist.

Surveys like Parsons are a useful tool to identify deadly hot spots, Andersen said. The small road belongs to the county, and it’s the only route to the Los Gatos Rowing Club, Lexington Quarry and some homes. The Open Space District, which owns the newts’ habitat, has its hands full with a related challenge: planning wildlife trails across the notoriously dangerous Highway 17.

“Where there is an easy solution, you do it,” Andersen said. “When it is a multijurisdictional road with so many users, those decisions are a lot more difficult to make.”

But Parsons’ work, highlighted in her recent essay in the magazine Bay Nature, is catching the attention of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter. In a Feb. 11 letter, the groups urged the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to take action — pointing to protective measures launched by other communities, such as Stanford University and Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park. They suggest temporary nighttime road closure, shuttles, signage and educational materials.

Even species that aren’t endangered deserve consideration, said Shani K leinhaus of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. “The next time a road is planned next to a creek or reservoir, we need to think about what is there, even if it is a little, teeny, bitty thing.

“Anne (Parsons) is motivated by love, which is really important in times like these,” Kleinhaus said. “It gives me hope that people are paying attention — and maybe something can be done to save this population.”

To learn more, go to: www.inaturalist.org/projects/pacific-newts-all-lexington-reservoir-area Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 408- 859- 5306.

A California newt rests on Anne Parsons’ finger. The amphibians fall prey to traffic because they walk slowly.

PHOTOS BY ANDA CHU — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A dead newt lies along Alma Bridge Road at the Lexington Reservoir.

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