Opinion: Little Frogs, Sure Signs of Spring, Need Attention

Commentary by Marlene A. Condon

One late-February day as I was jogging early in the morning, I heard what sounded like distant Canada geese off to my left. I searched the sky but saw nothing.

Then I realized that the “honking” was actually coming from beside the road. I put my exercise regimen on hold and walked to the edge of the road to look down the embankment where the sounds were coming from. I had finally found my first wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus).

I had seen photos of these amphibians in field guides and knew that they should exist where I live. As you might guess from the name, wood frogs inhabit woods, and woods make up most of my area.

I had wanted very much to see these frogs because they looked so attractive in field guides. A wood frog has a dark facial mask with a light stripe along its upper jaw, both of which contrast with its brown body. But wood frogs are not easy to find.

The easiest time to catch a glimpse of these animals is late winter to early spring, when they migrate from their overwintering sites to shallow pools or ponds where they will breed. They often begin to move during the last few days of February, especially if it is rainy and somewhat warm.

The rest of the year they are silent and difficult to see against the background of dried leaves on the forest floor that they call home.

If you really want to confirm that spring is on the way, look for the earliest-appearing cold-tolerant amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders) of late winter. These hardy little creatures offer the first clue that warm weather is coming, long before American robins that so often —and erroneously, as some robins may be in the area all winter — get credit for this prediction.

One does not need to rise as early in the morning as I do to notice the emergence of amphibians from winter hibernation. Any relatively warm wet evening from now until well into spring should reward those who look with the sight of these diminutive animals.

They emerge in great numbers during the hours of darkness and all of them head to ponds or short-lived (“ephemeral”) pools of water to breed.

Unfortunately, many amphibian species are losing ground in our modern world, both figuratively and literally.

Hundreds of amphibians need to cross roads to get to their breeding grounds. Sad to say, many, many of them get run over by cars and trucks as folks drive quickly along the roads, usually completely unaware that they are squishing animals underneath their tires.

(Anyone who gets up early and walks the roads before crows and other scavengers have a chance to clean up the carcasses will be astonished, and perhaps saddened, by the numbers of mashed amphibians.)

Those that do survive the road crossings often find it difficult to successfully reproduce because wetlands are disappearing.

Humans frequently find wet areas to be a nuisance, even if pieces of property are only wet in the spring and dry the rest of the year. They drain and fill in such areas, not realizing that they are wiping out the breeding grounds for many wildlife species. And, perhaps, that is the problem.

Birds and mammals are much more noticeable because they are bigger and they visit open spaces where humans see them. Amphibians, on the other hand, are usually out of sight, hiding under decaying logs and branches or resting underneath stones or leaves. For humans, out of sight usually means out of mind.

Therefore, I hope you will take a late-winter or early-spring walk and become familiar with these inhabitants of the natural world that are somewhat hidden from our view most of the time.

I also hope you will drive more slowly on rainy nights and be alert for the presence of frogs, toads, and salamanders making their way to a very important appointment—a date with a female of the same species so they can reproduce.

The male frogs and toads (salamanders tend to be silent) that one can hear calling at this time of year are advertising from suitable breeding grounds for mates. The females arrive, eggs are laid, and within days, the adults have left. Soon the eggs hatch and frog and toad tadpoles and salamander larvae emerge.

Although it may seem surprising that any animal would want to attempt to reproduce while ice may still be on the ground and in areas that are sometimes only temporarily suitable, this early mating frenzy allows the amphibians a measure of protection from predation—most aquatic predators will still be hibernating.

Pay attention, and you may get to witness an amphibian migration!

Marlene A. Condon, author of The Nature-friendly Garden, believes saving the natural world begins in one’s own back yard. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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