Caller ID

W alking by a lake or pond after sunset this time of year, you may hear spring peepers chirping their high, birdlike songs in a wavering chorus of invitations to mate. It’s a sure sign that spring is here.

Growing to about the size of a finger tip, peepers comprise one of just 10 frog and toad species to be found in Connecticut, each with its own distinct call. Learning those calls and then reporting them from wetlands across the nation is the job of a legion of official “frog watchers”—more like listeners—who volunteer for Frog Watch USA, a program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which runs its Connecticut trainings through the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History along with the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk and Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport.

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Bill Gladstone, a Peabody frog watch volunteer, was inspired to give it a try after meeting several neighbors who’d undertaken similar reptilian projects. He’d heard bullfrogs and spring peepers at his lakeside home in Madison, but some other sounds in nature were more mysterious. “I knew there was something making a lot of noise before the peepers, but I didn’t really know what it was,” Gladstone told me one evening as we stood looking across Madison Lake while the stars emerged above. A gentle breeze was coasting off the water, and the temperature hovered just below 60.

“Every fall, all the leaves fall on the lake, and the north wind blows all the leaves down here,” Gladstone said, pointing to several yards of water frontage. “So they pile up here, we get a nice muck pile that I always want to get rid of. But then it’s always full of frogs and snakes, and then the wading birds come and eat the frogs” as well as small fish. A vernal pond near the other end of Gladstone’s property, however, is the site of his current frog count. We rounded the house and sat on a back porch in sight of a glistening area in the trees, where the bright windows of neighboring houses were reflected in the dark water.

Frog watchers are taught to wait for two minutes after they arrive at a site, in case they’ve disturbed the frogs. During that time, Gladstone records data on his phone such as current temperature, wind speed and the weather over the last 48 hours. If the temperature is below 35 degrees or the wind is at four or higher on the Beaufort scale, a count isn’t taken that evening. The data must be collected at least 30 minutes after sunset, when frogs are most active. The actual observation lasts for only three minutes. Then Gladstone notes the different species he’s heard and rates the level of activity, from 1 (a single frog) to 3 (a chorus), using an app called Fieldscope.

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That night, we heard individual spring peepers, perhaps two of them, calling back and forth. Their cries—sometimes a single peep, sometimes a trochaic, two-note song—are astonishingly loud in proportion to their tiny bodies. An entire chorus of peepers could be heard in the distance, singing at some other nearby wetland.

The tiny peepers make a familiar spring sound, but they aren’t the first frogs of spring. That honor goes to wood frogs, which make a sound almost like duck or squirrel chatter. Gladstone says he heard them, too, during the March thaw. “There were a couple of big days. There was one March day when it got to 60 degrees, and they all came out,” he says. The cold weather that followed shut them down again, but that’s only because it was too cold to mate. Both spring peepers and wood frogs are “specially adapted to withstand partial freezing of body fluids buried under little leaves on the woodland floor,” according to the Frog Watch USA training manual.

The most common frog in Connecticut is the green frog, whose call “sounds like your banjo string just broke,” says frog watch trainer Jim Sirch of the Peabody Museum. And there’s the mighty American bullfrog, whose summer call has the long, pulsing quality of a passing racecar or lightsaber. Gladstone expects he’ll hear both of them again soon in his own yard.

He’s also heard gray treefrogs in the nearby woods. People often mistake them for birds because they sing from the trees, and their “fluid trill,” as Frog Watch USA describes it, is similar to a woodpecker call. They’re the frogs you hear in horror movies like Friday the 13th, Beardsley Zoo educator Jen Farrell says. Also found in Connecticut: the northern leopard frog, the American toad, the eastern spadefoot toad, the pickerel frog and the Fowler’s toad.

All of Connecticut’s frog watchers undergo training and refresher courses to learn how to properly collect their data. Volunteers select their own observation sites—marshes, vernal pools, swamps, bogs, fens—and commit to tracking what happens there. Late this winter, new frog watchers recruited by the Peabody Museum, the Maritime Aquarium and the Beardsley Zoo attended one of three webinars to learn more about the state’s frogs and why documenting them is important. “They indicate how healthy a wetland is,” Sirch told trainees at one of the webinars. “You could sort of compare them, in a sense, to a canary in a coal mine.”

About 40% of the world’s amphibians are threatened due to a combination of factors including climate change, habitat loss, pollutants, non-native species, parasites and disease, according to Frog Watch USA. But they play an important role in the ecosystem as both predators and prey. They’ve also been valued by human cultures throughout history as a source of food and medicines as well as natural wonderment.

Frog watchers’ observations can help inform land management decisions and track both species diversity and the appearance of invasive species, Farrell told webinar trainees. It’s also good for the humans who volunteer, she pointed out. It gets them out in nature, gives them a new appreciation for local frogs and offers the fun of data collection and increased knowledge.

Gladstone concurs. “It gives me a sense of purpose and a reason to go out in the evening,” he says. And now, when he hears something new, he can upload an audio file and ask more experienced watchers to identify the sound instead of wondering, “Is this a cricket? Or is this another kind of frog?”

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image by Steve Byland/Shutterstock.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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