Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 29, 2016
Froggy went a courtin'
I love the sound of frogs and toads in the late spring and early summer. In late May when the heavy rains had left the ditches full of water, the sounds of hundred of frogs and toads calling was almost deafening from our deck.
Another encounter occurred one day in June thousands of miles away. Art stepped outside our vacation place in Petersdorf, near Germany's border with Poland, and was surprised to see a large dark brown toad hopping along the sidewalk. He called me over to take a look. I was definitely impressed with its size - about as big as Art's fist.
While I can identify the calls of some birds and insects, when it comes to frogs or toads, I am at a loss. So I was intrigued when friend Kay told me she had taken a Kansas Master Naturalist course to help with the Kansas frog and toad census. Last winter, she participated in a training program, coordinated by Manhattan's Sunset Zoo. FrogWatch USA is a national effort by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to form a pool of "citizen scientists" to help monitor the health of the local amphibian population.
While frogs and toads have always played an important role in keeping the insect population in check, they have contributed more recently in the development of human medicines. But many previously abundant frog and toad populations have experienced dramatic population declines, both in the United States and around the world, and scientists want to understand the scope, geographic scale and causes. Air and water pollution, climate change and habitat loss are among reasons cited.
When I lived in Costa Rica, the golden toad was abundant in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. But I was saddened to hear it hasn't been seen since 1989 and was classified as extinct in August 2007.
The Kansas effort is one among several nation-wide. Husband Art's home state of Wisconsin also has had a monitoring program for 35 years. An article in the April 2016 "Wisconsin Natural Resources" magazine said the primary goals of the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey, the longest-running in North America, are to collect data on abundance, distribution and population trends of Wisconsin frogs.
The goals are similar in Kansas. Kay said those who volunteer are expected to follow a certain protocol in their observations. Volunteers must start at least 30 minutes after sunset but can start as late as 1 a.m. However, the end time must be "exactly three minutes after the start time." Volunteers monitor the calls at least four times from February through August, but Kay said twice a week is ideal.
Kay selected a bridge on Wildcat Creek Road west of Manhattan as her location. She completes an observation data sheet each time she goes and then submits the data online. She notes weather conditions - wind speed, precipitation during the visit and in the past 48 hours, and temperature. She records the names and calling intensities of the different species she hears, with "0" indicating none could be heard, "1" indicating individuals could be heard with spaces between calls, "2" indicating calls of individuals could be heard with some overlapping, and "3" indicating a "full chorus" with calls being constant, continuous and overlapping.
Kay said Kansas has 21 identifiable frogs and toads. She learned to recognize the calls and has developed ways to remember them.
"The Western Narrow-Mouthed Toad sounds to me like an angry bee in a jar," she said. The Plains Leopard Frog has a smooching, 'chuck-chuck' sound, a Cope's Gray Tree Frog makes a 'what-what-what' noise, a Northern Cricket Frog has a 'clicker' call and a Boreal Chorus Frog uses trills in succession.
Nicole Wade, education specialist for Sunset Zoo, has been the local FrogWatch coordinator for two years and tries to monitor the amphibians' calls twice a week herself.
She said Riley County has 24 certified volunteers who are considered active in the program that begins in February and ends in August.
"In May and June, all of the frog species in Riley County are actively looking for mates and you can hear their calls everywhere," Nicole said. "By late July we're nearing the end of summer. Tadpoles need warm weather to develop, metamorphose and grow big enough to survive the winter. Different species have different developmental lengths and their breeding season coincides with that time. The Plains Spadefoot and Western Narrow-Mouthed toads and the Cope's Gray Tree Frog have usually ended their calling season by July. However, you might still enjoy the serenades of the American Bullfrog, the Plains Leopard Frog and the Boreal Chorus Frog. You can even expect to hear the vibrant clicking of the Northern Cricket Frog, or the shrill cry of the Woodhouse's Toad into August."
Nicole said in 2014 and 2015, no frogs or toads were heard before April 1.
"But with the extremely mild winter and warm spring temperatures, several frog species were already out and calling in early/mid March this past year," she said.
"Since we have a highly transient population in Riley County and the surrounding areas, we need as many people as we can to get trained each year and go out listening for frogs," Nicole said. "Amphibian decline is a real problem in the U.S. and around the world. The data helps inform land management practices and scientific studies."
Art said when he heard about this project, it reminded him of a story of just how loud a frog's call can be. His father Tom and Tom's brother Art were fishing trout in a swamp by moonlight. Their brother Rollie, age 6, was along when suddenly the frogs they called "Bay Boomers" began calling. Tom said it was hard to fish after that with Rollie sticking so close.
I doubt even with the training Kay had that I’d be able to tell one toad or frog from another. But I admire the effort people like her and Nicole have made to count our courting amphibian croakers.
Top: We "hosted" this amphibian on our front railing one night, no doubt looking for a mate, a meal or both; bottom: a "croaker" perches on Art's thumb at our cottage in Wisconsin.
Clicking on the image at the left of the now-extinct Costa Rican golden toad opens an audio file of the symphony heard on our deck in May.