Frog Incognito

At this time of year there are frogs on the move in the woods, but if it weren’t for their occasionally leaping out from under your feet as you walk, you’d rarely notice they were there. Can you spot the frog in this photo?

Some camouflage, huh? Wood frogs (easily identified by the dark mask around their eyes) are perfectly shaded to match the leaf litter.

Leopard frogs were also hiding in the grass.

So handsome!

 

 

I Explain Frog Sex for a Living

Yesterday we put on a field trip for a group of fourth graders, and my role involved taking groups of them out on the pond in canoes to look for signs of spring. (Well, they were in canoes, I took a kayak so I could maneuver around more easily.) A thunderstorm Wednesday night brought out toads by the hundreds, and the vegetation around the edges of the pond was full of them, calling and climbing on top of each other and generally working on making more toads. If you’re not familiar with their call, American Toads make a long, loud, mechanical-sounding trill on a single pitch – you can hear them in this recording (not by me) along with spring peepers going “meep, meep, meep.”

 

 

For those of you who like learning new natural history words, here’s your word of the day: amplexus. It’s the term for a male frog clinging to the back of a female frog, ready and waiting to fertilize her eggs the minute she lays them. The surface of the water was thick with floating pairs of amplexing toads, and because of the size difference (males are much smaller) the kids kept thinking they were mother toads with babies on their backs. I couldn’t let such a huge misunderstanding of basic frog biology go uncorrected, so I spent the day scooping pairs of toads into my kayak with my paddle (the males stayed fastened to the females even as they hopped around in the bottom of the boat) and paddling around to show them to all the fourth graders and explain what they were doing: “This is the dad, and this is the mom. He’s going to ride around on her back like this all day waiting for her to be ready to lay her eggs.” Most kids were content to leave it at that, but there was one boy who frowned and said, “They’re mating, right? His sperm… is going to go… in…” which is how I ended up explaining internal vs. external fertilization to a ten-year-old while his teacher watched, clearly very amused by the whole conversation.

In the evening, the coordinator of my graduate program was giving a presentation on plant pollination and spring wildflowers, and I tagged along for the outdoor portion. When we came to the edge of the pond, the frogs were still at it – most of the noise was still toads, but peepers, leopard frogs, and tree frogs were also adding to the chorus. When someone asked a question about the frogs, Fran turned to me with a grin and said, “Rebecca?” So I got to explain frog sex all over again, this time to a group of respectable, nicely-dressed middle aged people.

What a day.

Ribbit, Ribbit

For a while now I’ve been thinking that whenever I was due to write a post and short on time or ideas, I’d just walk downstairs with my camera and get some photos of the treefrogs that hang out on the walls of the building after dark.  Because, let’s face it, treefrogs are adorable.

Here on the coast of Georgia, there may be a serious lack of the Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, trout lilies, hepatica, etc. etc. etc. that everyone up north is posting photos of right now.  But, at least I live in a building where treefrogs climb the walls every single night.  I’m pretty sure these are squirrel treefrogs, Hyla squirella, a species we didn’t have in Ohio.  (They really go more “quack, quack” than “ribbit, ribbit.”)

On the clock for over twelve hours tomorrow, and we’re predicted to have thunderstorms in the afternoon (again).  Deep breath…

Jewelweed

When I was a kid, at the back of our backyard was a ditch along which, in the summer, plants with yellow flowers grew wild.  After they were done blooming, the flowers grew into fat, translucent seed pods which would explode spectacularly when they were poked or squeezed.  They were known universally among the neighborhood kids as “poppers” and as summer wore on we would occupy ourselves for hours with finding and popping the ripest seed pods.

In addition to simple-minded entertainment, these flowers gave me my first lightbulb moment about natural selection.  While watching bumblebees visiting them one day I noticed that they were exactly the right size and shape for bumblebees to fit inside.  In fact, a bee came and crawled into this flower briefly while I was taking photos, although I didn’t react fast enough to get a shot of it.

It wasn’t until much later that I would learn this plant’s proper name: jewelweed, or Impatiens capensis.  (The touch-sensitive seed pods have also conferred on it the alternate name “touch-me-not.”)  When the seedlings first emerge in the spring they’re very distinctive, with big, round cotyledons.  They grow spectacularly and now they’re the size of shrubs.  Some of my coworkers swear by jewelweed sap as a remedy for itchy bug bites, though I haven’t tried it myself.

Incidentally, while I was photographing jewelweed flowers a greenish-gray lump on the stem caught my eye.  It was this.

And then when I started back along the trail I noticed something else, a big, pale shape among the leaves.

A luna moth, the size of my hand, settled down into torpor for the day.  You never know what you’re going to find when you go for a walk in the woods!

dragonflies are hard to sneak up on.

A coworker recently told me that there were a ton of dragonflies at the pond and that I might be able to get some good pictures even with my tiny point-and-shoot camera.  I went and checked it out over the weekend, and while there were indeed a ton of dragonflies (and as an added bonus I flushed a woodcock on the bank), I was not able to get any good photos with my camera.  I had been naïvely thinking, all I have to do is wait for one to perch somewhere where I can get at it, creep up on it, and snap the picture, just like I did with that snipe fly.  Well, let me tell you something: it’s impossible to sneak up on a dragonfly.

This is the best I managed to do.  I believe it’s a Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella.  There were also Eastern Pondhawks (excellent name for a dragonfly)… and… a lot of other species I couldn’t identify.  I’m only just starting to dip my toe into the wide world of butterflies, odonates and the like.

Happily, there were plenty of things to distract me from the frustratingly skittish dragonflies, like this little guy I found lurking next to my foot.  Probably a toad, but I find it hard to tell when they’re this tiny.  He’s lucky I didn’t crush him accidentally – he was only a couple centimeters long!

There was also this striking red-and-blue insect hanging around on the daisies, which made for nice pictures.

I thought it was some sort of fly, and decided to post the photo on the BugGuide site to see if anyone could tell me anything more specific.  Well, within about five minutes two different people had replied telling me that 1) it was a bee, not a fly, and 2) I needed to crop my image more before posting it.  Um… oops.  I sheepishly fixed the image, feeling kind of humiliated.  Finally someone else came along and told me it’s a sweat bee in the genus Sphecodes.  Isn’t it pretty?

Anyway, summer camp training starts this afternoon, so I probably won’t have time to post anything else until the weekend.  Have a great rest-of-the-week!

Sounds

I recently got a letter from a former student in which she said her favorite places here were the waterfall, because of the sound it made, and the pine forest, because of the sound of the wind in the trees.  Those are part of the daily soundtrack of my life here.  I can barely remember what it’s like to live somewhere where you can hear traffic going by.  I haven’t lived on a real road in a year now.

In the past few days some new birds have shown up in the woods, including the singer behind one of my favorite bird songs: the wood thrush.  (If you don’t know what a wood thrush sounds like, you can listen to it here.)  Every morning I wake up to the songs of thrushes, wrens, warblers, towhees, sparrows, peewees.

In the evening, after dark, the treefrogs take over with their insistent trilling – not to mention the calls of the barred owls, great horned owls, and screech owls who live here at the raptor center.

And sometimes, the only sound is the rain, or the wind rushing in the tree tops.

Amphibian Nostalgia

When I was in college, spring was amphibian season: one of my favorite professors did surveys for breeding frogs, toads, and salamanders every year, and I was fortunate enough to accompany her fairly often.  Well, it’s amphibian season once again, but this year I’m too busy with work and too isolated from any serious herp people to really spend much time out in the ponds at night.  (It doesn’t help that my waders are at my parents’ house on the far side of the continent, either.)  This post on Jim McCormac’s excellent blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, increased my nostalgia even more because I’m pretty sure I’ve been out salamandering at the very same pond he went to!  I did recently walk down to our pond after dark to see what was calling, and heard a chorus of toads and one lonely leopard frog, but it just wasn’t the same as going out with waders and a headlamp (or, when doing calling surveys, a tape recorder) and doing the thing properly.

The height of my amphibian-love came in the summer of 2008, when I was lucky enough to spend three months at a research station in northern Wisconsin studying gray treefrogs.

For weeks, I was wading in vernal ponds every night until after midnight observing breeding behavior.  Our study ponds were filled not only with treefrogs, but also chorus frogs, bullfrogs, green frogs, leopard frogs, the odd painted turtle… perhaps the highlight was when I happened upon a four-toed salamander swimming past my knees.  (According to Jim McCormac, “Four-toed Salamanders are probably the hardest of the vernal pool salamanders to find, and to successfully ferret them out requires some knowledge of their habitats and a lot of careful searching.”  How lucky, then, that I found one completely by chance!)  Whenever the frogs quieted down for a moment we would hear the calls of loons and owls drifting through the night.  On our way home in the small hours of the morning, porcupines and foxes would dart across the road in front of the headlights of the pickup truck.

The other treefrog student and I were so dedicated that one night we decided to go out despite the threat of a thunderstorm.  Clad in our rain gear, we made a brave effort at collecting data as the thunder grew closer and closer.  Finally a truly humongous clap of thunder sounded practically on top of our heads and sent us both crashing frantically through the undergrowth and back to the truck, terrified.

Sadly the camera I had then wasn’t as nice as my current one, and my photos leave something to be desire.  For one thing, there was no macro setting (that is, I couldn’t take proper close-ups) so none of my frog photos are really in focus.  Still… they’ll give you an idea of what it was like.

I don’t think I’ve seen a salamander since I graduated from college, sadly; I’ll have to turn over a few dead logs next time I think of it.  One of the other naturalists here did find a two-lined salamander this week – or at least she found a salamander that she described as having yellowish stripes down its sides hanging out in a rocky stream, and I’m assuming it must have been a two-lined.