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.

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Five Things I Have Said to Children

Photos are from my walk this evening and admittedly have nothing to do with the text.

  1. No, turtles don’t bite.

    Wild blueberry
  2. What are those stick insects doing? They’re… well… they’re making more stick insects.

    Something purple
  3. Go ahead and rub the mud on your face. Mud is good for your skin. People go to spas and pay lots of money to get mud like this rubbed on them.

    Fiddlehead
  4. Yes, I know it’s raining, but your skin is waterproof.

    The only time of year I don’t think Canada Geese are annoying
  5. That’s okay, it’s good luck to get pooped on by a bird!

I’m on TV!

The local news came and did a brief piece on the seventh graders who were here from inner city Milwaukee last week. I can’t embed it, unfortunately, but if you’re interested you can watch it here. I wasn’t interviewed or anything, but I’m visible in a couple of the shots – I’m the one in the pink coat, green backpack, and dorky-looking gray hat with the ear flaps and tassels. (Hey, I love that hat, okay? It’s very warm.)

Twelve Hundred Grand Canyons on the Moon

I’ve been slacking a bit on blogging. I apologize. It’s an occasional result of taking a full load of graduate courses while working the equivalent of a full-time job. Today was divided between tearing my hair out over the survey I was sending out for my master’s degree project and teaching shelter building and cross-country skiing to seventh graders from inner city Milwaukee, and I’m a little tired (by which I mean I’m exhausted).

BUT, I did get to spend part of yesterday evening conducting my own little astronomy program, lining up twenty-one of said seventh graders single file and showing each of them the moons of Jupiter and the craters on our own moon through a telescope. Most of them had clearly never looked through a telescope before, and it’s always wonderful to see and hear the reactions: “Wow!” “Whoa!” “Tight!” (“Tight” is like “cool” but even better, if you haven’t spent any time around city kids lately.) One boy kept looking from the image in the eyepiece of the telescope to the moon in the sky and back again, unable to believe what he was seeing. And the best was the boy who saw the craters and exclaimed, “It looks like there’s, like, twelve hundred Grand Canyons on the moon!”

So at least if my job is sometimes exhausting, it’s also a lot of fun. Happy leap day tomorrow, everyone.

I Can Now Die Happy

A few months ago I wrote about camping for a night at Manatee Springs State Park in northern Florida, in a fruitless attempt to see manatees in the wild. Turns out I didn’t need to go Florida.  Yesterday I saw one a five-minute drive from where I live and work.

Yesterday morning I wasn’t teaching, but instead was preparing for the new school groups arriving later in the day, putting together binders and posting schedules and calling to confirm reservations. Around ten a coworker came back from taking a class to the dock and excitedly told everyone in the office they’d seen manatees. “The kids were bonking them on the heads with their dip nets accidentally! That’s how close they were!”

Me: “Wait, this was just now? Do you think they’re still there?”

Her: “Sure, probably!”

Me: (bolts out of office to get my camera, binoculars, and car keys)

I have the best boss in the world, because when I breathlessly explained to him that there probably manatees at the dock RIGHT NOW and I’d already finished all the really crucial preparation for the groups coming and I’d be back in twenty minutes and could I please please please PRETTY PLEASE go look for the manatees, his response was basically “of course you can.” Seriously, how many people have a job where they’re allowed to leave in the middle of the work day to go look for interesting wildlife? Soon I was on the road driving faster than I probably should I have as I zipped around the island’s southern tip toward the dock overlooking the salt marsh.

Manatees in the U.S. are strongly associated with Florida, and many people – including people who live on the coast of Georgia – are not aware that during the warmer months of the year manatees from the Atlantic coast population migrate north into Georgia’s salt marshes. I certainly didn’t know this before I moved here. The problem is that the water here is naturally murky with sediment, making them impossible to see except in the brief moments when they surface to take a breath. As a result, very little is known about the movements and habits of manatees in Georgia.

I was thankful when I arrived at the dock to see that there was no one else around – I knew if I actually saw one I would probably start jumping up and down and making high-pitched noises, and I’d just as soon there not be any crusty local boaters or fishermen around to witness that. I’d seen images before of the characteristic swirls left on the water’s surface by manatees passing below, and almost as soon as I’d stepped out onto the dock I saw what looked like those same patterns on the water in front of me, but with the water so opaque there was no way of really knowing what was down there. So there was nothing I could do but walk slowly back and forth along the length of the floating dock, keeping my eyes peeled.

At the dock’s far end I turned around and looked back, and my eyes were caught by a round gray shape protruding from the water near the end of the boat ramp, in the direction I had just come from. Hang on, there wasn’t a big rock in the water in that spot, was there–NO. OH MY GOD. I did then what I am always telling my students not to do and ran down the length of the dock, because the round gray shape had a snout… and it was slowly moving.

Guys, I literally was almost in tears. I’m not sure why finally seeing a wild manatee made me so emotional but it did. It quickly submerged again but after a few more minutes of waiting I was rewarded with a second glimpse of its whiskery nose when it came up to take a breath. I would have stayed longer, but I really did have to get back to work, so I went back to my car and drove away bouncing around in the seat with happiness.

Both times the manatee surfaced, it did so too briefly for me to get my camera on it, so unlike some of my previous epic wildlife encounters I don’t have a sweet video clip to share with you. Instead you’ll have to settle for my artistic interpretation of what I saw.

In conclusion: MANATEE.

P.S. Later in the day I told an eighth grade student I’d seen a manatee at the dock that morning. He responded, “What’s a manatee?” Sometimes I despair for the future of humanity.

TGIF

It’s Friday.  Yay.  I don’t have a real post for you but I thought at least I’d share my favorite new (to me) thing on the internet, the Interpreter Stories on Rock Paper Lizard.  If you think being an environmental educator on the coast sounds fun and glamorous, nothing but playing on the beach with all day… well, give these a read.  The author states that they’re works of fiction, but I strongly suspect many are based on real incidents, and some so closely resemble my own experiences it’s ridiculous.  My favorites are Identifying a Moth by Phone and The Plan for Lugworms.

Why I Do What I Do

Tonight I gave two back-to-back programs on snakes for groups of young Boy Scouts.  I pulled out three of our snakes, a hognose snake, a Mexican milk snake, and the star of the show, Walter, our five-foot-long pine snake.  I finished each program by letting anyone who wanted to put Walter, who is extremely docile and laid-back, around their necks.  The second time around, a man whose son insisted that Dad had to hold the snake too looked up from the snake coiled comfortably around his shoulders and said to me, “You know, I never liked or had any interest in snakes before, but you’ve really changed my opinion of them.  This is great.”

The last couple days at work have been very stressful, and I’m working both days this weekend as well.  So it was nice to hear, just when I needed to hear it most, that yes, me doing what I do has made a difference to someone.