Hop into spring on amphibians’ backs

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Todd McLeish

The Wild Life by Todd McLeish

Despite the brutally cold and snowy February, it won’t be long before spring makes its first appearance.  March is when robins and blackbirds return to our area in abundance and when the early budding of some trees and flowers hints at what is to come in April and May. Late March is also the time when a wide variety of amphibians find their way to local ponds to begin their breeding cycle, and that’s a phenomenon that should not be missed.

In most years, the process begins on the first rainy night after mid-March. That’s when most wetlands and vernal pools — small, ephemeral forested ponds — are finally free of ice. The late March rains trigger the movement of wood frogs and spotted salamanders, and later green frogs and spring peepers that emerge from winter homes in small burrows or buried in the leaf litter to begin their annual migration to find a mate.

Most of the amphibians travel less than 100 yards, but it’s a vitally important 100 yards. When they arrive at their pool, there may be dozens of male frogs croaking loudly in a room-size pond as they await the arrival of the females.

At my house, where I have a five-foot-diameter garden pond adjacent to my perennial flowerbeds, I spend the month of March anticipating the arrival of the frogs. My wife and I sometimes even place bets on the date when we expect to first hear them croaking. wood frogMore often than not, it is within a few days of March 24, though if it doesn’t rain during that week it may be delayed until the first week of April.

How the frogs originally found my tiny man-made pond is unclear, but the first March after I installed it, they arrived en masse. It’s not unusual for more than a dozen frogs to show up, and whenever it rains for the next couple of months, new arrivals appear and some old-timers head off elsewhere.

My favorites are the wood frogs, the tan and chocolate frogs that arrive first, mate quickly and disappear back into the woods within days. They leave behind a mass of jelly-like eggs that hatch into tiny tadpoles and complete their metamorphosis into adult frogs by mid-summer. Green frogs do the same thing, but some tend to hang out in my pond for the entire summer. Spring peepers, the tiniest of them all, are more often heard than seen, and the dazzling spotted salamanders are a surprising treat whenever they’re found.

Because most of such activity happens after dark, travel your town’s back roads at night, listening for the distinctive calls of frogs then shine your flashlight on whatever body of water you see. You are almost certain to find a frog or six. But drive slowly, especially on rainy nights when the frogs are likely to be crossing the road to reach their breeding pools. It would be a shame to abruptly end their journey on the most important night of their lives.

Todd McLeish is a science writer at the University of Rhode Island and a lifelong birdwatcher. Contact him at tmcleish@uri.edu.

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