Good Natured: The Leopard Frog
I guess you could say I have a history with frogs. For as far back as I can remember, I've chased after these guys, stalking them in ponds and streams, reveling in their frogginess.
When I was 5 my Uncle Lyman caught me an enormous bullfrog; I named it Chris, after the big man who ran the meat department at Jewel, and took it to school for show and tell. When I was 10 I decided to catch and release 22 leopard frogs during our vacation in Michigan; only problem was, I caught them in the Menominee River but released them, accidentally, in the car on the way home.
I've sketched frogs, “hypnotized" frogs and raised frogs from tadpoles. I've watched frogs feed, and I've seen them get fed upon. Once I was even lucky enough to watch one shed its skin, a truly amazing process. (Okay, I first thought the frog was dying. It was a captive green frog, Lithobates clamitans, and it was puffed up like it had swallowed a golf ball. Using its front feet as though they were hands, it wiped and tugged and eventually pulled its outermost layer of skin off. The frog then stuffed the entire gooey, translucent glob into its mouth and swallowed it down in one big finger-lickin' gulp.)
Granted, a lot of these frog adventures aren't for everyone. Shed frog skin looks a lot—and I mean a lot—like mucus. And I now know, it's never a good idea to take an animal from the wild, let alone transport it somewhere else. (Not all those “released" Michigan frogs met a happy end; somewhere out there there's a 1966 Pontiac Catalina with a mummified amphibian in the seat springs.) But I made the best of the access I had.
These days though, thanks to the rapidly expanding field of Community Science, there is a way for folks even mildly interested in frogs to become better acquainted with these fascinating creatures. It's called frog monitoring or, more correctly, the Calling Frog Survey.
In a nutshell, this volunteer-driven research project is a do-you-hear-what-I-hear approach to population observation. Male frogs, as part of their breeding behavior, head to marshes and ponds and call to attract potential mates. As luck would have it, each species has a different call, and different species call at different times. Monitors learn how to head out, typically with a partner, to listen to these calls and record their findings.
Each year about this time, flocks of new monitors, as well as veterans looking for a little refresher course, enroll in training sessions throughout the Chicago region. The sessions are offered at multiple times via the online communications platform known as Zoom, but if in-person learning is more your thing, we'll be hosting an honest-to-goodness face-to-face training on February 11 at the Creek Bend Nature Center in St. Charles. (For more info on both the virtual and in-person trainings, visit https://frogsurvey.org/?page_id=23; or, to register for the Creek Bend session, email Forest Preserve District of Kane County volunteer coordinator Robb Cleave at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I remember attending the very first Calling Frog Survey training for Kane County monitors, back in the year 2000. My awe and respect of these creatures grew with every slide (and, back then, they really were slides!) as the presenter reviewed the finer points, including the calls, of the Chicago region's 13 frog species.
One mind-blowing fact that quickly came to light is that frog monitoring isn't a pursuit for lazy summer afternoons. Nope, if you want to catch the calls of our earliest breeding species (the wood frogs, spring peepers, chorus frogs and leopard frogs) you need to get out when the temperatures are still quite chilly—a minimum of 45F. If you did perchance wait until, say, June, to go out and listen, chances are you would hear only the calls of our latest breeding species, the cricket frogs, green frogs and bullfrogs.
The survey offers another nice advantage, one that was especially attractive to forgetful folks like me. Even though there are 13 species throughout our region, any one site probably won't have more than five or six species. Compare those numbers to the hundreds of birds, or thousands of insects, that can occur in the same defined area and I'm sure you'll agree, identifying frogs is an attainable goal.
Speaking of cricket frogs…they actually are the species that inspired the Calling Frog Survey. In the 1980s and '90s, wildlife biologists noticed that this once common species had virtually disappeared from the northern one-third of their range in Illinois. To get a more accurate picture of the distribution of this frog and those 12 others, a community science project was constructed, and the Survey was born.
If you're at all interested in monitoring, I encourage you to attend a training, either virtually or in person. You'll see how these fascinating amphibians are environmental indicator species, and how our activities impact theirs. Besides that, frogs are fun! Their life cycles, their behaviors, their calls--all are topics you'll find…ribbeting.
Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at email@example.com.