(This Buffalo News column was first published on April 20, 1992.)
It all started on a rare warm day recently when I was hiking south of the village of Dalton. From a marsh just ahead came a quacking noise like several small ducks gossiping in low tones. When I approached, I could see that the water area was small, perhaps ten yards square. But no matter how hard I looked, I could find no source for the sound. Even though the quacking continued, there were certainly not any ducks.
I stepped forward carefully until the sound came from almost underfoot. It was very difficult to describe. The notes I recorded at the time read, "Low pitched, guttural chattering."
My approach didn't bother the caller, but it stopped promptly when a harrier came patrolling from the other side of the swamp.
By this time I had, of course, decided that I had been listening to a frog whose voice was unfamiliar. That wasn't unusual because I knew the calls of only two amphibians. One of those came to me now from the back of this same pool. It was the lovely single note of the spring peeper, a stretched out "peeeeep" that is slightly accented at the end.
The other I will not hear until hot nights in July when bullfrogs will strum "jug-o'-rum" on their bass viols.
But intrigued now by this strange sound, on the spot I assigned myself some homework: learn the calls of our local frogs.
I had purchased what I needed for this task from the Buffalo Museum last fall. It is a record entitled, Voices of the Night. I had set it aside -- it was too late in the year to be useful at the time -- and almost forgotten it. Now my wife found the record and played it for me.
Frog after frog, toad after toad ribited, croaked, trilled, and even barked, but it was not until well into the second side of the record that I heard the familiar quacking. The narrator identified it as a wood frog.
Just two days later on a birding excursion in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, I was able to point out to my companions the call of another wood frog. Doing so I felt just as pumped up as my sixth grade daughter must have when she proudly asked at the dinner table, "Please pass the sodium chloride."
There are ten local frogs and toads among the 36 on this record. Here are my notes on the other seven. Those without comment are calling now.
The Western chorus frog is the very common amphibian whose noisy creaking sounds like a fingernail run along a comb. Whole groups of them join in this monotonous chorus day and night. The sound is nonetheless quite refreshing after the long silence of winter.
The gray treefrog is a relative of the spring peeper. Its call is an open, liquid, single note trill of a second or two duration. It will begin to sing in mid-May.
The American toad's song is a high, 6 to 30 second, steady trill, almost a buzz, and the strange call of the related Fowler's toad is a short harsh "scraaaaah." The range of Fowler's toad doesn't include western New York but it extends in Canada to the Niagara River and in Pennsylvania to Lake Erie. Thus we should listen for it here.
The pickerel frog simply snores and the notes of its relative, the Northern leopard frog, are so unmusical that they sound to me like knocking and scratching. No wonder: they are often pronounced underwater.
Finally, the green frog's call is a series of explosive banjo twangs. It will perform from June to mid-August.
Join me in listening for these spring and summer voices of the night.-- Gerry Rising