Wood Frog

(This column appeared in the April 7, 1997 Buffalo News.)

The noise emanating from the marshes is almost deafening.

Without a conductor to suppress their enthusiasm, chorus frog timpanists click out a cacophony of sound. After a sudden and almost equally shocking silence that sometimes breaks the steady ear-splitting creaking, you can sometimes hear a soloist. He's running a fingernail down the tines of a comb.

Then that single call is again overwhelmed by hundreds -- it seems like thousands -- of his breed. Most of the time the noise is general and constant but occasionally the players get together in tempo and the swamp pulses with the overwhelming sound.

If you listen closely, however, through the cresce ndo you can make out other, well-spaced and much sweeter notes. Those are the spring peeper piccolo players softly whistling their parts amid the din. In other settings where they escape those timpanists to perform in calmer trios or quartets, their music is soothing. Here it is but a plaintive addition to the orchestral clamor.

Finally, if you slosh your way across the marsh to shallower pools near the forest edge, you might be lucky enough to hear an odd duck-like quacking. Stretching our metaphor, the sound might be made by stage han ds pushing pianos across the floor of the orchestra pit.

These strange sounds are made by what have come to be my favorite amphibians -- wood frogs.

In eastern North America the wood frog is the northernmost of its family, its range extending to the Arctic shores of Quebec and Labrador. One reason these little frogs can survive in those boreal muskeg pools is their ability to withstand freezing for at least brief periods, even when they are captu red in solid ice. Their respiration and heart beat slow and finally come to a full stop. Meanwhile the anti-freeze their systems have manufactured prevents their tissues from developing the ice daggers that would tear them apart.

These remarkable characteristics m ake wood frogs the earliest to reappear from their winter hiding places in forest leaf litter. A few were already active during those brief warm spells of early March.

More of them now have traveled from higher ground to spring pools where they b reed. The males were first to arrive and they now float about, quacking intermittently and eagerly looking for females with whom to mate. They are careless lovers, often attempting to mount other males, floating debris, or even other frog species. I have occasionally heard an accosted male drive off the offender with an audible chirp.

Arriving females mate almost immediately producing a quarter-sized dark blob containing hundreds of eggs. The parents soon desert these jelly-covered egg masses to return once again to higher ground.

In three or four weeks tadpoles, chocolate-brown above and white below, will develop from these eggs. They will then begin their career of scavenging dead animal matter by consuming the slimy substance that has held together their birthplace. If you find and gather a few of these eggs in a glass jar, you can watch their remarkable transition to pollywogs and then to frogs over a two month period. After that you can return them to the forest edge where they will manage on their own. (You may mistakenly gather eggs of another species, but then you'll be watching the equally interesting development of those frogs or salamanders.)

Adult wood frogs are two to three inches in length. Their rather uniform body color varies but they are easily distinguished by their raccoon-like black masks.

Listen for the quacking of wood frogs now in vernal pools; look for the little bandits later along forest paths.