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Songs of Spring: Listening to the sounds of Pacific tree frogs 

You’ve been hearing ‘em for more than two weeks now, singing their hearts out to call their lady loves to join them in irrigation ponds, snow melt, backyard ponds and mud puddles.

click to enlarge natural-world_pactreefrog.jpg

You've been hearing 'em for more than two weeks now, singing their hearts out to call their lady loves to join them in irrigation ponds, snow melt, backyard ponds and mud puddles. They are the true songsters of spring: soon-to-be daddy Pacific tree frogs.

The persistence of nature to ensure the survival of her kind is astonishing at times. The other night it was down to 19 degrees, and I could still hear those tiny tree frogs belting out their love songs just before I removed my hearing instruments and went to bed.

Temperature will eventually shut them down, but probably only because they can't blow up their air sacks with ice crusting around their tough little bodies. The only thing that will really shut down the cacophony is a visitor to the pond. Try sneaking up on singing tree frogs and you will see what I mean. It's like someone shut off the switch to the sound. If, however, you sit down and don't move, it will only be a few moments before you'll hear one timid chirp, then another, then two more and within minutes the whole chorus is singing again - no one wants to be left out.

Frogs are what helped seal my fate of being a naturalist most of my life. Back where I was raised, on a small farm in West Haven, Connecticut, it was the spring peeper, pseudacris crucifer, that hooked me with the beautiful songs of spring.

Not too long ago, a lot of people feared western toad populations were going downhill, including Jay Bowerman, head honcho of the Sunriver Nature Center, and all-around amphibian specialist. However, things appear to be looking up for the toads, at least in Sunriver. I wondered why and then received the following email from Jay after he visited Sunriver's waste water ponds on a cold night:

"I was so excited by the aggregation of toads and bombarded with such high intensity acoustic energy from 10,000 tree frogs all calling that there was no way to get cold. I just had to get out of there before I lost my hearing. As far as the recovery of Western toads, my gut feeling is that the toads are still in trouble. What we're seeing in Penhollow wastewater pond is anomalous but consistent with a growing recognition that toads are particularly suited to colonizing and utilizing newly created or newly disturbed aquatic sites.

"Friday night I checked the two minnow traps I'd left in Penhollow the day before," Jay said. One trap had 28 male toads in it, and the other one had 110. And the lake was swarming with toads. By Saturday afternoon, dozens of pairs were busily laying eggs along the east shore. The winter conditions were favorable to toads throughout the region, so I expect that the breeding numbers will be higher at nearly all local sites than during low-snow years. However, those 'high' numbers will prove to be far below a 'high' year of 30 years ago. You remember what it used to be like."

(Indeed I do! In the '70s at Crane Prairie there were so many toadlets hopping along the shoreline they looked like waves of brown and gray gravy slopping over the sand and lava rock. And Sparks Lake was alive with them, too.)

"In the wild, it used to be natural "catastrophic" events, such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions that recreated toad habitat; the biologists studying St. Helens reported a mind-boggling explosion of toads in the blast zone. Interesting, huh?"

That's just a tiny sample of the things I enjoy about my friendship with Jay - his insatiable curiosity and ability to see things that I miss. And in it about a week we'll be going to the Galapagos Islands to revel in the beautiful biology that has thrilled scientists since the time of Darwin.

What is taking place at Lake Penhollow may also be happening at the Sisters and Black Butte wastewater ponds. In any event, I suggest you get going and dig a new pond and drink in all the noise from the toads and frogs that will come and sing to you next spring.


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