Sunday, March 15, 2009

I've been looking forward to the outbreak of spring with a painful anticipation that could make me face up to my herping obsession as a form of addiction, although I think I'll choose not to do that. It all seems pathologically emotionally self-destructive in the winter when we're locked down with nothing much to catch, but then the beginning of spring is pure ecstasy.

Some people see flowers as the heralds of the spring, or possibly the songs of birds returning from warmer climes, but for us herpers it is the songs of frogs that call out the beginning of spring and tell us that life has returned to the earth.

It might be wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) quacking and chuckling like a mob of angry ducks in vernal pools, it might be chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) with a cacophony of metallic trills, a hundred fingers dragged over the teeth of combs, but there's a really good chance it's the hearty peeps of spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), tiny, thumbnail sized frogs with outsized voices that can take over the night as the horny little males yell back and forth at each other and occasionally launch a direct challenge at an encroaching neighbor with a little trill.

Last night it was the peepers, as Jen and I joined some Bucks County, PA herpers at an organized amphibian walk. I stood shifting my weight back and forth from foot to foot and gritting my teeth impatiently through the introductory talk - all important stuff for the kids there about amphibian hibernation and breeding, but we had heard the peepers in the distance when we had parked, and I needed to get out there.

Finally we filed out and into the woods, stopping after a few minutes on a boardwalk and around the edges of the party pool. The frogs shut up for a moment, scared by all the tromping humans several thousand times their size, but after a minute or two, one fearless male cried out in lust and aggression, and the others could not ignore the challenge. Other frogs called right back at him, then more, and pretty soon they were shouting from all around us.

Others, including Jen, launched out around the edges of the pool to catch some frogs, and hopefully spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum).

(here's Jen in the first photo, another tromper in the other)

I took a few minutes, however, to stare into the dark, vague columns of trees and patchy grass and shrubs and absorb the chorus of peepers, drinking in the noise like water after a long, dry hike.

There were a couple chuckling wood frogs in there too, and after a little while I came to and started to stalk them at the edge of the pool. A few dead leaves tricked me before I spotted the head of a wood frog sticking out of the water, one that sat still long enough for me to grab it. I headed for one of the containers that had been brought along to hold frogs long enough for the kids to take a good look, but mine jumped out of my hand jumped away just before I could dump it in.

Here's another frog in its holding container.

Jen eventually tired of not catching frogs and not seeing any salamanders in the water, and she turned up some redbacks (Plethodon cinereus) under logs in the woods.

After about an hour some of us tried a pool off in a different direction. We heard those peepers again, and after a little while we finally saw some spotted salamanders.

The forecast as of a few days ago called for rain (to go along with the temperature in the high 30s), which would have been PERFECT for spotted salamander breeding. The males had already started migrating to the pool, but the females were apparently waiting for another good rain to join them.

The night was dry, however, so instead of wading into a mass orgy of salamanders, we were peering into the dark water for a few stray males floating around, maybe tired of waiting at the bottom of the pools for more rain and checking for females. That hunting took us a while, but one herper did finally spot one, and then Jen did too.

You might not know this about Jen, but she loves stalking amphibians. Lots of people ask me about how patient my wife must be to put up with my herping, but I need to point out that she has a blast jumping into the muck or water (even frigid, painful-to-touch water) and grabbing at frogs and salamanders. Last night this was more daring than it sounds. We had figured that with so many people we wouldn't need to get in the water, so we had left our hip waders in the trunk of the car. Of course we jumped in the water anyhow (we should know ourselves better by now), soaking our socks and pants, and feeling our feet go from the initial shock of cold to the longer pain of near-freezing, and finally to totally numb.

Unfortunately Jen was unsuccessful in her hunting last night (and it took some persuading to convince her to give up and come back to the car), but another herper managed to grab two of the salamanders for photo sessions.

Here also is a shot of a wood frog egg mass in the same pool, maybe a foot and a half long.

And here are the two of us. We traded the camera and took shots of each other soaked but elated after a night, the first thrilling night, of herping.

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