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Is that a peeper I hear calling? ‘Citizen scientists’ play vital role in monitoring local frog population

By: Brian Flinchpaugh


Spring peeper

Listening for frogs and toads calls may be a bit of an unusual avocation but it gets people to increase their awareness “of what’s going on around them in the natural world,” said Michael T. Dawson, a conservation education liaison with the St. Louis Zoo and a local chapter coordinator with the FrogWatch USA program in the St. Louis area.

Listening earnestly for a telltale peep, croak or “ribbit” can prompt awareness of the world around us.

FrogWatch trains individuals and families identify frogs and toads based on their breeding calls and report their observations on online programs. It’s an important scientific study, but “frog watching” also can be a bit obsessive.

Dawson, who works with the zoo’s herpetology department, has been interested in frogs and toads since he was a kid in Florida where there are lots of frogs, toads and the like. However, he told a group of about 30 “citizen scientists” gathered at St. Charles County’s Brommelsiek Park on March 16 that liking frogs and toads can have sometimes embarrassing consequences.

He said a FrogWatch participant called him a few years ago about an unusual frog call, that later was identified as the call of two small wood frogs being belligerent to each other. It wasn’t something Dawson had heard very often. But one night at home in Florissant, he heard something similar.

“I don’t know where my wife was [but] I had just put my daughter to bed,” Dawson said. “I heard it behind my fence in a wetland area where there is an apartment complex.

“So I got my phone to record it, made my kids put on their shoes [with] their PJs, drove the car around, got out and put my waders on, climbed into the water, pulled some limbs back and, yes, there were two or three frogs in there.”

He said they were calling to each other and he could tell, by shining a flashlight on them, that they were males because of they were yellow. “Well, cool,” he said he thought. But his reaction was short-lived.

“A woman came out of the apartment complex with a basket full of laundry and she walks up and I stand up, and I had magnifier glasses on, and she goes, ‘Whoa!’ And I don’t know what possessed me but I said, ‘I’m not weirdo’ and she started running.”

Luckily, frog watching is not really what the program is about. It’s about frog listening. It’s considered an “auditory” program in which participants listen and try identify frog and toad calls from specific species. Dawson spent more than two hours describing the program and how it works. And toward the end of the session, he had audience members picking out the nuances of calls of chorus frogs versus spring peepers versus tree frogs.

He said some “sound they can be like birds [but] some are so bizarre they sound like people snoring with their heads in the water.”

Frog watching actually is short-lived. “You’re not monitoring frogs the whole year, you’re monitoring them during the breeding season,” Dawson said. The mating calls can start as early as February, he noted, depending upon the species. “What you’re hearing is the boys are making a lot of noise, the boys are looking for girlfriends … so it’s actually like a big contest.

“The males come out, and there are usually a couple come out first and they start ‘peep, peep – come over here’ – and then pretty soon a bunch of them come out and it’s a yelling match. The females show up and choose the [male] with the nicest sound.”

In this part of the country, frogs and toads breed in water.

“I think of it like a party, every species has a different party time,” Dawson said. “Some come out in February and will call and breed and, depending on the species and habitat, can be done by April, some may start in February and may be done by May.

Some of the big frogs, like bullfrogs, take longer to mature and can be calling in June and July the next year after they are born and finish breeding by August.

The St. Louis region has about 10 species of frogs and toads and FrogWatch volunteers learn how to identify all of them by their calls. Volunteers make observations on specific wetland locations such as ponds, creeks or ditches. They are asked to fill out forms about what they heard, indicating weather and temperature conditions. The most common calls in the spring usually involve chorus frogs, spring peepers and wood frogs, all small species with intense calls that can be heard nearby.

FrogWatch results are not definitive but they can serve as a barometer for the well-being of certain species and conditions. Morgan said some species may move or reappear. Spring peepers now are reappearing again along Coldwater Creek in Florissant but have disappeared from Forest Park in St. Louis, Dawson said. He said he’s worried about the loss of frogs and toads from shrinking wetlands in St. Louis County, including near Interstate 270.

He’s less worried now about outbreaks of chytrid, a worldwide fungus that prompted the deaths of frogs and other amphibians. The fungus is now found more in other areas of the country and in other areas of the world.

FrogWatch has roots that go back to 1998 when the U.S. Geological Survey helped launch the program and concerns about chytrid fungus were rife. Now, it’s sponsored by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Dawson said there are certain protocols to be followed by volunteers at the 12 to 15 sites locally. They include monitoring for sound at least 30 minutes after sunset and not monitoring during severe weather. Volunteers should remain quiet for two minutes before collecting data, cup hands around their ears and listen for three minutes.  Record times and temperatures and restart after two minutes if loud noises interfere. Training is offered each spring, but much also can be learned by visiting stlzoo.org/education/frogwatchusa/volunteers.

Lin Varnes, of Festus, who took part in the Brommelsiek Park training, said she wasn’t sure if she and her husband would participate in listening sessions. Retired, they may be living between Michigan and Stockton Lake in southwestern Missouri. “I don’t know if he wants to hear about frogs from Michigan,” Varnes said.

Chris Winters, of Dardenne Prairie, said she was interested but wasn’t sure if new subdivisions in that community would have much habitat. She said she used to volunteer with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Larry Davis, who lives in St. Charles County near the Page Avenue/Route 370 bridge, said he’s been listening to frogs and toads for a while.

“We’ve been hearing this in our backyard,” he said. “We have common ground with a creek that goes through some timber that is really close to our porch, I would like to know how many frogs are out there. We go out there every night. We hear them all summer and I’ve never known anything about them.”

When asked if he worries what his neighbors might think, he replied, “It’s a very private porch.”

 

 

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