Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spider Knows Peep Frogs

If it were up to me, we probably wouldn't volunteer for anything. Luckily, Sue feels a civic duty to sign us up for tree-hugger/citizen science things like the annual Breeding Bird Survey, the Christmas Bird Count and the North American Migration Count. That's all fine and dandy, I mean, who doesn't like counting stuff in the name of science and conservation? Well, this guy for one. Having the responsibility of collecting data that may or may not lead to the salvation of life on earth sounds great in theory, but more often than not, it comes with the price of missing an important football game on television or telling your buddies you can't go fishing.

Luckily, as I said, Sue has her priorities in better alignment than I do, so it was no surprise last week when she announced we were going to have to run our North Carolina Calling Amphibian Survey Program route soon or we'd miss the March 10 deadline for the first sampling window of 2011. That's right people; three times a year, you can give up your weeknight slate of cable programing to volunteer to count frogs in the middle of the night in strange and mysterious locales, in conjunction with the all-important North American Amphibian Monitoring Program.

Never heard of it? Can't fathom why counting frogs in their breeding sites is important work? The fact is, because of their fragility and susceptibility to minuscule changes in their habitat, amphibians make for perfect "canary in a coal mine" candidates when it comes to determining the overall health of the environment. Because frogs and toads use species-specific vocalizations to attract mates during the breeding season, they are especially useful as environmental bell-weathers. Anyone with half a mind to can learn to identify frogs and toads by their calls and thereby become officially qualified to count species and their relative abundance in an area (see the above link to NCCASP). In our frog surveying team of two, Sue is the primary frog counter and data collector while I head up the transportation and moral support aspects of the mission. In other words, just tell me where to stop the truck and listen to me whine while you stand out in the pitch blackness trying to do good for the world. (Sigh) life with the Bumbling Bushman is no picnic.

Tuesday was the night we ran our new survey route in the area of Old Fort, NC. Driving those seven miles from the house to the start of the route was our first challenge. Apparently, a couple of local boys decided to steal a pick-up truck and go for a joy ride on the back roads between Black Mountain and Ridgecrest.  Their trip ended abruptly when they crashed into a telephone pole and set power-lines down across NC 40. The ensuing traffic jam was epic as travelers were detoured off the main highway and through woefully inadequate Highway 70 for miles. (Read the short news bit here.) If not for a future forecast that resembled Armageddon (Wednesday) and a nighttime meeting tonight (Thursday) for Sue, we would have bagged it right then and there in the red glow of those ten thousand brake lights and gone home to watch "Glee."

Luckily, we were able to break free of the traffic just outside of town and breeze down the mountain while wondering in wide-eyed terror if the miles of stop-and-go heading in the other direction would be cleared up by the time we wanted to go back.

Our first census point was rather depressing. Three-inches of rain earlier in the week had the creeks and rivers running just under flood stage. No frog in its right mind was going to try to breed in the swift current. Any egg-laying would be for naught and besides, you couldn't even hear yourself think as the torrent of water tumbled downhill. I leaned against the hood of the truck in full-on "I told you this frog call survey thing was stupid" mode while Sue kept her back to me and counted exactly nothing for the required 5-minute census point. As I glanced at the stopwatch for the umpteenth time, I caught motion in the corner of my eye and re-focused on a small/medium mammal creeping up on us in the darkness. "Sue! Shine your light 10 feet in front of me," I panicked, with visions of rabid foxes and raccoons dancing in my head. Ready to stomp whatever menace appeared in the spotlight into oblivion, I breathed a sigh of relief when it turned out the nocturnal prowler was just a free-ranging tomcat, looking for a scratch behind the ears. When the frog-eating, songbird-mauling, small mammal-destroying SOB didn't get any love from either of us, the bastard decided to piss on my driver's side tire - twice. Awesome; and only nine more stops to go.

By stop No. 3, we still hadn't heard a frog and Sue was starting to lose some enthusiasm. "I'm cold."

By stop No. 4, we still hadn't heard a frog and Sue was getting bored. "I'm bored."

It's not looking good folks.
Stops 5-8 were more of the same; more lonely country roadsides, more pitch blackness, more rushing water, more frogless data points. In the world of science, no frogs is just as relevant as some frogs and even millions of frogs. In the world of reality, this was turning into a bust.

And then we came to stop No. 9 - unlike all the rest because it put us on the edge of a beaver swamp, not a creek or a river. The air was finally quiet, and there, off in the distance, a familiar chirp. "I hear peepers!" she exclaimed. There weren't many, maybe a half-dozen or so, but those little buggers -about the size of your thumbnail - made it all worthwhile. As we stood there listening, a truck pulled out from behind what we'd thought was an abandoned warehouse that we'd parked in front of. Instinctively, I told Sue to turn her headlamp off. No sense wearing a light between your eyes when faced with a potential itchy trigger finger. "Evenin'" I hailed as the truck pulled up beside us and the driver rolled down the window. "Just out here listenin' the the frogs." Which is exactly how I would have left things rather than going into details with an unknown entity with unknown motives. "Frogs?" he said. "What the hell are you doin' that for?" Like I said, generally I like to keep it simple in these cases. My response would have been something like, "Awww hell. We signed up for some cockamammy state-run program to count these damn frogs. And well, to tell you the truth, we're just shit house crazy." But Sue, bless her heart, takes these encounters as a chance to educate the public on topics of census protocol and wildlife conservation. "Actually, we're conducting a calling amphibian survey route. It's sponsored by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program. We're doing 5-minute point counts along a set route and those spring peepers are the first frogs we've heard all night and..." "Peep frogs?" he said. "Your counting peep frogs? Who the hell pays you for that?"
Spring peeper, a.k.a. the "peep frog." (Photo by Phil Myers)
Turns out his name was Mike and his family owns much of the swamp and the land surrounding it. In an attempt to bridge the amphibious divide between us, Mike told us the damn peep frogs had been "hollerin' like hell" for the past few nights and the story of how he and his daughter would gig giant bullfrogs out of the swamp and eat their legs. "Ummm, wow. That sounds great Mike, we've got to keep on though. One more survey stop." (For the record, fresh bullfrog legs are one of the most delicious things to ever pass my lips.) Mike may have been drunk - he certainly smelled like beer - and once he got over his incredulity at our story, he couldn't have been nicer.

And then there was stop No. 10, where we didn't hear any frogs, but we met another local - Eddie, but you can call him Spider. Turns out, Spider and his wife owned some land on the other side of the swamp and we were more than welcome to go on down there any time and count whatever we liked. As a matter of fact, why didn't we follow him right now and he'd show us the trail through the woods that would take us to a dike that runs right through the middle of a beaver pond.

Sue looked at me with a raised eyebrow, but I figured, at 9 o'clock at night, on a back country road in the middle of Appalachia, and a little hike with a fella named Spider, what could possibly go wrong? Besides, I wanted to have a look in there and see if ol' Spider might be the sort to let a guy go and try to shoot some wood ducks or mallards when the season rolled around. Of course, Spider couldn't have been any nicer - nicer than Mike even - and we checked out the swamp (very nice in the dark) and left him with an open invitation to return and his cell number in case we'd be so kind as to let him know when we'd be back. 

The traffic going back up the mountain was clear by the time we passed through and I'm reminded that it doesn't take very much to turn a bad day into a good one - a couple of frogs and the kindness of strangers seems more than enough.


  1. If Mike keeps gigging those Bullfrogs, he'll only help make that darn "Peep" frog chorus "holler" louder... which is cool by me. Bullfrogs are known predators of Spring Peepers. I've actually found several that were "stalking" calling male peepers... that's something you won't read about in a book. I'm a big fan of amphibians myself. Great post. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  2. Hey Jay, likewise!
    I have a question for you; what is the natural distribution of bullfrog in the eastern U.S.? I have heard tell, but never conclusively, that bullfrogs here are introduced and/or expanding. I need some ammunition against my wife, who is proving to be a hard sell on bullfrog gigging.

  3. Jamie,
    Sorry for my delayed response. I'm slow about making my blog rounds. Bullfrogs are native to pretty much the entire eastern U.S. except south FL and part of New England. Even though they are native in our region, they have been introduced in places west (CA, AZ, WA, etc.) and other parts of the world with devastating ecological effects. They are thought to be the vector of Amphibian Chytrid Fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) or "B.d." for short that has literally caused the extinction of montane amphibian populations in South America. It is the only recorded epidemic in history that has caused wildlife extinctions. Bullfrogs aren't the source of the fungus. That was probably African Clawed frogs (Xenopus), but the worldwide farming of Bullfrogs and escapees from farms are likely responsible for spreading it worldwide. Bullfrog populations aren't hurting- even in developed areas. I don't see anything wrong with hunting a few within the guidelines of your state wildlife agency. I say, have fun gigging and enjoy eating frog legs... in a responsible manner of course.
    Hope that helps make your case.