Frogs frogs, everywhere

Hello all,

I am writing again after just six days of fieldwork.  Strangely, it already seems like a hundred.  We have spent the last several days in the field driving around the area between Williamsburg and Richmond, cranking out sites.

The second night in the field we drove around Norge and Toano, finding almost no cricket frogs.  I’ve come to realize that our work is ‘very hit or miss’  as Jonathan says.  Sometimes the slightest fluctuations in the weather conditions can thwart a whole night of frog hunting.  Often we don’t even know what the problem is, but clearly Cricket Frogs are very finicky.  We stopped near a bridge across a large pond to listen toward the end of the night, and while we were standing there we saw a car drive by and hit and kill a cat as it attempted to pass an obnoxiously loud scooter. This fieldwork thing is a lot more intense than i expected.  Two nights in the field and I’ve already had a run in with cops and witnessed a death.  Jonathan is used to this kind of thing.  He says I’ll get used to it pretty soon too.

Day three:  i was really excited for this one.  We were going night canoeing on Matoaka, to check out the chorus more closely and find any other choruses on the lake that we may have missed before.  We headed out to the lake, grabbed a canoe from the Kek lab, and paddled out toward the loudest Cricket Frog chorus we could hear.  I was in the bow, and Jonathan was in the back steering.  We grounded the canoe on a sandbar near a large patch of vegetation that the frogs were calling from.  You have to understand that I’ve never done this wading thing before, and especially not in muck like you get in Matoaka.  I stepped out of the canoe in my small boots (mid calf high) and then attempted to put on my hip waders without falling over.  The thing is, if you’re new to this like me, sometimes you forget that your feet are very much stuck in the mud, and you can’t move them quickly to catch yourself if you lose your balance.  Luckly, i did not butt plant in the mud this time, but within moments I was off balance, one foot bootless in the air, with the battery pack of my headlamp detached from my belt and dangling inches above the treacherous water, attempting to stand my hip waders upright while stopping my small boot from floating away.  Oops.  *Hopes Jonathan didn’t see that*  In the meantime Jonathan is already off, walking carefully through the muck toward the chorus.

Eventually i regained my composure and got my stuff together and followed him into the mass of calling frogs.  They sound like very rapid clicks that sound kind of like someone is bouncing marbles together. What you don’t realize when you start this line of work is that you may want to have earplugs.  Cricket frogs are tiny, less than an inch long…but man those suckers are loud.  According to Jonathan one calling male may be measured at 80 decibels from one meter away.  I don’t know much about measuring sound intensity, but let me tell you that is LOUD.  And we had like dozens of them calling.  Ouch.

Cricket frogs are kind of dumb.  Most frogs if you approach them with a headlamp and try to take pictures will probably hop away.  Not cricket frogs.  They try to escape if you grab at them, but otherwise they sit there and call.  Apparently the SEX SEX REPRODUCE command overrides DON’T GET EATEN.   We got pictures of a few specimens calling.  We even caught a female making her rounds.  The females are distinguishable from the males because their bellies are soft and full of eggs, and they don’t have a vocal pouch.  The underside of their chins is the same color as their bellies, bright white.  The vocal pouch of the males is a yellowish color.  Jonathan explained how the calls vary in complexity over the course of a bout of calling.  The triple clicks will start simply and degenerate in to something more akin to a rattle.  You can hear the pulsating of the noise if you listen.   Originally I thought that there were more cricket frogs joining in, syncopating the sound, but eventually I realized it  was the rattle I was hearing.

We had just set the female free and were stepping carefully ahead in the muck, and suddenly out of the blue, I was sinking in past my knees.  Up till then we had been in around mid-shin.  Uh-oh…  maybe we should stop.  Apparently Matoaka has two meters of treacherous muck from all that runoff.   You could get swallowed up and never be found again.  We decided to turn back.  Jonathan wiggled his legs around a little, turned around, and climbed out of the mud onto firmer ground.  How did he do that? I tried to do the same, but to no avail.  Every time I tried to lift up on one leg, the other sank deeper.  Ok, stop struggling. By this time I was in very deep.  Both legs were caught in past mid-thigh, with only about three inches between the surface of the mud and the top of my waders.  Waders present a drowning hazard when they fill with water.  They can easily drag you under.  And these waders were strapped to my belt. Insert curse word here.   I wasn’t really panicking, but I also wasn’t sure what to do.  Any move I made just made it worse.  In the end, Jonathan stood on a pile of sticks behind me, and dragged me upward by the armpits for almost a whole minute as i worked my legs loose.  Later he joked that he wished we’d brought a third party.   That way we’d have pictures of him pulling me  bodily out of hip-deep mud.  Great. Day three: near-death experience.

For the rest of the night we paddled around the different forks of the lake and found two other choruses.  We also saw geese, turtles, bullfrogs, and a few of these fish called long-nosed Gar, which freaked me out the first time I saw them because they can get really big.  Like several feet long.  I didn’t know that Matoaka even had fish that size.  The other notable part of this adventure was the sheer variety of things that live in the shallows of that lake.  Literally anywhere I shined my headlamp down into the water, i could see dozens of small water insects, macroinvertebrate larvae, tadpoles, fish, and heaven knows what else.  Around 11 pm we called it a night and headed back to the dock. We had heard lots of Cricket Frogs, but only Northern ones.  Our nighttime adventure confirmed the utter lack of Southern Cricket Frogs on Matoaka.

Day four: Richmond.  This was supposed to be the first time we were actually going to have good weather for frog hunting, so I had put in extra effort to put off my weekend plans (I had to drive home) so that i could go.  We were going around with a Biologist named Don and his assistant. He was showing us his sites and having us help him identify the frogs we were hearing.  By this time I was getting a lot better at identifying the calls of the more common Virginia frogs.  We spent some time wading in a pool on a power line clearcut, where i caught my first glimpse of a Green Tree frog, a beautiful big frog that you tend to see on brochure pictures and such.  They are very photogenic, and they make this loud honking noise when they call.  Over the course of the night, we only made it to three sites, but we heard Cricket Frogs at all three of them.  To say the least, Don tends to take his time.  That night I also heard Fowler’s Toads for the first time, which sound like a really annoying whistle or a fire alarm.  Or a duck on helium.  It’s really fun to try and find descriptors for all the sounds frogs make.  You can get incredibly creative 🙂

After a half-hour hike through trackless forest and a rundown with park police, we called it a night and headed home, stopping by a Wawa on the way.  Wawa is awesome.

This week the days have really begun to blur together.  We have spent the week covering sites from Williamsburg and halfway to Richmond.  On two occasions we knocked on the doors of private homes to ask permission to access privately owned ponds, both times with success. We also found some very promising sites up in New Kent county, where by the sound of it, we had hundreds of Cricket Frogs calling.  Still no Southerns, however.  We left Jonathan’s business card in several mailboxes along the road, asking to be contacted by the owners of Balls Pond.  I’m getting better at navigating.  Being a field assistant involves an incredible amount of multitasking.  At any given moment I am usually trying to figure out the best order to visit sites in, looking at and atlas, watching the GPS, listening out the window for frog calls, and sometimes taking notes in our field notebook.  When we stop at a site, I’m in charge of labeling the waypoint, taking the temperature, and often taking notes.  Sometimes the access of a site involves a short hike, sometimes it doesn’t.

Last night Jonathan’s former student, Rachel, came with us into the field.  Unfortunately there were no ridiculous situations to take photos of.  Tonight we are headed back to Richmond to visit more of Don’s sites with him. Later we will be covering Charles City County and Henrico County, before going down to Jonathan’s farmhouse in North Carolina next weekend.  We will be working out of the farmhouse for some of the southernmost points we have in Virginia.

That’s all for now, but stay tuned for more!  I can’t wait to actually find a southern cricket frog, and that is likely to happen in the next few weeks!