IT WAS A DARK AND FROGGY NIGHT.
It is a dark and stormy night. I am knee deep in murky cold water seeking an elusive creature, when I have this feeling that I am being watched. Wanting to avoid any further attention, I switch off my flashlight and hold perfectly still. Suddenly, the silence is broken by the call of a creature only a few feet away. The call is answered (repeated, echoed?) by another and another and another. As more voices join, the din increases in intensity until my head begins to throb, and I realize I am completely surrounded.
I focus in on a single call in the chorus of voices. Although the call is loud and right at my feet, it is difficult to pinpoint its exact location. Eventually, tiny vibrations in the water narrow it down to the base of a small tussock of dry brown emergent vegetation. I concentrate my flashlight on the spot and turn it on to reveal a male chorus frog.
This little frog is amazing. His voice so overpowering it actually hurts my ears at close range, but he is only about the size of my pinky fingernail. His body is light brown with darker blotches loosely forming three stripes on his back. Whenever he calls, he draws air into his vocal sac distending the skin on his chin to resemble a grotesque bubble gum bubble. His call is not a threat directed at me but an advertisement for a mate. He is basically screaming “Hey baby, run away with me!” at the top of his lungs.
My glimpse of this little Lothario gives me a search image. Now, it’s frog watching - game on. Activity that was previously hidden to me is now visible. There are many other calling males in the shallow wetland including the chorus frog’s slightly larger cousins, the spring peepers. Most of the calling frogs are partially or completely hidden in the vegetation. Several particularly bold males call while conspicuously floating in the open water. They are gambling that a female will find them before the ribbon snake that I just spotted does. There is also a log littered with the carcasses of frogs that have been found by a raccoon. Pairs of frogs engaged in amplexus, the frog love embrace, are floating around depositing eggs. Occasionally, the pairs are assaulted by solitary males that try to wrestle the females from their original suitors. Some males, known as sneaker males, go so far as to silently hang out next to a calling male and try to steal his love interest. The sneaker males are hoping to mate without expending the energy or accepting the predation risk associated with attracting their own mate. It’s a froggy soap opera, and I am up to my ankles in a soup of love, life, and death.
Frog watching like this offers a uniquely intimate glimpse into the private life of an animal. It doesn’t require an experienced guide or expensive international travel. Of the 13 species of frogs native to Michigan, 12 are found in west Michigan and 8 are pretty common. The calls are relatively easy to learn and widely available commercially or on-line (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/collections/frog_calls/). Just about anybody willing to traipse around in the rain can take a peak into the lives of these secretive amphibians.