Wild Ideas: Peepers, clackers and the sounds of spring

A cacophony of courtship

Wood frogs, the first Virginia frog to breed each year, can appear as January during brief warm spells.Pam Owen
Wood frogs, the first Virginia frog to breed each year, can appear as January during brief warm spells.

It seemed like spring would never arrive this year. I was trudging up my mountain for weeks, because my car couldn’t make it up the icy drive. While suddenly rising temperatures finally melted most of the remaining snow and ice, I still hadn’t heard a peep about spring from our native animals in my wanderings around the county — until Monday night, March 16.

I was heading home after leaving a house a couple of miles away. I was obsessing, as I often do, about the noises my car was making, hinting at its age and repairs to come. My windows were closed, although the night was pretty warm, still hovering around 60 after the warmest day of the year so far. The normal pinging seemed to be suddenly overwhelmed with an awful cacophony. It filled me with dread, wondering what horrible destruction might be occurring under the car’s hood.

Then, within seconds, I made out more familiar sounds. Rolling down the window and slowing the car, I got a blast of peeping and clacking that lifted my spirits immediately. Spring peepers and wood frogs were chorusing together in a small, shallow pond at the edge of the road, trying to find mates. After the long winter, these early breeders were apparently in a frenzy to get on with their spring breeding.

Peepers and Wood Frogs

I pulled the car over, got out, and recorded the sound with my phone. Although uncomfortably loud, the frog orchestra was a welcome break in the long, silent nights of winter. In continuing home through Old Hollow, I listened for more frog music but heard only a peep here and there, and no wood frog clacks at all.

Everywhere I’ve gone in and out of the county since then, I’ve had my car windows cracked and my ears on full alert, trying to get more of these glorious sounds of spring. Occasionally I’ve found them in low areas, including at Montpelier, in Orange County. An old reservoir there, in the James Madison Landmark Forest, is a perfect permanent “vernal pool,” in that it, although it doesn’t usually dry out in summer, it is shallow and has no fish. I heard the peepers chorusing in the reservoir as I approached it on the trail.

In visiting another property in Old Hollow last weekend, I finally heard more clacking from wood frogs, in a tangled wetland that had a braided stream and plenty of true vernal pools, most of which should disappear as the summer heat comes on and spring rains subside. One of the small, shallow pools, only a few inches deep, was black with wood frog eggs, and I could hear clacking from other pools nearby.

Wood frogs are the first to breed every year, coming out as early as January during a warm spell to get busy, thanks to a form of antifreeze in their blood that enables them to get revive from winter dormancy quickly and mate during even brief warm spells. Because they usually have only a day or two before more freezing temperatures settle back in, they often seemed frenzied in their breeding, gathering in large masses at vernal pools. I’ve seen pools so filled with wood frogs that the surface of was a dark, quivering mass. (For more on wood frogs, see my Feb. 10, 2011 column.)

The tiny spring peeper is rarely seen but often heard in late winter and early spring, peeping in chorus with others of its species in search of a mate.Well Tea via Wikimedia Commons
The tiny spring peeper is rarely seen but often heard in late winter and early spring, peeping in chorus with others of its species in search of a mate.

Peepers, on the other hand, do not have the wood frog’s protection against freezing, so come out of winter dormancy later (usually in March, depending on the ambient temperature) to breed, and they continue to do so throughout the spring. The upland chorus frog, also tiny like the peeper (about 0.75-.25 inches long) and all chorus frogs, is the only other early breeder in our area but is not nearly as common as the peeper. A few other native frogs breed early in Virginia, but these are along the coast, where spring comes earlier.

Virginia’s ‘Year of the Frog’

Virginia has declared 2015 to be the commonwealth’s “Year of the Frog.” Virginia has 27 species of anurans (frogs and toads). VDGIF offers a lot of ways to celebrate and get involved with conserving these important species on its web page for its “Virginia is for Frogs” campaign.

According to the website, the campaign is designed to “increase awareness about Virginia’s frogs.” The department says it plans “periodically” to feature on its Facebook page a species of frog native to the commonwealth and provide tips on helping frogs.

Included on the Virginia is for Frogs page are links to identification guides and the Virginia Herpetological Society’s website, a downloadable chart of Virginia frog phenology (calling/breeding periods) and, for kids, frog and toad coloring pages. For those who’d like to get more involved in anuran conservation, the page also offers links to frog-monitoring surveys —Virginia Frog and Toad Calling Survey andFrogWatch USA — and lots of references on how to provide anuran habitat.

If you want to hear frogs and toads calling, find a low, wet area, especially one with still water (shallow ponds or vernal pools). VDGIF has a link to itsVirginia Birding and Wildlife Trail page, showing “locations throughout the state where frogs may be seen and heard.” There are several stops along the trail in our area, includingCaledonia Farm, near Flint Hill (on Dearing Road), on the Front Royal loop of the trail.

The Year of the Frog page also lists more resources for learning about anurans, including national and regional organizations and theVirginia Living Museum. VDGIF also encourages educators to visit its Teacher’s Corner for ideas on frog-related lesson plans and activities.

© 2015 Pam Owen

‘Peents’ added to spring chorus

The American woodcock’s plumage camouflages this bird so well against its forest-floor habitat that it is rarely seen but its distinctive “peent” courtship call can be heard in late winter and early spring.Larry Sherertz
The American woodcock’s plumage camouflages this bird so well against its forest-floor habitat that it is rarely seen but its distinctive “peent” courtship call can be heard in late winter and early spring.

Along with clacks and peeps, you may be hearing a “peent” sound at dusk in open areas near woods. This is the mating call of the American woodcock.

These avian breeders can start their wooing as early as February. Breeding season is about the only time most of us get to see them, as the rest of the year this bird spends most of its time in the forest, so well camouflaged that it’s almost impossible to see them. However, Rappahannock resident Larry Sherertz happened upon a woodcock at his place on Sunday (March 23).

“If he had not moved, I would not have seen him,” Larry reported in an email he sent me, which included photos (below). He also said the bird had dirt on its beak, a sign of its hunting for prey — invertebrates, particularly earthworms, and on some vegetation, especially seeds — in the detritus on the forest floor. As Larry observed, woodcocks are “reclusive, elusive and run away” when approached.

When looking for mates, woodcocks will venture out from the forest, typically into shrubby open areas at the forest edge. I’ve frozen my rear end off many a cold, late-winter evening at Big Meadows, in Shenandoah National Park, trying to see them court. About the most I’ve seen is a silhouette of the males as they do their flight display against the darkening skies. However, they reveal their locations through their plaintive mating call, as happened last year when a male showed up looking for a mate on my driveway (see myMarch 28, 2013, column, which includes a recording of his call). (For more on woodcocks in general, see myFeb. 24, 2011 column.)

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 278 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”