As weather forecasters predicted, December was for the most part unseasonably cold, the frigid temperatures lingering into January. But not every day was cold last month, and one warm, wet evening brought a strange, unseasonable sight on Old Hollow Road.
Two days after the winter solstice, I was driving down the road, on my way home. It had rained sporadically much of the day without enough accumulation to put a dent in the drought our region had been suffering since late summer. It was two days after the winter solstice, and the temperature had risen to around 60 degrees.
On warm, wet evenings, I’d long ago gotten in the habit of driving carefully on back roads to avoid hitting anurans — frogs and toads — trying to cross. In spring and summer, most of these hoppers are on their way to their breeding pools in the lower elevations, along the North Fork of the Thornton River. In the fall, they’re returning to their upland wintering grounds, a journey they should have finished weeks ago.
I saw sudden movement on the road and slowed, then quickly realized that it was just dead leaves being kicked up by intermittent breezes. I almost convinced myself that there was no chance anurans would be out that late in the year when, suddenly, I saw what was undeniably a frog hopping across the road in front of the car.
Slowing down, I tried to make out the species. The hopper was small but too large for a chorus frog, such as a spring peeper. It had the generally beige coloring of a pickerel frog, but seemed too small for that. The other option, far more likely, was that this was a gray treefrog. It was the right size, and the coloring, in the headlights, looked similar to a pickerel’s. Gray treefrogs typically breed much later in the year, so one or two could have lingered in the lowlands around the North Fork of the Thornton River, which Old Hollow parallels, through the fall.
The next day, the cold returned, so the next anurans I see hopping around will likely be the wood frogs. This species, the earliest anuran to breed every year, can get started during any sustained warm spell from January to early spring. A few years ago, during an usually mild December, males were already clacking away up at the pond above my house, which is a favorite breeding spot for wood frogs. The females apparently thought it was still too early, judging by the lack of eggs in the pond after that calling session, but did show up later in the winter to fill the pond with eggs.
My dog, Mollie, and I headed up the mountain a week after the frog sighting. It had snowed the night before, and I saw little winter wrens looking for prey in the bare spots around fallen trees and boulders in the ravine the path parallels. Reaching the pond, I found it frozen over and covered with snow. I sat for a few minutes in an old beach chair I’d left there for that purpose, while Mollie scouted the area for . . . whatever.
I could pileated woodpeckers loudly banging holes in the trees far above my head, then a sound I don’t hear often — the woodpeckers chorusing, if it could be called that. The noise could just have been a family interacting, but pileateds are also more tolerant of having others of their kind pass through their territory this time of year, so perhaps this was a discussion with visitors.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the odds are that the rest of the winter will be milder than the historic average, so I’ll keep checking for wood frogs clacking up at the pond during warm spells.
© 2018 Pam Owen