Wild Ideas: Spring finally begins?  

Although spring just officially starts March 20, here in Virginia the season usually arrives earlier — but not this year.

Wood frogs were among the species that got a late start breeding this year. Finally, on Feb. 28, Lyt Wood, director of Rapp Nature Camp, reported wood frogs calling in a small pool at his house, along the Hazel River near Sperryville. But even a few intermittent warm days were not enough to get the frogs started breeding where I live. They typically do start later than at Lyt’s, because of the higher elevation and location deep in the woods, but haven’t really gotten going yet.

On March 10, while my brother, Dana, was visiting from Alaska, we found one lone wood frog at the pond in the woods above my house. No other wood frogs were in site there, or in an old concrete trout tank below the dam — the main breeding sites here for wood frogs and spotted salamanders, which breed at the same time of year.

Pam Owen’s brother, Dana, and dog, Mollie, survey the wetlands at Leopold’s Preserve, near Haymarket. By Pam Owen

I injured my foot the next day, so we didn’t get up to the ponds. The day after that, on the way to taking Dana to Dulles for his return flight, we visited Leopold’s Preserve, near Haymarket. We hoped that, in that open area at lower elevation, we might see more signs of spring.

The last time I’d been at the preserve, in 2016, the water levels in the wetland on the western side had been low, but last year’s torrential rains had apparently raised those levels considerably. The trail that looped through part of that wetland had substantial water on both sides of it. As we got onto the trail, we could hear spring peepers calling — the first time I’d heard any frogs this year.

Peepers usually start breeding later than wood frogs, and I have no idea if the latter breed on the preserve, but plenty of peepers were, judging by the din we heard. For their tiny size, peepers are extraordinarily loud but elusive. Many times I’ve been just a few feet away from ones that are calling but have rarely seen any. I finally did spot one little head poking up out of the water that day, but by the time I’d gotten my camera out of my pack, it had disappeared.

On the west side of the trail, where the most water is, we found a lot of stumps of small trees, apparently gnawed by beavers. Looking out over the wetland, we saw a large beaver lodge, along with a few pairs of Canada geese and a couple of ducks. Although a chilly wind was blowing, the sun was out, and hearing the peepers was worth the short but painful walk for me. And with no frogs where he lives, Dana also enjoyed hearing peepers again.

Beavers take up residence in the wetlands at Leopold’s Preserve. By Pam Owen

After dropping my brother off at the airport, I headed home, hearing more peepers in Fauquier County, but none after I crossed into Rappahannock County. Checking the upper pond that evening, I still found no frogs. However, I did notice many globular egg masses of spotted salamanders attached to the submerged limbs of several small trees that were blown down into the pond during last year’s fierce windstorms. Apparently, the chilly weather didn’t deter the salamanders, which breed at night.

On March 14, temps rose into the high 60s. Sitting outside with my dog, I enjoyed the warm breeze that was blowing, bringing a storm of sycamore seeds raining down from the sky. An eastern comma butterfly flew by, heading into the woods. Other insects activated by the warm weather were flying or crawling around everywhere in the yard..

I checked the amphibian breeding sites up the mountain again that afternoon and finally heard a few wood frogs calling. I saw a few wood frogs jump off the bank of the pond as I walked around it, and I could see about half a dozen more swimming around in the water. They just starting to congregate, so no eggs yet. Last year dozens of frogs left masses of eggs up there, raising a racket with their courting calls that I could hear down at my house.

Egg clusters of spotted salamanders
cling to submerged tree limbs. By Pam Owen

With temps soaring to near 80 degrees the next afternoon, spring peepers started calling in several areas in the hollow. Giving my foot a break, I skipped a trip back up to the pond. Around the yard, the warmer weather had ramped up the songs and calls of birds, including eastern phoebes, which had left for most of the winter.

The next day, the temps plunged and stillness once again reigned. On Tuesday (March 19), just before I filed this column, I checked the upper pond and tank once more. The ambient temperature was hovering just above 40 degrees, and water striders were the only things moving up there; no sight or sound of frogs, and no frog egg masses.

As with many early-blooming trees and shrubs, this spicebush produces flower buds before all the leaves except the one at the end of each branch emerge. By Pam Owen

But spring is now underway, with spicebush and red maples budding. I hope to hear the clacking din of more wood frogs, perhaps with a chorus of peepers mixed in, drifting down from the upper pond soon.

© 2019 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 344 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.”