The sky hangs over us like a deep blue mirror, frosted with brilliant white flecks. Crunching leaves echo through the woods, where trees and walkers are barely distinguishable. The cool spring night wraps around us.
On Saturday, April 26, David Green, director of Albion College’s Whitehouse Nature Center, and Eric Tobin, president of the Michigan Society of Herpetologists (MSH), led a night hike focused on frogs.
MSH conducts programs at many zoos, colleges and nature centers across Michigan. It also funds research projects and hosts speakers. Earlier that night, the board members met for dinner to discuss their potential grant recipients.
“At tonight’s board meeting we awarded over $2,000 in grant money to college students doing research projects for their master’s and PhDs,” Tobin said. “We fund those kinds of things, and our members and the public can come to our meetings.”
The second half of a two-part program, Green and Tobin’s night hike aimed to educate the public about the Nature Center’s wetlands and the reptiles and amphibians that call it home. Green remarked on the beauty of “nature’s orchestra.”
The turnout was considerable – a group of about 20 students and citizens followed Green and Tobin as they pointed out the various sounds of native Albion frogs.
Just a few minutes into the hike, the telltale “peep” of the spring peeper frog cues up. As our group approaches, the sweet sound dies down.
“Notice what happened right now: they stopped. They’re aware, even though they’re on the other side of the river, of us talking,” Green said.
According to Green, the frogs stopped “peeping” to identify the noise and ensure it didn’t signal the approach of a predator.
As we march across the Nature Center’s bridge, we notice several overlapping frog choruses. Tobin mentions that no two frog species have the same call.
Later, we pass a few water-filled basins. Green describes them as vernal pools, temporary ponds which fill with rain or snow melt.
“It’s very, very important to have vernal pools in a forest. We did have some before, but we have a lot more now,” Green said.
Additional vernal pools are a surprisingly beneficial consequence of Albion’s great September storm.
Sally Quist, Caledonia first-year, thought the outing was a good opportunity to experience something new. “I like frogs and I’ve never been on a night hike, so I thought it’d be really fun and interesting,” she said.
Adam Kudirka, Milford junior, and Kara Bowers, Ann Arbor junior, agreed.
“I studied abroad in Australia last semester and we did a lot of night hikes, so I thought it’d be really cool to go,” Bowers said.
For Kudirka, the night hike offered a slice of nostalgia. Though he jokes that “it sounds corny,” he enjoyed hearing frogs chirp and hum before bedtime.
“I love it. I grew up by ponds and forests, and I miss it,” he said.
Stepping over fallen branches and crackling twigs along the forest floor, we reach one of a few small ponds and stop to listen.
Tobin teaches us that when male frogs croak in chorus, they’re competing with one-another to attract a mate. When we hear a particularly overwhelming number of frogs, Tobin describes a sort of chorus scale. Two choruses are fairly discernible, but that evening it was not the case.
“They’re overlapping too much where you can’t get an accurate count,” Tobin said. “This is almost a four-chorus, which is really loud.”
Towards the end of our journey, we near another pond, where Green has set some traps hoping to catch a few frogs. He retrieves a trap and we find a green frog tadpole, just developing.
As we crowd around to observe what will later be a full-grown frog, Green gives us tips on how to handle these fragile creatures.
“Make sure your hands are wet, because if they’re dry and you pick up a frog or salamander you’re going to basically rip their skin off,” he said.
We’re all careful to remember this, shining our flashlights down onto the tadpole. We return him to the pond and head back to the Nature Center.
If you want to learn more about Michigan’s slimy friends, feel free to visit michherp.org.
Photos by Emma Planet
Photos via flickr.com