The View From Windy Hill—Frog Time

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It was April 6th this year that I heard the first frogs of the year. There was still ice on the big water, but the little ponds in the woods and at the roadsides had caught the sun, the ice was out and so were the frogs.

Back in the fifties, when we used to walk the mile and a half home from Mill Creek Grove School near Marshfield, we'd stop on the gravel road where it crossed a low wet spot and catch frogs. The old creek held water all year long and was big enough for the green frogs with the black spots on their backs—lots of 'em. We could catch as many as we had a mind to and then let them go, or stick them in our pocket to put down my sister's blouse.

When we arrived in Polk County, my friend Rudy and I would go gigging for bulls. We'd grab a big flashlight, throw some beer in a cooler, drop the canoe in a pond and sead out into the humid June darkness. "Aoownff, aoownff." "He's over there Rudy." We'd shine the light to pick out the eyes above the water, ease over, and stick it with a small, four-pronged barbed gig. With it came the promise of frog legs soaked in milk over-night and fried in butter for breakfast. Two important lessons were learned during these ventures: 1) It is best to keep the frogs and the beer in two separate coolers; 2) There is no good way to extract a gig tine from a finger.

About the same time, my two small boys and I would walk The Land to see what we could see. One early October, we looked into the old concrete silo and it was alive with the green frogs with the black spots on their backs. The floor was recessed enough that they could jump in but could not jump out. There was no place for them to burrow down for the winter, so we undertook the Great Frog Rescue. We found an old bucket and hauled frogs from the silo to the edge of the marsh—fifty, a hundred, two hundred frogs.

About nine years ago, and old trout-fishing friend was telling me about the Wisconsin DNR Frog and Toad census. Seems that he and a friend of his would get together three times in early spring and summer and would go out after dark to "count frogs." Counting frogs in the dark seemed pretty tricky to me, but he explained that they would stop for five to ten minutes by each of ten predetermined sites and listen for the distinct call of each species of frog and estimate numbers on a scale of one to three—one being an occasional call, two being several calls with some calls overlapping, and three being a continuous and full chorus of frog music. These observations were sent after the third run to the DNR to join the observations of some 80-plus other frog counters to prepare a statistical analysis of the trends in frog population in the state. "How do you tell them apart?" I asked. "Here's the tape," he said, "find ten ponds and get to work!"

So, since 2002, I have been keeping track of my ten ponds. A couple are good-sized lakes, a few are wood ponds, on is a trickle through a marsh, one is a small slough in a cow pasture. In 2005, my friend Doc Clausen joined me as an official frogger. In a typical spring, the first frogs out are the wood frogs with a harsh quacking call. Then come the chorus frogs, which sounds like running a thumbnail over a fine-toothed comb, followed by the well-known spring peeper. Next are the green frogs with the black spots on their backs—the leopard frogs. The leopard frog makes a loud chuckling sound, like rubbing a thumb against a balloon, interspersed with a snore. I would never have tied the leopard frog and its call together without hearing it on the DNR tape. Later in the season, we will hear the songs of our other four common marsh friends—the musical trill of the American toad, the loud trill of the eastern gray tree frog, the banjo-like "gunk" of the green frog, and, if we're luck, the "Aownff" of the bullfrog.

The end of 2008 was a tough time for counting frogs. By the third run in July, some of the wetlands had dried up completely. 2009 was even worse. On the June run, we heard the usual frogs in most places, though the numbers were down. Basswood Lake had frozen out last winter, leaving and eagle feast of bass at iceout. We heard only a lone leopard frog there. By July, half of the ponds and wetlands were completely dry. In addition, the cool spring and summer kept water temperatures down and the frogs seemed to be less vocal. In any event, it was not a good year for frogging. The annual report sheet below reflects this year's poor results. I don't know where frogs go when their ponds disappear. I hope they'll be back when the water returns.

I don't gig bulls any more and it has been ten years since I have seen leopard frogs in any numbers. The leopard frog trends show a continuous decline, and while bulls seem to be holding their own in other parts of the state, I have heard them only four times at two of my stops in the last seven years. On the other hand, the sturdy toads are steady and the numbers of the little eastern gray treefrog, which you may find tucked in the folds of your patio umbrella in the summer, are steadily increasing.

Why worry about frogs? Frogs are the canary in the coalmine. They have a thin, semi-permeable skin that must remain moist and through which they absorb oxygen. As a result, fertilizer run-off, pesticides, herbicides, airborne pollution and increasing average temperatures may all influence populations of frogs and toads sooner than other species. Frogs are an important link in the food chain for birds like the great blue heron, fish like the largemouth bass, and mammals like the raccoon. Besides, even if the ice went out, the grass grew, the Canadas were paired up on the pond, the trees turned pastel shades of pink and green, but the marsh at dusk stayed silent, spring could never come.

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