Spring creeps greenly across the Monument, and as it does, the voices of frogs raise in chorus during afternoons and especially at night. Our neighbors have been teasingly calling Steven the “Frogman” because they frequently catch him, attired in his chest waders, lying along the Mill Pond in Lincoln, or along the drainage ditches, or on the edges of ephemeral pools making images of the Pacific chorus frogs.
Everyone around here recognizes the sound of the neighborhood frogs, but they don’t necessarily know that they are called Pacific Chorus Frogs (which is, to be fair, a recent name change from the less accurate “tree frogs”). They are sometimes surprised to learn what the frogs look like, and to hear our descriptions of the baggy throats that the male frogs have when not in use. If not for this project we’ve embarked on, I wouldn’t know these things either. On the east coast, I was contented enough to listen to the sound of frogs calling on spring nights and say to myself, “Peepers,” without a very clear image in mind of what they looked like. Sadly, I’d probably seen more frogs on the Muppet Show than in real life.
Globally, frogs are in bad shape. It’s estimated that frogs worldwide have lost about 80 percent of their population in the past hundred years or so, and a number of species have already gone extinct. Why is this happening? It’s probably a combination of several factors, including a slight global temperature increase and subsequent changing fungal and bacterial patterns, predation and competition from introduced species (bullfrogs, for example, aren’t native to the west but thrive here, making life harder for native frogs like the Oregon Spotted), and perhaps most significantly, reduced habitat. Put simply, amphibians need a lot of wet areas, but humans tend to drain wetlands in order to build houses, to reduce mosquito populations, and to divert water for agricultural purposes.
Frogs appear not to mind mosquitos as much as we do.
One night, Steven and I left our kids reading in the cabin and wandered out with flashlights to the ephemeral pool on the other side of the mill pond. On the way there, we walked along the highway, where we heard a shockingly loud cacophony of sound. Pacific chorus frogs filled the drainage ditch beside the road and were singing their hearts out. Peering into the water, shining the light in, we saw maybe one frog per every square foot. Or sometimes, two frogs . . . in amplexus, their mating position (in the latter case, we averted the spotlight for their privacy!).
We crossed the ditch, then continued wending our way around the mill pond, until we reached the ephemeral pond. Here at the ephemeral pond, the frogs seemed more shy, quieting their calls upon our approach. We hunkered down and got in comfortable positions that we could hold for a long time as we waited . . . waited . . . waited . . . for the frogs to again take up their chorus. No movement. After a long time, we heard a solitary, low, “Ribbit! Ribbit!” It was answered by a hesitant “Ribbit?” Then another voice joined, “Creeeeaaak?” And then a sort of spronging voice called. Soon the chorus was alive, resounding across the water. Some of the frogs sounded just like those hollow, wooden frogs that come with a stick that you scrape across the textured, carved back to imitate the sound of frogs. Others are more like a high-pitched squeak. Some sounded remarkably like ululating. Beneath the high notes, a few basses continued their rhythmic, “Ribbit! Ribbit!”
I didn’t dare move for fear of interrupting the song, even when I felt an insect chomp into my neck. But a passing car, sounding like a Ring-wraith, startled our frogs back into silence. In the distance, we could still hear the calls of the ditch-residing chorus frogs, but these in the ephemeral pond, further back in the woods, were spooked quiet for several minutes.
Then, a courageous, “Ribbit. Ribbit.” And another, “Ribbit? Ribbit? Ribbit?” And the choir resumed its stunning rehearsal.
We stayed a long time at the water’s edge, recording bits of the music for you, rueing every passing car.
“Why don’t you just stay home and listen to the frogs?” I want to tell every Ring-wraith. These days, we’re down to driving our car to town just once or twice a week, and rarely after dark. But I know that after this project season ends this summer, our family will return to the culturally typical patterns of daily commutes to work and regular drives to children’s activities, disrupting who-knows-how-many courtship rituals among our amphibian friends back home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. So who am I to judge?
But on this night, I understand a little better why several roads throughout the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument have been de-commissioned in the interest of protecting the “objects of scientific interest.” I’m no scientist, but just one night spent paying closer attention is enough to persuade me that vehicle traffic might be disruptive to some of the creatures that have lived here longer than humans have.