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June 2012
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Chorus frogs singing praises of spring

By Steve Vantreese

Some regular harbingers of spring may have barely harbinged at all in late winter this year because of the persistent bitter cold, snow and ice.

Even the reliable upland chorus frogs were tested by the severe season. Still, despite some timeouts called on account of deep freeze temperatures and icy ground cover, they've been in occasional concert since at least February and probably a bit in January.

The singing is one of the trappings of breeding season. It's males sounding off to recruit eligible females as mates. Harsh winter delayed the festivities. Now that spring is here officially, chorus frog romance is just reaching a peak. Normally, it already would be winding down.

You probably don't recognize the chorus frog â “ most people have never seen one. The chorus frog is tiny and difficult to spy unless you're very close. And if you go toward the sound of one to get a look, it vanishes back into water or vegetation.

The upland species of chorus frog is as small as a half-inch long. Its camouflaging mottled tan and brown (with lighter undersides) make it even harder to see.

The chorus frog lives in wetlands and grasslands, seeking out temporary pools and ditches for breeding activities that start in mid-winter during relative warm spells. Chorus frogs can be active through winter, taking off during hard weather, because they are freeze-tolerant.

They may burrow into vegetation and muck when temperatures drop, but a hard freeze is not a problem. Chorus frogs do freeze, their little hearts stopping in a frigid limbo. When they thaw, they come back to life, a pretty good trick.

That's how you can hear chorus frogs singing during a mild period in winter, they shut up during a stint of frigid temperatures, and then you hear them again when it warms back up and the ice (including the icy frogs) thaws out.

While you probably haven't seen them, you've probably heard chorus frogs. Between snow and ice events over winter, they've been doing their thing. I've heard them several nights when temperatures were in the 40s, maybe even lower.

The male upland chorus frog's song is a repetitious creeeeeek sound. It's been described as the sound you get when you drag your finger over the teeth of a comb. It's louder than you'd imagine from a half-inch amphibian, and multiply it by dozens or hundreds and you get a pretty good racket.

The little frog makes that sound by inflating the skin under his chin area. He blows a pretty big bubble in his hide; it's a wonder he doesn't explode. Whatever the technique, it must sound good to the ladies, for that's what attracts them to frog fellows.

The frogs reproduce by the female dropping eggs into water and the male fertilizes them. They later hatch the tiny tadpoles that grow into new frogs. The eggs often go into the water pretty early in winter. This year the stubborn winter kept more of the chorus frog's courting behavior from happening until right about now.

Other frogs are just firing up their breeding behavior as evidenced by the beginnings of singing behavior across western Kentucky. Over the next couple of weeks we should hear from southern leopard frogs, northern crawfish frogs and, in places, spring peepers. Too, while not a true frog, American toads should be singing their own love songs shortly.

The leopard frog is about 3.5 inches long, olive brown to green in color with dark spots. It's skinny and fast, a strong leaper. Found in shallow water of ponds and lakes as well as temporary pools in wetlands, the leopard frog sometimes strays from standing water, too. It sings with a croaky, low-pitched chuckle, sort of laughing its way into a love life.

The crawfish frog is pretty big, about half the size of a bullfrog, sometime more than 4 inches. It's yellowish-brown with dark brown spots and a pale belly. It occupies grasslands, meadows and agricultural land, most often finding home inside a crawfish hole. It sings with a guttural, snore-like call; its sound like "worrrrrrrrr" to me.

The spring peeper is a little guy, about the size of the chorus frog, but more suited to temporary water in woodlands than open wetlands. It's not so common to far western Kentucky, but it seems to be on the increase where formerly cleared areas are growing back into woodlots, according to John MacGregor, a herpetologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

The spring peeper's call appropriately is a high-pitched peeping, turning up at the end.

The American toad is a land-lubber that goes to wet spots for its reproduction. The warty gray to olive toads are usually 2 to 4 inches long, but they are stubby and less athletic than the frogs â “ better at walking and less adept at jumping. They call with a musical trill that can last for a half-minute at a time.

A good place to hear recorded examples of these amphibian vocalists is at the website www.aza.org/frogs-in-kentucky/. Click on individual species and then on the "listen" tab.

And listen outside nowadays. Winter may have held them back some, but they've since tuned up with their species-appropriate love songs.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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