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Apr 9, 2019 11:03 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Hear Those Peepers? The Little Frog That Calls Out To Us, Saying, 'Spring Is Near'

Xylia Serafy, environmental educator at the South Fork Natural History Museum, with a peeper.  DANA SHAW
Apr 9, 2019 11:03 AM

In some of Karin Strong’s fondest childhood memories, she is covered in mud, stealthily sneaking her way through the muck and mire at the edge of the pond in her backyard, searching for a very particular kind of treasure.Every spring, Ms. Strong—the oldest of six children—would set off around dusk from her family’s Connecticut home and go hunting for spring peepers in the small body of water on their property, which she and her siblings dubbed “the peeper pond.” There, she would try to catch, with her bare hands, the tiny frogs that create the ubiquitous dusk chorus of chirping heard for several months in these parts, starting in early spring.

Although typically only heard—and rarely seen—spring peepers have become one of nature’s most beloved creatures. Most people east of the Mississippi River, from Florida up through the Canadian maritime provinces, are familiar with the sound they make, even if they don’t know much about its source.

That peeper’s song holds a particular meaning as, Ms. Strong, a former Sag Harbor resident, notes, “It’s one of the first real, true signs of spring.”

On Long Island, spring peepers have the distinction of being the only chorus frog around, and they are one of just two species of chorus frog in New York State; the other is found near Buffalo. They are distinguished from other small frogs and toads by a signature “X” marking on their backs, although not all peepers have that marking, a fact pointed out by local naturalist Mike Bottini, outdoors columnist for The Press.

In a column on peepers published several years ago in The Press, Mr. Bottini noted that the small frogs do not have much webbing on their rear feet, and that the tips of their toes secrete a mucous that enables them to climb smooth, vertical surfaces with ease. They were, for many years, classified as tree frogs because of that characteristic, although they were re-classified as chorus frogs because they are rarely found climbing anything.

Peepers have a short life cycle—anywhere from two to three years—and in the winter, they go into a torpid-like state, their blood freezing to a slushy consistency, which allows them to lay dormant under leaf litter and other hiding places in the marsh until it is time to emerge, issue their distinctive call and mate.

Male spring peepers have been busy for weeks making their signature call. They are tiny, rarely exceeding 1¼ inches in length, and hide easily in ponds and muddy, marshy locales, where most people (Ms. Strong being a notable exception) do not venture to find them. They also have a habit of clamming up when someone gets too close.

As a result, most people don’t know what they look like. Some may even mistake them for another species altogether, as Ms. Strong says she did when she was 8 years old, assuming they were a particularly noisy band of crickets, until she found one.

For all these reasons, they’ve become a subject of fascination for both naturalists and the average nature lover alike.

An Advertising Call

Spring peepers have a reason for making all that noise: They’re trying to attract mates.

Steve Biasetti is the director of environmental education for the Group for the East End. He says that the chorus of bleeping is made up mostly of male frogs trying to attract partners.

“It’s an advertising call that the males do to just have all the spring peepers congregate at breeding pools,” said Mr. Biasetti who pointed out that while weather can affect when the small frogs will call, they typically start calling at the end of March, and will keep at it for months, generally at around dusk.

Mr. Biasetti added that he has heard peepers calling as early as the beginning of February in some years, and has also heard them as late as the end of December.

“There’s not a lot of time when they’re quiet,” he added.

A Deeper Meaning

The call, of course, has a very particular purpose for the peepers themselves, but, like Ms. Strong, Mr. Biasetti said that the sound has taken on special meaning in the larger natural world, like the return of the ospreys, the buzz of cicadas, or the migration of monarch butterflies.

“It’s one of those late winter, early spring events that you can observe or hear that tell you spring is coming,” he said. “Like skunk cabbages poking out of the muck of a freshwater pond. It tells people, ‘Hey, the weather is turning—we’re out of the doldrums.’”

The fact that spring peepers are rarely seen puts them in another distinctive category of creatures that carry with them an air of mystery because of their ability to hide. In that way, Mr. Biasetti likened them to great horned owls and screech owls.

“I would say peepers are even more secretive than that,” he said. “If you hear them and try to creep up on them, they always quiet down, and you rarely get a chance to see them. I’ve seen them about 10 times on Long Island, and it’s always luck.”

A Lifelong Fascination

Ms. Strong, of course, left nothing up to fate in her dogged pursuit of the frogs. She described herself as someone who, from a young age, was “obsessed with ponds and aquatic animals in ponds,” leaving her sister to play inside with dolls while she crawled around in the muck outdoors, teaching her younger siblings the tricks she’d learned to catch the tiny frogs.

“I was out there in a canoe, being muddy and glorifying in the mud,” she said with a laugh.

It was something she continued to do into adulthood, when she moved to Sag Harbor, which became her home for 30 years, until a recent move to Maine. From her home at the end of Howard Street and Long Island Avenue, she said she could hear peepers every spring, and was amazed that they were present because of the close proximity to salt water.

She earned instant “cool mom” status by taking her two sons out on expeditions to catch and release the frogs, and those outings eventually became community events, as more and more friends would tag along.

Ms. Strong described her technique, although it’s clear that the biggest secret to her success at corralling the tiny frogs is just hours upon years of practice.

“You have to go out at dusk and crawl through the marshy area, and not worry about being muddy, and just follow the sound,” she said. “When they quiet down, you can turn on a flashlight and shine it at them, and it freezes them. Or else you can go blindly and try to see in the murky darkness, and see if you can catch them that way.”

Over time, she developed favorite haunts as well, including many of the vernal ponds in Sag Harbor and East Hampton. Her favorite, she said, was a kettle pond on Daniels Hole Road, near the East Hampton Airport. “It’s a pond that I don’t think even exists anymore,” she said. “But it was always absolutely boiling with peepers.”

She would take several children with her, and they’d all be decked out in waders and lightly colored rain boots, which made it easier for them to spot another, as well as ward off a much less desirable sign of spring—ticks.

A Duty To Protect

The sound of peepers calling is more than just a soothing soundtrack or harbinger of much anticipated warmer weather. The small frogs, like many other amphibians, are a key part of the ecosystem because they function as very accurate bio-indicators, according to naturalist Frank Quevedo, the executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton.

“When we hear them calling, and there’s an abundance of calls, that’s a sign that the ecosystem they’re utilizing is healthy,” he said. “If we don’t hear them in the wetlands, that’s an environmental concern—it could be a spillage, or overdevelopment.”

Mr. Quevedo added that, thanks largely to the fact that they have thin, permeable skin, peepers are very sensitive and extremely susceptible to any environmental changes.

Ms. Strong summed it up by saying, “They’re like our canary in the coal mine—something might be off if we see them behaving differently. To me, they’re important little songbirds.”

Both Mr. Quevedo and Mr. Biasetti spoke to the responsibility of human beings in ensuring the continued health and survival of creatures, like the spring peeper, that many people have come to revere.

“Because their breeding pools are freshwater ponds and vernal pools, it’s important to have high-quality water,” Mr. Biasetti said. “We have to keep from using too many chemicals in various uses. Lawn chemicals can be washed down through runoff and get to freshwater pools, and those pools are so important for spring peepers and other toads and salamanders. If they get contaminated, it can affect the population.

“A lot of those beloved nature events that happen, whether it’s peepers calling or the monarch butterflies, in general it’s all going to be affected if we just keep using pesticides.”

But drawing a link between human activity and the health of a species like the spring peeper and its habitat—the marsh—doesn’t require a background in natural sciences. “You don’t have to be a scientist—you just have to be a steward of the environment to understand that this habitat is so precious for the sustainability of frogs, salamanders, other reptiles, and even the birds that feed on them,” Mr. Quevedo said. “There’s an interconnectedness.”

He pointed out that while spring peepers are an important food source for several animals—including egrets, great blue herons, raccoons and opossums—they also play an important role in controlling the insect populations which make up their food source.

“That whole wetland habitat that they utilize is so important,” he said. “We just need to preserve what’s left here for the next generation to survive.”

The South Fork Natural History Museum will host a program on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Montauk called “Search For The Singing Frogs--Spring Peepers: A Nighttime Montauk Exploration” at Big Fresh Pond County Park. For more information, visit sofo.org.

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