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Signs and Sounds of Spring

Image © Glenn Perricone

It seems that everyone has their favorite “sure sign of spring.”

Whether it is the ceremonial opening pitch of the baseball season or the first crocuses coming up along the foundation wall, signs of spring can be found wherever you look for them. In addition to the people who look for signs of spring, there are people who listen for them. To some it is the first red-winged blackbird call, and to others it is the spring songs of the chickadees. And for a rare few, it is the sound of a favorite amphibian. 

Frogs, toads and salamanders are as good predictors of the end of winter as any season opener, emerging plant, or flock of birds, but amphibians don’t get the appreciation they deserve. Yet they are so original in their “lifestyles” that the more people learn about them, the more likely they are to hold them in high regard. Any sentiment extended toward them should at least border on respect. After all, it can’t be an easy existence being an amphibian. They go through life wearing nothng but a smooth, glandular, mucus-covered skin. And each spring, after spending the winter sleeping under the ice or frozen ground and before they even begin eating, they must outperform their peers for a chance to enjoy three to four weeks of romance.
Eastern tiger salamander William Flaxington
Eastern tiger salamander © William Flaxington 

Most amphibians go unnoticed by all but a few loyal fans. Salamanders are seldom seen and never heard. Like frogs and toads, they perform mating rituals in early spring and mate en masse each year but without any choruses or obvious courting gestures. Additionally, there are few species of salamanders in DuPage County. Only the eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) is numerous, although the blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale), central newt (Notophthalmus viridescens louisianensis), spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and common mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) may still exist here.

More familiar in the amphibian world are our resident frogs and toads. Like birds, all species of frogs and toads have unique calls, although to the untrained ear, they may all say “ribbit.”
Chorus frog James Harding
Chorus frog © James Harding 

One of the first to perform an amphibian aria, the western chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata) has been known to start singing when there is still ice on the fringes of the pond. Its creaky call is frequently likened to the sound that a cheap plastic comb makes when a thumb runs down its tines. These calls are impressive for the sheer volume of sound they generate considering that the western chorus frog is only about an inch long.
Northern leopard frog Glenn Perricone
Northern leopard frog © Glenn Perricone 

The northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens) also vocalizes early in the season and has a subtle call that resembles a soft snore with an occasional chuckle. The leopard frog’s call is quiet enough that it might go completely unnoticed if numerous chorus frogs are calling in the same pond.
Spring peeper James Harding
Spring peeper © James Harding 

People fortunate enough to live near a pristine wetland might be able to hear spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), whose call is a shrill “peep.” Like chorus frogs, peepers are about an inch long, but the volume of their calls gives a different impression.

Eastern gray tree frog James Harding 

Eastern gray tree frog © James Harding 

As spring transitions to summer, the sounds of the marshes change as different species begin their calls. In late spring and early summer, two species of gray tree frogs can be heard in the county. However, the eastern gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) is primarily heard in the Des Plaines River Valley, and the Cope’s gray tree frog (Hyla chrysoscelis) is heard in the Fox River watershed. The two species are indistinguishable in appearance and differ only in the sound of their calls, which are also quite similar.
American toad J.P. Myers
American toad © J. P. Myers 

At about this same time, the American toad (Bufo americanus) starts its monotone trill. Though lacking in tonal variation, the toad’s call can still be considered musical enough to be pleasant. However, it can be a little tedious when one toad trails off and another takes up the same song in the same pitch on the same verse. Sometimes a continuous trill can be sustained for several minutes if there are enough singers performing the toad mating call in a round.
American bullfrog James Harding
American bullfrog © James Harding 

By the time summer is about ankle deep, the green frog (Rana clamitans) and the American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) add the baritone and bass notes to the chorus. These two large green frogs are hard to ignore. Their resonant calls can be heard from a few hundred yards away even when one is performing a solo.

Mammals and birds — even turtles and snakes — evoke a range of emotions from most people, but it seems that DuPage County’s amphibians have a reputation for evoking indifference at best. This year, take the time to stop and listen for the true harbingers of spring, and discover the magic of the amphibians. 

Source: The Conservationist 

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