Monday, April 12, 2021

A Chorus of Friends

 

Pickerel Frog at North Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks. You'll read about him and hear this impressive individual in this post

 

Contrast and continuity. I talk about the necessity of both in my music theory classes but wasn’t expecting to see these concepts demonstrated so profoundly in my life this year. Yet when I reread my April blog post from the past year –“Covid-free Concerts, that’s exactly what I saw– the continuity of the natural world providing a sense of balance, predictability, and continuity when so much else was about unexpected contrasts.

A year after the coronavirus shutdown began, it was time for early spring amphibian songs again. And there they were: “a chorus of friends,” as one of my music theory students who has assisted with frog calling surveys had characterized them.

He was specifically referencing the Western Chorus Frogs, which I especially love. “Oh, you love ALL of them,” I can hear you thinking. OK, point taken. You are absolutely correct. And I love them even more than ever this year.

I think many of us were especially delighted and relieved to hear the first Spring Peepers this year as their songs challenged the annual March battle of cold fronts and warm fronts.


 

In many locations, they were joined by the Wood Frogs’ urgently intense calling, splashing, and chasing as they converge in the vernal pools for a week-long reproductive frenzy. 

                  Wood Frog male swimming after another male in his space.

For them, it was time for reproduction. For me, it was time to get out my “Wetland” Muck Boots and remember that this year, I still needed to take a mask along with my recording gear.

Eldon Russell Park along the upper Cuyahoga River in Geauga County is one of the spring concert venues I attend every year in March for frogs and again in April for marsh marigolds and birdsong. As I parked this year, I also remembered how last year at this time, park visitors (myself included) sat in our cars listening to the governor’s 2PM coronavirus press conference updates before ever stepping outside of our vehicles.

Walking up the storm-battered path along the Cuyahoga River, that uneasy reminder dissipated into the delight of hearing a glorious chorus in the wet woods to my right. This was a huge chorus of Spring Peepers, but…wasn’t there also a sizable Wood Frog ensemble beyond them? And could I somehow work my way past the Peepers?

Well, not exactly. After getting stuck in a wetland last year and sinking in mud within an inch of the tops of my knee-high Muck Boots, I promised myself I would never repeat that unsettling situation. After quickly sinking six inches into the mud, I reconsidered my route.

But what about entering the woods from the other side? It was shrubby, wet, and mucky, but there were enough footholds to reach the concert hall. 

 

As you might imagine, I temporarily forgot the exhaustion, sadness and anxiety of the past year and I certainly didn’t have to worry about social distancing.

Another annual March destination is the Medina Park District’s Letha House Park. The ponds and wet fields are typically full of frog song in the early spring, but it’s a different chorus from the northeastern counties. This park is southwest of Cleveland and the sunny, wet fields are a splendid stage for Western Chorus Frogs. I don’t have the opportunity to hear these tiny frogs in my immediate area – they simply aren’t here – so traveling west/southwest to find them is part of every spring for Wendy and me. It’s one of the trips we always try to take together.

The west side of the park is primarily wetlands and wet meadows and is accessed via a bridle trail. We had barely begun to walk the trail when we heard the huge number of Western Chorus Frogs and Spring Peepers in the distance – the “chorus of friends” we’d come to visit. They aren’t calling there for long –this is the early spring amphibian chorus that defies the possibility of a brief return to winter,

      This tiny Western Chorus Frog was singing in the flooded field at Letha House.

As we got closer to their flooded field and shallow pond, we heard Wood Frogs calling with them as well. 

 

 

 

In some areas, Wood Frogs were already finishing their brief season of “explosive breeding” (yes, this is an actual term). I typically listen for Wood Frogs in vernal pools that are often in the woods, but this area was wide open and in full sun.

                        Wood Frog in the bright sun at Letha House Park
 

It was an interesting location for listening to significant numbers of all three while thinking about how people can learn to distinguish between these species when they’re all together. Just Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers together isn’t so challenging, but the addition of Western Chorus Frogs – especially in large numbers – results in a dense wash of sound whose components can be difficult to separate.

The pairing that would benefit from some ear training practice would be the Wood Frogs and Western Chorus Frogs. The Peepers will take care of themselves. (If you’d like to practice Spring Peepers with Western Chorus Frogs, however, see my  notes at the end of this post)

Listen first to just the Western Chorus and Wood Frogs in the first half of the next recording. (I’ll bring the Spring Peepers back into the mix for the second half of the track.) 

People often compare Wood Frogs to quacking Mallards, and the sounds are definitely similar. The Western Chorus Frog song is often described as sounding like running one’s finger over the teeth of a comb from the end with longer teeth up to the end with shorter teeth. It sounds rather dry – not the distinctive peeping pitch of the Spring Peeper.

Now look at the sonogram, keeping in mind that what you see closer to the top of the image is what’s higher in pitch. 

On the lower pitch level with be erratic vertical bands that are the “croaks” of the Wood Frogs.

Next, look at the higher pitches.  See all the thin, slightly diffuse lines that seem to gradually ascend as a unit? I think this looks like a suggestion of the comb teeth of the Western Chorus Frogs.

Finally, the bright, ascending diagonal lines are the Spring Peepers and you can match those bright lines with their loud, high-pitched, penetrating calls.

A more distant stop on the annual March Frog Song Tour is the large, sunny pond at The Wilderness Center in the southwest corner of Stark County near the Wayne County line. This was yet another live concert Wendy and I could safely attend.

Let’s take a few minutes to listen closely for everything going on in this pond. There were actually four different frog species singing at the same time! While listening and recording from secure footing in the water near the shore, I could hear the first Leopard Frogs beginning to add their low-pitched calls. They sound rather like growling and snoring and can actually sing under water.

My final rousing frog chorus was much closer to home at Cleveland Metroparks’ North Chagrin Reservation along the Chagrin River. Wendy and I celebrated the full moon at the end of March by going out at night to listen.

The Wood Frogs had already finished calling and had returned to the woodlands. We only heard a few stragglers, but the Spring Peeper chorus was overwhelming! 

                     Spring Peeper singing at North Chagrin Reservation

There are no Western Chorus Frogs here, as I mentioned earlier. While there are Leopard Frogs in other parks east/southeast of Cleveland and in most other places I listen, there’s something special at North Chagrin: Pickerel Frogs! And we were there to hear the first few Pickerels beginning to call as we watched the moon’s reflection in the water. 

I made a subsequent trip to hear increasing numbers of Pickerels at North Chagrin. I had no idea there were so many there and was delighted to actually see and photograph one in full song! 

In the recording below, the very close, loud soloist is the Pickerel Frog in my photo.

 

Wendy and I went back together, and the Pickerels - accompanied by an enthusiastic chorus of Spring Peepers – were now joined by a continuo section of American Toads. An occasional beaver tail splash added accents as we sat quietly and listened with flashlights off until closing time.

My chorus of friends helped me through another March and into early April. Other splendid ensembles will follow, but those early frogs who annually summon Spring’s arrival were once again my continuity and hope.



If you’d like to read and listen to additional comparisons of various frog calls, you’ll find recordings, photos, and sonograms in my 2019 post, 

“Snarls and Snores” at http://listeninginnature.blogspot.com/2019/06/snarls-and-snores.html  (Leopard and Pickerel Frogs) and “A Concert of Western Music” at http://listeninginnature.blogspot.com/2016/03/a-concert-of-western-music.html (Western Chorus Frogs and Spring Peepers)

Thank you to violinist Andrew Smeader, Jr., for the description of the frogs as “a chorus of friends.”