Frog Watching

Aug 25, 2014

Southern Leopard Frog
Credit Photo by Nick Scobel

If you’re interested in birds, you’ve probably heard of the Christmas bird count.  On December 25th, volunteers head out to see what feathered friends are in their area and report to a national data bank. 

You may not know that a similar enterprise is underway for frogs.  In fact, the North American Amphibian Monitoring Project is looking for help here in Virginia.

Brian Munford is an executive chef who loves nature, but when his  work day ends at around 10 p.m., bird watching is out of the question.  That’s why he jumped at the chance to join the North American Amphibian Monitoring Project.

At least three times a year, he drives a rural route, stopping near wetlands to listen for frogs.

“I thought it would be neat to check out a couple of these spots.  It should be wet, and they’re far enough away from any kind of agricultural activity that they should be relatively pristine.  So we’ll see what we see – hear what we hear.”

It took a couple of years to learn the sounds that 27 native frogs make in this part of the world.  At the state’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, herpetologist J.D. Kleopfer says there are mating calls, distress calls and release calls.

“Some of these frogs get into very amorous group breeding events, so anything that moves, a male frog will try to jump on it, and if he happens to jump onto another male frog, that frog will issue a release call to say, ‘Hey, I’m a guy.  Get off me!’”

Munford listened to recordings in his spare time and found ways to associate each call with a familiar sound.

“Everything from banjo strings to 80’s pop songs.  I think that the green frog, when it starts calling, it sounds just like the beginning of the David Bowie song Modern Love.”

Some frogs are increasingly hard to find, but Munford says others are turning up in new places.

“The green tree frog is definitely expanding.  The wood frog, which is typically a mountain species from up your way, is actually moving down into the coastal plain, and just this summer I found the barking tree frog 40 miles west of its previous known occurrence.”

In one spot off Old Highway 40 near the southeast corner of the state, at least four kinds of frogs are calling.   Munford watches fireflies flashing in the trees as he listens to this soundtrack, and he keeps an eye out for raccoons, deer, owls, skunks and possums.  He rarely meets people.

“I’ll never forget.  I think it was the second time I went out on my route, a Suffolk Police Officer stopped to ask me what I was up to, and I told him and he told me to rock on.”

And he felt like a rock star when he came across what may be a new species of frog – one also observed by state frog expert JD Kleopfer.

“It sounded like wood frogs, but it was way outside the range of wood frogs and way too early for green tree frogs.  Then I went to a meeting shortly thereafter and ran into a researcher out of Rutgers that has recently described a new species of leopard frog.  As soon as I described the quacking sound, his eyes opened up, and he said, ‘That’s the new species of frog.”

The high pitched calls are chorus frogs, but there’s also a clucking sound, and that’s the what has Kleopfer, Munford and their colleague at Rutgers excited. 

They’ve  been taking genetic samples from those as yet unnamed frogs to confirm their finding, and they invite others to join in their search – to help state scientists determine how frogs are doing here in Virginia and how planners can regulate development, farming and other land use to assure that frogs have a clean, healthy place to perform. 

Click here for more information  about the North American Amphibian Monitoring Project.