Frog Miracles

It’s that incredible time of year when our local frogs are mating. The adult frog is about the size of your thumb, but they are singing with voices so big I can hear them a half-mile away at the neighbor’s pond. Hundreds of them.

Pacific Treefrogs live primarily in the western U.S. The species we see in Northern California is called Pseudacris sierrae or Sierran Treefrog. This lovely little creature has been classified and re-classified so many times, its name is confusing. For simplicity here, we’ll use its more common over-arching name: the Pacific Treefrog (they don’t live in trees).

They require water for mating, so around January or February, depending on how much the earth has warmed, the mature adults journey on their padded toes to ponds or ditches.

The males use their “advertisement calls” to announce their fitness to competing males and to attract females. The male’s throat sack balloons up when it makes this call.

Poor little treefrogs have a lot of predators.

Snakes, raccoons, herons, egrets, and other small mammals and reptiles eat them.

The frogs breed in shallow water sources that usually dry up after winter; taking their chances to reproduce by not being in a predictable, predatory drinking source.

Pacific Treefrog Wikipedia

Although their body color is variable (green, tan, brown, gray, reddish or cream), they’re usually just green or brown, like in these photos. Typically they are the color of their environment; but they do also have the ability to quickly change colors to avoid predation.

It is difficult to get any photo of this frog for many reasons: they are more active at night (dark); usually hidden in leaves or half submerged in water; and they stop ribbiting when they feel the vibration of your footsteps.

In addition, they’re super tiny.

Now it’s past mid-March and the males and females are no doubt beginning to pair up. The female will lay her eggs as the male fertilizes them externally.

She will lay an average of 400-750 eggs, in small clusters of 10-80 at a time.

The eggs are visible in daylight, but you have to almost have your face in the water to see them. Binoculars or a powerful camera lens help.

The eggs are gelatinous tiny balls in a cluster, usually clinging to a twig or plant stem. Here are some clinging to the orange weed as noted.

After mating season, the adults leave and the eggs hatch into tadpoles about two weeks later. Left on their own, the teensy tadpoles aggregate for thermoregulation and to avoid predation. They eat algae and bacteria. This stage lasts 2-2.5 months.

In this stage they undergo an incredible metamorphosis eventually growing four legs, and simultaneously losing their tails. The tail gets absorbed into the froglet body. Because there are hundreds of thousands of tadpoles in the neighbor’s pond, we see the tadpoles in various stages of metamorphosis.

Here you see a tadpole with both legs and its tail. The tail has not yet been absorbed. The sun shadows amplify its features.

This photo reflects two tadpole stages on one leaf.

Here is an older froglet swimming, still with its tail; it has more distinctive adult markings. There is also a younger tadpole, tail only, on the left.

Frogs, tadpoles, froglets — they are a yet another reminder of the miracles of life and all its stages.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Spring Wildlife Rituals

Jackrabbit

Northern California is now about a month or two into spring. The hillsides are emerald, wildflowers abound. Almost every summer migrant bird species has arrived; and all the animals have begun their spring rituals.

Wild Douglas iris, California

Violet-green swallows, black-headed grosbeaks, and Pacific-slope flycatchers have arrived from Mexico and Central America. They will breed here, then leave in autumn, hopefully with a new brood.

 

Violet-green Swallow, male, California

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (male); a highly anticipated spring arrival

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher adult singing of life

Additional bird species have also arrived, in their usual order, some earlier in spring, some later. Flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, gnatcatchers, and more.

 

The violet-green swallows, oak titmice, and western bluebirds always vie for the nest boxes. Our human spring ritual is to clean out the boxes; their avian spring ritual is to squabble over them. It makes no difference how many boxes we offer, the territory battles somehow have to occur.

 

They cling to their real estate amidst a swirl of swooping competitors, and eventually it all gets settled out.

Violet-green swallow on nest box, California

 

Western Bluebird on nest box, California

 

A few of the reptiles are starting to show their faces. They come out of hibernation on warm days: look around, absorb the sun, do their dances, then return to their burrows when the evening starts it’s chill.

 

This week I saw about five western fence lizards

Western Fence Lizard, California

and at least ten skinks.

Skink, California

 

Twice we found snake tracks in powdery dirt, but no snake. It looked like a wooden pencil was dragged through the dirt. The snakes will linger longer when the earth has warmed up more, rattle at us if we unknowingly get too close.

 

This is a rattlesnake in our front yard from a previous summer; they keep our rodent population under control. That’s a big one.

Western Rattlesnake, sub-species Northern Pacific; Calif. Rattle (white) at far right end of tail, 6-8 rattles.

 

Then there are the frogs, Pacific chorus frogs. For the last three months they have been in full symphonic mode at night, singing at the neighbor’s pond, each male singing loudly–the louder the better–to attract a mate.

 

They require water for laying eggs, so the mating rituals begin at the pond’s edge, with the male filling up his throat with air, then croaking and crooning.

 

Starting in late January, through February and March, I sat in the dark living room with the window open, listening appreciatively, for as long as I could stand the frigidity. The sound came in thick waves, swelling, and swelling more.

 

Now there’s warm air coming through the night window, and the cacophony has dwindled, signaling that most mating has occurred.

 

Meanwhile, the female lays 400-750 eggs. They are jelly-like beads, in clumps that stick to the reeds and twigs. The frogs have to lay so many because it is tasty caviar to most other wildlife.

 

Soon the tadpoles will sprout little legs and gradually their entire bodies will transform from water-swimming pollywogs to land-hopping frogs.

Tadpole on a leaf…

Tadpole with frog legs

then frog.

Pacific Chorus Frog, California

The adult frog is very small, about two inches long (5 cm). They keep our spiders and insects in check.

 

Warm days, growing longer. New life abounds in many different forms…reminding us that miracles are everywhere.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) and Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly, Angel Island, CA

 

Ribbits Galore

Pacific Chorus Frog

Pacific Chorus Frog

Every spring along the Pacific Coast the Pacific Chorus Frogs start up their mating ritual and you would not believe the racket!  There’s a small pond on my neighbor’s property, as the crow flies it’s about a mile away.  There must be a million trillion frogs in that pond, for the crazy wave of reverberating ribbits we hear every single night.

 

This time of year is their breeding season, and we’re at the peak of it now.  It started up in February and will probably continue the rest of this month.  Every year is different, depending on the weather.  We’re lucky in this pocket of California to not have the invasive bullfrog, so the din from this pond is pure chorus.   One Sunday a few weeks ago my partner and I walked down to the pond with our 8 year old neighbor friend.  With the nightly ruckus, we hoped to see some frogs…and we were not disappointed.

 

In 15 minutes we saw as many frogs.  They’re only about 2 inches long, which makes the cacophony that much more amazing.  We had to be careful not to step on any, but that’s easy because they jump as soon as you get near.  The closer we got to the shoreline, the more abundant they became.  We were quite a sight gleefully squawking with each new frog.

 

Pacific Chorus Frog

Pacific Chorus Frog

Also called Pacific Tree Frog, species individuals are not identical.  We saw four or five different colors that day.  They vary in color and size depending on their environment.  The line through the eye is their distinguishing factor.  The males sing at night, luring in the females with their serenade.  The female makes her choice based on how often the male ribbits (which actually sounds like “kreeck-eeck”).  This explains everything:  those little guys are singin’ their hearts out for the next generation.  Mating occurs at the water’s edge, where eggs will develop into tadpoles.

 

At night I open the windows and brush my teeth to this sound, pleasantly lulled by this annual event.  I live out in the boonies and have numerous techno challenges, like no cell phone access.  But hearing these frogs every night, the glorious announcement of spring, it calms my soul on a level far deeper than a cell phone could ever reach.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Hoppy New Year

Tadpoles, Pacific Tree Frog

Tadpoles, Pacific Tree Frog

This year I lost many loved ones who passed away, and I miss them terribly, especially my mom.  I’ve had to make many difficult adjustments in 2013, so I look to the tadpole, one of the most transformational creatures I’ve ever known, to teach me to evolve with grace. 

 

Every spring when the winter rains diminish, there’s a roadside ditch near my house that begins to dry up.  If I lay flat on the road I can see into this ditch and study their lively world.  First there are eggs, large gelatinous clumps of 10, 20, sometimes 50 eggs.  Soon thereafter tiny tadpoles start to appear.  Over the years I have learned that these are the larval stage:  tadpoles of the California Pacific Tree frog (aka the chorus frog). I’ve also learned over the years to listen carefully for oncoming cars…ha.

 

I walk by this ditch frequently and if it becomes apparent that a large population of tadpoles are not going to survive in the evaporating ditch, my partner and I fill several clean water-filled jars with the tadpoles and quickly transport them to a small pond on our property.  Tadpole season means spring is here, this lifts my heart immensely. 

 

The Pseudacris regilla tadpole starts out as a tiny fish with a tiny tail, like the size of a rice grain, squiggling and darting around the water’s edge looking for food.  They eat algae and bacteria.  When the dark brownish-green body starts to get bigger, its tail elongates, creating a strong swimming creature.  My favorite part is when the body gets transparent and you can see its developing vertebrae.  They get bigger and stronger with each new day until one day if you look really closely, you can start to see an almost imperceptible bud between the bulbous body and the tail.  This will be the frog’s legs.  Soon there will be two buds, then four, then legs. 

 

Tadpole with frog legs

Tadpole with frog legs

In a remarkable transformation over the next few weeks (depending on the weather), the tadpole’s legs will gradually get larger, taking on a more frog-like appearance.  When it begins to look like a frog with a tail, it is close to its final stages of development.  In the later stages of this metamorphosis their mouths will widen and their digestive tracts will change too.  Eventually the most miraculous phase occurs:  the tail starts to shrink until it has been entirely absorbed into the body. 

 

Then one day the new little frog, about the size of a nickel, will not be in the water anymore; you’ll see it has hopped onto the land.  As for hopping, they don’t land evenly on all fours at first, because they’re just learning.  They hop and roll, hop and roll, then one day:  hop and land. 

 

In their short lifespan of approximately 5-9 years they have fins, then lungs; they have a tail and then it gets absorbed; sometimes they’re brown and then they’re green; they swim and then they hop.  One year they’re a swimming little tadpole and the next year they’re mating; and the cycle repeats itself all over again.  Each night in spring the sounds of their chorus (for which they are named) is a true cacophony that you can hear for miles.  Overnite guests complain they can’t sleep for the racket.  To me their “ribbits” sing of hope and glory and the miracles of evolution. 

 

So in this new year I wish for you and for me, to continue growing too.  I hope we embrace the beauties of this planet every day of this new year, and the changes, and the importance of surrendering to, yet enjoying, the natural cycles that are endlessly occurring all over this planet. 

Adult Pacific Tree Frog

Adult Pacific Tree Frog