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Frog Watching: Into the Woods

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FrogWatch U.S.A. is a national effort to determine the populations of the various species of frogs by monitoring their audible presence in given areas. This citizen science project – a joint effort of scientists and amateurs – began in 1998 in response to the alarmingly declining numbers of frogs on a global scale. Data submitted by volunteers is put into a national data bank that will, it is hoped, offer an accurate account of frog species (including the American Toad) populations in the U.S.

This year I signed up to be a participant in FrogWatch at Reinstein Woods, a 292-acre wildlife sanctuary in Depew, New York, known for its active populations of beaver and deer. On a wintry March night I attended the prerequisite frog training class at the lodge at the sanctuary where I became an official FrogWatch steward. I had to learn the nine species of frogs residing in Western New York State and familiarize myself with their various calls and songs. I felt like a kid with a badge when they handed me my ID tags that would allow me into the sanctuary after hours (sunset to dawn).

Into the woods, I had to hear the frogs, not necessarily see them. My first spring night of frog watching taught me one important lesson: Don’t forget the insect repellent! I was carved up for dinner by mosquitos. The FrogWatch program equipped me with a backpack containing a thermometer, map, data sheets, flashlight, headlamp, clipboard, pen/pencil, and a tape recorder (I felt like a fully prepared Ghostbuster) – but no insect repellent.

Remaining perfectly still and silent while waiting for the sound of frogs allowed me to observe other wildlife. Aside from the young couple I observed making love in yonder brush, the first wildlife I saw was a remarkably tame deer. She slowly stepped right up to me as if I had been a small tree she was going to nibble on. Probably the result of well-intentioned people feeding her.

Some nights when the moon was full, the woods became a midsummer night’s fantasy world of shadows and sounds, alive with the activity of the creatures who lived there. At one frog watching post, bats swooped so low and close to me I was certain I would soon be Tippi Hedren running down the sanctuary path pulling bats out of my hair. At first, I was amused at how close they would come to my head, but when I could actually hear the swish of their wings (and imagine their beady little eyes), the whole rabies/Dracula vibe overwhelmed me.

Get a hold of yourself, I countered my ridiculous fear. What king of a frog watcher are you?

The beavers would smack their tails against the pond, signaling danger to other beavers whenever I would come close to the water’s edge. It’s an aggressive and alarming sound, but not as aggressive and alarming as the land-loving beaver who stood in my path as if refusing to allow me to pass. Did I imagine that he was hissing at me? Do beavers hiss? I had just read on the internet how a beaver killed a guy in Russia who was photographing it. American beavers don’t kill, do they? I ain’t afraid of no beaver!

But then I was certain he hissed again, and I chose another path.

I am in danger of becoming a woods coward.

But that’s part of the allure of the woods. That shot of adrenaline from something mysterious, something undefined lurking around the next bend. I’m not sure I would enjoy the woods as much without that sense of the unknown. And there is no sense in being foolhardy when a maniacal rabies-infected hissing beaver is telling you to go another way.

But the strangest encounter I had was with man himself. Occasionally I would come across a fellow frog watcher and we would flash our flashlights at one another to identify ourselves as frog watchers. On one fog-shrouded night, after a flashlight communiqué, I met up with a frog watcher who told me to beware of a strange man lurking in the woods. She said she had just talked with him, that he had no authorization to be in the woods, and that he appeared irrational, odd, and mysterious. She said she found him balancing on a log and throwing stones into the pond. After telling me this, she disappeared into the woods like a ghost. It was like a scene out of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog.

So now I’m looking out for low-flying bats, rabid beavers, and homicidal maniacs.

While I heard every species of frogs residing in Western New York at one time or another, the actual number of species I heard during the program’s designated clocked and recorded three minutes of time was smaller. I recorded the “jug o’ rum” call of the Bullfrog, the banjo string “gunk” of the Green Frog, the trill of the American Toad, the “snore” of the Pickerel Frog, the “peep” of the Spring Peeper, and the tinny trill of the Western Chorus Frog.

But, as important, I got in touch with nature. Ah, wilderness! Aside from the spooky thrill of the woods, there were peaceful and contemplative moments. During one sunset I watched a Great Blue Heron circle the sanctuary like a paper airplane, settle down into a crop of brush, and then slowly escape to its hidden nest under the canopy. One night a coyote, looking very much its legend of “ghost dog,” trotted off ahead of me on the path under a moonlit sky as if guiding my way.

Next year, I’m up for the bat-watching program. They say confronting your fears makes you stronger. Except for rabid bats. Rabid bats will kill you.

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