Amphibians Get a Jump-Start on Mating Season

Wood frog

From my back porch Sunday night I heard what sounded like a flock of ducks. That means the wood frogs are up. They must’ve hopped through the rain the night before to a little drainage pond down the hill, where they quack and mate.

In Saranac Lake, where I live, amphibians usually get stirring around Tax Day. But this year’s odd “Summer in March” was like a start pistol for a lot of plants and animals.

North of the Adirondack Park, in the St. Lawrence Valley, American toads and several kinds of frogs are already singing, quacking and thrumming, says Glenn Johnson, chairman of the biology department at SUNY Potsdam and co-author of the book The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State.

Johnson first heard the sweet chorus of spring peepers, the tiny tree frogs, on March 18, about two weeks ahead of schedule for Potsdam. (I’m still on the listen for peepers, which I noted on April 7 last year.) Johnson heard the high trill of an American toad on March 22, his earliest record by a long shot. He says leopard frogs, green frogs and bullfrogs are also calling.

With thaw and rain, salamanders, toads, and terrestrial frogs move from scattered winter hibernation in soil and leaf litter to congregate in the ponds where they were born. Leopard frogs and other aquatic species simply swim up from the bottom water.

On balance, Johnson says he’s not too concerned about the early mating season. A hard freeze could damage some individuals caught high and dry, but even with last night’s single-digit temperatures he’s more concerned about a lack of snowmelt to fill ponds and streams. If spring rains are weak, then ephemeral pools could evaporate before tadpoles get enough food to grow and metamorphose into froglets and junior salamanders.

There are 32 species of frogs and salamanders in New York State. Of these, only the mink frog is exclusive to the North Country. It looks like a green frog and lives in the cold, pickerel-weed waters of the Adirondacks and Tug Hill. (Identification tip: green frogs say gunk and have leg stripes, while mink frogs say cut-cut-cut and have no leg banding.)

Habitat destruction, invasives, disease, climate change and roadkill are causing a global decline of amphibians. To learn more about the current distribution of frogs and salamanders in the Adirondacks, Johnson and the Adirondack All-Taxa Biological Inventory (ATBI), based at Paul Smith’s College, are asking local volunteers to look for amphibians and to report what they find.

Adirondack ATBI director David Patrick says Paul Smiths hasn’t yet had a “big night” (the first warm, rainy ~40°F night) when salamanders, wood frogs and tree frogs move en masse toward breeding sites. The migration is most visible on roads.

Another way to find breeding pools is to keep your ears alert for nighttime frog calls. (Salamanders are silent but frequent the same ponds.) To volunteer you need a flashlight and a raincoat, but a camera and audio recorder are helpful to confirm sightings. Kids are encouraged to take part. For datasheets and more information see the ATBI website.

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