Enthusiastic frog watchers hop to it

NEWS-DEMOCRATMarch 23, 2014 

Difference between frogs and toads:

Heidi Lukavsky calls her son, Tony Bohn, a "frog magnet."

The 5-year-old Mascoutah boy has a knack for spotting and catching amphibians. He had two American toads, Fudgy and Lucky, as pets until recently.

"When I see something hop, I know it's a frog," he said.

Tony was the youngest student in FrogWatch training at St. Louis Zoo last weekend. He and 19 adults learned how to help biologists collect data on frogs and toads.

These "citizen scientists" will visit ponds and other wetlands in Illinois and Missouri, listen for mating calls and record findings in a computerized database.

"We've already picked out a place," said Heidi, 33. "It's by Route 4 in Mascoutah."

Worldwide effort

FrogWatch U.S.A. is administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It's part of a worldwide effort to find out why amphibians are developing deformities and declining in numbers. They're important to the food chain and highly sensitive to environmental problems.

"These guys are like canaries in a coal mine," said Michael Dawson, conservation education liaison at the zoo.

Michael formed the St. Louis Chapter of FrogWatch in 2010. He leads spring training at the zoo and Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo.

Today, there are 18 active frog-watchers in the region. More than 100 people have attended sessions.

"Some of them decide not to do it (or take breaks), and that's OK," said Michael, 37, of Florissant, Mo. "At least they're learning."

Distinct calls

Frogs and toads are rarely seen by humans. They're also rarely heard, except during mating season, when males are trying to attract females and defend territory.

Each species has a distinct call, varying by pitch, speed and repetition.

"It's actually easier to identify them by sound than by sight," Michael said.

Biologists have identified 23 frog and toad species in the St. Louis region. For training purposes, Michael narrows it down to the 10 most common.

His main task is helping people differentiate between calls to determine if, when or where a particular species is mating.

"We call it our dating monitoring service," he said.

Michael uses teaching aids such as audio recordings, laminated pictures and matching games.

He also provides verbal descriptions, likening the call of pickerel frogs to underwater snoring and green frogs to strings being plucked on a cardboard guitar.

"Some people think (northern cricket frogs) sound like marbles clicking together," he said.

How it's done

Frog-watchers do research after sunset around ponds, marshes, creeks, swamps, fens, bogs or other wetlands.

They're asked to visit the location of their choice at least 10 times over the spring and summer and listen for three minutes. Heidi and Tony are shooting for twice a week.

"Some (frog or toad calls) I have down for sure," Heidi said. "But when there are two or three or four of them going at the same time, I'll probably start to doubt myself."

Ordinary citizens have collected FrogWatch data since 1998, when the U.S. Geological Survey created the program. The National Wildlife Federation took over from 2002 to 2008.

Tech. Sgt. Jay Bushey took the training last weekend. The Air Force weather forecaster is fascinated by frogs.

"When I was in South Korea, they had frogs that whistled and some that chirped," said Jay, 43, of Shiloh. "They sounded like a flock of birds."

Jay plans to do his frog-watching at Scott Lake or retention ponds at Scott Air Force Base.

In the long run, he wonders how the study of amphibians could affect meteorology.

"If we watch them close enough, it could give us clues to trends in the environment, like whether it's going to be a cold winter or a dry summer," he said.

Terry Tanner and her son, Jeff Wicker, also showed up for training. Her blufftop property in Godfrey is a mecca for tree frogs, which sometimes break into her house.

Terry, 65, likes the idea of doing her small part to help biologists protect the planet.

"I think there are a lot of things in our environment that really haven't been studied all that much," she said. "And (frogs) would be one example."

Want to hear frogs?

When: After sunset during mating season, which is February through August in the St. Louis area, depending on species and weather conditions.

Where: Wetlands such as ponds, marshes, creeks, swamps, fens or bogs that are convenient, safe after dark, legally accessible and relatively free of noise.

Training: Attend a FrogWatch session from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 21 or 25 at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo. Register at missouribotanicalgarden.org.

Audio: Listen to recorded frog and toad calls online at amphibiaweb.org, macaulaylibrary.org, midwestfrogs.com or westernsoundscape.org.

Contact: For more information on FrogWatch U.S.A., call Michael Dawson of the St. Louis Chapter at 314-646-4551 or visit stlzoo.org/education/frogwatchusa.

FROGS

Smooth or slimy skin

Lay eggs in clusters

Usually live in or near water

Skinny bodies with long legs

Move in leaps and jumps

Upper jaw with teeth

TOADS

Warty, dry skin

Lay eggs in long strands

Usually live on dry land

Fat bodies with short legs

Move in short hops

No teeth

10 MOST COMMON FROGS AND TOADS IN ST. LOUIS REGION (in no particular order):

Eastern American toad

Spring peeper

Gray treefrog

Southern leopard frog

American bullfrog

Green frog

Northern cricket frog

Pickerel frog

Boreal chorus frog

Fowler's toad

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