…was a frog. Or rather, a dozen frogs.
Recently, Tracey Mitchell and I made one last trip to the southern portion of Illinois, in hopes of finding a few more serpents before the door slammed for good on the season. Temperatures the previous night had dropped into the lower thirties, but with a forecast of sun and sixty, we thought our chances were pretty good of seeing a few cool species close to their hibernacula.
The destination for our one-day rocket run south was a set of limestone bluffs, remote and seldom visited by other herpers, mostly because there is no easy way to reach them. There are no trails, and one has to force a path through blackberry bush and smilax and thick canebrakes (not those canebrakes; stands of bamboo-like cane). The payoff was a reasonable chance for timber rattlers and copperheads, with a sprinkling of black rat snakes and rough green snakes.
There was to be no payday this day, and no sprinkles. After several hours of struggling, our arms and hands were scratched as if we were free-handling bobcats. We were hot and sweaty and more than a little peeved at making a lot of effort for no return. We think we’re pretty good herpers; we know stuff, and we know how to find stuff. We weren’t finding stuff.
We continued to struggle along the base of the bluff. “Here’s a frog,” said Tracey. Saints be praised – our luck was changing! He pointed to a young-of-the-year Gray Treefrog, a tiny thing hopping amid chunks of limestone. Cameras came out and I took a data point for the HerpMapper project. While I was shooting, Tracey said “here’s another!” And then I spotted a third, nestled in a small scoop in a large boulder.
Here was a point in our personal narratives where the brain concludes that Something Is Going On Here. Time slows down. Eyes and gray matter focus intently, a search pattern is initiated. And more treefrogs swim into focus. Some rest on vertical planes of the limestone, others are clinging to leafy saplings. Some are in the shade, dark and subdued in color, but others are in the weak autumn sunlight, and they blaze metallic golds and greens. All are the same size – all were tadpoles this spring.
Um, Tadpoles Where? asks Brain, now fully engaged. The answer lies a few yards away, a damp spot at the base of the bluff. It may be a seep, or it may be a rain chute, where water from the forested slopes above pours over the brink, or both. Mossy green stains on the rocks indicate that water pools here, enough to raise a host of young treefrogs. We were looking at a dozen survivors; most of the rest were long gone, claimed by accidents or met with the maws and mandibles of predators. The little frogs were not that far from hunkering down for the winter, and were probably taking advantage of the last few warm days to snap up a few more insects. Predation pressure is still a problem for them – these bluff spaces are filled with neonate snakes, also on the lookout for a last meal. The coming cold has its own cruelty, and even fewer frogs will emerge on the far side of the season when the sun finally comes back.
There were no snakes that day, but catching the tip of the frog cycle’s long tail was our saving grace. It was a three hour hike back to the car, the last mile of it made in the moonlight, and then the four hour drive home. It must seem like utter madness to others – six hours of rough hiking, and eight hours in the car, all for two six-packs of treefrogs. It’s always a crapshoot on the edge of the season; on other visits to these bluffs, serpents were out in double digits. You pays your money and you takes your chances. The field herping season might not be over, or maybe it’s really over until next year, I don’t know yet. But I know I’d like to be back at that spot on the bluff on a rainy night in the spring!