The new herping season unfolds and whatever may happen, I know that at some point I will be standing in chilly water, listening to the peeps, whistles, trills, clicks, clacks, bleats and moans of calling frogs and toads. Few things give me greater pleasure and I would not miss this ritual for all the world.
Operation Snoring Thunder is an early spring ritual, and the timing depends on temperatures, when the rains come, and when we participants can get away and drive to the southern third of Illinois. This year it fell on a Friday night, and as Justin drove down from Peoria, I left Champaign with Tristan and Yatin, and we all met up with Jeremy at the Walmart in Carbondale. As per usual we were going for crawfish frogs (hence the Snoring Thunder handle), but we were also giving Illinois chorus frogs a shot. This one was going to be a rocket run – I was running on four hours of sleep, and had to be back home some time Saturday morning – challenge accepted.
Pseudacris illinoensis is a burrowing species that requires sandy soil, and is found in scattered counties along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, and in similar habitat in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Other than the their breeding season in early spring, illinoensis are seldom seen, as they spend much of their time below ground. Our method for finding the elusive chorus frog was to drive to suitable habitat, listen for choruses of spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), and then listen harder for illinoensis, with their the slightly lower, slightly longer notes that rise in pitch at the end.
Jeremy led us to the first spot, a flooded ditch running alongside a windbreak of trees, and we could hear a few illinoensis mixed in with chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) and the always-present peeper chorus. But frog calls are tricksy, and can carry a long way – the bulk of the chorus was actually coming from behind the windbreak, and we wormed our way through it to a flooded farm field where the frogs were in full riot. Peepers usually call from just above the water, while hanging onto grass stems and other vegetation. I never tire of watching the males call – pushing air from abdomens into throat sacs, to produce their singular note. Over and over, putting everything they have into it, burning up calories and tiny bits of frog gristle, betting everything on attracting a female. It’s one hell of a story and it happens every spring.
An amazing thing happens when the number of calling peepers reaches critical mass, and you are standing amongst them. So many individual ‘peeps’ are going off that the auditory processing center of the brain short cycles them, and all you can hear in your head is a sustained “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”, an odd sensation the first time it happens to you and then ever after, a thing you anticipate with phenological pleasure.
Aside from the multitude of peepers, there were a few chorus frogs mixed in, and leopard frogs (Lithobates sphenocephala) were swimming around looking for a little frogs to snack on. We could hear a smattering of illinoensis calling, and saw a few, but they were very wary – either their main breeding time had come and gone, or it was still to come.
We moved on to one of my favorite spots for another try, just outside a small town, already dark and silent at 11 pm. Driving along a two-lane with the windows down, we could hear some illinoensis calling from a roadside ditch with a foot of standing water. Here we had better luck observing and photographing these ephemeral amphibians, and some of the guys were happy to add the species to their life list. This location was a study of liminal spaces – a band of asphalt road, a wet ditch full of frogs, and then a neatly turned farm field sown with winter wheat just beyond – somehow, the peepers and chorus frogs and leopard frogs and the sand-loving illinoensis manage to exist between the frying pan and the fire.
Now it was time to try for crawfish frogs, an hour’s drive north. A stop for some caffeine helped to perk me up a bit, but I could feel the weight of exhaustion dropping on me – my fifth decade is nothing like my second decade, when I could stay awake for most of a weekend. Parking at the edge of the property, we could hear the low snore of Lithobates areolatus coming from a slough several hundred feet away. Faced with three more hours of driving, I made a decision. “You guys go ahead – I’m going to take a nap.” I put my seat back and knew no more until the group came back an hour later, with disappointing results. Even under the best circumstances, crawfish frogs are difficult to observe, and since their breeding season was just getting under way, they were even more warier. When the full fit of reproduction is upon them, many frogs and toads are more approachable, being preoccupied with more important matters. This night, the frogs sank in the water as they drew near, and ceased calling.
It was a tough drive home, but the nap helped immensely, and I tumbled into bed as the sky was starting to lighten. The fact that the old guy had to take a nap while the youngsters went frogging is something I try not to dwell upon – I’ll be back for the next Snoring Thunder. Maybe I’ll nap before I leave.