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DIGGING DEEPER: Wood Frogs - Harbingers of Spring in Our Winter Gardens

Updated: Jan 17

Anybody who has talked much with me about gardening or landscaping has surely heard of my love of water gardens. I’ve built them in every place I’ve lived since 1970, and have found that the usual pond with koi (aka fancy goldfish) held little appeal to me and certainly didn’t enhance the natural world around me. In fact, over the years I have never found any fish – native or otherwise, that didn’t reduce or eliminate the best part of small water gardens – FROGS AND TOADS - nature’s musicians.

My favorite frog is the wood frog, which is a sure sign of spring coming in this region. They are the first amphibian to breed and lay eggs – generally in late winter according to most references. However, at lower elevations in this area it’s been my experience that they usually start to breed in mid to late January, and one year they started singing in late December. A warm spell, especially accompanied by rain, seems to wake them up seeking romance! The actual mating season is usually only a couple of weeks in our area.

I had not expected the small water garden I made on top of the small ridge, where I built our current house in 2014, to attract these creatures that normally seek out vernal puddles or other small or otherwise temporary waters, usually found in valleys or lowlands. Surprisingly, within a year I had a thriving population of wood frogs, followed by many other species over the spring and summer. Their “songs” actually sound like a flock of slightly hoarse ducks, and the combined effect of the over 150 frogs in my little water garden is amazing, and a real spirit raising experience signaling the onset of a new season. Sadly, this symphony only lasts for a short period, but the abundant clusters of eggs are truly magical to watch develop and hatch into tadpoles, sometimes so numerous that they will swim in schools that will blacken a large area of water, eventually becoming tiny frogs that take off into the wilderness well before many of the later amphibians come to sing and breed. After the wood frogs ceased singing, the rest of the spring and summer seasons continue to be filled with frog and toad songs to supplement the bird and insect songs of the growing season, curtesy of our little water garden.

But let’s focus on this one frog. Behind the excitement of hearing and seeing them each year are a lot of amazing facts about this small amphibian that we really only see for about two weeks each year. Wood frogs can live in really cold places and really only extend south into our latitudes in the mountainous areas. Two remarkable facts about this frog are that it can freeze solid, and it also doesn’t urinate for an extended period during hibernation – often for up to 8 months! Recent findings link these two disparate facts, as it seems that the urea that is retained can be metabolized by a bacterium species to produce chemicals that apparently help this animal survive becoming a “frogcicle.” Not only is the wood frog the only amphibian to survive in the far north, it is one of a very few animals that can survive being frozen solid. Needless to say, this has interested scientists for years, and especially those dreaming of long space travel (have you seen the movie “Interstellar?”).

All this is to say that small shallow water gardens can serve not only as a great place to grow water plants and emergents, but they can provide endless entertainment, if allowed to support native amphibians. As an aside – to those of you who haven’t lost your youthful curiosity or who have children – nothing beats watching frog eggs develop from one fertilize egg to two cells to four cells, etc., until it resembles a curled-up fish and eventually a tadpole, which in turn changes into a frog! Better yet (with sufficient magnification) at an early stage in the development, you can actually see the blood cells being pumped through the slightly transparent gills! Overall, a great lesson in basic biology and an amazing peak into the mysteries of life!

I brought this little guy in to visit Deenie last week (they'd been singing for at least a week prior, but are now mostly done). Here he is helping to write this blog post...

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