The swales are alive with the sound of croaking

Pacific tree frogs may be noisy, but they keep bugs in check

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

What: 15th Annual Critter Count. Learn all about amphibians and reptiles during Vancouver's annual waterfront census of frogs, snakes and lizards. Children are welcome if accompanied by adults.

When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 12.

Where: Water Resources Education Center, 4600 S.E. Columbia Way, Vancouver.

Information: Water Resources Education Center or 360-487-7111.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife guides to living with wildlife, including frogs

Pete Riston's all-volunteer project to count Clark County amphibians and their eggs

What: 15th Annual Critter Count. Learn all about amphibians and reptiles during Vancouver’s annual waterfront census of frogs, snakes and lizards. Children are welcome if accompanied by adults.

When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 12.

Where: Water Resources Education Center, 4600 S.E. Columbia Way, Vancouver.

Information: Water Resources Education Center or 360-487-7111.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife guides to living with wildlife, including frogs

Pete Riston’s all-volunteer project to count Clark County amphibians and their eggs

Tilt an ear out your Felida window in the area south of Jefferson Middle School and you can’t miss the soaring springtime aria of frog love.

Judging by the robust — some would say deafening — chorus of pond life here, the stormwater drainage facility on Northwest 116th Street must be doing its job.

“You can hear how healthy it is,” said scientist Pete Ritson, who teaches at Portland Community College and heads up SWAMP, the Southwest Washington Amphibian Monitoring Project. “Those little frogs are super noisy.”

Noisy enough even to disrupt the slumber of Tim Batchelor and his son Jude, who live nearby. Tim is a fairly light sleeper, wife Liz reports, and he’s been known to holler out the window to silence the chorus. Once he overheard Jude talking in his sleep — over the sound of the frogs — and what the boy was saying was, “Shut up, shut up, shut up.”

Liz, who grew up in the neighborhood before it was so densely developed, confessed that she “kind of likes it. It means water. It means the end of winter. It’s just natural,” she said. It’s also louder than before, she added.

This spacious artificial pond must have drawn more frogs than used to populate the area, she figures — not to mention the elegant backyard water features and just-plain puddles that are plentiful in the ‘burbs.

But nobody with Clark County, or the city of Vancouver or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife appears to be forming up a posse to go round up loud frogs.

“I am not aware of any codes which deal with wildlife noise,” summed up Kevin Pridemore, Clark County’s code enforcement manager.

“I think I’ve had one (complaint about frogs),” said a dispatcher at Clark County Animal Control. “I think I just kind of laughed at them. We don’t have anything to do with natural wildlife. If we do get calls like that, we send them to Fish and Wildlife.”

A Department of Fish and Wildlife scientist didn’t laugh, but he didn’t offer to take on any noisy nuisances either. He only offered up food for thought about the value of suburban frogs as bug eaters, as interesting wildlife and as indicators of decent water quality.

“I get about two or three calls a year asking me how we can get rid of those frogs,” said Marc Hayes, a research scientist with Fish and Wildlife’s habitat program. “Yes, because of the noise.”

Sticky fingers

“The frog you’re dealing with is very loud,” Hayes agreed. “It’s the loudest of all our frogs. It’s also one of the commonest frogs in the Pacific Northwest. It’s called the Pacific tree frog.”

The Pacific tree frog is a highly adaptable little guy — yes we’re talking about the male here, since he’s the really lusty singer — who isn’t fussy about habitat space, Hayes said. “They’ll occupy and breed in places that are rather urban. A grassy pond like that, it’s a classic place they’re going to like.”

Especially since their natural landscape is retreating.

“Nationwide and locally, frogs have lost a lot of their natural habitat over the years, so it’s not unusual for stormwater facilities to attract more concentrated frog populations than back when wetlands and suitable riparian areas were plentiful,” added Coria Samia, an educator at Vancouver’s Water Resources Education Center.

All Pacific tree frogs really need is water that stands for a few months — although their sticky little toepads help mature adults climb up trees and other things, like walls. It’s not uncommon to find them outside bathroom windows and under roof eaves, Hayes said.

Why do they climb? They’re searching for the food that we like them to find: mosquitos, flies, spiders, beetles, ants and other insects and arthropods (segmented, armored creepy-crawlies including mites and millipedes). Their tadpoles, meanwhile, go for algae, decaying vegetation, dead earthworms and other organic stuff in the water.

“Some people really like them, and some people can’t sleep at night, but look at it this way,” said Ritson. “Every frog you hear out there is eating a ton of mosquitoes.”

Inflatable amp

The Pacific tree frog grows to no more than two inches at maturity. How does such a petite frog generate such big noise?

The sound is boosted by a built-in vocal amplifier that would make Eddie Vedder jealous. The male tree frog has a resonating throat sac that inflates to three times the size of his head, sending the sound all over the neighborhood even when he’s singing a solo. But he’s no rugged individualist, just one voice in the chorus. When one male starts singing to the females lurking around, all of the other males tend to join in. That’s why this species’ other name is the chorus frog.

Males form choruses while floating atop the water or sitting partially submerged in it. (Sounds like an Esther Williams movie, doesn’t it?) Females lay egg masses in shallow water or on vegetation. Males fertilize them externally.

Pacific tree frogs are generally but not exclusively nocturnal. They typically start singing before dusk and continue well into the night. But they’ve been known to sing whenever the spirit moves them, and keep it up until they’re interrupted. “They clam up when you get close to them,” said program manager Jeff Schnabel of Clark County’s Clean Water Program.

What’s their favorite song? It’s a two-part rhumba that goes “kreck-ek” or, if you prefer, “ribbit.” According to Fish and Wildlife, Hollywood is responsible for making that sound — the signature of one particular nocturnal singer — the sound we now identify with any and all frogs. If you catch atmospheric ribbits signaling nighttime in the jungles of Asia or the savannahs of Africa in the movie you’re watching, that lonely Pacific tree frog is pretty far from home.

Hayes likes to tell frog neighbors whose ears are ringing that frogs, and amphibians in general, are “a pretty good indicator of water quality. If you have water quality problems, you’ll lose the amphibians.”

Ritson’s all-volunteer SWAMP effort regularly makes the rounds of Clark County wetlands, including these artificial stormwater facilities, to examine the conditions and count up egg masses. (The well-camouflaged frogs themselves are nearly impossible to find, he said.) Since Clark County is spending “a lot of money on water quality, as a scientist, I just want to know if we’re doing a great job.” So far, he said, he remains optimistic despite the retreat of wildlife habitat — partially thanks to the presence of these artificial oases breaking up all that asphalt. Schnabel said Clark County owns approximately 900 of them, and many more are privately owned.

Nobody The Columbian spoke to had ever heard of anyone poisoning, or even threatening to poison, a stormwater facility out of fury at noisy frogs. Hayes said killing frogs would mean killing the whole ecosystem. Frogs don’t just do the feasting, he said; they’re also feasted upon by owls, snakes, herons, egrets, and other small mammals and reptiles.

“People may not like the frogs but they like a lot of the other life” that’s associated with them, Schnabel said.

And if that doesn’t soothe your nerves, just try to take the long view.

“It’s a rite of spring,” said Schnabel. “For a few weeks they’re everywhere. Then they’re gone.”