The eerie mist slowly rolls across the dirt path playing in my headlights providing the only light along the forested roads. I hear the Spring Peepers still playing in my head, louder than when I was standing outside listening for them. When we stop to listen at our next site we jump out of the car as the sound of rain fills our ears as it beats on the metal roof of my car. I walk down the dirt trail away from my car; the sound of the rain from the dirt road and the trees surrounding me can still be heard but not as overwhelmingly as when bouncing off the metal roof of my car. The sound of Spring Peepers can be heard around me. I try to listen past them for any other frog species. I hear a trill going from a low to a high, a Gray Treefrog, perhaps? I listen harder to hear it again, but all I hear is the beating of the rain as it falls all around me clinging to my already soaking sweatshirt, then “drrraaa…” trilling to my right, the sound of a single Gray Treefrog flows through the air. We walk back to the car to record our observations, the rain running down my face like the sweat of a marathon runner at the finish line of a race.
This is how most of my surveying for the first of a three-series survey of Wisconsin frog species for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources progressed. Earlier that year I signed up as a volunteer to run one of the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey (WFTS) routes. The WFTS was started in 1981 as a way to survey all the frogs in Wisconsin by their calls. Every spring males of all twelve species of frogs located in Wisconsin will produce a species-specific call used to attract female frogs for mating. A vocal competition to see who is the sexiest of the frogs. Each species of frog emerges and calls at different points throughout the spring. Because of this the frogs are surveyed at the same locations on three different dates throughout the spring and summer. Each volunteer is given a specific route with ten specific sites to listen and record frog calls at. This approach allows for collections of results each year from the same locations to indicate if species are calling earlier, calling less, or maybe not even present in locations where they called before.
Results from not only this 40 year study, but from studies worldwide have indicated populations of frogs have been steadily decreasing over the past few decades. There are many hypotheses as to why this is, one consideration has to do with frog’s being indicator species. An indicator species is a species that can suggest a change in habitat quality through an increase or decrease in their populations. An increase in species of frog populations present, at a given location, indicates a good habitat; a significant drop in species of frogs present, at any given location, indicates an impairment of the habitat. This population change means: since frogs are not thick skinned, they are sensitive: what affects their habitat affects them: they cannot as readily protect themselves from toxins in their watery habitat as other animals hanging out in the same ecosystem. According to this hypothesis the current declines of frog species indicate the potential pollutants in our waters that can potentially affect us as time progresses, either directly or through foods we consume that have been exposed to the polluted waters.
When I volunteered for these surveys in 2012, the first survey had to be recorded between the 8th and 30th of April, so I was cutting it pretty close when I went out for my surveys on the 29th of April. I lived in Stevens Point, Portage County, Wisconsin at the time. Since both routes in Portage County were already filled by other volunteers, I received the Northern Adams County route for my surveying. Prior to the 29th I had never been in Adams County and was unaware that the route I had to survey was near the border that Adams County shared with Waushara County. I was sure glad when my friend, Ryan, wanted to go along with me to listen to frogs, as it would have been a shame to keep the adventure I was about to embark on all to myself. After our forty minute drive to Adams County, we thought we were making good time, but it would be another hour until we found our first site.
Our printed directions (no smartphone yet) lead to a crossroads less than a half mile from the first survey site along our route of ten sites. Little did we know that the road our map indicated as county D/1st Avenue really split into two roads straddling the border of Adams and Waushara Counties, and as it later appeared, if we followed the left, it turned into 1st avenue in Waushara County, and if we followed the right, we intersected with 1st avenue in Adams County. As it turns out, we decided to follow the wrong split of the road, and apparently the road names in this area are identical for both Counties because we were able to find roads our directions indicated but in the wrong listed order. The fun did not end here though.
Eventually, after about forty minutes of driving around in confusion, we came to a stop sign. To our left, along the crossroads, sat a sign saying “Adams County” and to our right, along the crossroads, sat a signing saying “Waushara County”. This moment, sitting at the crossroads, was our first indication that we were not even in the correct County. After we were back on track, we noticed occasional rain drops falling from the dusking sky slowly turning the beautiful day into an overcast evening. But we came all this way; we were not going to turn around for a little rain now. Twenty minutes later, we were at the crossroads that our map indicated as being less than a half mile from our first site. The rain was now coming down fast enough for me to turn my car’s windshield wipers on. The sky was now dark, as night had come, and we turned the corner to pull up to our first site that our directions indicated as being by a sign with the fire number “4240” written on it. Since neither of us knew what a fire number was, at the time, we were just looking for any sign with the number on it. A few minutes after driving, we decided that we had to be past the first site and attempted to turn the car around on the small dirt road to do another sweep for the sign. Eventually, we saw a fire hydrant and since neither of us knew what a fire number was we thought maybe fire hydrants’ had numbers and this one might be number 4240. Well, the fire hydrant did not have a number on it, but, by chance, on the opposite side of the road from the fire hydrant, on the ground tipped over among the overgrown yellow-brown weeds of the ditch was the sign we had been looking for: the fire number, also known as a rural address locator. Our surveying began!
From here on out everything ran as smoothly as one can expect when driving on dirt roads in the middle of an unknown nowhere. The rain did pick up a bit, and our rain jackets, that we both separately considered bringing, still sat warm and dry at home. Overall, we successfully ended the night listening for frogs at all ten sights along the route. We heard three different frog species: Spring Peeper, Western Chorus Frog, and Gray Treefrog.
As we drove home I hoped my next two surveying dates in May and June would go smoother. And for the most part they did, outside of on my second survey a car with two men that looked like ZZ Tops pulled over to see what I was up to in the middle of the night on dirt roads along a swamp, and during my 3rd survey a police officer stopped me to see what I was getting up to in the middle of the night along some dirt roads in the swamp… Overall, I had a great time with this citizen science program and if you find yourself living in Wisconsin, I encourage you to check this out as well as the other amazing citizen science programs WDNR offers. And don’t forget, bring a friend to share your adventures with!
- Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: https://wiatri.net/inventory/frogtoadsurvey/
- Main website for Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/
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