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Robert Miller: How to become a frog watcher

February 24, 2018 GMT

When small children pick up a frog for the first time, they know what a frog says: Ribet…Ribet…Ribet.

They are misinformed.

“We can tell them that that’s not right, that frogs each have different calls,” said Sarah Breznen, director of education at the Woodcock Nature Center in Ridgefield. “Then, we teach them the different calls.”

Frogs are accessible. They don’t bite. They’re big enough to see, small enough to hold in your hands.

“When you take kids out for a walk, you don’t want to promise them a bear,” she said. “But they can easily see a frog.”

But where the state’s 11 different species of frogs and toads are in the state, and how many of each species exist are questions that change as the landscape and climate changes.

To provide some basic answers, there is FrogWatch USA — the citizen science project that hopes to become for herpetologists what the Christmas Bird Count is for ornithologists. It’s an attempt to use a wide net of watchers and listeners to provide those who study amphibians some basic information about what’s happening in the nation’s vernal pools and wetlands.

“It’s been going for about six years now,” said Jim Sirch, education coordinator for Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven. “It’s great to be getting this information.”

The Peabody, in connection with its two FrogWatch partners — Connecticut’s’ Beadsley Zoo in Bridgeport and the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk — will be holding training sessions in the next three weeks for anyone wanting to join FrogWatch. To learn the times and places, go to http://peabody.yale.edu/events/become-a-frogwatch-citizen-scientist

The demands aren’t difficult. There’s really not any watching involved. Instead, participants go to a suitable wetland once or twice a week and listen to the frogs calling, whether in ones and twos or in a yakety chorus. They then send the report of what they’ve heard to FrogWatch’s national database, run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The work is important, in part, because frogs may be facing tough times in the future.

Wood frogs — the first frogs to emerge from winter to gather at vernal pools and make a racket — are declining in Connecticut, in part because of environmentally disruptive development in the land surrounding those pools.

Northern leopard frogs are now on the state’s list of species of special concern, with only small pockets of population along the northern section of the Connecticut River and its tributaries and in Litchfield County. They’ve also been sighted at Bennett’s Pond State Park on Ridgefield. (Historical records show there were leopard frogs in the marshes near the grounds of the old Danbury Fair. There is now a mall and lots of pavement there. No leopard frogs.)

There is also a fungal disease call chytrid that’s killing frogs around the world.

“That may have made the golden toads of the cloud forests of Monteverde in Costa Rica become extinct,” Sirch said of those beautiful, glowing amphibians, now gone for good.

There’s a ranavirus harmful to frogs that’s turned up in isolated spots in Connecticut. And there’s the alterations climate change is bound to bring.

Hank Gruner, vice president of programs at the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, said current models show that southern New England will become wetter and warmer in years to come. But it will also be more prone to drought.

Gruner said these changes may make bring new diseases to the state that could harm amphibians. Erratic weather swings could change vernal pools, which fill up in the spring and dry out in the summer. In turn, that could make it harder for some frogs to synchronize their mating patterns with the changing seasons.

“Some may be able to adapt,” Gruner said. “Some may not.”

And along with long-term changes, there are surprises. There’s a newly discovered frog species in the state — the Atlantic Coast leopard frog.

And there’s cataclysmic events that can ruin good habitat fast.

At New Pond Farm in Redding — whose staff has had FrogWatch training — there are marshes with a nice mix of species. The farm holds a Peeper Patrol each spring.

“We’ve always been very hospitable to frogs,” said Ann Taylor, New Pond’s executive director.

But in 2012, Hurricane Sandy battered the farm, knocking down the evergreens bordering the marsh. There’s less shade and warmer water now.

“Amphibians don’t necessarily like warmer water,” Taylor said. “We’ve had some species decline. But the bullfrogs are doing just fine.”

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com.