— by John Himmelman
I became acquainted with frogs well after my obsession with insects, and only a short time after my obsession with birds. It was my wife Betsy who put them under my radar. She went through a period where she was feverishly producing watercolor paintings—frogs being her subject. I loved how they looked and wanted her to keep painting them, so I set out to hunt down new “models” for her. In doing so, I got to know more about these amphibians and soon added them to my list of obsessions. My interest in frogs sprang from an aesthetic appreciation, but the more I got to know them, the more I got drawn into their dewy world.
Yes, there is still that aesthetic appreciation. I mean, frogs just look. . . cool, and by cool, I mean unflappable. Imperturbable. Non-chalant. This must have something to do with those relaxed, slanted pupils, giving them the look that everything’s just fine with them. That half-grin doesn’t hurt the image. Nor does the fact they spend most of the time sitting back, or floating, while life goes on around them.
Now add in their proclivity for song. Those big, bubbly throat sacs fill with air and let loose, bringing to mind the billowy cheeks of Louie Armstrong blowing his horn. One does not need to see the vocalist to tell who he is. Each species has its own song to sing. Those songs, like most animal songs, are declarations of territories and amorous invitations to females.
A few years back I set out to find and photograph every species of frog and salamander in New England. This endeavor brought me chest deep in secluded pools in northern Vermont in search of mink frogs; flipping rocks in a drained Massachusetts canal seeking mudpuppies; and venturing out on cold, rainy March nights in Connecticut to join the spring peepers, spotted salamanders, and woodfrogs as they emerged from their winter slumber. Quests are fun. We can give them to ourselves, or they can be given to us. Finding that which you seek is also fun. With the frogs, there is an added bonus. They call out to you. They are the sirens of the ponds, puddles, lakes, and streams, inviting you to get your feet wet. Sometimes, they are in the last place you expect to find them. Last spring, Betsy and I were walking to our hotel in Mariposa, California (not really a haven for wildlife), when I heard “ribbit… ribbit… ribbit…” It came from a little creek beside the hotel. I took out my cell phone and recorded my very first introduction to Pacific tree frogs. It’s the recording you hear at the Activities page on the Dawn Publications website. (Scroll down to the Noisy Frog Sing-Along book cover.)
Learn to listen for the frogs. When you hear them, seek out who is calling. Watch them sing. This melds within your brain the image of the singer with the song he sings. Once you have done this, you will only have to hear to song to conjure up that image. For me, who started on this amphibious journey as someone who simply liked to look at frogs, it is a trip come full circle. I hear. I close my eyes. I see. I smile.
John Himmelman is author of Noisy Frog Sing-Along and Noisy Bug Sing-Along