Listening to the Creatures of the Night

Mar 27, 2018

Credit L. Lerner

There has been much singing down in the kettle hole tonight. Spring peepers and wood frogs are out in force, producing an electrical, amphibious chorus magnified by the megaphone shape of the hole. At dusk I walked out to the edge of the yard and, in the dying light, made my way slowly and carefully down to the wetland at the bottom of the slope, trying not to disturb their singing.

As I descended, the bare, still-leafless oaks seemed to lift, one by one, in stark, still silhouette above my head, like stage sets being elevated into the flies. 

I walked down without any light, but the frogs must have heard my approach. They quieted, and then, after two or three minutes, gradually resumed singing at half force. I was familiar with their usual calls – the guttural croak of the wood frogs, the eponymous peep of the spring peepers. But at such close proximity I became aware of two new sounds I had never heard before. The wood frogs, I realized, made a slight whimpering or creaking sound before each harsh quack, and the peepers gave a prefatory thock before each peep.

These subtle auxiliary sounds were inaudible at any distance, but apparently they make a little extra impact on the female frogs’ brain, increasingly the allure of the males’ mating calls. But they also gave a strangely poignant quality to the frogs’ calls, as if their songs were being forced out of them, against their wills, into the night. 

The peepers seemed much more hesitant than the wood frogs to resume singing, as if they were more aware of my presence. How strange to feel that we were both, frogs and human, intensely aware of one another in the blackness, though they had the edge on me, since they knew exactly where I was. I could hear each call clearly and distinctly, but frog calls are strangely ventriloquial, and it was impossible to determine their exact location.  They are masters of waiting, having been at it for eons, and they outlasted me. I shone my light out over the water and down into it, hearing everything but seeing nothing. 

From the yard it had seemed as if there were hundreds of frogs singing, but at this close distance it now seemed that there were not nearly as many as I had thought. In fact, I seemed to detect only six to a dozen peepers in total, and maybe three or four wood frogs, singing in the hole. The piercing, penetrating timbre of their voices, the short-echo effect of each note, and the general overlapping quality of their songs, tend to make their numbers seem greater than they are. Finally, I climbed back up to the house and went inside. 

Later, at about 9 o’clock, I got up to let the dog out, and there, at the bottom of the glass slider, I found a single small peeper, less than an inch across, humped up on the lower sill, looking somewhat wrinkled, but singing away. I brought him in and placed him in a jar of water, where he seemed to expand like a crumpled straw sprinkled with water. I could see clearly now the irregular cross pattern on his back – the source of his species name, Hyla crucifer. Then I carried him outside, releasing him into the warm, misty, windy, song-filled night.