This spring symphony was more than a peep

It sounded like amateur flutists tuning up. I heard it in the woods at dusk, in early April. As I followed the familiar trail leading toward a pond, the music intensified.

There were distinct "peeps" erupting from the water's edge. A few modified "quacks" were interspersed between the daintier notes. But when I got closer, the sounds abruptly stopped, as if a conductor had lowered his baton and all the musicians were instantly silenced.

I waited, but could see or hear no clues. Puzzled, I continued on the trail. As the distance between me and the pond lengthened, I heard the symphony again, behind me. First a few tentative peeps, then more, as one by one the chorus members joined in.

Intrigued and mystified, I visited our local naturalist.

"There were the strangest sounds at the pond last night," I told Nancy.

"The spring peepers are back!" she said with a big smile.

"And some kind of ducks, but I couldn't see them," I added.

"Not ducks," Nancy informed me. "Wood frogs."

Having grown up as a city slicker, I'd never heard of those. But it was high time to learn. As I bombarded Nancy with questions, she invited me on a night walk for a closer look - and listen.

It was still cold and raw as a small group of us made our silent way down the trail at twilight. Once again, peeps perforated the early evening air from somewhere in the pond. A counterpoint of "quacks" was scattered in between like punctuation marks. And, once again, all sound ceased as our presence was detected.

We stood still, quietly waiting. Nothing moved; nothing sang.

Suddenly, a small pool of light illuminated the water as Nancy moved her flashlight back and forth across the pond. She pointed. There, in a light-filled circle, we saw gray-green frogs - some floating on top of the water, others darting about.

"Those are the wood frogs," she told us. The source of the "quacks."

"Where are the peepers?" I asked.

"They're tiny," she replied. "Just about an inch or so long; brownish-gray, with an X-shaped dark mark on their backs. Very hard to see."

It was difficult to believe that so small a creature had so large a voice, but somewhere off in the distance the dainty peeps began again. I looked at Nancy questioningly.

"They're coming from the vernal pools," she told us. "Let's take a look." I'd never heard of vernal pools, either.

We made our way across and down the trail to giant puddles. I had passed these minipools before and gazed into them. All I saw were layers of dead leaves speckled by algae here and there. But as I have found, in nature there is more than meets the eye.

April showers bring not only May flowers; they bring amphibians. The spring rains create seasonal vernal pools, which dry up in the summer. These pools become temporary homes for wood frogs (Rana sylvatica), spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), and a colorful type of creature that I was soon to encounter.

Once again we stood in total silence around the water. Nancy shined her flashlight into the murky dark, and suddenly there appeared bright orange-yellow dots. We stared, fascinated, as the dots, attached to dark shapes about seven inches long, seemed to glow.

"Those are the spotted salamanders," Nancy told us. They spend most of their lives hidden on land, emerging only in early spring when they migrate to vernal pools for breeding. There they lay their eggs; the larvae hatch and become a new generation of spotted salamanders.

We could also see some floating, milky blobs attached to submerged sticks and stems.

"Those are egg masses," Nancy said. The blobs, covered with green algae for camouflage, may contain as many as 300 eggs.

By now the peepers and wood frogs had resumed their concert in the distant pond, a safe distance from their human audience.

"What type of song do the salamanders sing?" I asked Nancy.

"None," she replied. Spotted salamanders are silent. Apparently their flamboyant costumes and graceful submarine courting dances suffice for all their mating needs.

The nocturnal music continued under a crescent moon as we made our way back up the trail, muted peeps and quacks fading as we climbed.

I thought of all the times I had looked into ponds and puddles in spring, seeing nothing but leaves and twigs shimmering under a bright sun or monochrome beneath cloudy skies. Yet unbeknown to me, the waters contained a vibrant amphibian nightlife, every spring, year after year.

It was a small hint, I thought, of the many hidden wonders of nature throughout the seasons that I have yet to discover and learn about.

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