No Silent Spring

July 9, 2023

As mild spring air enlivens our landscape and energizes us, tell-tale sounds of the season echo through our local fields, woodlands and neighborhoods — the high-pitched song of small tree frogs, known as peepers, sing their return. We rarely see them. If we could, their scientific name, Pseudacris crucifer, would help to identify them because a dark X-shape marks their tan-colored backs. But their calls are what really demand our attention. Where are they hiding? Their secret dwellings are treasures hidden around North Salem. 

In "Why Tiny Ponds and Singing Frogs Matter So Much," a recent article in The New York Times, Margaret Renkl shares the lowdown. She writes about the importance of “miniature wetlands” called vernal pools where amphibians and reptiles breed without predation. Our special rural town has at least fifty-five of them dotted throughout protected land. These ephemeral waterbodies are natural depressions in the woods - maybe your woods - where water collects from melted snow along with March and April rainfall. The term “vernal” refers to spring and such a habitat tends to be seasonal, drying up in the heat of summer. These pools are unique in that they are not spring fed or part of a larger stream network, so luckily there are no fish to feast on amphibian eggs. Because of their safe siting, these havens that breed salamanders and frogs are a veritable “nursery,” as Renkl puts it.

The chorus that we hear on warm spring nights is the peeper mating ritual. The males court the ladies with their delightful chirps. After mating, the females lay eggs underwater. Eggs are fertilized by the males as they are laid and land, well-camouflaged, on plants or leaf matter in the vernal pool. Unlike many other frog species, spring peepers lay their eggs singly, rather than in a mass. They will hatch within a few days (or longer when temperatures are cool) and need two to four months to mature from tadpoles into frogs. They emerge into their lives as critical players of the ecosystem. Renkl called these amphibians an indicator species, which alert us to damaging changes in the environment when they are absent. 

Within the forest ecosystem, our frog friends play a major role in controlling insect populations, and in turn, they provide food for wildlife in the food chain. We can praise our local ecological efforts that preserve such valuable habitats. Remember “ecology” comes from the Greek oikos, meaning “household.” Let’s keep our outdoor household safe and free of exploitation. When land with a vernal pool is developed, the ecosystem is wiped out for good. Follow the peepers, and seek your local vernal pool. If you can find one, count your blessings that we don’t have a silent spring.