Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Frogs in the Fridge, Frogs in the Marsh

Beaver Marsh Bullfrog
The Earliest Frogs
I used to love visiting my dad's office in the basement of the Science Building at NCCU. I was just a little boy, maybe eight or nine when I saw something there I had never seen before. It was a whole box of live frogs. They had just arrived from Carolina Biological Supply. The box, full of round air holes, was still sealed but I could hear them scrambling around inside. 

I could not wait for that box to be opened. I can't be sure what kind of frogs they were. Maybe small bullfrogs, maybe leopard or green frogs. I just know they were mostly green and brown and not very large. There must have been twenty or more of them in the box. A few were dead. That made me sad for two reasons. First of all I didn't like to see animals suffer and die. Second, the chances that I might get to keep one of them as a pet diminished with every dead body in the box. The others seemed to be doing well. Some seemed to be thriving. Dad put the box on a table near a refrigerator he kept in the lab next to his office. That cold place was going to be their new home. He pulled out one of the vegetable drawers, filled it with some damp wood shavings and put all of the living frogs in the drawer. He said the cold and dark would slow them down and keep them from eating each other. Then I understood why some of them looked so big and robust. He wrapped the dead ones in wax paper and put them in the freezer. All of them were destined for dissection and temporary preservation in formaldehyde. I still remember the smells of the lab.

I didn't know it at the time but my own turn with the frogs would come a few years later when I got to Mr Davis' biology class at Hillside High School. Yes, we did the whole drill of pithing, pinning and dissecting. I'll spare you the details but you probably know anyway.

Swim Like a Frog
Johnny McLendon, son of the famous NCCU basketball coach, John B. McLendon, and I were sitting on the sidewalk in front of my house playing with a frog we had caught earlier that day. We had him in a tub of water from which there was no escape. All he could do was swim around as we amused ourselves by making waves in the water and occasionally putting him on the ground so we could catch him again. I know now that it was no way to treat anything but that is who we were at ten.

Johnny's dad happened by on his way to work at the gymnasium. He stopped to see what mischief we were up to. This time we were innocent. Then, the coach and teacher that he was, recognized a teachable moment. He asked if we noticed how the frog swam with just his legs. He called attention to the webbed feet that looked like swim fins. He pointed out how long he could glide in the water by keeping his arms by his side and his legs straight behind.. It was the "frog kick."  "People can swim like that," he told us.  "Come on down to the pool this afternoon and I'll show you. You can swim just like that frog."

A Long Time Ago
Later that afternoon Johnny and I rounded up the Handy boys, Maurice and Butch and headed for the pool. We took our trunks just in case we might get invited to actually get in the water. It wasn't everyday that they let kids in the pool. Mostly we stood outside the wall looking longingly at the cool water. This, however, was a lucky day. Coach beckoned us in. I won't go through all the details. But I will say that after some amazing demonstrations and some masterful teaching we could all do a passable frog kick. I think that is when I first knew I could swim, I mean really swim. In a way my very first swimming lesson came from a frog. In later life, though, I had to unlearn that first lesson as the biomechanics of the frog kick became better understood. Now in competitive circles it is better known as the whip kick, a better reflection of what is really going on. Well, even though I now do it the correct way, it is still the frog kick to me. Thanks Coach!

Ms Glenn's eight grade science room at Whitted School always had at least one aquarium. I remember especially the angel fish that she kept. I always thought they moved very stiffly despite their very graceful appearance. I can say that for my money they were not graceful at all. They just never seemed to really glide. But compared to the bumbling bullfrog tadpoles that she kept in the same tank, angel fish were ballerinas extraordinaire. I think that in the aquatic world there are no clumsier critters than bullfrog tadpoles. They waddled to swim and seemed to bump into everything in the tank. Their tiny mouths pouting in front of those enormous heads constantly nibbled at some unseen algae film. What was remarkable about them, or so it seemed at the time, is that they never grew up. My memory may be tricking me but I could swear Ms Glenn had those same three tadpoles in that tank for a whole year or more. Sure, they developed those little tadpole legs but they never became frogs. It remains one of the mysteries of my childhood.

Those bullfrog tadpoles were so much different from the tiny black toad tadpoles I used to catch. They would thrive on fish food, become tiny toads in a few weeks, climb up on the rocks I provided, and inevitably escape only to be found dried up and dead and full of dust somewhere on the floor of my bedroom.

So there is some history with me, frogs, and toads. They don't have the same place in my heart as turtles but they are pretty high up there.

The Beaver Marsh Bullfrogs

Wander along the edge of the Beaver Marsh Preserve in Durham, NC and one will always hear some scampering and splashing as small frogs leap into the water to safety. Sometimes the splashes seem especially loud meaning you have disturbed one of the local bullfrogs. They almost always see you before you see them. It is no doubt how they avoid becoming meals for herons, snakes, and even raccoons  who also frequent the edges of the marsh.

The Culvert
There is one place at the marsh where people are not likely to wander and herons are not likely to land. It is a little pool, fed by a large drainage culvert and runoff from the roadway through a couple of openings in the curb. It is behind a fence and heavily overgrown with vegetation, making at almost impenetrable. At the least it is uninviting. But that little pool seems to support a surprisingly large community of bullfrogs. They are the quintessential "big (relatively speaking) frogs in a little pond."

Into the Secret Life of Frogs
I stumbled upon this little place during one my routine trash pick-ups at the marsh. As I reached in under some brush with my tongs to pick up a plastic bag, I heard a big splash.  I froze then slowly moved closer to the edge of the culvert for a closer look. There they were. Two large bullfrogs still sitting on the bank of a little pool, seemingly not phased by the sudden escape of their companion or my presence. I watched motionless for a while then slowly pulled back. They didn't buy it. Both took the leap into the pool. One thing for sure. Next time I would bring my camera.

A Camera Sniper's View
As it turns out, bringing the camera was one thing. Getting the pictures was something else altogether. The first couple of times I approached the pool, there was a flurry of splashes as everybody scrambled to get back in the water. Once they jumped in, that was it for at least a couple of hours. This was going to take some time. The first lesson was that I would get nowhere approaching the pool standing up. Maybe I was too much like a heron to them or perhaps just anything big was enough to spook them. Maybe they expect to be harassed by some of the local kids. Who knows? For me, there was only one way. I had to crawl like a sniper, camera in hand, over the curb to the edge of the culvert, moving as slowly as I could until I could get a view of the pool. Eiko and Koma would have been proud. The truck drivers who passed by just gave me a knowing wave and kept on going

If it Fits, Eat it.
At first I thought the little pool might be home to two or three large bullfrogs, mostly the ones I had seen earlier. After a few visits I understood that there were at least half a dozen of them that hung out in that small space. It was surprising because I know them to be aggressively territorial, especially the males. They are also cannibalistic. In fact they will eat just about anything moving thing they can catch and stuff into their wide mouths including insects, fish, small birds, snakes, and other frogs. They are eating machines who occupy a place pretty high on the food chain. Well, to truncate this story, I never figured out what these frogs were finding to eat in that small place but nearly all of them appeared to be well fed. One even appeared to have eaten too much. Her belly was distended and she still had traces of something around her mouth. There was a story there but I had missed the action so all I could do was imagine some poor critter crossing the path of this voracious mouth. Ambush. One highly accurate, open-mouthed, engulfing leap and it was captured. Then the front legs start to stuff the meal in alternating with right and left pushes until the final gulp. Gone. I still don't know what they are eating.

Once while focusing on a larger frog sitting on the bank of the pond I saw a smaller one swim up to the bank from underwater. It was a moment of high drama. For the little one, it had to be an "Oh S--t" moment. Imagine coming up for air only to be confronted by something almost big enough to eat you and fast enough to try. For the larger frog it was measuring time. "Can I really get that one in my mouth and if so, can I turn slowly enough so that I don't spook him?" The smaller frog's calculation was different. "Should I make a break for it or just sit here motionless and hope she looses interest? If I break for it, which way should I go, back to the water or over land?" It was high drama and I dared not move a muscle. The three of us stayed frozen for the longest time. The larger one made the first move. It was an almost imperceptible turn to the right. That was it. In a flash the little one scrambled onto the land behind the larger on and in two bounds was out of sight. In the meantime the larger on had quickly turned toward a target that was no longer there. Not fast enough. End of story. At least I knew one thing. They will eat each other.

Over the Summer the area became more and more impenetrable as the vines and shrubs thickened. My visits became less frequent as I became less willing to navigate the terrain. Now it is even more difficult because of a new fence around the culvert. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite places to check on when I visit the marsh. It still holds mysteries to solve and stories to tell. There will be more to come.

In the meantime Here is a little slide show of some my images of bullfrogs of the beaver marsh. It will open in another window on your browser. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed capturing them.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Spring at the Beaver Marsh

A visit to the Beaver Marsh Preserve, the hidden jewel behind an old shopping center in Durham, NC, is like a visit to an exotic wilderness  in some other part of the world. Click on this image or any other one in the blog to see a larger version.

It is that time of year again. The time when I emerge from the dark and cold of Winter and feel life again in the way I like it best. The cycle is reliable and consistent. I know what to expect. This year I have been spending much more time at the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association's Beaver Marsh Preserve. It is a lush green oasis nestled behind a run down shopping center in a part of Durham that could use some attention. The marsh itself is something like a secret public jewel. It is a secret kept by many, most of whom talk freely about the jewel at the slightest prodding. I am one of those secret keepers who tells everybody he meets. "Do you know about the beaver marsh behind Big Lots and Compare Foods?"

There is so much to tell about the marsh. Anything from the politics of urban nature conservation to an accounting of all the various plant and animal sightings would make for a good story. Then there are the people who frequent the place from the dedicated and scholarly birdwatchers to the homeless bike rider who makes sure baby turtles don't get stranded in the street. Of course there are also the litterbugs, trash dumpers, and the many volunteers who pick up after them to keep the place as pristine as possible. But these are not stories for this time.

This time it is about Spring and the reality of new life at the marsh. I wander all over the marsh going from the easily accessible observation fence to the thickly wooded and swampy areas on the other side where most people don't bother to go. This Spring, though, I have been really taken by how much there is to see in the most public of places right at the edge of the preserve. All the signs of new life are there. Spring is speaking loudly as Summer approaches and all of that new life matures through its inevitable cycles.

A Young Black Racer with New Skin
Very early on while walking very slowly and quietly near the marsh's edge I startled an absolutely beautiful young black racer. Actually, we startled each other. Even after a lifetime catching and playing with snakes, I am easily startled by one I am not expecting. This one had obviously just shed his skin. The shiny new scales showed an amazing iridescent blue. Time for one shot with my camera. A single click and he was gone. I could not have been happier but I knew some small frogs and other creatures would not be sharing my joy over such a sighting.

New life was emerging everywhere. For the few weeks before I had been watching a pair of Canada geese nesting right on the side of the beaver lodge in the center of the marsh. It struck me as being too much in the open and unprotected. Not the most secure place for a nest. A pair of crows seemed to take an interest in the nest too. They would perch on top of the lodge facing the nest and make a racket clearly intended to disturb the geese. I don't know if they were after eggs or goslings but I do know they kept a vigil, I even imagined I heard one of the say something like "Nevermore."  Okay, not really, but you get the picture. It did not look good for the goslings.

Four of Seven Wait for the Others
Imagine my surprise when a few days later I saw the whole family of geese out for a stroll. There were seven goslings following the goose and gander around the edge of the marsh trying to graze just like the grown-ups. It was so good to see them all survive the schemes of the crows and reach the point where they could keep up with the adults and, like these four, wander off for short distances to explore the huge new world. In case you are wondering, these are too big for our serpentine friend in the previous section to take on. That doesn't mean life for them is without risk. Nevertheless, life had prevailed and I was looking for more.

It came in the form of a nesting painted turtle. The ground was soft following a long overnight rain; just right for making a nest. Like most turtles who are well into the nesting task, this one was not disturbed by my presence. It is almost as if they go into a trance. They spend hours carefully digging the nest, laying the eggs, and covering them up in a way the makes the site almost invisible. When she is done she leaves and doesn't look back. In a few weeks, half a dozen tiny hatchlings will poke their way out of the shells, dig out of the nest, and scramble through the brush to the relative safety of the water. No parenting for these little ones. They are on their own..

Slider Finishing a Nest
On the same day, I ran across a yellow bellied slider putting the finishing touches on a nest she had made right next to the observation fence. Her muddy backside was the only clue to what she had been doing. I watched as she carefully tamped the damp soil and pulled old vegetation over the place where she had dug the nest. It was slow meticulous work. When she finished she simply walked away without so much as a glance back to inspect the work.

The Finished Nest
In a few days the spot would be practically invisible, like nothing had happened. Hers was only one of dozens of such nests scattered along the edges of the marsh and in the surrounding area. Some are as far away from the water as fifty feet. In one case a large snapping turtle was seen nesting across a street from the marsh. One thing is for sure. Once the nest is made it is all but invisible unless you know what to look for. The eggs are safely hidden underground until it is time to hatch and dig out.

All is well at the marsh. The snakes have shiny new skins. The goslings are following their parents around like the little "ducks on wheels" toys they inspired. Dozens of embryonic turtles are starting to develop in their eggs, nestled away in warm underground nests. Dragon flies are flitting about and there is more green stuff coming up than one can imagine. The bullfrogs are calling as are their cousins the tree frogs, green frogs, toads, and who knows what else. It is Spring and all is well. I can almost hear Disney music . . . Listen.

Okay, cue the sound of the needle scratching across the grooves of a vinyl record! (I am hoping this still counts as a signifier, regardless of age) Maybe this idyllic place is not so idyllic after all. I went back the very next day mainly to see if the overnight showers had further camouflaged the turtle nests. The first one was altogether invisible. Nobody would ever know a nest was there. I only knew where it was because I had made note of some small stones on the ground nearby.

The Next Day: Predation
Still More Predation
I wish I could say the same for the other one. Somebody other than me and the turtle knew it was there.Those little turtles never had a chance. It was breakfast or more likely, a midnight snack time for somebody and there was plenty to choose from. I didn't  have to wander far to see another ravaged turtle nest, this one a little neater but devastated nevertheless. There were others scattered around. I wondered how many nests had been raided, how many little turtles would never see the beautiful green of the marsh.

Night Raider
I didn't have to wonder much about who or what might be responsible. I thought the night raider would probably look something like this. This is not the actual egg predator but I know from personal experience that this very one has a definite taste for turtle eggs and turtle hatchlings. She was captured in my backyard last year and sent into exile. I also know that opossums, skunks, and even foxes are possible suspects but my money is on the masked bandit.

What about the goose family? It wasn't long before I had my answer. First there was the familiar quiet honking sound. Then the sighting. Just a few yards away, marching from the nearby parking lot back toward the marsh, came the parade. Two adult geese followed by seven little waddling wannabes. It made me smile. These guys were going to be okay.

Bullfrog at the Beaver Marsh
Then next day I went back, just to see what I could see. Maybe a new sighting of some sort. This time it was a frog that caught my eye. She was a relatively large bullfrog who did not seem to mind my presence. I was able to get close enough to get a pretty good shot. She watched as I tried to move even closer then decided that enough is enough. As I took one more slow step, she  reoriented her body toward the pool, paused for a second, and took one long graceful leap, making barely a ripple as she entered the water. This was not a panic escape. More like a case of discretion being the better part of valor. There is much to say about the frogs but I will save that for the next entry.

Of course I had to check on my little goose family. After a few minutes of looking around, I found them again. This time there wasn't much to celebrate. The parade was much shorter.

The Last Parade
All but one of the goslings was gone. By the next day, even it had disappeared. I could only speculate about what happened. In this case there are many suspects. On land, there are the feral cats who hang around the marsh and nearby restaurants. Raccoons and opossums are not off the hook either. Then there are the larger snakes, especially the rat and water snakes. In the water, there are snapping turtles. While they are not likely to pursue or stalk water fowl, they would be more than happy to snag one passing by. Who knows? Maybe the crows didn't give up after all.

What I do know is that the marsh for all of its beauty, is a very dangerous place. It is a place easily misunderstood and over romanticized by those of us who work to preserve it. We see the beauty of the place and wonder at its presence in an urban setting. We watch the seasons come and go, each with its particular aesthetic and charm. We adore the beavers and cherish the rare sightings of those little engineers who created the marsh in the first place. We visit and watch and record and admire it from the distance afforded us by human civilization. We decide what is cute, what is beautiful, what is graceful, what is interesting, what belongs, and what doesn't. What we don't do is live in the marsh. For those that do it is another reality altogether.