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.


Tanya said...

I read your blog entry. I can certainly see where Malik and the boys get their love of animals. I can just see you in the lab and out with that frog in front of your house. I am sure the neighborhood looked so different in those days.

It actually brought back a lot of memories....

Susan Williams said...

I loved remembering dissecting a frog in high school. Probably the last slimy critter I ever touched, but I sure was intrigued. And I can only say I'm glad I never had a kid who brought frogs into the bedroom. Your poor mom! LOL! I continue to admire your curiosity about the slimy and scary things in nature and appreciate your excellent photos and that in sharing them you make it possible for me to enjoy without going to the creepy-looking bog myself. I am such a wuss. :-)

Jim Henderson said...

Thanks for sharing your work, once again. Your unique way of joining biography and history, nature and art, images and words enriches my life and my appreciation of the wonders at hand!

Anonymous said...

Jim I like your post asnitnbrought back those memories you shared. I am always amazed at the feelings I have when I think of fond memories from childhood. I hope today's youth are able to recall simple moments andnunderstandntheir importance in life as they become adults.

Anonymous said...

Great Reading! Thanks

Delouis said...

What a joy to read. It takes me back to my childhood days of playing in the woods for hours, finding "pets" to bring home. My poor Mom. Thank you for sharing your memories and images.