Win­ter brings cold, snow and . . . frogs?

Rappahannock News - - NATURE • WASHINGTON - PAM OWEN wil­dideas.va@gmail.com

As weather fore­cast­ers pre­dicted, De­cem­ber was for the most part un­sea­son­ably cold, the frigid tem­per­a­tures lin­ger­ing into January. But not ev­ery day was cold last month, and one warm, wet evening brought a strange, un­sea­son­able sight on Old Hol­low Road.

Two days af­ter the win­ter sol­stice, I was driv­ing down the road, on my way home. It had rained spo­rad­i­cally much of the day with­out enough ac­cu­mu­la­tion to put a dent in the drought our re­gion had been suf­fer­ing since late sum­mer. It was two days af­ter the win­ter sol­stice, and the tem­per­a­ture had risen to around 60 de­grees.

On warm, wet evenings, I’d long ago got­ten in the habit of driv­ing care­fully on back roads to avoid hit­ting anu­rans — frogs and toads — try­ing to cross. In spring and sum­mer, most of these hop­pers are on their way to their breed­ing pools in the lower el­e­va­tions, along the North Fork of the Thorn­ton River. In the fall, they’re re­turn­ing to their up­land win­ter­ing grounds, a jour­ney they should have fin­ished weeks ago.

I saw sud­den move­ment on the road and slowed, then quickly re­al­ized that it was just dead leaves be­ing kicked up by in­ter­mit­tent breezes. I al­most con­vinced my­self that there was no chance anu­rans would be out that late in the year when, sud­denly, I saw what was un­de­ni­ably a frog hop­ping across the road in front of the car.

Slow­ing down, I tried to make out the species. The hop­per was small but too large for a cho­rus frog, such as a spring peeper. It had the gen­er­ally beige col­or­ing of a pick­erel frog, but seemed too small for that. The other op­tion, far more likely, was that this was a gray treefrog. It was the right size, and the col­or­ing, in the head­lights, looked sim­i­lar to a pick­erel’s. Gray treefrogs typ­i­cally breed much later in the year, so one or two could have lin­gered in the low­lands around the North Fork of the Thorn­ton River, which Old Hol­low par­al­lels, through the fall.

The next day, the cold re­turned, so the next anu­rans I see hop­ping around will likely be the wood frogs. This species, the ear­li­est anu­ran to breed ev­ery year, can get started dur­ing any sus­tained warm spell from January to early spring. A few years ago, dur­ing an usu­ally mild De­cem­ber, males were al­ready clack­ing away up at the pond above my house, which is a fa­vorite breed­ing spot for wood frogs. The fe­males ap­par­ently thought it was still too early, judg­ing by the lack of eggs in the pond af­ter that call­ing ses­sion, but did show up later in the win­ter to fill the pond with eggs.

My dog, Mol­lie, and I headed up the moun­tain a week af­ter the frog sight­ing. It had snowed the night be­fore, and I saw lit­tle win­ter wrens look­ing for prey in the bare spots around fallen trees and boul­ders in the ravine the path par­al­lels. Reach­ing the pond, I found it frozen over and cov­ered with snow. I sat for a few min­utes in an old beach chair I’d left there for that pur­pose, while Mol­lie scouted the area for . . . what­ever.

I could pileated wood­peck­ers loudly bang­ing holes in the trees far above my head, then a sound

I don’t hear of­ten — the wood­peck­ers cho­rus­ing, if it could be called that. The noise could just have been a fam­ily in­ter­act­ing, but pileat­eds are also more tol­er­ant of hav­ing others of their kind pass through their ter­ri­tory this time of year, so per­haps this was a dis­cus­sion with vis­i­tors.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the odds are that the rest of the win­ter will be milder than the his­toric av­er­age, so I’ll keep check­ing for wood frogs clack­ing up at the pond dur­ing warm spells.

PHO­TOS BY PAM OWEN

Af­ter­noon shad­ows fall across the snowy sur­face of the pond.

On a warm, rainy night in late De­cem­ber, a frog that may have been a gray treefrog, like the one above, hopped across Old Hol­low Road.

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