Pretty But Poisonous

My garden is designed to create a welcoming habitat for a variety of wildlife, so I was pleased this week to have an amphibian visitor, this pickerel frog. My love of frogs goes back to early childhood. My father, aunt and I would make an annual pilgrimage to the swamps of upstate New York in search of peepers, tiny frogs that vociferously announce the arrival of spring. As a child any night expedition was memorable, allowing me to stay up past my bedtime. Being in the company of two adults who shared my excitement in the search for these petite creatures formed a powerful model for never outgrowing a sense of wonder.

Our unspoken rule was that we would keep searching until we found at least one peeper. On many nights I would be near shivering, leaky boots filled with icy water, but never willing to give up. We patiently patrolled vernal pools still ringed with snow, tracing the ventriloquial voices to their hidden hideouts, often partly submerged underwater deep in a clump of grass. This was one of my earliest introductions to the miracles of nature and remains to this day one of my fondest memories.

Pickerel frogs emerge from hibernation in early spring. I hear the males calling from the creek and swamp with a sound that can only be described as a snore to attract females, which might not go over too well in our species. A female charmed by this display will lay up to 3000 eggs on branches submerged in my wetlands. The tadpoles are mainly herbivores, feeding on the aquatic vegetation for a few months until they metamorphose into frogs, when they will feed on insects, spiders, and other prey. The adults have grown largely silent now and dispersed into my garden and woods.

Unique among frogs in North America, they secrete toxins as protection. The poison comes out of the frog’s back and deters most predators, though it has been circumvented by some birds and mammals and even some of their close frog relatives. They are also able to jump away with surprising speed, which this frog did after sitting patiently for the portrait. Many decades later I am still thrilled by encounters with frogs, night or day. They will always be welcome guests in my garden.