Divos of the Wetlands

Deer Pond in the Great Northern Maine Woods. Taken August 2014 by JoAnne Lambdin.

If Jeremiah was a bullfrog, he would be a good friend of Paul’s — never mind how loud he was at night.

Paul Doiron

Photo by Mark Fleming

I don’t care what the calendar says, spring officially begins for me on the first night I hear peepers. I suspect I am not alone among Mainers in feeling this way. There are no vernal pools near my house, so if I want to draw the curtain on winter, I have to go searching for newly awakened frogs. In late March and early April, I’ll drive around at dusk with the car window down, pausing near marshy places to listen for them. My wife, who is a better naturalist than I, records the date we first hear them. Last year it wasn’t until April 19!

My in-laws don’t need to go a-roving to hear peepers. They live across the road from a wooded wetland where amphibians of all kinds hold their annual love-ins. On certain nights, the racket emanating from that marshy hollow is enough to make my mother-in-law pull the pillow over her head.

To the untrained ear, the noises coming from vernal pools can sound discordant — a jug band cacophony — but learning to identify the individual species you’re hearing isn’t as hard as you might imagine.

The first thing you should know is that frogs have more singing voices than the entire cast of the Metropolitan Opera. Spring peepers, of course, have such high-pitched shrills it’s hard to believe those peeps could be emanating from creatures smaller than your thumbnail. Bullfrogs, meanwhile, are the baritones of the amphibian world: Imagine the sound a large, sleeping man might make if you taped wax paper over his snoring mouth. (Don’t try that at home!) Green frogs, the species most familiar to golfers who can’t keep their balls out of water hazards, have a call that’s somewhere between a hiccup and the plucked string of a washtub bass. Wood frogs quack. Leopard and pickerel frogs are melodic burpers. Mink frogs, found in the northern part of the state, can sound like a barrage of distant fireworks — Pop! Pop! Pop! — echoing across the pond. Gray tree frogs make a trilling noise, as do American toads. These two species can be hard to tell apart, although the toad trill has more of a whirring quality to my ears, like a kitchen appliance heard from another room.

What Spring in Maine Sounds Like


Video by mudranger

To make matters more confusing, there are also certain birds that sound like amphibians. The secretive sora, which hides at the edges of reedy pools and looks like a chicken with size 13 feet, is the Rich Little of frog impressions. It has fooled more than one amateur herpetologist of my acquaintance.

And individual frogs can be full of surprises. As a boy, I spent an unhealthy amount of time in pursuit of cold-blooded creatures. If it slithered, squirmed, or was covered in slime, I wanted an up-close look at it. There were particularly good hunting grounds across the road from our camp near Poland Spring. If I say that the bullfrogs that lived in that dark swamp were as big as human babies, I am only slightly exaggerating. Even more surreal, those Brobdingnagian frogs would open their mouths and cry like infants when I picked them up. The bloodcurdling noise was their way of getting me to drop them back into the mud — and believe me, I did. Memories of that sound still send shivers through me, 40 years later.

Since amphibians take in water through their thin skins, they are especially sensitive to pollutants — like lead and mercury — in the environment. Parents, take it from me: a place where frogs can’t survive is not a place you want your children playing. So when you hear spring peepers in full throat this month, take a moment to give thanks to these coal-mine canaries. And then feel free to pull the pillow over your ears.

Photo: Deer Pond in the Great Northern Maine Woods, August 2014 — by JoAnne Lambdin.


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Paul Doiron

Paul Doiron is Down East‘s former editor and the bestselling author of the Mike Bowditch crime novels, including The Poacher’s Son and Widowmaker.