Nine species of frogs call the Finger Lakes home. That’s nine out of 4,800 that occur worldwide. And while that number may seem small and the frogs less glamorous than some of their exotic cousins, they’re all special because they live here alongside us humans who also call this place home.
Growing up in New York among meadows, beaver swamps and farm ponds, I spent my summer days trying to catch these nimble and alert creatures, and my nights being lulled to sleep by their primordial cacophony. As an adult, my appreciation for them has not waned. As the seasons change and new singers replace the old, I’m reminded of the constant transition between the seasons and the fleetingness of time.
We start our journey with a harbinger of spring, a frog you’ve no doubt heard, even if you’ve never seen it.
Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)
When early spring nights still bring cold and frost, these intrepid little frogs are already migrating to their breeding pools. Although they’ll breed in a wide variety of habitats, their preferred sites are mostly the small bodies of water left behind in forests and meadows by melting snow. These vernal pools typically dry up in early summer, so for peepers, the race is on to get their tadpoles in the water before the pools vanish. Scientifically designated “crucifer” for the diagnostic “X” marking on their back, a large spring peeper will only measure 1.5 inches in length, but the “peeping” sound for which they are named is piercing.
You can often find spring peepers crossing roads during the warm rains of spring, and they’re most vocal from March through May.
Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)
The wood frog is a local treasure. When they hibernate their heart literally stops beating, as does their breathing. Their body shuts down and produces antifreeze that prevents ice from forming within their cells. Many frogs possess this adaptation but none demonstrate it as well as the wood frog, which can be found as far north as Alaska.
Wood frogs depend on vernal pools, and breed in few other places. Their breeding season is short, only lasting from late March to mid-April, with individual populations calling for about a week. Their raspy “duck, duck” calls are unmistakable in the frog world. They’re easy to identify with a black mask over their eyes and a tan or brown body with white underbelly.
American Toad (Bufo americanus)
You’ll start to hear the trill of the American toad in mid-April through June. Although all of the frog species mentioned breed in mass, the American toad is perhaps the easiest species to observe in the daylight and one of the most impressive in sheer numbers. You’ll only have a brief week or so to observe these amphibians in any given location.
The American toad is a species commonly found in backyards, but the breeding spectacle that occurs each spring is a local phenomenon that can be seen in shallow portions of ponds and seasonal wetlands. While you won’t get warts from handling them, the glands on these toads do contain toxins.
Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris)
The pickerel frog is very similar to and often confused with the leopard frog. Typically brown in color, the species also has spots – though usually rectangular in shape. The pickerel can be found in wet meadows and fields as well as damp forests. You can hear pickerels calling between April and May. Their call is said to sound like a “soft grating snore.”
Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)
One of the most visually striking frogs of the region has to be the leopard. Reaching 3 to 4 inches and typically green or brown with bold spots bordered by white along the back and legs, these athletic frogs can be heard from April into May. Their call is best described as a “rattling snore.” Search for them in wet fields and meadows along permanent bodies of water. The closely related Southern leopard is not native to the region but a population does live within the Seneca Army Depot.
Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata)
This species has a preference for flooded fields and meadows, and is identified by the three dark-brown stripes running down its brown back. Their call is said to sound similar to a fingernail being dragged over the teeth of a comb, and they’re most active from late March through April. Unfortunately, the likelihood of finding these frogs is increasingly rare as a combination of pollution and habitat loss has forced its population to decline. The search for this frog is a personal quest of mine, and the hunt continues.
Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor)
Showing up in mid-May, these frogs can be heard calling well into July throughout moist forested areas. Often calling from high in the treetops near their preferred pools, the call is best described as a musical trilling sound. Because this species is a tree frog it is often hard to locate and very well camouflaged with bumpy mottled grey skin that matches the bark they cling to.
American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeiana)
A symbol of wetlands and summer nights, this is a species that needs no introduction. The bullfrog is the largest species native to our country, reaching 6 to 8 inches in length. Its “jug-o’-rum” call can be heard from May through July. Like all frogs, the bullfrog is a skilled predator and its large size makes it all the more formidable. It is able to eat anything it can fit into its mouth, including birds and rodents. The bullfrog is easy enough to find, he’ll be the largest frog in the pond!
Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)
The green frog is commonly confused with its larger cousin the bullfrog, but unlike the bullfrog, it has a ridge running down the sides of its body on either side. They can frequently be found in habitats as simple as a roadside ditch or mud puddle.
The green frog is one of the last frogs of summer. Although they will start calling as early as May, they’ll still be calling well into August. The “gunk!”-sounding call of the green frog is sure to be heard on any summer outing where ponds are present.
story and photos by Arthur Masloski