Frog Watching
by Kelsey Townsend

Editor’s note: This month, Fantastic Journeys takes us to Orinda, CA, where seventh grader Kelsey Townsend and her mom participate in FrogWatch USA. The national program is run by the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor local frog populations by having volunteers count the frogs they hear. Let’s go down to the creek and listen! There is nothing better than frog watching on a spring evening. As my mom and I begin our adventure, we are equipped with boots, a flashlight, and a clipboard. Our back yard slopes down to a creek lined with oaks and redwoods. We walk down rough stone steps and scramble over a huge root. We sit down on the smooth rocks, turn off our flashlights, and wait.

I can smell the moist, fresh air. At first, I hear only the water rushing by, but then I hear a "ribbit." Then another and another, until suddenly I hear a whole orchestra of frog calls.

"Frog watching" means keeping track of a frog population. Why do kids like me frog watch? Scientists think that many frog populations are decreasing. There aren’t enough scientists to monitor all the frog populations, so volunteers help by counting frogs. It is a very fun way to learn about frogs and to do some real science.

I am a seventh-grade student and a volunteer for FrogWatch USA. FrogWatch has thousands of volunteers in 48 states counting frogs. All kinds of people – farmers, homemakers, senior citizens, and schoolkids like me – collect data on their local frog populations. I monitor frogs living along a creek. Volunteers monitor many other kinds of frog habitats, such as wetlands, marshes, ponds, rivers, and lakes.

Not all of our neighborhood frogs are in the creek. One very loud one calls from across the fence. "I think he’s near the neighbor’s pool," my mom says. I hear another croak far away. "No, Mom, he’s in the neighbor’s fish pond!" I exclaim. We run across the street and huddle together by the quiet and peaceful pond. Suddenly, the night is interrupted by a loud "ribbit" coming right from the water in front of us. We shine our flashlights at the mossy, green water, but the frog is well hidden. We go home for some hot cocoa.

Even though this program is called FrogWatch, what we are really doing is frog listening. Frogs are hard to see, but they are very easy to hear during their spring breeding season. Frogs are noisiest in the evening, not long after sunset. On the FrogWatch data sheet, I mark zero, one, two, or three. "Zero" means no frog calls and "three" means so much "ribbiting" that you can’t hear an individual frog.

My mom and I go frog watching twice a week for several months. Each time, we fill out a data sheet. We write down the time, air temperature, weather, and wind speed, and the intensity of the frog calls we hear. We input the information on the FrogWatch USA Web site. If you don’t have a computer, you can mail data sheets to FrogWatch.

FrogWatch USA is monitoring over 50 species of frogs. Some are common and some are rare and endangered. The three frog species found in my area are the Pacific tree frog, the red-legged frog, and the bullfrog. The frogs in our backyard creek are Pacific tree frogs. Everyone has heard the Pacific tree frog’s "ribbit." The Pacific tree frog is found all over California, including Hollywood. When you hear a frog call on TV or in a movie, it is a Pacific tree frog.

Red-legged frogs are a threatened species, which means that there aren’t very many of them left. I was very sad we didn’t hear any in our creek. However, I am glad we don’t have bullfrogs. Bullfrogs are a non-native species that gobbles up native frogs like the Pacific tree frog and the red-legged frog.

This spring, when my mom and I were frog watching, we wandered along the creek to see if we could find more frogs farther upstream. Our neighbors showed us a Jacuzzi tub that had been abandoned down by the creek. It was filled with tadpoles. The sight was amazing! Some of the tadpoles zoomed around the tank like little bullets. Some rested peacefully under mucky brown leaves, while others poked their little heads out of the water, adventurously. Maybe next year, when they are all grown up, I will hear them while I am frog watching!

To become a FrogWatch volunteer, click here. Under "More Activities," you can find links to state monitoring projects as well as to FrogWatch Canada.