Speaking of Nature: The magic of the bullfrog

  • This smaller female shows the smooth skin on the back that is characteristic of bullfrogs. Note the relatively small tympana (ear) next to her eyes. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • This enormous male bullfrog was sitting atop a fallen log where I could get a great view of his yellow throat. Note the size of his tympanum (ear) next to his eye. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Sunday, July 01, 2018

It was a beautiful July morning in the summer of 2017 and I had decided to go to a local nature area and take a nice, leisurely stroll through nature. When I arrived I headed down a favorite path and eventually reached the edge of a pond. I made a beeline to one of my favorite spots where a large oak tree is perched atop a slight rise along the shoreline and there, leaning against the oak’s sturdy trunk with my legs comfortably stretched out, I had a wonderful vantage point for observation.

The surface of the water was covered with duckweed, water shields and other vegetation that formed a supportive mat. As I scanned the area I quickly became aware of just how many frogs there were. Most were small and olive green and I assumed that they were bullfrogs (Rana catesbiana), as this was perfect bullfrog habitat. The water was still, warm, relatively shallow and loaded with lots of green vegetation. It was calm and quiet and I started watching a pair of green herons that were clearly interested in the frogs.

Then things changed at the pond. As I sat and soaked in the beauty of the day I gradually became aware of human voices heading in my direction. One was obviously the voice of a woman and it eventually became clear that she had a child with her. When the pair finally came into view I saw a mother and daughter walking hand in hand and talking.

I fell under the charm of this mother and child immediately. The little girl couldn’t have been more than 6 years old and she was tremendously excited. The pond was clearly an object of great fascination for her and her mother got down on one knee, brushed a blond curl away from her daughter’s face and started speaking in a quite voice. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I got the gist easily enough. Mother was explaining the rules of the game: keep your voice low, use your eyes and see what you can see. The exaggerated whispering that followed, almost as loud as the little girl’s regular voice, made me chuckle.

Not wanting to disturb the duo, I quietly got up and moved down to an area where a small floating dock extended from the shoreline. I walked out, sat down, resumed my observations and very quickly confirmed that the frogs I had seen earlier were bullfrogs. They were all quite warm, which I could see from their lighter green coloration, and each one of them had a smooth back without any of the lateral folds of skin that were discussed in last week’s column about green frogs (R. clamitans).

As with the green frog, the sex of a bullfrog can be determined by looking at the tympanum behind the eye. On a female bullfrog the tympanum is essentially equal in diameter to the eye, whereas on males the tympanum is roughly twice the diameter. It seemed that most of the individuals I was seeing were females.

Then, the mother and daughter caught up with me. As they approached the dock I could hear that the little girl had refined her whispering technique. Much quieter, but also quite clearly, she would say, “there’s one!” and point off into the distance. She was clearly interested in the frogs, but I wasn’t convinced that she was actually seeing any. Sometimes little children will “see” something just because they are so eager to be successful.

With an apologetic smile, the mother led her daughter out onto the floating dock. I smiled and asked them to join me and I could instantly tell when the little girl finally saw an actual frog. She froze, pointed with her mouth open, and said, “look mamma!” Then she saw another and another and whispering became impossible for her. The frogs had worked their magic on the little girl and she was overwhelmed with pure joy. I’ve never met a small child that was immune to the magic of frogs.

Then the little girl completely surprised me. “There’s one over there,” she said, with the calm confidence of a true expert. I looked in the direction she was pointing and lo and behold there was a frog. In fact, it was an enormous male perched atop a fallen log. I took a photo and then the little girl decided that it was her personal responsibility to find every single frog in sight so I could take a photo of each one.

I followed her suggestions and took several photos as her mother laughed. It was absolutely wonderful, but it was also painfully clear that I would be there for hours if I didn’t make my escape. So, thanking the little girl for her help, and wishing the mother a nice day, I departed. As I walked down the path the voices of the mother and daughter faded, but the last thing that I clearly heard was an excited, “there’s one!”

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.