By Candace Page, Free Press staff writer
SOUTH HERO — My inaugural run as a citizen scientist did not begin auspiciously.
After years of writing about environmental research, it was time to step into the arena myself. I had signed up as a citizen scientist with the North American Amphibian Monitoring Project.
My assignment: to drive a set route along back roads and U.S. 2 in South Hero, Milton and Colchester, stopping at 10 established points to listen for the calls of mating frogs. I would write down the species I heard and whether the calls came from a single frog, several individuals or a full-throated chorus.
This information would be entered in a national database at the U.S. Geological Survey, my tiny contribution to long-term research about the health of amphibian populations in the United States.
I had enlisted in the army of volunteer citizen scientists who every year help wildlife biologists and academic scientists in Vermont and across the continent to collect invaluable data about the natural world.
Citizen scientists extend the reach of researchers, allowing them to amass information about bird populations, mammal distribution, water quality, ecosystem health and more, data that no single researcher could collect in a lifetime.
So I wanted to get my data collection right. Absolutely right. No screw-ups.
I'd prepared by learning to recognize the calls of the 11 frogs and toads documented in Vermont, making a page of crib notes for myself: Green frog, "sounds like a loose banjo string," and pickerel frog, "snore that's almost like a buzz saw?" and boreal chorus frog, "fingers running over teeth of a comb."
No matter that green and pickerel frogs are May and June callers and this was early April. No matter that if I heard a chorus frog, I'd make front page news — the inch-long amphibians haven't been heard in Vermont since 1999.
No matter. With a beginner's enthusiasm, I was determined to Be Prepared.
I looked down at my data sheet in the dim light of my headlamp at the start of my route late one April night. "Per stop information," it instructed. "Record air temperature."
Air temperature? Oh. Missed that instruction when I reviewed the sheet at home, though air temperature is one of the most important variables in whether frogs call or not.
Didn't bring a thermometer. Also, head lamp batteries appear to be dying. Can't see anything. Also, where the heck is my pencil?
"Record wind speed and sky code," I read. Wind speed? Sky code?
Citizen science lesson No. 1: Understand the assignment fully in advance. Make a list of necessary equipment — and remember to bring everything along.
I turned to my fellow volunteer, Bernard Scarpa of South Burlington, in mute appeal. We were sitting in my car, at 10 p.m., on a South Hero road neither of us had driven before.
The instructions located our first stop as "100 feet from the intersection with U.S. 2, on the left, a low wet area with standing water."
Outside the car windows, the night was black as a windowless basement. Chances of seeing the "low wet area with standing water?" None.
Scarpa, more experienced than I, had the answer. He opened a car window and we inched along. Frog calls would alert us to the right place, we hoped. One hundred feet, 200 hundred feet, 300 feet. Silence, except for the whoosh of a distant car on U.S. 2.
Citizen science lesson No. 2: Check out one's assigned territory in daylight.
Tiny frog, big voice
As we crept along the road, listening, I worried we would hear nothing. The North American Amphibian Monitoring Project, after all, began in the 1990s after herpetologists — biologists who study reptiles and amphibians — reported steep declines around the world in a number of species.
Reports began to trickle in across the United States of frogs and salamanders found with deformations such as missing limbs. Amphibians are thought to be particularly susceptible to water pollution by pesticides, for example, because their shell-less eggs are laid in wetlands.
"We decided we'd like to know something about our frog populations, which ones are stable, increasing or decreasing," Linda Weir, coordinator of the USGS survey, would tell me later. Tracking population changes generally requires many years of data. That's the kind of long-term monitoring a citizen-science project can provide. Thirteen Vermonters are among the 500 volunteers in 22 states who monitor frog-calling routes.
"(This survey) would not be possible without volunteer observers to conduct the surveys," Weir told me. "Using paid field technicians to collect the data would be cost-prohibitive due to the number of sites, large geographic area, and continuing annual nature of the survey."
A preliminary analysis of seven years of data already points to possible trends, she said. In Vermont, for example, spring peepers were found at 95 percent of the surveyed sites in 2001, but at only 86 percent of the sites five years later.
Weir said more data from more sites for more years is needed before a decline in the frogs could be identified with confidence.
"Even with the possible decline, peepers are still highly common across the landscape," she said.
And sure enough, back in South Hero, the unmistakable cacophony of spring peepers finally pierced the dark as we drove. We'd found Stop No. 2, reportedly a "wet meadow on the right," though we still could not see anything. (I marked down Stop No. 1, wherever it was, as devoid of frogs.)
Here, the frogs' high-pitched peeping was unmistakable, a frog chorus familiar to every rural resident and a sound that defines early spring for many Vermonters.
I've been hearing peepers all my life, but not until now had I bothered to learn more about them. Unbelievably, given the amount of noise they generate, a single peeper is tiny, about as big as your thumb. It climbs trees and is carnivorous, dining on spiders, flies and beetles.
As instructed, we listened for five minutes. On the data sheet, I marked spring peepers as a three on the calling index: "Full chorus, calls are constant, continuous and overlapping." (My other choices were one, "individuals can be counted, there is space between calls," or two, "individual calls can be distinguished but there is some overlapping of calls.")
Wetlands come alive
For the next two hours we sought our remaining eight stops.
A mist thick as milk arose as we skirted the shore of Lake Champlain. Automobile noises interfered with our ability to hear when we reached the stop at Sandbar State Park. I was exhausted as the clock clicked toward midnight. My headlamp was dead, my fingers were numb with the evening chill, our route map had proved inaccurate, and I had a headache from straining to hear sounds that might not be there at all.
Nevertheless the night had been completely rewarding.
From a cattail swamp a few feet from Lake Champlain I had heard and for the first time recognized the call of wood frogs, a chatter that sounds like the gabble of a distant flock of ducks.
At the big wetlands complex near Sandbar I had become confident — thanks to help from my partner Scarpa — of recognizing the knock and grunt of northern leopard frogs.
At a U.S. 2 pull-off, we had debated whether that was a mink frog we heard for a moment from the tree line.
The wetlands of Lake Champlain had come alive for me that evening. It was as if I had stepped timidly into a room in a foreign country, then discovered that I recognized the people, could name them and understand their talk as I eavesdropped.
When I asked Scarpa why he was so interested in the natural world, he described a similar epiphany.
"It was like a religious experience, only it was a nature experience," he said of the spring day six years ago when he heard frogs calling in a flooded field near his home. "It was deafening; it overwhelmed your senses."
He found a mass of northern leopard frog eggs in the water and took them home, where his children watched them hatch into tadpoles.
"My son had been born, and I thought, let me bring nature close to my kids. So I started to do it every year. We have tadpoles swimming right now," said Scarpa, the stay-at-home father of three.
As we made our stops, Scarpa prowled along the edges of the wetlands with a flashlight, looking for frog eggs in the water, while he offhandedly identified bird calls in the distance. He shared his favorite frog facts, such as the discovery that some frogs survive partial freezing each winter,
If I'd needed more inspiration, his enthusiasm and untiring curiosity would have provided it.
Yes, I'd made some errors and would return to my route to repeat the April run (this time with thermometer, flashlight and accurate map). This time, I found all my stops easily, took temperature readings and identified peepers, wood and leopard frogs on my own.
But already on this rocky first run I had acquired confidence that I could learn. I looked forward to the May and June surveys, when I might hear and name bullfrogs, green frogs, pickerel frogs, American toads.
I headed home, not quite a proficient citizen scientist yet, but not the rookie I'd been a few hours before. Long after midnight I fell asleep in my urban bedroom, the call of spring peepers still filling my ears.
This story originally appeared in the May 2 issue of Green Mountain in The Burlington Free Press. View this and more stories at www.burlingtonfreepress.com/greenmountain. Contact Candance Page at 660-1865 or email@example.com.