We were all startled in the midst of a delightful night of sleep by my son, Jamie, who was sitting straight up in his sleeping bag screaming at the top of lungs, “Be quiet.” I immediately settled back into my sylvan slumber, assuming that Jamie was just talking in his sleep.
But just when I was soundly back to sleep, he shouted again. This time his brother asked in not-so-gentle words what the heck he was shouting about. Jamie, who was three years old at the time, explained that he was trying to get those “aliens” to shut up.
We were camping at one of our favorite spots, Lick Run on the Mid-State Trail, and Jamie was certain that the other-worldly whistling sound that the Northern Spring Peepers were making was coming from beings from another planet. Young children have great imaginations.
The Lick Run camping site is in one of the majestic “mountain cathedral dells” that is densely wooded with old growth trees and it has two bubbling brooks flowing through it. It other words, it’s a perfect spot for spring peepers.
Spring peepers can be found just about anywhere, but they much prefer wooded areas and grassy lowlands near ponds, streams and other wet areas. Their distribution is the most of the non-arid United States and the eastern Canadian provinces.
They are amphibians that are best known for their peep that can crank up in volume this time of year. While these tiny frogs are loud, they’re almost never seen. Pennsylvania has 16 different species of toads and frogs. They range in size from gigantic bullfrogs that can weigh well over a pound to peepers that are barely an inch long and weigh less than an ounce.
Their scientific name is Pseudacris crucifer and they are tan in color with dark markings that form an “X” on their backs. They have unusually large toe pads and they can grip on to objects with suction cups that make up the soles of their feet.
Spring peepers are non-game, nocturnal amphibians. They hide and rest during the day but spend their nights eating and serenading potential mates.
They provide an important service to us humans because their diet consists of large amounts of the bugs that we tend to find to be the most objectionable. Each night they will eat as much as twice their own weight in ants, beetles, flies and spiders.
Starting about a month ago, male peepers kicked off their annual mating rituals. This may sound funny, but males typically will perform as a trio. Just as the cello might initiate a string trio’s sonata, it’s the peeper with the “deepest voice” who starts each round of their “Peeper Serenade.”
They use their “vocal sacs” that look like a small balloon attached under their chins to sing. They blow the sac full of air and as the air releases it lets out a “peep.”
These peeps, that my musical friends tell me tunes nicely to a “high-A” on the piano keyboard, are uttered about one-per-second. Thanks to perfect tuning and clarity, their chirps can carry up to a half mile.
After mating, the female will lay her eggs in water and will retreat deeper into the forest for the remainder of the year.
Spring peepers hibernate in the winter under logs or behind loose tree bark. As summer wears on, the male’s peeping quiets down. However, on a warm fall evening, the males will begin peeping again.
Scientists who have studied peepers conclude that this fall “peeping” is just a rehearsal for the next mating season. Sort of like a church choir signing a favorite Christmas carol in July, just for fun.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been trying my luck at Northern Spring Peeper spotting. I realized once I started my research for this article that, in fact, I have heard billions of peepers singing but that I actually hadn’t seen one.
Or, more correctly, I hadn’t seen one alive. After a summer rain storm, they seem to be attracted to wet, warm asphalt roads. But this attraction doesn’t typically end well for them.
So here’s how I found success in “peeper spotting.” Take a comfortable lawn chair to a wet spot or location next to a pond where you know that peepers exist. Make sure it’s a comfortable chair, because this takes a lot of patience.
Listen for the peeps to begin once you settle into your chair. Using a set of binoculars, focus on the spot where you heard the peep. The moment you move, they will stop peeping.
Now, do your best not to move your body at all. Scan the area with your binoculars by just moving your eyes. If you move your binoculars, they will stop peeping. Before long they will start peeping again. I’m sure you could use these same steps with a camera equipped with a zoom. But you’ll have to guess on the focus, because if your lens moves in any way, they’ll stop peeping.
The peeper that I spotted for today’s sketch was a pinkish tan in color. The pink colorization probably had to do with this guy’s urgency to mate. His head had a triangular marking and he had a distinct “X” on his back.
The dark bars sweeping back from his eyes reminded me of the makeup from the 2010 movie, “Black Swan.” His belly was pure white with no markings that I could detect and his throat was yellowish. He nearly doubled in size when he inflated his vocal sac.
All-in-all, I would describe Northern Spring Peepers as beautiful creatures that bring their beautiful symphony to our woods and meadows this time of year.
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