Our year-round avian residents, like northern cardinals, blackcapped chickadees, song sparrows and Carolina wrens, have been singing their spring songs on sunny days for several weeks, and the red-winged blackbirds and common grackles have returned from New Jersey to set up their breeding territories.
However, I never consider it really spring until I get a text from Capt. Eric Pfirrmann, of Save the Bay, saying, “The American oystercatchers are back!”
Pfirrmann, who leads seal tours around Siting Rock off the shore of Rose Island, is always one of the first to spot these large, beautiful shorebirds, with their bright red beaks and distinctive calls. The oystercatchers provide me with hope that soon the osprey, tree swallows, eastern phoebes and house wrens will return and spring migration will have truly begun.
If you are not a bird person, there are other clues that will signal spring has arrived. Daffodils all around Newport are popping up and will soon burst open with their yellow blooms. On Conanicut Island, the woodchucks have emerged from hibernation and are nibbling on tender shoots while waiting for you to plant your garden. Chipmunks are running along stonewalls, carefully avoiding the sharp eyes of predators, like mink and red-tailed hawks. Squirrels are moving into their leafy summer nests.
And if you really are not a nature person, simply listen for the sound of mowers, blowers and chainsaws as the landscaping crews return to your neighborhood.
Spring is a noisy time of year. It is when most animals breed, and to attract a mate the males of many species have to be loud. So, this is the season to open your ears and enjoy the chorus.
I was driving to my favorite restaurant, the Gulf Stream Bar and Grill, down in the Melville boatyard last week and I took the cut-through past Melville School and the campground to get there. I always roll down my windows and listen for birds in that area, but this time I was met with the deafening sound of spring peepers.
These tiny little frogs are less than one inch long, but when the males gather in freshwater wetlands during the early spring, their “peep-peep-peep” calls form a cacophony of sound. These calls attract the female frogs, who then lay their eggs from which tadpoles hatch.
When they are not breeding, these frogs actually live on land in small trees and shrubs. Fittingly, they belong to a group called chorus frogs, and if you find one, they can be recognized by a distinctive “x” mark on the back of their gray or brownish body. Like the oystercatchers, the peepers are harbingers of spring and open the season of amphibian rituals.
Soon the wood frogs will start to call “kraak araak,” not unlike the quack of a mallard duck. These masked frogs are about two inches in size and live in woodlands, as their name suggests, using vernal pools and other wetlands to breed. Unlike other frogs, the male wood frogs don’t inflate their throats when vocalizing, but instead inflate their arm pits.
If you hear the twanging of a banjo coming from a pond, you are listening to the call of the green frog. A large frog that lives year-round in the water, they also make a loud “eep” when startled. You can tell a green frog from the similar bullfrog by the raised ridges that run down its back. The bullfrog’s deep pirate call is “jug-o-rum, jugo rum.” Both species blend in well with the duckweed and algae that floats on the surface of ponds, so it is always a fun challenge for kids to spot them.
Gray tree frogs have large sticky toe pads that help them climb trees, and while their coloration varies, it always provides excellent camouflage against the bark. Their call is a high-pitch “brrrr,” which has fooled many a new birder, including myself. Like all frogs, they lay masses of eggs enclosed in jelly and spend part of their lives as tadpoles, so they have to descend from their arboreal haunts in the spring.
Who doesn’t love a toad in their garden? Just one of these warty, blotchy amphibians will eat thousands of slugs, snails and insects every summer. The most common toad in our area is the Eastern American toad who, like all his cousins, has to head to the wetlands to breed. In April, listen for the long high-pitched trill of the toads and look for the long strings of eggs in the water.
Amphibians are highly sensitive to pollution, and many populations have declined due to contaminated wetlands and loss of habitat. You can help monitor amphibian populations in several ways. Frog Watch USA is a citizen science project managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, and you can become a frog watcher in Rhode Island by participating in training at the Roger Williams Park Zoo.
It might be a bit late for the zoo training this year, but you can also help by downloading RIDEM’s herp observer app and report your observations. This is a great project for families during the spring and summer.