New year in frog-watching country

Amphibians: Howard is home to the nation's highest concentration of Frogwatch USA volunteers.

March 14, 2004|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

Howard County is the nation's frog-watching capital.

That's according to the National Wildlife Federation's Frogwatch USA, a frog- and toad-monitoring program, which says the highest concentration of its 3,000 nationwide volunteers is in Howard County, where the program began.

Maryland has the most volunteers of any state, and Ellicott City and Columbia - with 53 and 44 volunteers, respectively - are the two most active cities.

"It's interesting that our little city has provided more data than any locale in the country," said Ellicott City resident and Frogwatch volunteer Bill Engle, 67. "I'm not surprised, though. Howard County does have a lot of civic-minded people."

With the breeding season beginning this month and continuing through August, more than 100 volunteers in the county will venture into local wetlands in search of their amphibian neighbors.

Sue Muller, a county Department of Recreation and Parks employee, can be credited with most of the program's success in this area. After hearing about the it, she rounded up participants from her other nature-oriented volunteer programs and placed ads in newspapers.

"The phone kept ringing and ringing," she said. She has had about 100 participants each year monitor 35 sites in Howard, and she had to create a waiting list. "I can only handle so many," she said.

Biologist and Frogwatch USA coordinator Amy Goodstine said that although Howard County may be the program's most active area, it doesn't have a particularly large number of frogs and toads. She credits the success to the work of Muller and the program's origin at the Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel.

Volunteers range from natural resource professionals to students looking for community service projects to retirees and families looking for a pastime, Muller said. Engle, a retired engineer, said he never had an interest in nature but got involved after chatting with Muller, who was surveying the pond behind his home.

"It's kind of like bird-watching," he said. "I'm not one who thought I would initially be interested in the program, but as it turned out, it's almost like a hobby now."

Frog-watchers enter their data online, where beginners can also hear mating calls of the different species and learn the basics of frog-watching. That's a welcome development for Muller, who had compiled audio tapes of the 19 different calls and information packets.

At least twice a month and as often as twice a week, frog-watchers head out to collect information. Keeping a distance - so as not to disturb the natural habitat - they cup their hands around their ears and listen for about three minutes, making note of the temperature, wind, precipitation, how many calls they hear and with what frequency.

Something so simple can help biologists monitor overall changes in the environment, Goodstine said. Amphibians have porous skin that makes them sensitive to changes in environment such as pollution, destruction of wetlands, non-native species introduction and increased ultraviolet radiation.

More than 200 amphibian species around the world have experienced recent population declines, an indicator of overall ecosystem health.

"Frogs are sort of the canary in the coal mine," said second-year volunteer and Pikesville resident Linda Floam, 62, who monitors three Howard County ponds. "They're an indicator of environmental quality. If a stream gets polluted, the frogs disappear."

Though the program is in its fifth year, Muller said, it probably will be another five years until biologists can start reliably analyzing the data.

But Engle said he sees some trends. For instance, he stopped hearing bullfrogs last year. And this year, he has not heard any spring peepers, which he said began chirping in February last year. "I'm beginning to worry. They've got a single monotone call; you can't miss it," he said, whistling in a high pitch. "I've been out and not had any frogs to report."

Goodstine said information supplied by the volunteers is reliable.

"It's a learning process," she said. "[But] the volunteers make wonderful researchers and data collectors."

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