Annual walk at a nature park in Cockeysville shows that birds and bees aren't the only ones looking for spring love

Froggy went a-courtin'

March 30, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,sun reporter

A springtime search for amphibian amour Ah, spring. Birds twitter. Blossoms sway in the breeze. And toads burst out of the muck, croak around the clock and lay mounds of gelatinous eggs.

Like many species, toads spend the spring looking for love.

"They have no cares in the world right now, except each other," says Courtney Peed, a naturalist who will lead a hike through the Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Cockeysville tonight.

She says this as she points to a pair of toads floating near the muddy bank of a pond. A copper-colored male clings onto the warty back of the much larger female. With eyes closed, he appears to nap while the female paddles through the water.

The songs of amorous amphibians are among the many signs of early spring at Oregon Ridge, a large park that encompasses forests, fields and wetlands just west of the sprawling Hunt Valley business park.

Dandelion leaves and feathery yarrow unfold from the soil. Purple skunk cabbage buds poke through the surface of a pond.

Male red-winged blackbirds perch on dried cattails above the toads, staking their territory. Soon they will be tending nests of young, but for now they chide each other with shrill calls.

Spring peepers, frogs about the size of a quarter, hide during the day but raise a ruckus at night.

In April, gray tree frogs, which can change color, will start to sing. Bullfrogs will begin their throaty chorus in early summer, Peed says.

At tonight's hike, Peed will lead more than two dozen nature lovers to three ponds where they can spy on amorous amphibians.

"For a lot of people, the only time they see a frog is when they're smushed in the road," says Peed.

All the slots for tonight's hike have already been reserved, but visitors can ask the naturalists how to find frogs and toads during regular park hours.

Many amphibians weather the winter by burrowing into the earth and falling into a semi-dormant state. In this area, wood frogs are among the first to awaken. They crawl out in early March and start looking for a mate.

In the ponds at Oregon Ridge, wood frogs have already laid thousands of eggs among the bleached stalks of last year's reeds. Close up, the eggs are about the size and shape of a blueberry. Tadpole embryos look like fat black commas suspended inside the clear eggs.

Many of the eggs will be eaten by other amphibians and fish. By laying so many eggs, parents increase the chance that some of their offspring will survive.

Peed dips her net into the water and pulls up a clump of salamander eggs that were probably laid late last week.

After the first warm rain of the season, salamanders mate and lay knots of eggs, Peed says. The eggs are larger than frog eggs, milky-colored and with a texture like peeled grapes.

Spotted salamanders, which have espresso-colored flesh that looks like it has been dabbed with yellow paint, are the most common salamanders in the park. Unlike their croaking cousins, salamanders are silent and don't hop. They trudge about on stumpy legs and hide under rotting logs.

American toads aren't so shy. As Peed inspects the water, more than half a dozen pairs of toads cavort in the pond like guests at a wild pool party.

Some males make a splash brawling with rivals while others hide out with their mates.

A single male with golden eyes sits partially submerged, calling vigorously. His white vocal sac swells out, sending ripples across the water.

"He's hoping that a female will hear him and like his song and come up to him," Peed says. "Kind of like how human males have pick-up lines."

At this time of year, male toads will grab onto anything that comes their way, she says, adding, "if they're lucky, it's a female toad."

Using special thumbs to grip her back, a male will float around with a female for several days. "When we tell the kids about this, we say they're `hugging,' " she says.

Once the female lays a string of eggs and the male fertilizes them, she will usually give him the heave-ho, Peed says.

Peed graduated from Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College, in 2001 with a bachelor's degree in biology. She says she developed a fondness for amphibians and reptiles as a girl growing up in Perry Hall near Gunpowder Falls State Park.

She calls toads "cute" and admires what she calls "their little Popeye arms." Ginger, a poisonous copperhead snake who lived in a tank at the nature center until her death, was "a sweet snake," Peed says.

The mud makes sucking sounds as Peed walks through the pond in hip-high boots.

Net in hand, she parts the reeds to discover yet another cluster of wood frog eggs.

"Look at them all," she says. "That's so beautiful."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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