Cacophony of croaking is sound of music to area's Frog Watch volunteers

A cane toad is seen outside Becky Speer's house Sept. 19, 2012, in the Naples area. Frog volunteers went out recording information on populations of the various webbed amphibians in the region. Corey Perrine/Staff

Photo by COREY PERRINE, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

A cane toad is seen outside Becky Speer's house Sept. 19, 2012, in the Naples area. Frog volunteers went out recording information on populations of the various webbed amphibians in the region. Corey Perrine/Staff

— Becky Speer steps out of her minivan into darkness and stands on the side of a long dirt road, her arms motionless at her side and her ears in overdrive.

"There we go! There we go!" whispers Speer, who wears mosquito netting over her face and a long-sleeved T-shirt with "Save the Frog" across the front. "Hear them?"

She points into the woods, toward the source of frog calls that soon are pouring through the night air. They remind her of cowbells, she said.

Before the night ended, Speer, a 60-year-old naturalist at the Naples Preserve, and her frog monitoring partner, Naples Zoo zookeeper Heidi Hauch, 38, repeated the same routine at a dozen spots in East Naples on the last summer monitoring trip of 2012.

The route is one of 23 in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties where volunteers have collected more than 10,000 bits of data for Frog Watch, the Southwest Florida Amphibian Monitoring Network, since it was founded in 2000 to keep track of frog and toad populations as new roads, houses and shopping centers spread across the landscape.

Network founder John Cassani said he was inspired to start the monitoring program after reading a magazine article about worldwide declines in amphibians, the oldest vertebrates on the planet, and what that says about the health of the environment.

"If there ever was a canary, frogs would be them," said Cassani, who works as deputy director of the Lee County Hyacinth Control District.

Results have been mixed, according to a 10-year review published this year. Using calling intensity as a measurement of abundance, the review found a slight overall decline in native frog species and an increase in non-native species, driven primarily by increases in Cuban treefrogs and greenhouse frogs.

The Green tree frog has a musical cowbell-like 'wank wank' or a goose-like 'wronk wronk' call.

John Cassani/Special to the Daily News

The Green tree frog has a musical cowbell-like "wank wank" or a goose-like "wronk wronk" call.

Many species followed similar patterns, with calling intensity peaking in the same years and then falling off in the same years. Some species disappeared altogether in some years. It's all about changes in habitat and hydrology and cold snaps, monitors say.

"They need the uplands as their kitchen and the wetlands for their bedroom," Cassani said.

For example, pig frogs need more than 200 days of standing water for their tadpoles to develop, he said. If the water isn't there at the right time, or the tadpoles aren't out of their breeding spot before the fish arrive, reproduction will be unsuccessful.

Water is the first thing Speer and Hauch notice when Speer's white Dodge Caravan pulls up to a monitoring spot. The more water, the better the frog calling.

They start their tour about a half-hour after the sun sets. They pile out of the minivan and head in opposite directions to cover more ground. After one minute of silence, Hauch starts a timer. At the end of three minutes, she calls out, "Done," and the two immediately and excitedly compare notes on what they heard.

The pig frog will be heard calling from ponds, lakes, swamps and ditches with deep water.

John Cassani/Special to the Daily News

The pig frog will be heard calling from ponds, lakes, swamps and ditches with deep water.

They aren't listening for simple ribbits. The pinewoods treefrog sounds like morse code. The squirrel treefrog quacks. The narrow mouth toad sounds like a sheep. The southern cricket frog sounds like marbles clicking together.

Learning frog calls changed the way Hauch views the night world outside her door. She said she used to find the croaks and chirps annoying; now she finds them peaceful, even thrilling. The reverberating snort of a pig frog is her favorite.

"They sound like they're 10 feet tall and they're just little things," she said.

Frog Watchers score calling intensity on a scale of zero to three, with zero being no frogs calling and three being a clatter of overlapping sound that can be deafening. Scientists call it a chorus.

The narrow-mouthed frog is found at ground level and will call from swells or standing water.

LeAnn Beanland/Special to the Daily News

The narrow-mouthed frog is found at ground level and will call from swells or standing water.

While Speer drives on to the next spot, Hauch records data — cloud cover, wind conditions, water levels, traffic noise, humidity and temperature — on a monitoring sheet by the van's visor light.

Their three-hour route takes them from Speer's home in Lake Park to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Manatee Middle School, the Picayune Strand State Forest, the Florida Sports Park and spots on Beck Boulevard and off County Barn Road.

Teams of volunteer monitors fan out across Southwest Florida on the same Wednesday every month from June to September to collect call data, but all the talk lately has been about whether the monitoring should be stepped up, said Win Everham, a Florida Gulf Coast University environmental sciences professor and a Frog Watch crew leader.

Calls can be recorded continuously, though that is expensive, and frogs can be monitored by searching them out, often by setting out plastic pipes to attract them, Everham said. That can be time-consuming.

The current monitoring scheme can miss spotting trends across such a large landscape, something like trying to assess climate change based on daily changes in the weather, Everham said.

The Cuban tree frog can call from the walls of buildings or high in trees.

Becky Speer/Naples Preserve

The Cuban tree frog can call from the walls of buildings or high in trees.

He said the monitoring work has a side benefit, though, by giving people a sense of place that newcomers to Southwest Florida's environment often lack.

"I think there's something profound about when we walk outside at night and all you hear are noises you don't understand," Everham said. "Knowing what you hear is important. You're connected in a profoundly different way."

There's one connection Speer has yet to make in four years she's monitored her Frog Watch route. She has yet to hear a gopher frog. It sounds like a snore.

"They must be here somewhere," she said.

__ For more information about Frog Watch, the Southwest Florida Amphibian Monitoring Network, go to www.frogwatch.net.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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