NIGHT SINGERS IN THE GARDEN

July 27, 2012

by Beth Ellis, Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by
Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
Contributed photo by Gary Nafis/Californiaherps.com
During hot days, the tiny amphibians are attracted to areas like well-watered potted plants, shallow puddles, and habitats with dense vegetation that have dampness and moisture.
Contributed photo by Gary Nafis/Californiaherps.com
These tiny juvenile and adult chirping frogs are very hard to see not only because of their small size, but also because they blend into their surroundings with brown and tan mottled skin.
Contributed photo by Sally S. Paulissen/MilkweedPatch.blogspot.com
This comparative shot of the chirping frog in the palm of the hand clearly illustrates the tiny frog, which measures no more than about one inch in length.
I love to sit outside on warm spring and summer evenings. A comfy chair, a gentle breeze, and flickering candlelight transforms my back porch into a relaxing and intimate sanctuary, where the stress accrued during daylight hours begins to slip away. Lulled by the cozy darkness and gentle night sounds floating through the evening air, my evenings become truly restful.

Relaxing evening melodies

There is one sound in particular that I love to listen to when relaxing in the darkness - the soothing melody sung by creatures I've always called the night birds. On warm summer evenings, the night air becomes filled with a medley of gentle twittering chirps that seem to echo from place to place around my yard.

Because of the conversational quality of the calls, I always assumed that the callers had to be birds. After all, what othercreatures could possibly converse with such animation and variety? I held to my belief in the night birds until a couple of years ago, when to my complete surprise, I learned that my birds were in fact tiny frogs.

Hitching rides, natural expansion

It turns out, the mostly nocturnal Rio Grande chirping frog (Eleutherodactylus cystignathoides) is responsible for my favorite nighttime chorus. While it is easy to hear these little guys, they are hard to spot because they are naturally shy, very tiny (measuring no more than about 1 inch in length), and covered with brown and tan mottled skin that causes them to blend into their surroundings.

The tiny singers originate in Northern Mexico and extreme South Texas, but they have increased their range in recent years either through natural processes or possibly by hitching rides on potted plants transported for resale from the deep valley to more inland portions of Texas. Nowadays, these little frogs can be found as far north as Dallas and as far east as southern Louisiana.

Frogs with a difference

Aside from their beautiful, twittering calls, Rio Grande chirping frogs are distinctive for other reasons. Like other frogs and toads, their favorite places to hang out during the day are well-watered potted plants, flowerbeds, shallow puddles and densely vegetated damp areas; but at night, they are quite versatile when it comes to roaming.

Roam, climb and even run - Not only do they spend lots of time on the ground, they also climb and will venture into trees and shrubs, as well as other above-ground objects. And, not only do they jump and hop in typical froggy fashion, reportedly, they also run.

Develop fully in egg - What's most interesting about these little frogs, however (aside from their voices), involves reproduction. Although male frogs sing throughout the warm months, the action really heats up in April and May, when they put on their best efforts in hopes of attracting a mate. After mating, females will dig a hole in moist soil and lay up to 12 eggs. In about three weeks, the eggs hatch, revealing fully formed little froglets, rather than tadpoles. It turns out Rio Grande chirping frogs are one of the very few, frog species, besides some living in tropical areas, that develop fully in the egg, thereby skipping the tadpole stage. This ability makes them much less dependent than other frog species upon the presence of water during the reproductive cycle.

Helping hands

Over the past year, Mother Nature has been tough on species dependent upon reasonable temperatures and available water. The hard freezes this area experienced in winter 2011 followed by severe summer droughts - and again, what started this year - really put a dent in area amphibian populations. Rio Grande chirping frogs are no exception - for many nights last summer, I listened in vain for the calls of my little night singers.

And it was clear, they weren't the only species to suffer from weather extremes. One hot day while tending my garden last year, I spotted an emaciated and thirsty green anole running desperately toward an area just watered, clearly hoping to cash in on the sudden liquid bounty. And throughout the summer, birds flocked to the birdbaths in my yard in preference to any seed that was put out. Just like us, critters can get terribly thirsty when the environment turns hot and harsh.

This time of year, we humans can make a point of helping frogs, toads, anoles, birds and lots of other animals survive the heat and dryness by keeping our bird baths topped off, tucking water filled saucers into shady protected spots, and running soaker hoses in our flowerbeds. If we do that, our kindness will be repaid by a singing, trilling, chirping chorus of thanks, courtesy of Mother Nature.
HELPFUL SOURCES ON CHIRPING FROGS
Getting helpful links is a work in progress...check back often
thornscrub.com
jstor.org
prtl.uhcl.edu
thornscrub.com


LISTEN TO THEM~
californiaherps.com
or READ MORE
amphibiaweb.org
californiaherps.com

This link will open up your default player...
Listen to the Rio Grande Chirping Frog
http://amphibiaweb.org/sounds/Eleutherodactylus_cystignathoides90.mp3

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The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.