A lament for frog song

Outdoor Living

SPRING SPAWN Frogs usually spawn in February or March. Pic: Michael Kingdon


Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

Throughout our exceptionally mild February and into March we kept watching for the moment the Great Migration would begin. It is the Irish equivalent to the movement of huge herds of wildebeest and zebra across the Serengeti. It is our reply to the springtime movement of seabirds and raptors around the south-western tip of Portugal, or the cleverly coordinated flight of millions of monarch butterflies as they undertake the improbable and seemingly impossible journey from Mexico to Alaska.
But what do we have here that compares with such fascinating natural events?
Frogs. We have frogs. We have (or had) them by the million, or maybe even by the billion. There comes one of those misty, late winter evenings when everything is damp and still... Somewhere in the dark a frog stirs.
It is a male. He knows not what to make of the urge to move, only that he must. He is unaware of the other fellow 20 feet along the drain compelled by that same urge. Both clamber out from mouldering leaves.
Over the bank they go, then along the roadside ditch, meeting more of their kind along the way. This is something of a lad’s night out while the girls take a longer nap, but there is no greeting one another nor any talk about where they are going.
As we know, wherever an abundance of prey can be found there will be some kind of predator. This night and those that follow become a banquet for other animals that have struggled to survive the winter. The frog had been fat when he snuggled down in his bed of decomposing leaves or beneath a rotten log back in October. He is fat still. And for some he makes a much appreciated snack.
Foxes eat frogs, although I think they are not overly fond of frog flesh, for we sometimes find the heads and bodies relieved only of their legs. Otters adore them. Mink kill them (and everything else) and leave them to spoil.
Perhaps the greatest enemy of the frog is the heron, for Old Nog, to borrow the heron’s name from Henry Williamson, doesn’t just kill to eat. He kills because he finds it an amusing pastime and something to help him through a dull day. He could likely live on one frog, or maybe two. But he accounts for a great many, eating what he can and leaving the rest in a trail of barely nibbled corpses.
The male frogs seek out a body of water, perhaps in the same location where they first emerged from the egg. Some authorities assert this to be the case, but it cannot always be, for if such a thing was true then how did our pond that we ourselves constructed come to have frogs in the first place? They are opportunists and ready colonisers, that is all.
When the male frogs find their water they like to sit and sing, doing so with a long series of quiet croaks. While one alone might barely be heard, a few score – and such concentrations are not unknown – are audible from hundreds of meters.
Drawn by the singing, the females begin to arrive within the next few days, and when they do any pretence at amphibian neighbourliness is immediately abandoned. The chorus quickly becomes a melee, a thorough ruckus. The first of the girls to arrive finds herself grabbed and held fast, at which the lucky captor quickly finds his good fortune running out, as less discerning males mistake him for his bride.
All is not lost, for as more ladies arrive most of the lads seem to find one they like.
While following a forest track near Aughagower we found masses of frog spawn. Almost every shallow puddle held thousands of eggs. In one place I counted 60 separate batches. Some had even been laid directly on the forest path. While it is interesting and most encour- aging to see such concentrations of wild- life, it is a little disconcerting to think that not so long ago the whole country would have had an equal population as still persists.Ireland is fast becoming the final stronghold of the European frog.
This year we have no frogs at home. Not a single one entered the pond, or if it did it must have been alone for there are no eggs. We heard no singing, no celebration of froggy love. Imagine the Serengeti plains empty, that rocky Sagres headland devoid of birds. We should do something.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.