Ups and Downs in the Holler

So a funny thing happened. Three days after I posted my June blog on the impact of low water levels, it rained. And rained. And rained. The skies dumped 101 mm in 36 hours. Before this deluge the pond had largely drained into the permeable glacial till. The shallow waters that remained were covered with yellow lily pads and flowers.

On July 3rd L’il Pond had shrunk to a pair of shallow pools speckled with yellow lilies.

When the rain began overnight on July 3rd I didn’t expect to see much change in the water level. This time of year, any rain is sucked up thirsty plants to nourish the rich foliage and transpired back into the air. I mentioned as much to a friend who had braved the torrential downpour for a visit.

So I was gobsmacked when we looked out at the pond after some food and chat. I’d just eaten lunch but now I had to eat my words. The lily pads and flowers had vanished. We watched as the rain poured down and the pond rose up, right before our eyes. The lakes on the highland plateau feed abundant brooks and freshets that follow gravity’s lure to the lowest ground, right here in the holler. This funneling effect leads to dramatic rises in water level that never cease to boggle my mind.

By July 5th the pond had risen about 3 metres and spread across the whole holler.

Later that day I took a gander down to the water’s edge. A few days earlier I’d photographed some blooming blue flag irises, high on the banks above the water. Now they were semi-submerged. The rising water had covered the field of marsh grass. And the dried-out pool I described in my June blog, with its sad remnants of desiccated tadpoles, was rapidly refilling with fresh, clean rainwater.

Even after the rain stopped the pond continued to rise as highland waters tumbled into the holler. The water inundated the irises and other flowers, eddied among shrubs and brambles, and reached up to wet the feet of maple and birch. That dried-out pool filled and filled until it spilled over the land bridge that had separated it from the main pond and doomed its tadpole denizens a week earlier. The pond was, once again, a single wee lake, just as it had been back in April.

Too late, alas, for many stranded tadpoles, although at least the bucketfuls I relocated now have plenty of water and time to transform. In Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs I described my pollywog bucket brigade, saying: ‘I don’t think there’s an ecological issue with this – it’s all one body of water much of the year and is rejoined in summer if a post-tropical storm dumps torrential rains.‘ Well, true enough. But that bit I put in italics? It’s such a rare summer event that I didn’t actually expect it to happen. And I certainly didn’t expect it to happen just four days after I wrote those wistful, hopeful words.

And what a transformation! Water is the giver of life. Every spring, as the snow melts and the freshets and brooks flow from the highlands to the holler, rushing water is the sound and scent and sight of renewal. So it was strange but exciting to feel that sense of rebirth in early summer. An unexpected gift. Even the local critters were rejuvenated (or maybe just confused?) by this spring-like transformation. The peepers, silent except for a few stragglers, revived their lively chorus. Bird song filled the evening air. It was as if the year had rewound back to early May.

Except … not. I felt a whiff of cognitive dissonance. The rushing waters, frog chorus and birdsong of spring were juxtaposed against the deep-green, chlorophyll-laden foliage of summer. The shoots and sprouts of Spring Ditty had exploded into a jungle of shrubs and wildflowers and brambles engulfing my home. The high water, while welcome, felt a bit weird.

L’il Pond always rises high in spring and autumn, but seldom in summer.
(You can can see the roof of the yurt peeking through the forest across the pond.)

And so this topsy-turvy year continues. It’s been a funny time to begin a blog. Before I started this project I jotted down topics that seemed suited to each season. But I’ve had to scratch some planned blogs (including the one for this month) and several of my posts been slightly out-of-sync with 2021’s slightly out-of-sync seasons. Unlike the deadly heat dome and ongoing drought out west, which has been positively attributed to climate change, it’s difficult to unravel how much of our funny weather is due to climate change and how much is down to the usual variation in weather.

Weather is a chaotic (that is, nonlinear) system and it’s particularly chaotic on this island, jutting out into the Atlantic and buffeted by systems from north, south and west; from land and sea. The deluge that filled the pond wasn’t even a named storm – neither Claudette nor Elsa – but just some random rain event. In Calgary I often heard the old saw ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes’, but it’s even more apropos in my adopted home.

So pond goes up, pond goes down. I’ll have to wait until next year to see if there are noticeable impacts from this late inundation, but the species that survive and thrive here, from amphibians to alders, are adapted to rapidly changing water levels. Conversely, on a global scale, change is so rapid and extensive that many species don’t have time to evolve and adapt. Species have always gone extinct, but anthropogenic changes are sending the rate of extinction skyrocketing.

When I worked as a geophysicist I would present my research at scientific conventions and meetings. Like most researchers, I always ended by presentations with words to the effect that ‘more research is needed’. It’s a cliche in science, but it’s also true. Scientific discoveries don’t lead to some totality of knowledge, but to ever more questions. No one today says, ‘Yep, we figured everything out. We’re all done here.’ (Many scientists did say that in the late 19th century, shortly before Einstein blew their minds with relativity theory and Bohr et al. dove down the bizarre rabbit hole of quantum mechanics.) Scientific research is a bit like tackling the mythic multi-headed Hydra: Chop off one head and two more grow back.

My learnings about this place are not remotely systematic or scientific. Rather they are the accumulation of casual observations, recorded in stacks of notebooks and journals over the past 17 years. But the principle still holds. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. And just when I think I’ve gained some understanding of the patterns, cycles, and seasons of this place, my assumptions are turned upside down and inside out, as if I’m in some Traveling Wilburys’ song.

So nature continues to surprise and humble me. In the never-say-never department: I wrote In my June blog about swimming in the pond, saying: ‘Not a hope of that this year’. Hah! Joke’s on me. I did indeed swim with frogs. I floated high above lily pads and flowers in that fresh, clean water. And as July passed, those drowned lilies grew up, up, up, drawn toward the light, and the water dropped down, down, down, lured by gravity. Now, at the end of July, those yellow lilies are, once again, breaching the surface to kiss the sun.

Sue McKay Miller
July 30, 2021

Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs

A lot has happened here in ‘Frog Holler’ since I posted Funky Frogs. Plenty of matching and hatching, but also, sadly, some dispatching. On the matching front: the wood frogs have long since ceased their wacky quacks. A few lonely bachelor peepers are still hoping for an invite to the mating dance, but I’d say their chances are pretty slim at this late date. Last – but not least – to join the mating game were the green frogs. These big fellas show up late to the pond party and then raise a ruckus. Hmm … reminds me of some people I know.

Green frogs are by far the biggest frogs in this pond and are (surprise!) green. Their call is a percussive ‘gonk’ that is often compared to a banjo twang. Unlike chorus frogs such as peepers, green frogs are more soloists, but sometimes a gang gets gonking back and forth across the water and it gets rather loud. Due to their size, these frogs are quite startling to encounter on pond walks. They tend to be less skittish than their smaller cousins, being literally ‘a big frog in a small pond’.

Even the green-frog tadpoles are big – they take two years to mature and in their second year look positively freaky, a kind of FrankenFrog with a full-sized frog-head attached to a tadpole-tail but no torso. Seeing dozens of these scatter in the shallows is a strange sight indeed.

The two species I see most often are similar in appearance and mating calls: pickerel frogs and leopard frogs. Both tend to be ‘seen and not heard’ – at least by human ears – as their softer calls are drowned out by the loud crowd. The calls have been likened to a soft snore but I’ve heard them on quiet May afternoons and, frankly, it sounds to me more like a fart. A frog fart. Again, frogs are just funny.

I see pickerel and leopard frogs in a range of sizes, from super-cute wee froglets to mature adults (2-3 years old). They like to sunbathe at the pond’s edge and they usually sense me before I see them. This lumbering giant startles them – perhaps my looming shadow, or the tremor from my seismic footfall. They leap into the water – boing! – and make me jump. Off they go, diving for cover, hiding under the aquatic plants or burrowing into the silty debris until the giant moves on.

On pond perambulations in late May I began to see the results of all that quacking, peeping, croaking, twanging and trilling. Gobs and gobs of jellied egg blobs in the water. Dozens of round eggs are clumped into a jellied mass and attached to a submerged twig. Each egg holds a single visible embryo, wriggling around and feeding on algae that colours the eggs green. Apart from the tiny peeper eggs I can’t tell one blob from another. Or is it even a frog blob? The Holler is also home to newts and salamanders, who are so amazing they will be featured in a future blog.

Gobs of egg blobs. These were laid in deeper water, but became partly exposed as pond levels dropped.

As May turned to June the water level in the pond dropped dramatically. This is an annual event; the pond fills to overflowing as related in Spring Ditty “the snow melt grows the pond into a lake” and then gradually lowers as the water drains into the permeable glacial till. But last winter was a weird one (see April and the Albedo Effect) and the snow melted a month early. We are feeling the impact of that now, with very low water levels. Last June I was swimming in my pond. (Fancy folk swim with dolphins – I swim with frogs!). Not a hope of that this year. By mid-June the pond was down to levels more typical in mid-summer.

As the pond drops, some egg blobs become stranded. Sentimental as I am, I pick them up and toss the whole blob into deeper water. The thing is, I can see the wee embryos wriggling around inside the eggs and I just can’t let them melt into mush. So I scoop and toss, scoop and toss. I have a history of this sort of thing. When I was a child my best friend and I embarked on similar quixotic endeavors, such as putting earthworms, stranded on sidewalks by heavy rains, back on the grass.

In addition to the egg-glob toss, I often do a pollywog bucket brigade. As the pond drops the deeper areas separate from some shallower pools. A pool may dry out while still teeming with tadpoles who haven’t had time to metamorphose. Without water, they die. So I scoop wiggly pollywogs into a bucket, ferry them over the high ground, and release them into deeper parts of the pond. I don’t think there’s an ecological issue with this – it’s all one body of water much of the year and is rejoined in summer if a post-tropical storm dumps torrential rains.

But then again, would the overall frog population be better off without my meddling? After all, frogs have evolved a successful reproductive strategy. Large mammals have few young but tend to them and fiercely protect them until maturity: 1 year for moose, 2 years for bears, 32 years for modern humans (Hee hee). But frogs, like so many organisms, play the odds game. Lay oodles of eggs and swim away.

Almost all those offspring will be eaten or die somehow before they reach sexual maturity, but odds are that a few will survive long enough to keep the species going. One spring, a couple of years on, those few survivors will thaw out or emerge from the mud. The surviving males will peep and quack and croak and trill and twang. The surviving females will select a mate and lay gobs and gobs of egg blobs. And the cycle of life and death will continue.

Note: At no time did this reproductive process require a human being tossing egg blobs or bucketing pollywogs. But as I wrote in Hoots in the Holler, nature isn’t all flowers and rainbows. Natural selection has resulted in an astonishing array of organisms but it is not a kindly process. I am trying to learn to accept nature as it is, not as I would wish it to be. To accept these deaths as being as crucial to the cycle as the surge of new life that so delights me every spring. But it is a difficult lesson to learn and I struggle.

I once heard a lecture by the late, great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. He explained the role of ‘contingency’ in evolution and gave the example of a successful species going extinct because its pond habitat dries up. And while frogs and other amphibians are in trouble globally, the frogs in the Holler are not about to go extinct because a shallow pool dries up. It is not the scientist in me that is driven to toss egg blobs and bucket pollywogs it is the sentimentalist. I fret over these wee creatures like a mother, but not like a mother frog. The frog mamas are lounging on lily pads while I run around rescuing stranded eggs and stranded tads. It is somewhat silly, perhaps futile, and certainly more emotional that rational. And that, of course, is why it is so very human.

Sue McKay Miller
June 29, 2021

Just a few from the bucket of pollywogs, released in different areas of the pond.

Funky Frogs

I became fascinated with frogs soon after I moved to Highland Holler. It was hard not to – I’m surrounded by them here. There are green frogs, leopard frogs, pickerel frogs, wood frogs, toads, spring peepers – making a racket, hopping around, laying eggs, hatching into tadpoles, morphing into froglets and other such froggy business. But in this, my first frog-blog, I’m focusing on those heralds of spring: wood frogs and peepers.

I’m fond of all frogs but my favourites are wood frogs, first out of the gate in the great mating frenzy of spring. Wood frogs are amazing amphibians who can actually freeze solid during the winter – how cool is that? (Below zero cool!) They accomplish this astonishing act by flooding their cells with cryoprotectants, like glucose. When these frogsicles thaw out they initiate the spring singsong.

Wood frogs crack me up. These little fellas quack and cackle rather than croak, sounding like a coven of demented ducks. They can be quite vocal during the day. One sunny afternoon, soon after I moved into the yurt, I had the great good luck of watching wood frogs from my deck above the pond. The scene looked so idyllic, so serene, so blissful. Frogs were floating in their funny froggy way, heads above water, forelegs floating just below the surface, hind legs dangling. Basking in the sun … and then – bam! One frog scooted across the water and rammed into another from behind. The rammed frog dove to safety, replaced by his rival. Then they just all floated for a while. Until another frog abruptly turned torpedo and slammed into a floater. From my deckside view I could see a frog initiate his stealth attack and the ensuing amphibian collision.

Watching frogs play bump-em cars made for a very amusing afternoon, but I’m sure it’s serious business for the frogs. I presume (but don’t know) that this behaviour is the wood-frog equivalent of rams butting heads or moose wrangling antlers, i.e. males vying for females. The fellows woo the gals with their sexy quacks and then dominate their rivals by head-butting them out of the way. As with many animal species, it is the male frogs who sing (or peep, croak, quack, twang, snore, trill, and so on) to woo the females.

Spring peepers usually start in earnest a few days after the wood frogs. Spring and peepers are synonymous here in Cape Breton – there is even a ‘peeper report’ on our local CBC morning show where people call in when they hear the first peepers. (Gotta love living in a place with a peeper report!) As I related last month in the second verse of my Spring Ditty:

Well the other night I heard a little frog peep.
     No one replied so he went back to sleep.
But the ice is melting and it won't be long
    'til that froggy pond
     is filled with song!

And that is how it happens. Early in the spring there is the odd tentative peep followed by silence. I can’t help but think of these ‘early-bird’ peepers calling ‘Hey, anyone else awake yet?’ or maybe ‘Anyone else thaw out yet?’ – because these wee frogs can also freeze solid. But as the ditty relates, it isn’t long ’til that froggy pond is filled with song’ – and then what a cacophony! For a short interval there are wood frogs, spring peepers, and, in some years, a few American toads – each toad trilling his own unique prolonged note.

The wood frogs are the ‘first-to-arrive, first-to-leave’ types. They are pretty much finished just as the peeper party is really getting raucous. The peeper chorus gets louder and louder as more frogs join in until it’s deafening. Peepers are everywhere: by the pond, in the woods, in the grass and shrubs. They are tiny – not much bigger than a toonie. But their explosive peep is so loud that my field guide says it’s the equivalent of a human talking as loudly as a jet aircraft. I believe it. At times it literally hurts my ears to stand outside, especially at the pond’s edge. While I lived in the yurt, it was almost deafening inside, given the minimal sound insulation and the water so nearby.

While these wee frogs make one helluva racket, they are actually quite hard to find. They tend to clam up if you get too close. One night in the yurt I heard one just outside and stepped out with my headlamp on. There was Mr. Peeper in a plant-pot saucer. He froze mid-peep. His vocal sac was fully inflated, his eyes bulging (as frog eyes do) and he looked quite comical (as frogs do). I turned off my headlamp before he exploded. I’ve seen a few others – clinging to the vinyl yurt window, hiding in a garbage can, squatting between the slats of an old lobster trap – but for the most part, these tiny guys are heard, not seen.

At first peepers call mainly in the evenings, but soon the peeper party goes on all night long – rowdy neighbours! The annual chorus reaches its crescendo sometime in June and then gradually diminishes – I presume as the females choose their mates and they hop down to the pond to do it froggy style. (Want details? Search ‘amplexus’.). The party ends a bit earlier each night until one night there is just one last lonely peeper left. If there is something hopeful about that first tentative peep, there is something sad about the last peeper calling ‘pick me! pick me! pick me!’ long after everyone else has gone home. I know, I know – I’m anthropomorphizing. My imaginings probably have nothing whatsoever to do with frog reality. But I can’t help it. I always feel badly for this last little guy, peeping away all on his lonesome.

Now, at the end of May, the wood frogs are quiet but the peeper party is still going strong. A few nights ago, on the full ‘flower’ moon, I stepped outside into the unseasonably warm night. The moon, huge and low in the south, was a rippling silver reflection in the pond. The sound of peepers filled the air, accompanied by a trilling toad – the first I’ve heard in years. A barred owl hooted in the distance. It was a magical moment. At least for now, at least here in the Holler, the frogs are all right.

Sue McKay Miller
May 30, 2021

p.s. I’m a frog fan but not an expert. I welcome your observations, anecdotes and, if I’m in error, corrections in the comments below. Better photos of wood frogs or peepers also welcome. You will be credited, of course.

Here are some websites with recordings of frog calls, photos, and information: