City Wilds

Photo by Wayne Hall





The day after winter returned to Anchorage for an unexpected mid-April visit (following March’s record-setting warmth), I got an even bigger—and much happier—surprise than the large, wet snowflakes that covered our city in a fresh blanket of white. A neighbor told me that earlier in the week—when daytime highs had reached into the 50s—she’d heard a loud chorus of wood frog songs coming from ponds along the Coastal Trail.

The juxtaposition of new snow and singing frogs was a strange one for my mind to embrace. While April snowfalls aren’t especially rare in Anchorage (at least not yet), it’s my experience that wood frogs don’t normally begin singing until the end of the month. And to hear a full-throated chorus of frogs in mid-April? Now that’s rare.

In my experience—which goes back to the late 1990s, when I first became aware that frogs inhabit the Anchorage Bowl—it’s unprecedented. (I’d have to go through my journals of the past two decades to verify this claim, but I feel confident in making it. Anyone with evidence to the contrary, please let me know.)

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On April 19, I made my own visit to the small chain of ponds, about a 3½ -mile walk from Point Woronzof. With fresh snow on the ground and temperatures in the 30s, I wasn’t sure the frogs would be in any sort of mood for singing. But when Denali and I walked to the edge of the ponds, I did hear occasional calls, sometimes more than one of them overlapping. In the 15 or 20 minutes that I listened, I figured I probably heard a handful of the amphibians.

As is my custom when I hear the songs of frogs, I stood still a while, quietly celebrating their good and remarkable company.

Since I first learned of their presence, it has always seemed wondrous to me that we humans share the Anchorage landscape not only with moose and bears and lynx and many species of birds, but also with multitudes of small amphibians. In spring and summer it’s likely that thousands of them hop and swim among us, mostly unnoticed, in places most people wouldn’t suspect.

I’d wager that a large portion of the city’s human residents have no idea our community is home to frogs. Heck, I love our wild neighbors and pay far more attention to them than the average person, and I’d been settled in Anchorage for 16 years before I learned that wood frogs live here too.

For those who might wonder what the frogs look like, their small, handsome bodies measure two to three inches long with legs extended, females slightly larger than males. They range in color from brown or bronze to a bright, coppery orange, speckled with dark spots. They have a dark band across their faces, the species’ so-called eye mask. And beneath that mask, a thin, whitish “lip line” runs across their mouths.

There’s so much about the lives of Alaska’s wood frogs that amazes and delights me. They’re the only amphibians to inhabit Alaska beyond the Panhandle region, residing even north of the Arctic Circle. And they survive Alaska’s long harsh winters by entering a state of suspended animation, this made possible by the fact that their bodies freeze solid—and then thaw again in spring (a story in itself, which I described in an earlier City Wilds column, “Wood Frogs Sweeten up to Survive Alaska’s Winters,” in January 2018).

Another thing I love about Rana sylvatica is that wood frogs are “explosive” breeders. Their mating season is very short. And at its peak, male frogs tend to go bonkers, announcing their intentions—and, I suspect, their jubilation—to the world.

When this happens, they sing. Or call, if you prefer. They do so in voices that have been likened to the quacking of ducks, though to my ears their songs more closely resemble hiccupy gulps. While to the untrained ear they may indeed sound like quacks, to someone who’s listened to their songs with close attention they become easily distinguishable from those of waterfowl.

However they sound, at the peak of the mating season male wood frogs raise their voices in grand singing competitions.

Researchers who monitor wood frogs have developed a “calling intensity” index to qualitatively measure the number of calling frogs, from 0 (no calls) to 3 (a full chorus of many calls, continuous and overlapping). On that chilly April day, I rated their calling a 1.

I told my girlfriend, Jan Myers, about the frogs and of course she wanted to hear them too. A couple of days later we returned with our dogs. But the day was overcast and cold, temperatures again in the 30s, and a stiff breeze blew across the ponds.

We saw a black bear and watched a northern goshawk attempt to grab a mallard, but the frogs were silent.

Two days later, I visited the ponds again, this time accompanied only by Denali. The air temperature remained cool, but the sun was out and winds were light. Even before descending from the Coastal Trail, I could hear the frogs, singing loudly, singing abundantly.

Denali and I visited three ponds. At each, the frogs quieted at our approach. But when Denali wandered a short distance away on her own explorations and I stood silently, they revved right back up. Within minutes, the ponds exploded in song, the frogs at, or near, full chorus. There were so many voices, it was impossible to count the singers. I’d say dozens, perhaps scores, of frogs inhabited the ponds, maybe even hundreds.

Only twice before had I heard anything comparable, at the small and easy-to-ignore pond beside the Point Woronzof parking lot. Both times, the frogs’ performance had gone way off the charts. The first time I heard them in such a full-throated frenzy, I’d described it as “a riotous racket,” the most amazing wood frog serenade I’d ever heard.

On April 23, nearly a week earlier than ever before, I again stood in quiet amazement while small and seemingly ordinary ponds filled with small and mostly overlooked creatures erupted in a rapturous celebration.

Less than a week later, the ponds had once again gone silent. But there would be other celebrations, in ponds and lakes at higher elevations where spring arrives a while later. Eventually even some ponds in the Chugach foothills would host singing frogs, loudly and boldly announcing the arrival of their mating season, their desire for a partner, for sex, their bursting enthusiasm for life (and what else, really, can you call it?).

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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