I think the kids may have questioned my sanity last week in the swamp when I suddenly demanded their utter silence and stillness, followed by tilting my head and straining my ears just right to hear over or under the sound of passing cars while my face slowly spread into a huge and gleeful grin. I whispered, (okay, sort of a whisper-shriek,) “THE SPRING PEEPERS ARE BACK! Can you HEAR them?!? Listen! No! Listen hard; point your ears that way!” I was seriously so giddy with genuine excitement to hear the telltale calls of the spring peepers surrounding us out there.
Most of the kids knew what they were hearing, “They’re frogs!” they announced to each other in response to my slightly manic behavior. A couple of kids wondered what they were hearing, “Birds?” For those who were unfamiliar, I explained about the tiny frogs with the, “X,” on their backs who populate the wetlands each spring, singing their high pitched songs. I also mentioned chorus frogs but wasn’t exactly sure if they were both out at the same time. My husband and I plan to attend a FrogWatch session at John Ball Zoo soon so that we can learn about the various frog songs and start documenting and sharing what we hear with people who study and report out on these matters.
I could tell you that I am obsessed with the tiny peepers because amphibians are such an important indicator species. I could explain how their presence can indicate the health of the local air, water, and soil because they absorb so much through their skins. That would all be true, but honestly, I just LOVE those little critters and their songs have always meant that a warmer, more alive and vibrant time is at hand. I love to open my windows at night and go to sleep to the sounds of their calls.
Well, the kids were not as thrilled as I was but they were patient with me and gave me a little bit of silence in which to hear the frogs before setting off in hopes of actual visual confirmation. Soon we realized that wherever we stood, the frogs sounded like they were around the perimeter but not in the water at our feet. A few of us decided to sit on a log and and just patiently wait to see if any spring peepers showed themselves. Soon we became distracted and instead began sifting through the muck in search of anything of interest. We tried with our broken net but cast it aside in favor of our own hands.
I showed the kids who were with me just then how to do a dirt wash (muck wash, in this case,) to make our hands safe for any amphibians we might be handling. It is important to do this, the opposite of how we wash up before eating, before holding frogs, toads, or salamanders. Any residue left on our hands from hand sanitizer, soaps, lotions or oils can get into their skin and harm them. So we scoop up dirt, swamp water, or muck that is handy and rub it all over our hands. That way we have a nice, natural substance that won’t hurt the amphibian.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see or hold any frogs that day, though I have no doubt that we will soon! In the meantime, J and S discovered an affinity for digging down into the muck with their bare hands and allowing it to sift slowly through their fingers. We found a tiny, tiny snail-like shell and an even tinier wiggling shrimp-like creature. For a while J collected muck in one of the new buckets I brought and he became completely and silently absorbed in this process for quite a long time. I absolutely love watching kids explore freely in this way. There are so many benefits that come from this type of activity. Kids are such natural scientists with their open minds and willingness to just enjoy the process of something for no particular product. (If allowed to by their adults.)
K and I were happy to see the barest beginnings of fiddle-heads poking softly through the little fern islands. We gently touched their fuzzy curls and I described how they would now slowly push up taller each week, unfurling eventually into airy, graceful ferns that could grow taller than we are!
I loved watching O. and K. deftly leaping from fern hummock to hummock with their sturdy walking sticks in hand. They tested the depth and solidity of the swampiest areas and, in this way, showed some of the newer, younger members how it might be done. S noticed and right away wanted her own walking stick.
R. and I looked at some photos I brought of common, local birds. He knows many of them by name and we discussed the differences between the black-capped chickadee and the Carolina chickadee. We were able to hear the distinctive, trilling call of the red-winged blackbird among the cattails where it will eventually make its nest.
It is just pure happiness to be out in the swamp when spring is just beginning. I can’t wait to share it with even more explorers in the weeks to come!