When winter leaves north central Ohio and the land is cold, damp and still slumbering, the first sign of spring is the call of the Spring Peeper.
After that the Red-winged Blackbirds start singing, the buds show up on the multiflora and the early blossoms appear. Soon enough spring is in full bloom and an evening outdoors will include a beautiful serenade from nature’s chorus.
Night birds, crickets, cicadas, and frogs will all blend their voices together each night to lay down a constant melody over which you may hear coyotes, foxes, loons, and myriad other talented performers.
But there are four performers in the chorus that stand out for consistency and stamina, often singing the whole night through. This fantastic foursome is a quartet of tree frogs.
Of the quartet there are three species common to our own area of Ohio. One of the species is reportedly becoming ever more rare. I have personally observed all these species, identifying them by sound. Three of them I have seen. Two of them I have captured.
Here is a quick overview of the four species of tree frogs that can be found in and around north central Ohio.
Pseudacris Crucifer, commonly referred to as the Spring Peeper, is a miniscule chorus frog. Adults average three quarters of an inch in size but can grow to an inch and a half in length. Considered a true harbinger of spring, peepers begin their calling anywhere from late February to mid-March as their mating ritual begins.
Peepers are easily identified by the “X” shaped marking on their backs coupled with the bar between their eyes. Although they live on the ground under leaf litter and decomposing logs, peepers are tree frogs and natural climbers. Their toepads are round discs with soft centers like tiny suction cups. This allows them to climb plant stalks, trees, and other vertical surfaces.
Spring Peepers are insectivores, and predators by nature. They will eat anything that will fit in their mouth and their diet is largely a matter of availability and not preference. They can often be observed close to homes in outdoor areas that are lit at night, attracted by the insects that are drawn to the light.
Gray Tree Frogs
Hyla Versicolor (Gray Tree Frog) and Hyla Chrysoscelis (Cope’s Gray Tree Frog), both commonly referred to as gray tree frogs, although small, are actually the largest of the tree frogs, growing up to two inches in length. They live mostly in trees and are found largely in wooded habitats such as forests, swamps, farmlands and your own backyard.
True camouflage experts, gray tree frogs can be extremely difficult to spot in their natural environment because they are typically gray or green in color and often mottled. They have light spots under their eyes and orange to yellow markings on the underside of their thighs. They can be extremely difficult to tell apart with the Gray Tree Frogs being slightly larger and having bumpier skin than Cope’s Gray Tree Frog.
The distinct difference between their calls is the easiest way to tell them apart. While they both produce a call similar to the spring peeper, an insectile trill, the gray tree frog has a slower and more musical quality to its call than the Cope’s gray tree frog.
Like the spring peeper they are climbers and well adapted for it, with the same type of suction pads on their feet. Unlike the peepers, however, they possess an additional survival adaptation; the ability to change color. They do this according to temperature, time of day, surrounding environment, and during the mating process. Typically speaking, they are darker during the day and lighter during the nighttime hours.
Like most frogs, Gray Tree Frogs are predatory insectivores, but will also eat slugs, spiders and smaller frogs. They are known to congregate around windows and porch lights to eat the insects attracted to the light emanating from these sources and these circumstances offer the best opportunity to spot one of these fantastic frogs.
Western Chorus Frog
Pseudacris Triseriata, commonly referred to as the Western Chorus Frog, is a mid-size tree frog. Adults can grow up to an inch and a half in length.
True recluses, these frogs are seldom seen though often heard. With the most distinct call of the tree frogs in our area, they are not difficult to identify by the “Cree-ee-ee-eek” sound that they make.
Physically they are identified by the three strips that run the length of their back and are likely to be brown or gray in color. Lines may be solid, broken or one may even be missing. They have a single white stripe across their upper lip and two dark stripes that run from their snout, across their eyes and down their side.
While possessed of the same climbing adaptations as the other tree frogs, the Western Chorus Frog is not necessarily arboreal and spends a decent amount of time on the ground. This species can be found near ephemeral water sources such as sloughs, marshes, meadows, and grassy pools.
As is true with all our area’s tree frogs, the Western Chorus Frog is nocturnal and a predator. Prey includes the usual menu of insects, spiders, slugs, and smaller frogs.
Observation of this species can be extremely difficult because their primary defense mechanism is stealth. Loathe to come forth from cover, the Western Chorus Frog will stay well-hidden through much of its life. Any disturbance within its environment will cause one of these frogs to cease singing and seek cover, whether in its water source or in more terrestrial cover.
Blanchard's Cricket Frog
Acris Blanchardi, commonly referred to as Blanchard's Cricket Frog, is a rare tree frog in our area. They vary in size, but adults can reach lengths of one and a half inches.
Formerly believed to be a sub-species of the northern cricket frog, not much is known about these frogs because there has been little observation of their behavior or ecology. It is assumed they are predatory insectivores who, like their cousins, will prey on insects, small spiders, slugs, and even smaller frogs.
However, unlike their cousins, the suction pads on their feet are not as wide as their toes and their skin is warty and not smooth. Often brown, gray, or olive green in color, with dark banding on their sides and legs, the Blanchard's Cricket Frog is often mistakenly identified as a toad. But these tree frogs typically have a distinctive triangle marking on their heads between their eyes.
Their habitat appears to be sparsely vegetated shorelines of ponds and streams. They are more common in the western portion of Ohio, but we are right at the edge of their range.
They begin their mating ritual a few months after becoming active and have a distinct call that is not a trilling song but instead sounds like a Geiger counter, or two marbles clicking together.
As a music fan, I have always enjoyed reading liner notes to help me better understand and appreciate an album. In delving into the research for this article, I feel as if I were reading liner notes on one of my favorite bands.
Of this quartet, I have no favorite, finding that each frog lends its voice creditably to nature’s nightly chorus.