Outdoors North: Forest trek provides amphibious serenade

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“Let’s go down to the waterline.” — Mark Knopfler

My boots in the mud, I walked toward the little wooden boardwalk that arched over the marsh. Overgrown with dried yellow and greenish grasses, much of this first part of the walk was now also covered with a couple inches of water, the product of the confluence of spring snow melt and rain showers.

Before I even reached the first bridge, the air was filled with a strange noise that sounded like clucking or chuckling but was certainly neither. It was the sound of wood frogs, the frogs first to sing in the spring.

Frog singing is activated by a rise in temperatures as spring turns into summer. The warmer the temperature, the more species of frogs can be heard singing. In a general way, they have an order of appearance, like in a movie, and the wood frogs are first.

These frogs are so used to early singing, they aren’t bothered by a little bit of snow, or even ice. In fact, wood frogs can survive even after more than 60 percent of their bodies have been frozen in water.

We played the age-old game together, the one where the frogs are singing and singing and singing and as soon as I approach close enough, they all stop at once. Then I try to stand as still as possible and they all start up again.

When I looked toward the water, to tried to find a frog. I saw quick flashes of movement, or just a small bubble or two popping at the surface. Then, a foot or two away, I spotted something floating on the water.

It looked like a few pieces of rounded ice or plastic, floating together, forming small islands. Beneath the waterline, stiff yellow stalks of grass were stuck through each other, crisscrossing.

At the center of the grass stalks floated the “ice” or “plastic.” From above, through the waxy cover of the cold water, it looked like an underwater game of “Kerplunk.”

A few steps closer into the water revealed a beautiful find.

I could now see the floating substance looked less like ice or plastic and more like a big mass of ham jelly, one that contained thousands and thousands of black peppercorns.

Here, just a couple of steps off the boardwalk into the marsh, this was a collection of floating frog egg masses. Given the sound deafening my ears, it wasn’t hard to figure out these were wood frog eggs.

This was very cool. It was one of those moments when I had just opened my senses to take in whatever was there to find and look what I found.

I took a few pictures. Then, as I pulled my concentration back from the eggs, I saw something else on the surface of the water. It was a frog trying to play my role in the game.

It was so still and quiet, it looked as though it was made of rubber, or maybe it was one of those lifelike frog bass lures. It didn’t move, it just laid there floating.

Not far away, another frog was still atop the water, but this one couldn’t hold the same freeze long enough. It quickly pushed itself under the water, disappearing into a clump of thick weeds – reminding me of the creature from “The Shape of Water.”

It wasn’t long and the frogs all started making that clucking sound again. I guess I felt self-conscious, it seemed like they were all laughing at me.

As I found myself so enthralled with just the first few steps into this marsh environment, I realize must have really missed spring.

It’s almost like I wake up after the long winter and need to rediscover all the things around me, like I suffered amnesia or woke up from a coma or something.

As I see all the familiar plants and animals, my same familiars that are there every year, it’s as though I need to recall each of them separately, and that doing so reminds me how much I’ve missed each of them.

It’s a cold afternoon, with rain threatening, and I am surprised to see a pair of dragonflies, sputtering over the edge of water. These are the biggest insects I’ve seen this spring so far.

I hear a song sparrow, not singing but making its far-less melodic calls from within a thick clump of bushes. It must have seen me and is sending out the word.

When I responded with a few chip sounds, the bird popped out of its hiding place and sat where I could see it well.

As I continued walking, I found more submerged boardwalk. In the trees over the water, common grackles were making their blackbird noises, seemingly commenting unfavorably on my presence.

In a similar fashion, at a section of wider, more open, water, a small group of buffleheads floats quietly away from me, sniffing over their shoulders, pushing up water in front of them and leaving a V-shaped wake behind.

I am surprised to see a few painted turtles out sitting on muddy logs. No sunshine today. They seem as though they haven’t been out for very long; they appear sluggish and are slow to topple themselves off the log when I approach.

Another surprise is the tremendous change the overall appearance of the wetland landscape has undergone over the wintertime. Beavers have built a rather large lodge, along with swimming pathways through the reeds, and they have felled more than a dozen trees in one small area.

There’s still some snow covering the ground as I approach the shared border between the swollen wetlands and the desolate beach. The light brown sand sprinkled over the creamy white snow and underlying dirt reminds me of cinnamon and whipped cream on the top of pumpkin pie.

Canada geese are already on the nest, while mallards swim in their haphazard fashion — here and there — picking up whatever they can find from the surface of the water.

I make my way up into the grassy humps of sand along the beach to avoid areas where the snow is still too deep. Flickers are here looking for ants.

It’s a changing of the guard for the seasons, with the last throes of winter hanging on stubbornly, while spring is slow to really arrive. Travelers coming and travelers going, all knowing their places and their lines.

It seems strange to me that my place seems to be to move around between them all and watch with wonder. Like the people we meet, seasons are each individual and different and yet, in many ways, all the same.

While I walk back toward the start of my loop, I realize I haven’t seen any more masses of frog eggs, but I know they are out there. The eagerness of the wood frogs to sing continues.

It sounds like it must have been a long winter for them too.

I hear one tiny cheep note from a spring peeper, the next frog in the series to start singing. Later that night, at home in the yard, I would hear dozens more singing to me from across the quiet gray waters along the edge of the lake.

Standing on the steps, my heart melts and my soul opens wide when I hear the faint beeping sound of a little saw-whet owl singing on the night air from across the lake. I drink the sound in deep.

I close my eyes and fly.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.