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For some people spring brings a visual feast. For others it’s the sounds that mark the change of season. As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio reports volunteers are using both their eyes and their ears to help scientists track changes in the environment.
Under cover of darkness volunteer Stephanie Cox and wildlife biologist Susan Gallo of Maine Audubon are on a quest to listen for and document the unmistakable sound of Spring peepers and the occasional wood frog.
At each of ten roadside stops they count the number of cars that go by, check for signs of new construction and gauge the volume of the peepers' chorus. About 25 miles south of Portland, it's a route they follow every year. At one rural stop Cox counts 35 cars in a span of five minutes. They're drowning out the frogs. They've been doing this for ten years.
“In general, the amount of traffic on our route has gone up. We've definitely noticed that there are more people out and about," said Cox.
“There are more houses. There's more development. More lights," said Gallo.
Coming from darkened fields and forests, the peepers' calls are part of an intricate mating ritual.
"Well, they're lonely aren't they, after a long winter?" said Cox
"It's males calling and attracting females. So the best call gets the girl," quipped Gallo
But that ritual is increasingly under threat around the northeast as amphibians' habitat is lost. Aububon uses information gathered from Gallo and Cox and other volunteer surveyors to document what is happening to wildlife in places where development has increased.
In a separate but related project hundreds of citizen-scientist volunteers are being trained to look for evidence that comes after frogs and salamanders have their big date and lay their eggs.
“Look how drippy and goopy and runny these are!"
Project Coordinator Dawn Morgan is standing outside a church in the town of Wayne in central Maine passing around a stick with a clear, jelly-like blob clinging to it. The blob contains Blue Spotted Salamander eggs and about 60 residents from nearby towns have turned out to learn how to count them and other amphibian eggs. But they're difficult to see when they're underwater.
“The best thing to do is carefully walk around the pool and lift sticks up and boy, they jump right out at you when they're out of the water."
Vernal pools are small, ephemeral bodies of water that fill up with snowmelt and spring runoff and often dry up by summer's end. They look like big puddles in the woods. Vernal pools don't support fish, but teeming within their banks is a feast for skunks, weasels and larger animals such as bear and moose.
"Think about all of the biomass coming out of these pools."
Aram Calhoun is an associate professor of wetland ecology at the University of Maine. She gives the volunteers a brief biology lesson in the church basement and then takes them to look at a vernal pool in the woods of Wayne.
“People have documented that the biomass or the weight of amphibians coming out of these pools is greater than all the small mammals and birds put together in a forest on a per area basis."
Around the northeast, several states are taking steps to protect vernal pools considered biologically significant from encroaching development. Citizens often pay a key role gathering data in the field, such as mapping vernal pools. For this study, run by Maine Audubon, volunteers count and identify egg masses. This is Ellen Blanchard’s second year with the project.
“I like to walk in the woods and I don't mind getting wet and I don't mind getting muddy, so this is fun. This is like going back to being a child again."
But it's even more than that. The idea is to encourage conservation at the local level so that a much-loved sound of Spring doesn't fade into the background forever.
Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative.