ESSAY- Jeepers creepers: Where have all the peepers gone?

Living in my home above the Rivanna River in the Woolen Mills neighborhood, I awaken these spring mornings to the sound of Canada geese honking and beating their wings on the water. A Carolina wren raucously declaims outside my window, and a red bellied woodpecker chortles in the maple tree next door. The cool air wafts through the window as I linger for a few more minutes under a warm comforter.

The Bradford pear in the front yard has fully blossomed with its white lacy pompoms. Beside the house, the buds are on the white lilacs, and the forsythia in the back yard spurts its yellow tendrils upward and outward. 

It's spring, my favorite time of year.

But this year, something's missing. 

I do not hear the insect-like trills, quacks, and hums of the spring peepers, tree frogs and other toads, forming the frog chorus, punctuated occasionally by the bass tones– ah-hah-rump– of the bullfrog. 

The absence of the peepers is palpable, the days empty without them. I miss these creatures so ancient and invisible at dusk or dawn, yet loud in their pronouncement of new life each spring. 

In past years, during the grace days of early spring, these frogs emerged for a day or two of making music before they slunk back into the mud, leaf litter, trees and other places where they hibernate during the colder nights, emerging on the next warm day. By mid-March, over the last 14 years I've lived here, they sound off, as predictable a sign of spring as the forsythia and birdsong.

Concerned about their absence, I read about these amphibians and learn their proper names– spring peepers, green tree frogs, wood frogs, chorus frogs (now found only in Highland County). The scale for recording frog calls is: 0, no frog sounds; 1, individual calls; 2, overlapping calls, and 3, overlapping continuous and constant calls.

In the past, my neighborhood has been a 3! Now it's a big zero. Where are the spring peepers? Where are the tree frogs?

Nationwide, and worldwide, amphibians are declining precipitously due to a variety of causes– acid rain, increased ultraviolet radiation, global warming, and human forms of pollution, including development. 

Closer to home, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) is surveying the 26 species found in the Commonwealth because the amphibians act as "environmental indicators" for the health of our area. But also, I learn, these folks, like me, love frog song.

Amphibians, having a highly permeable skin and unique life cycle, are especially vulnerable to environmental change. As I learned in childhood, most toads and frogs lay their eggs in small pools and swamps where the eggs hatch into tadpoles, eventually becoming adult frogs or toads. The wet habitats they need are the very places we humans dry out to build more houses and backyards.

East and west, I get reports of spring peepers: My friend Judy has heard loud choruses on the Rivanna near Palmyra; a UVA herpetologist emails that he's hearing fewer peepers this year (but still some) near his home in White Hall.

A VDGIF biologist has heard frog song in the Culpeper region. He sends me to the agency's frog specialist who's surprised I've not heard peepers because he's heard lots of them over the past couple of weeks near Richmond and in the Coastal Plain. 

"It's almost the end of their mating season," he says, "so peepers will begin to calm down, but wood frogs should start up soon."

I'm happy that the spring peepers are thriving in the Commonwealth and that other species may soon begin to commence their calls.

Still, I'm saddened by the silence on the Rivanna. 

J.D., the biologist, consoles me with the thought that the dry weather and cold spells may be the culprit:

"Wait until after a rain storm, and then drive around to listen for the calls in other locations." 

Maybe I will yet hear some frogs this year– even on the Rivanna. But I worry. Where I live, frogs have inhabited the banks of the creeks and streams and wetlands adjacent to the Rivanna across from Pantops. The Department of Environmental Quality lists this portion of the Rivanna watershed as "impaired," polluted with bacteria. As pertinent to the frogs, aquatic life cannot survive in this water. DEQ is supposed to figure out how to decrease the pollution.

Development occurring on both sides of the Rivanna produces run-off, and in at least one instance, muddy runoff into the river killed mature trees on the banks. 

Has this runoff eliminated the frogs' homes? 

I cannot bear to think that these familiar sounds will go the way of the Bob White, who once whistled his name across the fields of Virginia's Piedmont. Nowadays, as the fields are reduced to lots for houses, shopping centers and roads, I seldom hear them anymore.

Are the frogs worth the extra cost to developers and businessmen to take extraordinary steps to prevent runoff? Are they worth requiring dog owners to carry out all waste? Are they worth the extra taxes we may have to pay government to ensure the laws are enforced? 

For me, the answer is "yes."

I want to hear the frogs here on the Rivanna. I want my grandchildren and my great grandchildren to hear them. I want a healthy river and creeks and streams for children to wade in and find tadpoles and frogs.

And if the peepers and frogs come back to the Rivanna, with their trilling, brrrr-ming, quacking and ah-hah-rumping, I promise never, ever to take for granted their enchanted frog song.

Author Kay Slaughter is a former Charlottesville mayor and current environmental attorney. She was pleased by the April 5 announcement by Albemarle County that it has green-lighted a state program to pay half the cost for property owners to plant new stream buffers on their property.