Monday, July 18, 2016

Who's hiding under my boat?

A frog has taken up residence under my boat. Over the past week, I’ve startled it several times when going for a row.

When not in use, my aluminum skiff sits a few inches above the ground on a rack my husband Ralph built out of 2 x 4s to keep the boat off the sand and away from ants. The raised rack has succeeded at making it more difficult for fire ants to join me on my rows. It has also had the inadvertent benefit of providing a suitably damp, sheltered hideaway for a Southern Leopard Frog, a type of frog I’m unaccustomed to seeing.

A recently exposed, mud-covered Southern Leopard Frog eyes me warily from beneath the boat rack

Until now, the Southern Leopard has not been one of my amphibian “regulars.” During daylight hours, I see plenty of little Green Treefrogs resting quietly on plant leaves as well as Squirrel Treefrogs and invasive Cuban Treefrogs. 

Little green treefrog on duck potato leaf

At nighttime, when my gardener-husband is out hunting for the snails and army worms that nibble vegetable leaves, he often sees tiny Little Grass Frogs protecting his plants.

Frogs protecting broccoli plant
(They must have recently eaten because they look stuffed)

But the Southern Leopard Frog is more elusive. Rather than frequent the garden or woods where it might be more easily seen, Southern Leopards spend their time in fresh water or under the wet leaves of aquatic plants.

A Southern Leopard Frog 'hiding' beneath blades of grass along the shoreline

Florida is home to 27 native species of frogs divided into three categories — aquatic, terrestrial and arboreal. The categories describe the types of habitats in which the frogs live — in water, on land or on plants. Of the 27, Central Florida is home to 16, along with three non-natives — the Cuban Treefrog, Greenhouse Frog and Cane Toad aka the Bufo Toad.

Note the large toe pads on this non-native Cuban treefrog

Only five types of aquatic frogs live in Central Florida, and the Southern Leopard is one of them. This category, which also includes the American Bullfrog, Bronze Frog, Pig Frog and Southern Cricket Frog, all spend most of their lives in the water. I like to spend much of my life in or around water too but I almost always do so during daylight hours.

Enjoying some time on the water with Ralph

Florida’s aquatic frogs are nocturnal critters that rest when the sun is out and become active after sunset — unless, that is, they are startled from their slumber by the removal of their shelter, which is what I did when I pushed my rowboat into the lake.

The first time I saw the frog under my boat I was probably as startled as the frog was. I’m pretty sure I was more excited. I reached for my camera and managed to snap off a few shots before the water-loving amphibian hopped away.

The second time I saw it, I was better prepared. My camera was out and ready to go before I gave the boat the slightest push. And yet, despite my focus and forethought, the Southern Leopard was difficult to follow.

It’s a large frog — about five inches long — with a black-spotted, brownish-tan-colored body that has two raised ridges and a green stripe going down its back. The patterning and coloration of its body provides an effective natural camouflage. As long as the frog remained on the sandy beach, I could see it easily. As soon as it leapt into the weedy water along the shoreline, which it wasted no time in doing, it blended in so well with its surroundings that it essentially vanished from sight.

The Southern Leopard's natural camouflage isn't as effective when the frog is on a sandy beach

Knowing that I might see a new-to-me critter when I move my rowboat has certainly motivated me to take more rows. Not that I need much encouragement in that department. Spending time on or around the water is almost as attractive to me as it must be to my new insect-eating friend.

Discovering the Southern Leopard has motivated me to look harder for other aquatic amphibian species and while I haven’t been able to make any definitive identifications, I recently observed one other type of aquatic frog and heard the possible calls of a third.

I noticed this large frog while rowing.  The frog hopped into the water before I could fully see its body and because it stayed partly submerged the entire time, I wasn't able to make a positive ID.  

Summer is the perfect time of year to be out on the water doing the things people like to do during hot weather days — swimming, boating, playing in the water. And searching for frogs — not to eat or catch but merely to observe, learn about and enjoy. Nature is full of fascinating creatures and the Southern Leopard Frog is the most recent in a series of wildlife wonders I feel fortunate to have encountered.

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