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Signs of Spring Update: March 21, 2003

Today's Report Includes:

Singin' in the Rain

This female toad is listening to male toads singing.

One of the surest signs of spring is the sound of frogs. Cold-blooded amphibians can't risk coming out too early in spring. They emerge when rain and melting snow make puddles that will keep their body temperatures above freezing. Males of many species of frogs start singing as soon as they emerge, when those same rains and melting snow ensure that their eggs and tadpoles have enough water to survive until they develop into frogs. Females are drawn to those romantic sounds the males make, and suddenly we have a new supply of baby frogs and toads for next year!

On evenings when the temperature is above freezing, it's easy to tell if frogs have emerged by hearing their calls. Do frogs call near where you live? If they do, listen to their calls and see if you can recognize any. Journey North tracks four species of frogs and also the American Toad. You can learn to recognize them by sound at

These are the places where Journey North participants have already reported frogs singing. Make sure you report your first frogs!

Report Your SightingsFirst Frogs Singing

Toad or Frog?
Did you know that all toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads? Do some research to learn about the differences between toads and frogs, and then try your hand at comparing them. Start off by learning some fun facts about them:

Then see how well you can remember the differences with this activity:

Interestingly, toads virtually never call until several weeks later than the first frogs. Why the delay? After you've learned about frogs and toads, see if you can answer

Challenge Question #13:
"Why do the first toads of the year call so much later than the first frogs?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Fun with Toads
As wonderful as frogs are, they sure are jumpy! That makes them hard to watch. But one special group of frogs, the toads, are much easier to observe if you're quiet and careful. Journey North science writer Laura Erickson spent a couple of days watching one toad. See the photos she took, and learn more about these interesting creatures with Laura's story:

Toad Detectives
Journey North's Julie Brophy had a toad living in her Victoria, Minnesota, yard. She also had a video camera. Somehow she wanted to put the two together! But where was her toad when she needed it? She couldn't find it anywhere, so she sent out two toad detectives--the children next door. Within minutes Max and Callan had found the star of the day, and Julie got her video.

Max and Callan to the Rescue

Toad Detectives on Patrol

They help check for Toads and Frogs before we mow the lawn too!

Watch Julie's toad flicking out that cool little tongue to snap up mealworms!

Clip: Mealworm Buffet: Slurp! Slurp! Slurp!
Watch It Now

Clip: Watch That Tongue!
(fast and then in slow motion)

Watch It Now


Julie Brophy's Toad House
Toad Projects
Imagine taking your own photographs of toads, or making a little toad house in your own backyard that toads actually move into, or mapping a toad's home range. You can find out how to do these and more "toadally terrific" activities here:

Yummy! Mealworms!
Photo by Dennis Malueg
Current Happenings: Birds on the Move on the Equinox
On March 12, Ruth Mizzell in Hoagland, Indiana, had a bluebird at her feeder for a short time. As more and more people offer mealworms, more and more bluebirds will learn to come to feeders, and this lovely treat will be happening to more and more people! That same day, Mitch Dormont heard his "first tentative Song Sparrow" in Manalapn, New Jersey. Do you know what a Song Sparrow sounds like? To hear its simple song, listen to Lang Elliott's recording here:

Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes, American White Pelicans, and a host of other birds are on the move, and suddenly red-wings are being reported all over the place. Their exuberant territorial displays are filling a lot of people with cheer. Red-wings are fun to study--they'll display to or even attack anything with red on it. Once when Journey North science writer Laura Erickson was riding her bike past a red-wing marsh, she started hearing a clicking sound. She looked through the rear-view mirror on her bike to see a red-wing bonking into her bike helmet! She couldn't feel it because the helmet was designed to absorb shock. If you want to have fun with red-wings, try these:

Report Your Sightings
Red-winged Blackbird Migration Maps and Data
Have you seen your first red-wing? A lot of people have! Make sure as soon as you see your first Red-winged Blackbird that you report it. You can report all signs of spring to us by clicking on the owl button.

Red-wings arrive in marshes just before or close to the time that frogs start calling. Think about everything you learned about frogs and toads in this Update, and what you know about red-wings, to answer this question:

Challenge Question #14:
"Why is the timing so close for Red-winged Blackbirds arriving on marshes and frogs starting to call?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Loons vs. Ducks: Discussion of Challenge Question #10
Last time we asked, "What are some reasons why loons have a similar body shape to ducks and cormorants? What are some reasons why loon vocalizations are louder and more complex than most duck vocalizations?"

Cormorants and many ducks dive into water, and so they have bodies that are streamlined for swimming underwater, as loons do. When animals that are unrelated have similar bodies, scientists say this came about through convergent evolution. That means that over time, they've become more and more alike because they do the same things.

Loons are very territorial. Ducks are not. Loon vocalizations are loud to help them announce and defend their territories. Ducks don't need to do this. And loons have a lot of complexities in their calls because their families stay together longer, and need to communicate about more things, and because they have to interact with neighboring loons without fighting.

Loony Tunes: Discussion of Challenge Question #11
Last time we showed you Jay Magers loon yodel studies and asked:
  • Look at the first two sonagrams and listen to the corresponding loon yodels. Which of the yodels is probably made by a larger bird? Why do you think so?
  • Listen to the next three yodels. Look and listen for changes in pitch during the yodels. Do these yodels come from more than one bird? How many birds?
  • Listen to and look at the next three yodels. Which is given by a different individual?
  • Now the biggest challenge. Can you match the last four yodel sounds with their sonograms?

We put the answers, along with the sonagrams and sounds so you could see and hear them, here:

Scouting Territories from Above: Discussion of Challenge Question #12
Last time we asked "Which of these lakes would probably make the best loon territory, and why?"
Topographic Maps from Jay Magers for four lakes he studies.

These are some points loons would notice:

  • Cunard Lake is quite round, so wouldn't have as many hidden spots for nests.
  • Mildred is oblong, but looked fairly irregular so would have good hiding spots.
  • Wind Pudding has many little hiding places, and the houses are mostly in just one little area.
  • Mildred and Birch Lakes have the most houses.

Our guess is that Wind Pudding looks like the best choice. And the worst one may be Birch Lake. Jay pointed out that "Birch hasn't had a breeding pair of loons on it in awhile." Do you think, based on the map, that development might be the most important thing that loons shy away from?

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Questions:

IMPORTANT: Answer only ONE question in each e-mail message.

1. Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #13 (OR #14)
3. In the body of your message, give your answer to ONE of the questions above.

The Next Signs of Spring Update Will Be Posted on March 28, 2003.

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