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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Rarest Frog on the East Coast

Okay, so maybe that’s not technically true. I heard there’s a rare leopard frog that lives in Central Park. But for a frog that has random disjunct populations in Alabama and New Jersey, it’s pretty cool that I can find one in North Carolina. That’s the entire reason I went down to the Sandhills on a mild June day with Mark K and Ali Iyoob.

Honestly, I started out disappointed. We flipped some wood and some tin, and couldn’t find any of the Carolina Sandhills specialties we’d been hoping for. While we stopped at a random bridge for some road crusing, Ali noticed a billow of silt moving through the creek beneath us. In true Ali fashion, he bounded down the hill, into the ankle deep water, and pulled out this prehistoric behemoth.

He put it on the paved shoulder so that we could see it in all its glory. The Eastern Snapping Turtle was none too pleased, lunging at our feet with a bite force that can break human bones. The turtle had a mangled shell on one side, a healed wound from an old altercation with a vehicle. Didn’t impact its temperament any – damn thing snapped at anything that moved!

Afterwards, we decided to check the fabled drop-zone for herps. But that didn’t stop me from noticing the breeding pairs of Orchard Orioles, or the Common Nighthawks calling in the distance. Ali called me on my cell, saying he’d spotted a Lark Sparrow flitting into a random grove of trees, but by the time I ran down, the bird dove into the low grasses, never to be seen again. I’d have to make do with this beautiful Pigmy Rattlesnake, likely the same individual we’d flipped a couple months ago, but clearly on the better side of its molt cycle.

By this time, the sun was setting, so we had to head out and look for the frogs we were here for. Driving past an old hobo camp and deep pits of sand, we had to end our forward journey once we reached an impassable patch of shifting mud. Not that it made a difference – once we reached our spot, we found a second ford of rocks and water, created by a beaver dam. Almost as if on cue, Mark spotted the American Beaver swimming in the nearby swamp, totally ignoring the humans who interrupted its daily routine.

As the sun started to set and the nighthawks started to call, we began to hear the native frogs start to call. At first, the only sounds we heard were Southern Leopard Frogs and Southern Cricket Frogs, and even between those two species it was almost deafening. The cricket frogs, by far the most common species we encountered, would leap out from in front of us, even while we walked through forest newly charred by controlled burns.

Finally, we started to hear the frogs we were looking for. They’d call from the tops of trees and down in the low shrubbery, but still we couldn’t locate them, despite having braved thick thorns. That’s when Ali noticed a dark shape hopping through the burnt undergrowth – surely, we had our amphibian! But not so fast…

It was brown rather than green, clearly a sign that we’d found the wrong frog. Still, it was a good one – a Pine Woods Treefrog, kind of boring but not something we’d heard calling. So it was new to us! But our quarry still eluded us, taunting us by calling from just a couple feet away. It became dark enough that we had to bust out the flashlights, finally spotting a bright green beacon in the light.

We’d found a pair of mating Pine Barrens Treefrog, a range-restricted species found in very specific pine forests of the East Coast. Even though they’re (apparently) relatively easy to find in the North Carolina Sandhills, you’d have to travel to the namesake Pine Barrens of New Jersey to find the next closest population. Due to the restriction of this pine habitat, they’ve been extirpated through most of their range, and only exist in a couple of disjunct populations. Thankfully, this copulation proves the Sandhills population is still going strong, and not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Elated at our rare find, we instead turned our focus to the hammer-like sounds we heard emanating from the swamp. They were the aptly-named Carpenter Frogs, whose deep  clicks and bangs literally sound like a construction site. But they always seemed to evade us, even when we could hear them quite close to the bank. Ali noticed once that seemed to favor a small pool next to the road, but every time we tried for the catch, it’d dive down beneath arm’s reach. So I tried a different strategy – I grabbed the net we’d brought, aimed it under the frog, and when it dove once again, I lunged. Sure enough…

I came up with the frog! At this point, something odd happened. The Army showed up – seriously! A bunch of camo-clad soldiers rolled up in four-wheel drives, and announced they’d be destroying the beaver dam that allowed us to comfortable cross the nearby stream. They weren’t kidding, and their lack of tools didn’t stop them – they backed up their giant truck, ran over the beaver dam, and celebrated when the carefully placed sticks fell apart to cause a small deluge.

Though they were destroying nature, the soldiers maintained it was for the good of the gamelands – the increased water supply would flood canals downstream, increasing the stability of the nearby roads. They were, however, quite friendly, allowing us to photograph the Carpenter Frog in their headlights. After all, as one of them said, it was a Wednesday night. Why shouldn’t we be photographing frogs? To answer that, I’d say I honestly don’t have a better use of my time than photographing the unique wildlife of the Sandhills. I hope they understand – but I’m not expecting much of a response.


  1. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

  2. This helped me a lot, as i am using your information to write a paragraph on those gorgeous pine barrens tree frogs for a project on North Carolina.