However well we may think we know our local area and its wildlife, something is always cropping up to surprise us, and sometimes, that something is downright astonishing.
One of our fellow WNS members was tidying her garden just before Christmas when she had just such an experience. She was busily raking up leaves from a flowerbed near to a boundary wall when she was interrupted by a loud screaming noise. She described it as ‘high-pitched and loud as a baby’s cry’.
Horrified, she stopped work and peered over the wall, expecting to see some injured creature on the other side. Nothing. The screaming had stopped, so, puzzled, she resumed her raking, whereupon the shrieking immediately started again. She crouched down and began, cautiously, to explore the pile of leaves and soon discovered – not an injured small mammal but – a frog, very large and apparently unhurt. She didn’t actually see the frog screaming, but it seemed the only available suspect.
I had never heard of a frog screaming and could find no mention of it in my reference books. Although we know frogs do make noises – the sound of their loud croaking chorus at spawning is well known to anyone living near a favoured pond – the croakers are male frogs, and the size or our friend’s visitor suggests it was a female, a venerable matriarch. Also, of course, croaking is not at all like the high pitched noise she described. As usual when faced with such a conundrum, I rang some of our WNS experts. The first two had never heard of such behaviour. Fortunately. however, one of our most experienced all-round naturalists had the answer. Not only had she heard of this amphibian behaviour, but she too had seen – or rather heard – it in her Burley-in-Wharfedale garden. Once, when she had caught a frog in order to move it out of harm’s way – this one also a very fat female – it gave a sudden high-pitched squeal as it expelled air, rather like a baby’s squeaky toy. Interestingly, she had also observed similar behaviour by a newt. It seems that this is a rarely-used defence mechanism, intended to startle and disconcert a potential predator. It certainly worked in our friend’s case. However, now she can feel pleased to have witnessed a rare piece of animal behaviour.
Towards the end of February is the time when frogs begin spawning, so you may well be lucky enough to hear them croaking. The BBC Springwatch Survey includes frogspawn as one if its spring indicators, so, if you find some, you can participate in the survey by reporting it. Information is available online at (www.bbc.co.uk/spring-watch).