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Natural sounds in CVNP show signs of spring

3/13/2008 - West Side Leader
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By Jennie Vasarhelyi

CVNP — One of the first hints of spring isn’t something you necessarily see; it’s something you’re more likely to hear.

Chorus frog
Spring peeper frog
Wood frog
Photos courtesy of Ohio
Department of Natural Resources
They are the distinctive natural sounds that recur each March. Each year, I anticipate these sounds as a sign that winter is ending, replaced by the renewal of spring. I especially listen for red-winged blackbirds and three species of frogs — spring peepers, chorus frogs and wood frogs.

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a good place to visit to hear these sounds. The large size of the park — 33,000 acres — means the competing noises from congested roads, cities and suburbs are more at bay. In fact, protecting the natural sound environment is part of what national parks do.

The sounds of early spring are loudest in the Cuyahoga Valley’s bottomlands. The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is a good choice to visit, especially the section between Station Road Bridge and Red Lock trailheads.

Of the four animals I listen for, red-winged blackbirds are the easiest to see and hear. Small numbers remain in Northeast Ohio during the winter, but the population jumps in size in March. Red-winged blackbirds are possibly the most abundant birds in North America. They get their name from the bright red shoulder patches on the males that contrast brilliantly with their black feathers. In some, including those found here, the red patch has a yellow border along its lower edge. Females, in contrast, are striped in browns to allow them to blend in with the wetland and field vegetation that is their preferred habitat.

Just as they have flashier colors, the males make themselves more noticeable by singing, which they do to attract females and defend their nesting territories. Their song can be described as “oak-a-lee.” The “oak-a” is short and squeaky, followed by a long, trilling “lee.” When singing, the male fluffs his shoulder patch and partially spreads his wings to show off the bright red. You may find more than one female with a male; one male may have up to 15 females that make nests in his territory, even though the eggs in the nests may not actually turn out to be his.

As with the red-winged blackbirds, the male frogs do the calling for the purpose of attracting mates. Each has a distinctive sound that can be used to identify them. They can be heard the most on humid evenings and just after warm rains.

Spring peepers can be heard from up to a quarter mile away because they breed in groups of hundreds or thousands. Their breeding call is a high-pitched peep that can sound like jingling bells when their many voices mix together. The faster and louder a male calls, the more likely he is to attract a mate.

For people, actually seeing a spring peeper is challenging. While they are tree frogs, they prefer to be on or near the ground. They are small, about the length of a paperclip, and are tan or brown. Dark lines form a characteristic X on their backs.

If you run your fingers along the teeth of a fine-toothed comb, you will become familiar with the breeding call of a chorus frog. Like spring peepers, this frog is a tiny tree frog. Their colors can vary, but they can be identified visually by the three dark stripes that run down their backs. Chorus frogs can survive in developed areas as well, so you also might hear them closer to home.

If you hear quacking in the valley, the sound does not necessarily come from a mallard duck. Wood frogs are true frogs whose call resembles the sound of quacking. They can create an exciting spectacle because they are explosive breeders. This means they gather near water in larger numbers to breed over a short period of time before disappearing into the woods for the rest of the year. If you think you see a wood frog, you can confirm it by looking for a dark, masklike patch that extends backwards from their eyes.

After breeding, females lay clusters of eggs in water. For spring peepers and chorus frogs, these clusters can be large, with an individual female sometimes laying more than 1,000 eggs. You can look for these egg clusters, which look like transparent jelly marbles in which you can see the growing frog.

When thinking about protecting natural sounds, the National Park Service uses the word “soundscape” to refer to the total acoustic environment of an area. Both natural and human sounds may be a desirable part of a soundscape, depending on the park. For example, the sound of canon fire and muskets may be appropriate in parks that commemorate battles, although not in the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park.

Why do national parks focus on sound? We know that visitors enjoy natural sounds. Seventy-two percent of visitors say one of the most important reasons for preserving national parks is to provide opportunities to experience natural peace and the sounds of nature. Soundscapes also are important for the protection of wildlife. Animals make sounds as part of their strategies to survive and reproduce. Not being heard could impact their survival.

To find the recommended section of the Towpath Trail, walk south from the Station Road Bridge Trailhead. It is located on Riverview Road, just south of state Route 82. The trail is open 24 hours each day. For more information, call (800) 445-9667.

Jennie Vasarhelyi is chief of interpretation, education and visitor services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

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