On January 22nd, I spent an hour at sunset sitting beside a pond at the Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington. I had the idea that I might return to it regularly throughout the year and see how things change, and so I spent another hour there on March 26th.
One difference was immediately apparent: cricket frogs were calling. They had been active in January, but I did not hear them calling. Today their calls – a repetitive “grick-grick-grick” – were frequent but did not often overlap. There is a scale for this, developed by the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program. A Call Index of “1” shows that frogs are calling, but infrequently enough that their calls do not overlap and the frogs could be counted. Call Index “2” indicates that enough frogs are calling that their calls overlap at times. A Call Index of “3” is recorded when there is a full chorus of continuous, overlapping frog calls. And so, the Call Index at the pond today was 2. It was not hard to spot the occasional eastern cricket frog (Blanchard’s cricket frog in some sources) jumping into the water or toward the concealment of vegetation. At a couple of places along the shore, a medium-sized frog jumped from the bank into the water, and my only glimpse of them was a several-inch-long amphibian projectile, flying for a moment and entering the water. Based on their size, they were probably leopard frogs.
Then, further around the pond toward the willow that was my home base in January, I spotted two eyes looking my way from just above the water, sheltered by a downed branch. Those two eyes were attached to an adult bullfrog, head above water and body resting a couple of inches below the water. I stayed as still as I could and photographed this big frog. Its green snout was mottled in black, and underwater I could see that the legs were a mottled color, too. Young bullfrogs are often a fairly plain green color, but as they get larger they often become mottled like this.
I reached the willow, now beginning to leaf out, and took in the pond and surrounding area. The clumps of little bluestem were each green around the base, as a short spray of new green leaves emerged from the dormant stalks of last year’s growth. Later, each plant will send up a handful of flowering stalks, growing to about three feet or more. Behind the bluestem was the oak woodland that had so recently been a labyrinth of bare branches, now covered with big green leaves.
Along the pond margin, there were short clumps of green growth, with shoots that were soft and fleshy, and when broken, were hollow tubes. In other places along the water’s edge grew a plant with rounded leaves and red stalks. This was a type of water primrose, which I’ve seen grow from under shallow water, with leaves seeming to float on the water’s surface, and I’ve also seen it growing in the mud right at the water’s edge. Here and there, whirligig beetles spun around on the water’s surface.
At one end of the pond, a pair of mallard ducks stood upon a piece of wood, the drab female looking out across the pond while the male turned his dark metallic green head and rested it in the feathers of his back. As I approached for better photographs, the female launched into the water and paddled away, followed in short order by the male.
I wondered if one of them might be the duck I saw as I walked up to the pond in January. This species winters in Texas and they pair up with a single mate each season. Do they breed in Texas? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows their summer breeding range as in a few northern states, Canada, and Alaska. A part of the U.S. is shown has having mallards year round, and that includes the Texas panhandle. John Tveten’s book, The Birds of Texas, reports that there are scattered breeding records in Texas, and perhaps this refers to the panhandle. If this pair did nest within the preserve, we would expect the male (or “drake”) to abandon the female (either “duck” or “hen”) to incubate the eggs and care for ducklings. One wonders if this would prompt the hen to use some other, less complimentary term when speaking of the drake. I suppose if single motherhood is the norm for a species, she probably takes it in stride.
At one end of the pond, the hen periodically flipped tail-up in the water, her head and neck below the surface. She was “dabbling,” which is the word for tipping forward and using the flattened bill to find things to eat, such as aquatic vegetation, invertebrates, or seeds. They may eat worms, snails, and insects in greater number during breeding season, sometimes wandering the shore and feeding on items found on the ground.
In two months, the area around this pond has transformed from a semicircle of bare trees to a woodland leafing out in bright green and new growth around the bases of the bunchgrasses. The pond is coming to life with frog calls, and spring is making its presence clearly felt. How will it change as spring progresses? There will be more to this story.