Spooky noises in the night

Each year in college, I swore I would go somewhere warm for spring break. Inevitable though, spring would arrive and I would be broke. Finally during my senior year, my roommate Karla and I hatched a plan to drive south to Texas and save money by packing a cooler full of food and camping once we got there. The week before we left, I gave Karla a crash course on how to drive my stick shift car well enough to get us on and off the freeway, after which we could change drivers at the top of the exit ramp, and without further ado we headed south.

Uninterested in drinking until we puked in South Padre Island, we instead headed for North Padre Island, which turned out to be more of a viewing platform for oilrigs than the bird sanctuary we hoped to find. After a restless night spent listening to RVs humming, we got up early and drove quickly to San Antonio. We hoped the campground there would be better, but the place was located in a shady part of town and we soon realized that the other guests were living there, not camping. A quick and desperate call to our mothers assured us the $50 needed to get a motel room for the night instead, and the next day we found a much more scenic and secluded campground a few miles out of town. Of course, secluded does not mean quiet.

The campground was in a small valley ringed by hills and bluffs and we were definitely the only ones there. A multitude of cockroaches chased us out of the bathroom that evening and we ran to our tent, zipped up the fly and hid in our sleeping bags. The noises we heard were decidedly spooky – frogs croaking, crickets chirping and unidentifiable animals plopping into a nearby pond. Then the howling started. Ow-ow-owooo rang out from the surrounding hilltops. “What is that noise?” Karla whispered. “Don’t worry,” I replied, “We are probably just surrounded by coyotes. Sweet dreams!”

The next summer, camping with my boyfriend in a national forest in Alabama, I swore not to fear the noises of the night. Our campground was a hundred miles from nowhere, and once again we were the only ones there. As we lay in our tent debating whether or not there might be alligators in the nearby marsh, the spooky noises began. The frogs croaked, the crickets chirped and the unidentifiable animals plopped into the water. Each time, Gary would shake me awake whispering, “What was that noise?”

Ten years later, Gary is now my husband, and it turns out that husbands are no braver than boyfriends when it comes to spooky noises in the night. Just this fall, as we were falling asleep we heard footsteps under our bedroom window. Step, step, step…stop. After a minute, I finally whispered to Gary, “What do you think made that noise?” “I’m sure it was an animal,” he replied, “One that just happened to sound like a person walking and stopping right under our window.” I suggested that he sit up and peek through the window to see if someone was indeed standing under our bedroom window looking in at us, but he refused. After a short squabble, I finally agreed to look out the window myself, after which I remembered that our bedroom window is about 20 feet above ground. Not only was there no animal in sight, but there was also no way a person could have looked into the window even if they were out there.

If you’ve been out walking in the morning or evening these past few weeks, you’ve probably heard quite a few strange sounds yourself, especially near ponds and marshy areas. Minnesota frogs have begun their spring breeding, creating a symphony of chirping, trilling and ribbiting. The wood frogs, chorus frogs and leopard frogs are the first to begin; the boys sing their hearts out hoping for attention from the ladies. Some people mistake the noises for crickets, but if you’re close to the water, the cacophony of frog calls can be almost deafening.

Frogs and toads lay their eggs in the shallow water of flooded fields, wetland edges and backwaters of streams. When people cut down tall vegetation in these areas, the frogs quickly disappear. In addition to providing a tasty dinner for herons, cranes and other migrating birds on their way back from the south, frogs are also an important indicator of lake, stream and wetland health. Their porous skin makes them particularly susceptible to pollutants in the water, and they suffer from massive toxic attack if they come in contact with ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer. Data from the Minnesota Frog and Toad Calling Survey shows a notable decrease since 1998 in the number of places statewide where grey treefrogs and spring peepers can be heard. The nights might be quieter, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

For people brave enough to face the spooky noises of the springtime night, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is actively recruiting volunteers for their 2010 frog calling survey. They are especially in need of people to listen for frogs in locations outside the metro area, making a good opportunity for people in the east metro who have cabins up north. To learn more, contact Krista Larson at 651-259-5120 or visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteering/frogtoad_survey.