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Monday, May 5, 2014

Reptiles and amphibians need you ... to count them

David Brooks

The other night I had to get up and close the bedroom window because the spring peepers were keeping me awake.

The lust-filled cries of a zillion male frogs seeking mates was so piercing that at first I thought my wife had bought a weird new type of smoke alarm. Michael Marchand is unsympathetic. ...

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The other night I had to get up and close the bedroom window because the spring peepers were keeping me awake.

The lust-filled cries of a zillion male frogs seeking mates was so piercing that at first I thought my wife had bought a weird new type of smoke alarm. Michael Marchand is unsympathetic.

As a state wildlife biologist tasked in part with keeping track of the state’s “herps,” or amphibians and reptiles, he wishes more species were that vocal.

“Compared to birds, where you can confirm an animal’s presence without ever seeing it,” he sighed. “You can’t do that with salamanders, turtles, frogs.”

That points out a major issue in wildlife biology: Knowing what’s out there is tough, especially when a target species is quiet and shy, like most New Hampshire amphibians and reptiles.

“A lot of species are very cryptic,” said Marchand, using the term in the wildlife sense to mean camouflaged. “In some cases they’re underground most of the year.”

For more than a decade New Hampshire Fish & Game has partly solved this issue using schlubs like you and me, via the New Hampshire Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program. This is a classic “citizen science” project, giving volunteer layfolk a way to gather data that scientists can then use in various ways.

Such projects have bloomed in recent years. I’m involved in three – gathering daily precipitation data for CoCoRaHS and summertime river samples for the Souhegan Watershed Association, and doing web analysis of historical documents for Old Weather online. But I could easily be outdoors all day, spotting turkeys or butterflies or birds or bobcats, counting plant species, gathering air-quality data in the Presidential Range, measuring and counting and photographing and whatnot.

Beats the heck out of spending hours playing Angry Birds.

The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has established an entire Citizen Science Lecture Series, which seeks to get people excited about the idea of doing fieldwork, much of it literally in fields, to aid our understanding of New Hampshire environs.

It will cover several scientific fields including limnology (the study of freshwater bodies), with the goal of “reaching across organizations (to) bring together citizen scientists to learn, discuss and share experiences.”

Marchand will be giving the first lecture, talking about the herp-reporting program from 6 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 7, at the New Hampshire Fish and Gave Dept. office in Concord, 11 Hazen Drive. Other lectures will be given in the summer, fall and winter; for more information, visit

Marchand admits that the secretive nature of herps (from “herpetology,” the study of reptiles and amphibians) makes this particular project tough for the casual participant.

“A lot of the reports we get come in as incidental encounters. People kind of stumble across them, like when a turtle is crossing the road,” said Marchand.

My property is perfect for herps, but in two decades I haven’t stumbled across much: Some red efts (the juvenile stage of the Eastern newt), frogs that leap into the pond with a strangled cry when I come near, an awesome spotted salamander trapped in a window well, and a couple of snapping turtles wandering across the yard like escapees from Jurassic Park. That’s about it.

Annoyingly, I have never seen a spring peeper, which, despite its oversized vocalizing, is only as big as a thumbnail.

Marchand said he often brings a peeper or two to display when he gives talks, because lots of people share this frustration: “Almost everybody’s heard spring peepers calling but only a small number of people have physically seen one.”

The project’s reporting form has plenty of space for details, such as life stage (adult? juvenile? larva? hatchling? egg?), breeding evidence that includes courtship behavior and mating, plus the all-important “how was species identified?”

I suspect most observers check the “unknown” box a lot of the time. And that is the drawback of citizen science: We’re not trained and can’t be sent out at specific times and places.

“Some of this requires a biologist, because of rigorous sampling protocols,” Marchand said. The lack of regular, predictable follow-up also limits the data’s use at times.

“It is not as good at discerning trend information because it’s not collected in a standardized way. ... The shift in distribution of species ranges due to climate change or other factors interested in – that’s theoretically possible but we can’t do it yet” with just citizen-science data, he said.

Even so, our information can be useful.

“A couple years ago, we received a nationally competitive grant ... to look at Blandings turtles, which are state-endangered, of conservation concern throughout its range (in New England). We did a lot of monitoring and surveys by biologists, but one of the tools we used to prioritize sites to survey the reports we received from the volunteers ... That helped us focus on particular areas, when deciding where to contact landowners, get permission to do more detailed surveys. That information was definitely helpful,” he said.

That will be real consolation the next time I’m awakened at 2 a.m. by frog festivities, I’m sure.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or Follow Brooks on Twitter @granitegeek.