Along lakeshores and stream banks, even in roadside puddles and pools, the prairie's frogs and toads are bursting forth into song. According to retired biology professor Dwight Platt, there's a good reason for it: they're singing because it's time to mate. "They breed in ponds and pools, so they want to breed at a time when there's going to be water around for a while, and seems to me they like fresh water rather than stagnant water, so when a pool has just been filled with rain, they'll begin to call," he says.
To the untrained ear, this is nothing but a frog cacophony. Dwight Platt is trying to change that. As the natural history consultant to the Kaufmann Museum in North Newton, Kansas, Professor Platt has been leading bird and butterfly field trips for years. He recently conducted his third annual Frog Frolic to help laypeople identify some of the state's frogs and toads by their calls.
On an early May evening as dusk began to fall, he took a group of would-be frog lovers out to the sand hills of western Harvey County, expecting to hear as many as nine different species. "The cricket frog, it's sort of a bouncing," he says. "I always say it sounds like marbles bouncing."
Dwight Platt does what ornithologists do when describing bird calls. He equates the frog's sound with an aural equivalent. After a while, under his patient tutelage, you begin to discern the "bouncing marbles" voices of the Northern Cricket Frog.
Farther down the dirt road, we stop at a place where Cricket Frogs and Western Chorus Frogs join forces, almost drowning out human voices. Professor Platt describes the Chorus Frog's call as the sound of a finger being raked across a comb.
So Chorus Frogs make the comb sound and Cricket Frogs sound like bouncing marbles. Now the retired biologist walks quietly along a roadside ditch, straining to hear another species. Even though it's larger in size, its "call" is definitely more subdued. "Oh there's one, yeah. Everybody hear it? What's that? That's the Plains Leopard Frog," he says. The Plains Leopard Frog alternates a 'chuck-chuck-chuck' with a quieter "cooing" that sounds like a cat's purr.
Surprisingly we didn't hear the frog whose call is easiest to identify, the bullfrog. Dwight Platt says they won't begin singing until the weather turns warmer. The chill in the evening air is probably why we didn't hear any toads either, although several can be found in this part of Kansas. Perhaps the most unusual is the Woodhouse's Toad. "It sounds like somebody's in trouble giving loud screams," he says.
For several years, Dwight Platt has been counting frogs in central Kansas for the Department of Wildlife and Parks, part of the state's efforts to establish a baseline to gauge future changes in the frog population. Even though this long-term study is in its early stages, Professor Platt believes the local amphibians are doing well and sounding good.