Frog Wars

The voice of the bullfrog, who calls, according to the boys, “jug-o’-rum, jug-o’-rum, pull the plug, pull the plug”…

John Burroughs, 1905

On our birding trip to Ohio last week, I confirmed that I can still hear many of the warbler songs, but only if they are really close. But there is a “song” that I can hear very well, the love song of the American bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus. So, on Tuesday morning, while throngs of people on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh were looking up at colorful warblers, I stopped to look down into the water to see where that familiar jug-o’-rum call was coming from.

Male bullfrog

Male bullfrog in a prime location along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh (click photos to enlarge)

I spotted the caller sitting out in the open water a few feet from the boardwalk. Then, off to the side, another male called. They called back and forth a few times as I maneuvered trying to find a space through the thick shrubs that gave me a clear photo of the bulging yellow throat of the calling male. The first male suddenly skipped across the water surface toward the other male – FROG FIGHT!!

bullfrog battle 2

Bullfrog males tangle in a territorial battle

The frog I had been watching went about ten feet across the water and slammed into another male frog coming from the other direction…and the battle was on. Male bullfrogs establish and defend territories in suitable breeding habitat along a shoreline, hoping to attract females. Territories vary in size, but may be roughly 5 to 15 feet across, depending on the quality of the habitat.

bullfrog battle 3

Trying to get the upper leg in a wrestling match

Even the hard core birders around me were now watching this duel as the frogs were kicking up quite a bit of water as they tried to wrestle for position and an advantage.

bullfrog battle 1

Hard to tell who is winning

After some leg flailing, the frogs locked arms and began a marathon shoving match. I’m not sure about the rues in frog wrestling, but I think the goal is to dunk your opponent until he cries Uncle, and makes a hasty retreat out of your prime spot. My original frog seemed to have one primary strategy – shove your nose into the throat of the other guy.

Bullfrog battle

It turned out to be a winning strategy

After a couple of minutes of struggle, the throat-shoving proved to be a winning strategy, and, as quickly as it had started, the battle was done. The vanquished frog turned tail and hopped away to fight another day, if he is lucky. You see, though these battles rarely cause any harm, there is a price to pay for all this posturing. Male bullfrogs tend to be more exposed in their habitat than the reclusive females, and are more noticeable as they call and move about defending their territories. This makes them more susceptible to predators, of which there are many.

Heron with bullfrog

Great blue heron catches a bullfrog for lunch

We saw this firsthand at another marsh impoundment when a great blue heron snagged a bullfrog (an unwary male perhaps?) and managed to gulp it down in just a few seconds.  Not even a jug-o’-rum will help that guy…

A Sense of Place

Being aware of the splendor of the seasons, of the natural world, makes us understand man’s critical need for wild places. Living with familiar things and moving in the seasons can fulfill that profound need common to us all: a sense of place.

~Jo Northrop

It was time. Time for another trip to that place I find so special – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It has been over two months since my last visit and I was getting antsy, so this past weekend’s nice weather prompted me to get in the car and go. Of course, I was hoping for bears or bobcats, but would take whatever nature would give me, as spring was starting to explode across the state.

Red-winged Blackbird male singing

Red-winged Blackbird male singing (click photos to enlarge)

One of the first sounds I heard as I drove in was the distinctive, konk-la-ree call of the Red-winged Blackbird. Back in February, there had been tens of thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds foraging in the fields. Now, only a few males are singing from prominent perches, defending a territory, attracting a mate, luring a naturalist with a camera a bit closer.


Red-winged Blackbird male

Red-winged Blackbird male

Males prominently display their red shoulder patches during the breeding season and respond to any nearby male that sings. I watched two going at it, calling back and forth, for several minutes. This one, perhaps a younger male (due to the brownish edges to its feathers) was always on a lower perch relative to the other, all black-feathered, male. These close-up views always make me appreciate the beauty of these birds and the sharpness of their bill.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

I was hoping to see some early spring arrivals and did manage a few such species in my day and a half – my first Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parula Warblers and Purple Martins of the season. Then, while driving slowly down one of the refuge roads, I heard the unmistakable call of a White-eyed Vireo, and stopped to search. In a few seconds, the pale-eyed gaze of this beautiful thicket-loving bird greeted me. The call is described in most guides as CHICK-a-per-weeoo-CHICK, but I prefer QUICK, take me to the railroad, QUICK. The distinctive white iris’ are found in the adult birds – immatures have dark eyes.

Green Heron

Green Heron

I also got quick glimpses of several Green Herons in roadside canals, but one bird went “out on a limb” for me as I drove past. I stopped and watched it raise its crest and stare at me with those intense heron eyes, before it flew off into the dense shrubs below.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

Another species that I have found here mainly in early spring is the Horned Lark. This is a bird of open habitats, and I usually spot them in barren fields before the crops have been planted. Their dorsal coloration looks like the bare dirt habitat they prefer, so I usually notice them while I am driving slowly and see what looks like a dirt clod moving. But a closer look reveals their subtle beauty and the unusual “horns” (tufts of feathers) of the adults. These birds do nest in NC (they are ground nesters), so perhaps this one already has a nest somewhere in the acres of open fields on and near the refuge.

American Coot 1

American Coot

There were also some leftover “winter” birds, including several small flocks of American Coot, a lone Ruddy Duck, and a few scattered Blue-winged Teal. Although there are scattered records of all of these nesting in NC, I believe it is a fairly rare event, and I anticipate they will all be gone in a few weeks.

Bullfrog head

Bullfrog male

I spent some time surveying one of the marshy areas looking for some American Bittern, as it was about this time last year that I heard them calling in an impoundment. Though one finally flushed out of the marsh while I was watching some Pied-billed Grebes, there was none of the unusual bittern calling to be heard. But there was the deep bass sounds of Bullfrogs coming from the marsh, especially on the first afternoon. The second day was much windier and this may have inhibited their calling. At first, I was trying to locate the callers along the edges of the marsh grasses. But, then I started spotting Bullfrog heads poking up out of the open water, mixed in with patches of emergent vegetation.

Bullfrog head 2

Bullfrog head showing large tympanum of male

The ones I saw were all males. In male Bullfrogs, the tympanic membrane (external ear drum) is considerably larger then their eye (in females it is about the same size as the eye). The deep resonating calls have been likened to sounds made by cattle and have also been described by the phrase, jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum.

Black Bear eating wheat

Large Black Bear far off in a wheat field

Overall, the trip produced fewer wildlife sightings than I had hoped. While I did get plenty of views of Wild Turkeys, some Muskrats, Nutria, and even a couple of Gray Foxes, it wasn’t until late the second day that I spotted my first Black Bear, a youngster along the road edge on the south shore of Lake Phelps. As I drove into the Pungo Unit for my final few hours of daylight, I finally saw a large adult Black Bear lying in a field of winter wheat. It was chowing down on the lush greenery and raised up to a sitting position when I stopped to look. After watching it for several minutes I drove on, leaving it to its dinner. I am a bit surprised I didn’t see more bears, but will look for them again later this week when I have a client group down that way. In spite of few bears on this trip, I look forward to whatever this special place cares to offer on my next visit.