Frog Blog: My First Fieldtrip

While I had seen the frogs in captivity before, seeing them in the wild really blew my mind.

While I had seen the frogs in captivity before, seeing them in the wild really blew my mind.

It was our first week out in the field, and we headed up to the San Jacinto Mountains in the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California to look for mountain yellow-legged frogs (see Frog Blog 2009). Being my first trip as a summer fellow at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, the butterflies were driving me crazy; actually, make that ladybugs. Thousands of ladybugs were swarming through the air during the day; I couldn’t even open my mouth without inhaling one.

From left to right: Ron, Frank, Adam, and Liz.

From left to right: Ron, Frank, Adam, and Liz.

Frank Santana and I arrived at the campground and were greeted by Dr. Ron Swaisgood, head of the Zoo’s Applied Animal Ecology Division, and his family, who were on a camping vacation. Our first task was to join up with U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) biologists Adam and Liz to assess the suitability of frog habitat in a local creek. They led us up a steep trail that made conversation while hiking impossible. However, Adam was unfazed and continued to talk about the local habitat while we listened and sweated. My crying may have made the listening part hard for others, and for that, I apologize.

The views of pine trees and rock formations along the hike almost made it worth it. Once we reached the bottom of the creek, we started a habitat survey. This consists of walking 250 meters (822 feet) at a time and recording the types of plants and substrates seen, as well as a variety of water and air measurements. Conducting these surveys allows us to evaluate the suitability of a creek for mountain yellow-legged frog reintroduction.

Coulter pines have cones the size and weight of a chihauhau and sharp protruding spines.

Coulter pines have cones the size and weight of a chihauhau and sharp protruding spines.

The stream terrain made for quite an arduous hike, as we waded through cold water, pushed through dense brush, and climbed over HUGE slippery boulders. Only thoughts of mountain yellow-legged frogs and loved ones kept us going. We performed about seven of these transects, crossing waterfalls, bouncing over boulders, and squeezing between tons of trees. During the survey, Dr. Swaisgood pointed out the different species of pine. Jeffrey pines are like a giant scratch-and-sniff sticker, with bark that smells like vanilla. White fir trees have neon green, edible needles in the spring and summer. The needles have a bitter, citrus-y taste at first, which fades into a sweet, minty goodness.

Surveying with the USGS was a lot of fun, and the experience made us realize the amount of dedication and manpower it takes to detect and manage mountain yellow-legged frog populations. Adam surprised us with news that he actually discovered a single female frog in a new location on the mountain earlier in the month. That was encouraging news that the frogs are surviving and, perhaps, spreading. The mountain yellow-legged frog was once plentiful in Southern California and ranged as low as 1,000 feet (300 meters) in elevation. Today there are only 8 known populations (9 with the new population) in Southern California, and they are restricted to high elevation streams above 5,000 feet (1,500 meters).

Once the kids left, we realized how creepy their animal-themed chairs are at night.

Once the kids left, we realized how creepy their animal-themed chairs are at night.

After the hike down, it was time for a nap. That night, Dr. Swaisgood and his wife, Janice, cooked us a lovely meal that I slept through, although I hear it was delicious. Dr. S. had a good fire going by the time I got there and the kids went to sleep after dessert (apple cobbler!).

On day two, we enlisted the help of the Swaisgood family to help carry heavy batteries for our frog-loggers used to record frog calls. After a short, but steep, climb, we came to a serene pool between two waterfalls. A small mottled frog was sitting on the bank and jumped into the water as we approached. We scanned the pool for other frogs (two were sitting on the waterfall’s edge) while the first frog swam and rested right next to our feet. Seeing my first mountain yellow-legged frog in the wild inspired this haiku:

As we approach, SPLASH!
Humans have wiped them out, but
It knows…help is here.

Most of the frogs were very tolerant of our presence, letting us get within inches of them before taking flight and jumping into the water.

Most of the frogs were very tolerant of our presence, letting us get within inches of them before taking flight and jumping into the water.

These tiny little frogs were just beautiful, completely oblivious to their plight. Each of the frogs we stumbled across that day (22 total) got my heart pumping. They all looked very robust and healthy; this gave us hope that the frogs’ populations in Southern California can be restored. The 100+ tadpoles we saw were also a very encouraging sign for the future. On the last day, we said our goodbyes to the Swaisgood family and took off to yet another creek. We drove through some private lands to another known population of mountain yellow-legged frogs in hopes of switching out more batteries. We hope to catch male frogs calling underwater trying to entice females. Unlike most frogs, which use a vocal sac to amplify their calls, the mountain yellow-legged frog lacks vocal sacs and calls mostly underwater. Because sound waves travel faster and farther underwater, the frogs may have evolved this calling behavior for competing with the background noise of the loud creek habitat during periods of high snowmelt.

These batteries are used to power frog-loggers, which are programmed to record underwater audio every half hour for 30 seconds.

These batteries are used to power frog-loggers, which are programmed to record underwater audio every half hour for 30 seconds.

But back to the batteries: these ain’t your grandma’s triple As. These are 10-pound motorcycle batteries. These suckers wouldn’t be so bad on their own, but when you throw in the fact that each frog-logger requires three batteries and there are four frog-loggers per stream and only two of us…well, let’s just say that I could often be caught muttering to myself how I was going to crush Frank’s Star Wars collectibles when we got back (Did I mention Frank once compared our field site to the forests of Endor?).

Ron Swaisgood becoming one with the frogs.

Ron Swaisgood becoming one with the frogs.

On this particular day, the frog-loggers happened to be over a mile away from our truck. Since we could only carry three batteries at a time, we had to make two trips. The first trip was up the creek, which was fairly rugged terrain, but luckily nothing close to the intensity of the first two days. On the way back down (carrying the old batteries back), we found an old fire road that made the hike a bit better, but not much. Some blood, a lot of sweat, and a lot of tears later, we swapped out all the batteries for new ones.

After a long rest and plenty of water later, we had finished our first trip in the field. And I like to think the frogs appreciate the hard work. I know I enjoyed myself. I had a blast meeting some cool new people, seeing some awesome frogs, and enjoying the surrounding wilderness.

James Liu is a summer fellow at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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