Saturday, July 25, 2009

Shades of Gray

"The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper."
- Betrand Russell

It was late one evening at the end of July. I was on my way to the kitchen to get a beer when I heard it. Once again I was being taunted by the voice of a Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) calling outside. It was quite close from the sound of it, a situation that had become all too familiar. Many summer nights over the past two years I have heard the trill of this little amphibian close to my apartment, only to be unable to find the creature itself when I ventured outside. The frog’s ability to instantly spot me and stop calling was amazing. Try as I might in my best stealth mode, the night would go silent as soon as a line-of-sight existed between me and the frog. Once the calling stopped it had proved impossible to find the little frog. Still, hope springs eternal. I put the thought of a cold one on hold and once again headed for the door.

Nearly every time the frog had ventured close to the building it had been near the front of the dwelling. This time it was on the side of the building where there were no trees. The trill had been unusually loud and therefore I assumed the frog must be on the building itself. Grabbing a flashlight I went out the front door being as quiet as a church mouse. Actually since no church mouse has ever exited through my front door while I listened to how much noise it made, I am being a bit presumptive here. I eased to the edge of the building and peered around taking care not to let my body show. Incredibly the trilling stopped instantly. Well call me Ishmael, this frog seemed determined to play the white whale to my Ahab.

Right you little blighter. I strode out into the open and began searching the wall of the building. The frog had been so loud I figured it had to be on the building or in the thin strip of grass between the building and the paved drive. Yet after several minutes of scrutiny I could not locate the triller. Frustration rose in me once again and I stood there staring at the beige wall that clearly lacked a frog. Gray Tree Frogs can change their color. This ability is believed to be triggered by activity level, temperature, or to approximate their immediate environment. It happens more slowly than a chameleon and only natural colors are achieved. So it wasn’t going to be the unblemished beige of the building was it? Not unless it had the same lack of imagination regarding decor as the people who built this place.

Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor)

Then the silence of the night was rent by the trill once again. It was behind me, much further away from the building than I thought it could possibly have been. There by the curb, on the pavement about 50 feet away, were two small stones. Only these stones had legs. And one stone was trilling. I did not expect the frog to be in the open, on the ground, on dry pavement. Gray Tree Frogs are relatively small frogs, usually about two inches long when fully grown. They can range in color from very pale gray to nearly black. They can also be quite green. Their skin has a dry lumpy texture making them look like a toad to most people. During winter, these amazing little creatures keep alive by chemically keeping their organs ice free while allowing the rest of their bodies to freeze. They exist as frogsicles until the warmth of spring resuscitates them.

Gray Tree Frogs have pads on each toe that allows them to climb vertical surfaces. Even glass.

I strode over and immediately picked up not one Gray Tree Frog but two. They were side by side. Placing them in one hand I went back to the house to get my camera and a box to hold the frogs until I was ready to photograph them. The frogs were totally immobile in my hand. No effort to escape, no effort to reposition. So as I walked into the house I was quite unprepared for their escape attempt. Clearly having worked out a cunning plan between them, they both leaped simultaneously but in different directions. One frog landed on the kitchen floor and the other stuck to the kitchen wall. They are not called “Tree” Frogs for nothing. Each of their toes have little pads that allow them to stick to vertical surfaces. Like kitchen walls. I picked the one on the floor up and pealed the other off the wall, plopped both into a sandwich container, grabbed my camera, and went back outside.

Probably a male based on the dark throat

There is a young tree by the front door. It would do nicely as a place to photograph the frogs. So dropping to my knees, I placed each frog on the trunk a few feet off the ground, and stepped back to get my camera. Like a popping popcorn kernel, one of the frogs flew off the tree and landed on my leg. Camera in hand I replaced it on the tree and began to photograph the two. This went on for several minutes, with one frog slowly ascending the tree trunk, until I noticed someone a few yards away silently watching me. I took a few more shots and then relented to the silent question that was written all over the watcher’s face. “What the heck are you doing dude?”

Looking like tree bark is a good thing for a Tree Frog, n'est-ce pas?

The watcher’s name was Kevin. He was a neighbor I had yet to meet. Kevin is a thin man with long graying hair pulled back in a ponytail. He was wearing a tee-shirt, shorts, and sandals with socks. A can of beer in a foam sleeve was clutched in one hand. In answer to the quizzical expression he had been wearing I explained I was photographing Tree Frogs. To this information he answered “Ohhhhhhh…,” and it sounded to me that he was expelling all his interest in Tree Frogs in that one breath. I seemed correct in this assessment as he then quickly went on to talk about his job at the nearby casino. Somehow (I honestly forget now how he made the transition) his conversation wound round to Cheech and Chong skits. This fit with his appearance and age, and I couldn’t help but wonder if ever in the history of our planet had someone photographed Tree Frogs while discussing Cheech and Chong. The surreality of the moment was further heightened when one of the frogs shot off the tree like a warty missile and passed between us at belt level while Kevin remained blissfully unaware, his revelry of marijuana based comedy uninterrupted. I realized I rather liked Kevin.

Now here is a a Tree-hugger

After an enjoyable talk, I left Kevin and the frogs in the night and retreated into the house. That microbrew still awaited my attention. Having liberated it from its cold dark prison, I sat down in the living room feeling rather satisfied with my evening. I had finally caught the night triller. I had slain my white whale. You needn't call me Ishmael.


  1. This is a delightful read. And thanks, I finally now know how they stay alive through the winter!

  2. This just happened at our synagogue in Sharon, MA. On Shabbos (no cameras!) we found a mottled frog sitting on the metal outdoor bench. The kids gathered round, we watched and it watched us for a long time until it jumped onto the pants of one boy (who remainded calm), then jumped into the grass practically disappering with its coloring, hopped onto the nearest tree and climbed up.