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FrogWatch helps volunteers identify frogs, toads in Derry area

| Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
The northern cricket frog is dark green-brown, rounded snout with short flegs and long hind feet. About 5/8” to 1 1/2' long, the frog's diet includes small insects, flies and mosquitoes. It can leap up to 6 feet and is an excellent swimmer.

As surprising as it may seem with steady snow blanketing the area, a flurry of activity from Western Pennsylvania's 13 native species of frogs and toads could start within the next few weeks.

With that in mind, conservation education specialists from the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and other FrogWatch USA chapters throughout the country are getting a jump on training volunteers to collect data for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' flagship citizen science program.

The program lets individuals contribute to a large-scale scientific research project on a flexible schedule that requires only a few minutes per week. Volunteers are not required to listen on the same days and times each week, making the FrogWatch program more convenient.

Lori Pepka, an education specialist at the Pittsburgh Zoo, conducted a training workshop Feb. 8 at Keystone State Park in Derry Township to help volunteers learn to identify frogs and toads in the area by ear.

Volunteers at the training at Keystone learned about Western Pennsylvania frog and toad species and were able to listen to calls of all 13 species.

“Nature and animals, their movements — it's something I'm interested in anyway on an amateur kind of level,” said Kara Bullen of North Huntingdon, who attended the training with her sister Sasha Lencoski of Latrobe. “It's just nice for us to be part of something bigger rather than me just standing in my backyard and thinking about it myself. I feel like I'm part of something larger.”

“I thought it was really informative,” Lencoski said. “The frog calls were interesting. That was the best part. There were a lot I thought ‘Oh, I've heard that, but I didn't know it was a frog.' ”

Pepka brought along a stinkpot turtle and an Amazon milk frog for volunteers to check out after the training.

FrogWatch volunteers are asked to spend a few minutes twice a week listening and submitting data on the frog and toad calls they hear emanating from wetland areas during the calling season for the amphibians.

“Citizen science really is just trying to get people into science that maybe would not typically be part of it,” said Grace Fields, Pittsburgh Zoo conservation education specialist. “By having multiple people doing small parts in a research study like this, you can actually gather huge amounts of data nationwide.”

New for this year, FrogWatch USA has introduced an online FieldScope database, which lets volunteers submit their data directly and see other volunteers' listening sites. Previously, volunteers sent their data to organizers who were responsible for entering the data.

Monitoring amphibian populations is important because they are ecological indicators of environmental health. According to the FrogWatch volunteer training manual, amphibians' “permeable skin and eggs, as well as their complex life cycles in water and on land, are particularly sensitive to pollution, diseases, ultraviolet light, and microscopic organisms.”

Pepka compared amphibians' sensitivity to environmental influences with the historical practice of miners bringing a caged canary underground as an early warning of poor air quality.

“I think one of the greatest things about it is it brings awareness to people about the species in the area and the conservation issues that they face,” Fields said of the FrogWatch program. “Amphibians are one of the species right now that are facing the biggest decline in population.

“Technically, our listening season runs February through August,” she said. “You do need the temperature to be above 35 degrees, I believe, so we haven't hit that (yet).”

While many of the species covered in the training are common enough that their calls and names are familiar to most of the population, others are far more rare.

“One of the endangered species we can be listening for are northern cricket frogs,” Fields said. “It has been occasionally heard in this area. It's not something that's heard consistently.”

The northern cricket frog was added to Pennsylvania's list of endangered species in 2010.

The zoo conducted FrogWatch training seminars at Raccoon State Park's Wildflower Reserve Center on Feb. 15 and at Jennings Environmental Education Center on the next day. A training session is set for the zoo's Education Complex on Feb. 22. All training sessions start at 12:30 p.m.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913, or

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