My Favorite Ditch

April in Monroe means one thing for me. It means a trip to my favorite roadside ditch in the western part of the county at the Petersburg Game Area. Actually, this is not the only thing that April means to me, but consider this as a literary device to move the story along. I mean, it wouldn’t be as compelling to say that April means 32 things to me and number 28 is …..or, April means that I can no longer use weather as an excuse not to do yard work, but when I can get away I…..  A better way to put it would be to say that it just wouldn’t be April without a trip to the ditch.

This particular ditch is like many across the county, state, and region. Swollen by the spring rains and steeped with the accumulated leafage from last fall, the tea-colored waters are full of discarded drink cups, broken tail lights (always from the right side), and chip bags. At initial glance it is not a pretty place at all. The thing that makes this one special is that it consistently hosts an annual influx of breeding Chorus and Wood Frogs. They are always there in April and I am always there to immerse myself in their sonic efforts. But, as the ad goes, there is more -much more.

The frogs certainly are the main show. This time around both species were still going at it but were past their breeding peak. Huge clusters of Wood Frog eggs, now growing green with algae, were suspended from the submerged vegetation. These frogs deposit their eggs in communal bundles and the freshest deposits were apparent by their still clear coat of jelly (see below). A few quiet individuals were sulking about the ditch (see here) but most of the calling woodies were well back in the adjacent flooded woodlot.

Tiny Chorus Frogs were much in evidence but still very hard to see. Being only 1 inch in length, and adorned with three rows of cryptic spots arranged against a pale brown body, they merged perfectly with their surroundings (see here and below). The performing males chose clumps of dead grass for their calling locations so that they would not stand out. The only way for a human observer to spot them was to look for the vibrating water created by their trills. The performers took in a gulp of air and shifted it back and forth from body to air sac – each time swelling the vocal bag to the size of a marble. Take a look at this video (here) of one of the calling Chorus Frogs delivering an earnest round of creeking.

There were several individual clumps of Chorus Frog eggs in the ditch as well. One (pictured above) revealed tiny well-formed tadpoles within.  Although I usually avoid taking shots that show garbage, I couldn’t resist one shot (see here). One of the males chose to do his calling from the lip of a plastic McDonald’s cup which appropriately says “open really WIDE” on the side.  O.K., so they don’t open their mouths at all while calling but can be big-mouthed when it comes to snatching up prey. All the frogs became very small mouthed when a hungry Garter Snake passed by, however (see below).

Although the frogs appeared to dominate the scene, my tea-toned strip of temporary linear water (aka ditch) was actually dominated by mosquito larvae. The place was teeming with millions of these future blood-suckers. I used my empty McDonald’s coffee cup (which I later threw away in an appropriate location) to sample the population. Each scoop of water I pulled up with that cup had at least 10 to 15 larvae in it (see below with detail shot). As air breathers, the larvae suspend themselves from the surface in order to bring their breathing tubes in contact with the air. They squirm about and swim to the bottom when feeding on the algae slime below. I have to admit, that cup of mosquito water tasted pretty good -coulda used a touch of cream, but who’s complaining.

Apart from the mosquitoes, Caddis fly larvae, encased in their weedy mobile homes, were common ditch residents. Red Water Mites swam by as Water Striders skated over their heads and came to rest on the floating frog egg mats. Perhaps the most fascinating find of the day was an impressive Predaceous Diving Beetle. I used my multi-purpose coffee cup to gather in that beast as well (who needs fancy nets and specimen jars, eh?).

One of the largest of aquatic beetles, the Predaceous Diver comes in several species. All are, like their name suggests, predators which dive (their genus name Dytiscus means “diver” in Greek and absolutely nothing in German). If you were paying attention, you’d realize by now that this beetle is larger than the Chorus Frogs previously mentioned. In other words, Garter Snakes are not the only threat to frog existence in this little piece of ditch.

I handled the beetle beast very carefully because they can land a hefty bite if they so choose. This one was a female as evidenced by her lack of suction discs on the two front legs. Because they are so smooth and sleek (not to mention strong!) they are very hard to hold. I fired off a few shots before letting it fall back into the drink.

Yes, my annual journey to the Petersburg ditch was a good one. Just as surely as the frogs are drawn to the brown water, this middle aged man with coffee cup in hand, is also drawn.

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