- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Rain fell and thunder rumbled, but the storm was no frog choker.

The frogs, in fact, welcomed the rain with trills, croaks and clicks.

Brian Munford seemed just as happy as he searched for those frogs from dusk to nearly midnight June 11 in western Chesterfield County.

“I love it,” said Munford, clad in a yellow raincoat and black rubber boots, as he chased cricket frogs with a net in a pond in the rural Winterpock area.

You’ve heard of birders, who get up early to see and hear birds. Munford is a frogger. He goes out late, often in the rain, to check on our damp-skinned neighbors.

Specifically, Munford is a volunteer for the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program. A partnership of the federal government, states and nonprofit groups, the program monitors frog populations through the observations of citizen scientists.

By day Munford, 48, is a chef at Richmond’s Berkeley Hotel. But he loves the outdoors, and the late-night frog hunts fit his schedule.

There are about 40 frog monitors in Virginia. They check the same routes - once in late winter, once in spring and once in early summer - year after year.

What they find - or don’t find - provides over time a picture of which frogs are thriving, which are struggling and which are shifting their ranges. The program in Virginia is 15 years old.

And the picture that’s emerging is not encouraging.

A new federal study based on the monitoring results looked at trends in northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states. Of the 11 species examined in Virginia, six showed declining population trends, said Linda Weir of the U.S. Geological Survey. She is the national coordinator of the monitoring program and led the study.

Species in decline included the bullfrog, the green frog and the Southern leopard frog.

“Our study suggests declines are occurring in amphibian species previously thought to be of little conservation concern,” Weir said.

Keeping tabs on frog trends is important to frogs and people, said J.D. Kleopfer, a frog expert with the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and state coordinator of the monitoring program.

“There are a lot of clichés, but the clichés are the gospel truth,” Kleopfer said. “Frogs really are the canaries in the coal mine. . By far, more than any other species, frogs are indicators of what’s going on in your environment.”

That’s because frogs breathe through their skins and spend part of their lives in water and part on land. If there’s a problem, frogs often feel it first.

Across much of the world, many species are declining or disappearing altogether because of the destruction of natural areas, disease and factors that aren’t completely understood.

“Frogs are by far are the most threatened major vertebrate group,” Kleopfer said. “I’d say close to 50 percent of all frogs are critically imperiled. In comparison, only about 20 percent of all bird species are imperiled.”

Victims include the golden toad, a fiery-orange denizen of Central America that has apparently gone extinct. It is the poster toad of the amphibian decline. (A toad is a type of frog. Amphibians include frogs and salamanders.)

Kleopfer said Virginia frogs’ main threat appears to be an old problem, the destruction of their wild homes. “Highways and shopping malls are not the most optimal habitats for frogs.”

Water pollution can also be a problem, Kleopfer said.

There is another reason to be concerned about frogs.

“I just like them,” said Ryan Niccoli, a Georgia ecologist who coordinated the Virginia frog-monitoring program from summer 2009 to last fall. “I want to be able to go out and listen to frogs calling in the backyard or drive down the road to a pond and listen to frogs calling.”

Evidence indicates frogs have been around 200 million years. They lived with dinosaurs and endured when dinosaurs could not. There are 27 species of frogs in Virginia.

Different frogs speak different languages, but Munford knows who’s calling.

Spring peepers go “Peep! Peep! Peep!”

Bullfrogs grunt: “Jug-o’-rum.”

And then there’s an unusual type of leopard frog in southern Virginia. “They sound like somebody let a bunch of chickens out in the swamp,” Munford said.

Munford looks for frogs more than he officially needs to. “I love finding natural sites and going to them. It’s amazing how many are still around.”

He left the cricket-frog pond and drove to stops along rural roads in southwestern Chesterfield. It was pitch dark, a light rain fell on and off, and lightning sometimes flashed in the distance. The storm had chased a hot day, and the temperature was about 70.

Munford found a toad, more cricket frogs, some green frogs and the trills of creatures called Cope’s gray tree frogs. A bullfrog or two did a Barry White impression. There were numerous small wetlands along the roads, and they exuded a swampy, gassy smell.

Using a flashlight to see, Munford helped direct some frogs off the road, but many more had been crushed by cars.

At home in South Richmond, Munford’s wife Aimee, 2-year-old son Owen and 10-year-old dachshund Gary were dry and comfortable.

Speaking of his wife, Munford said: “She thinks I’m crazy.”

Then he drove off to another frog site.

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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