Frogs - one of our most familiar and friendly amphibians

Frogs in a garden pond

Frogs in a garden pond - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson delights in taking photographs close to home of one of our most familiar and friendly amphibians

First sighting

First sighting - Credit: Archant

I love nothing more than getting out into the wilds of Derbyshire’s moors and dales in winter. However, every time I go I have to drive and usually walk for some distance before I see any of the many fascinating wild creatures, such as mountain hares or red grouse, that live there. In a sense such fantastic moments are time commitments. I can’t do this every day, so whilst they are amazing experiences and probably richer for their intermittent nature, they don’t fulfil my daily craving for wildlife encounters. This is where my garden pond steps in.

A few years ago I dug a plastic-lined pond into my urban garden. In order to get some life into it as quickly as possible, the first thing I did was to collect some mud and weeds and a few clumps of flag iris from a friend’s pond. I did all this in late autumn because I hoped that the frogs which are always about in my garden would set up home the following March.

Over the winter months the pond remained dead. Leaves blew in. Some I left to add cover and to rot down, others I picked out because at times it looked as if they would fill the entire pond. The colour of the water changed a bit but in terms of life there was little to see.

When I built the pond I lined the sides with stones, leaving some to act as perches so that birds could easily get a drink when the fancy took them. Over the winter blackbirds, robins and dunnocks all visited often. As cold dark February rolled into March I made sure to nip into the garden and check the pond every day for any signs of activity.

An archetypal image of a frog

An archetypal image of a frog - Credit: Archant

Towards the middle of March the first frog appeared. The water could only have been a few degrees above freezing but there it was, it’s little snout and large, gold spangled eyes peering back at me. I moved and it dived for cover under the leaves.

Over the next few weeks this lone pioneer was joined by six other frogs and I saw the first bouts of amplexus when the lusty male grapples and holds tight to his female. If another male showed too much interest he would use his long, powerful hind legs to boot him unceremoniously away. Most of the time this worked but occasionally a second, and sometimes a third and fourth male, would get a grip and a frenzied ball of males all clinging onto a solitary female would result. Every time I saw this I would pick up the whole lot and dump them onto the pond’s edge. The males quickly loosened their potentially deadly grip and would crawl back into the pond. I like to think with their tails between their legs but of course they don’t have tails!

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I didn’t have to wait long before three clumps of frogspawn appeared. Every day, just as I had done as a child at school, I eagerly raced into the garden to watch the slow development of the eggs. Slowly the black ball in its cell of jelly elongated and a bump appeared at one end which was to become the head. One day they were locked in their solitary mini prisons, then the next they were all out and free.

For the first few days they stayed on the mass of now empty jelly. If it was warm and sunny they congregated on the top as a huge carpet of mini taddies all wriggling and enjoying the rays of spring warmth. This lasted for about four days and then they made their way down into the depths of the pond to graze on the weeds. If it was dull and cloudy I hardly saw any tadpoles but if the sun broke out for a few hours the sides of the pond quickly became lined with hundreds of small black wriggling shapes.

Tadpoles last May

Tadpoles last May - Credit: Archant

I thought all was well and they were secure in the pond until one morning when I was sitting quietly on the other side of the garden watching the antics of our resident pair of robins. I noticed a blackbird sneaking up to the pond’s edge. I thought it had a clandestine air about it but innocently imagined it was just going for a drink. However, I watched in shocked silence as it picked up and ate taddie after taddie in rapid succession. I waved my arms and it flew off but realised there was nothing I could do to stop it returning. Unfortunately the tadpoles would have to take their chances.

As the weather got warmer the remaining tadpoles grew and small back legs started to appear. It was fascinating to watch their daily progress as – for reasons I couldn’t work out – not all of them developed at the same rate. By mid-summer small froglets were crawling up the sides of the pond and sitting on twigs I had put to ease their emergence into the wider world. Yet at the same time there were still big tadpoles in the pond with no legs at all. By autumn some were still legless and I am convinced these overwinter before turning into froglets the next year.

During the summer I planted grass around the pond and left it to grow. I was glad I did because the pesky blackbird seemed to have decided that nothing tasted better than a small froglet.

As the year rolled round the pond’s life slowed. With the small frogs out in the wider world, adult frogs put in more of an appearance as they prepared for winter. It was time again for me to pick out falling leaves and dream of another spring and new frogspawn.

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