Saturday, February 18, 2012

Farm Bulletin: Who's Minding the Frogs?

One of the reasons that I reprint the marvelous essays that Anthony Boutard sends to his market mailing list is because of his ability to capture the ineffable quality of the land and the creatures that live on it, creatures that he and his wife Carol have worked diligently to bring back to Ayers Creek Farm. His keen eye, his wit and his passion for the farm, as well as his concern for its well-being, as expressed in this essay, give glimpses into a world so close by but that we rarely hear about.

Fourteen years ago this month, we made an offer on the 144 acres that has become Ayers Creek Farm. We followed the excellent advice of Cato the Censor regarding the most important considerations in purchasing a farm: water, roads and neighbors (aquam, viam, vicinum). Although Cato was thinking of the other farms as the neighbors, for us the Y-shaped draw that cuts through the farm is now an important part of our neighborhood. Flanked by ancient Garry oaks, Douglas firs, a couple of madrones, big-leaf maples, hawthorns and service berries, this is the marrow of the farm. In using "marrow," both senses of the word apply: the life-sustaining core of the farm's bones and, in old English vernacular, a partner or spouse.

When we arrived at the farm, the draw was choked with blackberries and used for decades as a dump. Water heaters by the dozens, engine blocks, stoves, refrigerators and other appliances, along with great coils of barbed wire, had been been pushed into the thorny mess. Over a two year period, we cleaned it up, hauling out the blackberries and appliances. It took longer for draw's function to return, but over time native plants reestablished themselves. Each year, we see improvements as we patrol, shovel in hand, for surviving blackberries.

This marrow of the farm now supports a pair of red-tailed hawks, three or four kestrel families and a pair of great horned owls. The owl laid the first of her eggs last Wednesday, and is brooding (right; click to enlarge). The second egg will be under her soon. The kestrels and red tails are amorous and will join the broody owl in their nesting tasks. Over the summer, flickers, wrens, brown creepers, orioles, acorn woodpeckers, nuthatches, tanagers, various warblers and juncos will all raise clutches in the draw and on its flanks. The engine that supports this diversity is the complex mixture of grasses and broadleaf plants that grow on the ground once choked off by blackberries and appliances. The grubs and caterpillars that eat the leaves in turn feed the growing chicks. And some of those growing chicks will fatten the young owls, hawks and falcons.

In the wet soil at the base of the draw, a healthy population of red legged and tree frogs developed. They migrated out into the oak savannah and the cropped fields during the summer and early autumn. Dozens made their home around the house, seeking shelter in the shiplap siding during the day. They were constantly underfoot. Many came inside with the house plants, and we enjoyed their calls during the winter. The large, phlegmatic salamanders (Pacific ambystomas) also started appearing in the fields. The increasing populations of these amphibians validated our management efforts. We have come to terms with the fact that farming is necessarily disruptive of natural communities, but having the reinvigorated marrow of the farm offsetting our activities is a balm.

Late last April, following the release of radiation from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors and its detection over the Pacific Northwest, we corresponded with a customer regarding its effect on our food. Our response was that lighter radioactive isotopes carried by the wind have a short half-life and by the time our fruits and vegetables are growing the weather pattern would shift away from the Pacific storm pattern. As I responded I thought to myself that if there was a problem, the frogs would be the first affected. We heard the peepers through the spring.

In July, when we started harvesting greens for market, we noticed the frogs had almost disappeared. Where we would disturb a dozen or more frogs any other year, we were lucky to see just one, and it was invariably small. The fields were silent, none of their rasping calls. In the evening we noticed that even the bull frogs in the wetland had ceased calling. We searched the siding: the smudges where the frogs crawled in and out remained, but there were no green faces staring at us – an eerie Mary Celeste moment. We asked Zenón if he noticed anything different with the frogs. He shrugged his shoulders and said he thought there were plenty. Two days later, when he was working in the sweet potatoes, prime tree frog habitat, he called us over and said we were right, they had gone. When I had a moment, I went down the the ditch below the poplars, another reliable frog habitat, and the Leopard and Bull frogs were also missing. We decided to wait and see if things changed; it was a cool spring.

For months we have been watching and listening. Friday afternoon, we heard a single frog calling in the draw, a hopeful sign, but a far cry from previous years. Over the past decade, a chytrid fungus has decimated frog populations around the world, including high altitude populations in the Cascades—maybe it has encroached upon the valley floor. Perhaps frog populations are naturally cyclic and the cold spring was at fault. However, it was hard to shake off the knowledge that as our frogs were drawn by vernal rites to the water, the storms over the Pacific were delivering a radioactive welcome. Salamanders (right, above) are also missing from their usual haunts. Like the frogs, these are fragile amphibians who must leave their protected lairs and travel, sometimes miles, to the ponds and wetlands where they mate, and the larval stages mature.

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson's Silent Springwarned us to pay attention to the damage we do to the world around us. The book was elegantly written, and carefully research and documented. Sadly, half a century later, Carol and I are waiting anxiously to see if the frog ponds remain silent this spring. We seem to be alone in this vigil, getting blank stares when we raise the matter, and I have hesitated to even broach the subject in a newsletter though it gnawed at me for months. Bees have their beekeepers and birds have their birdwatchers to sound the alarm when all is not right. Someone has to mind the frogs.

Photos (excepting the frog on the bean leaf) by Anthony Boutard. Track the progress of the owl family with the Great Horned Owl Follow-Up and Leaving the Nest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here are some of the people studying the frogs: