Photographing Spring Peepers – And Avoiding The Police!

“Let me get this straight. You’re out here photographing frogs? At night? In the rain?”

Spring peeper

Northern spring peeper. This is an old film shot using flash. Probably Fujichrome Velvia 50. Don't remember camera. Lens was probably the Nikon 70-180 macro. Aperture was probably f/22.

Police officers have questioned me many times, but this particular interrogation might have elicited the strangest look. I suppose I can’t really blame the cop for questioning me. If I were in his shoes and had seen a grown man standing by the road on a chilly rainy night at the height of a terrorism alert, wearing waders and a headlight, and carrying some sort of odd contraption that looked more like a grenade launcher than anything you’d use to take pictures, I’d have probably stopped to ask questions, too. The only difference is that I’d have called for backup first. Probably the only thing that kept him from hauling me in was that my story was so bizarre he figured I had to be telling the truth.

My quarry wasn’t just any old frog, mind you. I was after the northern spring peeper, Pseudacris crucifer crucifer—a thumbnail-sized amphibian with a voice as big as spring itself. Most everyone has their harbinger of spring, that sight or sound that lets them know winter is finally relaxing its frosty grip. It might be seeing a particular wildflower blooming for the first time or witnessing a migratory bird returning to a feeder. For me, it’s hearing the high-pitched chorus of spring peepers on the first mild nights of late winter.

I heard my first peeper a week or so ago. Since I moved to the mountains, I usually don’t hear them until March, but in the lowlands they’ve probably been active on the warmer nights for several weeks now.

I haven’t photographed spring peepers in nearly 10 years, not since I gave that cop something new to tell his buddies back at the precinct. Back then, of course, I was using film and doing a lot of guessing about flash exposure. I think I’ll do some belly crawling this spring with my digital cameras and see what peeps up.

If you want to try your hand at photographing spring peepers, you need to come prepared and have a lot of patience. While listening to a spring peeper symphony is a delightful experience, getting closeup photographs of them is another matter. The little critters have a habit of shutting up at the first unnatural disturbance, and Homo sapiens clambering through the muck is about as unnatural as it gets for them. Still, by following a few simple guidelines (and perhaps utilizing a little trickery), you can enjoy a front-row seat at the concert on your first night out.
Slip on a pair of old sneakers and pants and grab a flashlight. If you have a miniature tape recorder, bring it as well. Spring peepers live just about everywhere across the eastern U.S., so the trick to finding them lies in finding the proper habitat, rather than being in any particular region. If possible, look for shallow ponds that dry up in late spring or summer, thus preventing fish (frog eaters) from becoming established. When searching an unfamiliar area, just drive around slowly with the windows down until you hear the peeps. I’ve found colonies in roadside ditches and behind gas stations. Of course, you have to go out when the frogs are singing. That can be anywhere from late December along the coastal plain, to May in the higher elevations of the mountains. A few mild, sunny days to get the soil warmed up a bit, followed by a rain, will have them out in full force.

Once you’ve found a singing colony, it’s just a matter of sneaking up on them as quietly as you can. They’ll stop calling long before you get close to them, but that’s okay. Remain still and they’ll start back up shortly. If you brought a tape recorder, record a minute or two of the singing and play it back when they stop. That usually works to get them going again. Once you get close to the frogs, it may take a while to spot one in the flashlight, as the little critters blend incredibly well with the vegetation and it’s just about impossible to pinpoint the source of a call. But once you do find one, you can often get as close as you like (but don’t touch!). If he stops calling, just play the tape recorder until he starts singing again.

The traditional method for photographing frogs at night is to use a flash mounted on a bracket to get it off the camera. If you leave the flash in the hotshoe, you probably won’t get even lighting on the subject because the lens blocks part of the light when you shoot closeups. It’s a good idea to rig a flashlight onto the camera so you can use it for composing and focusing. A headlamp would probably work pretty well, too. That way, you have both hands free to operate the camera.

Oh, one more piece of advice. It will be in your best interest if the police don’t hear a peep out of you. For some reason, they just don’t get us night photographers!

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