In springtime I step quietly as I stroll along the shores of the lake near my house. But it seems no matter how silent my step, the spring peepers know I’m there and stop peeping. If I am patient and stand still, however, soon enough they resume the chorus, a sure sign that spring has returned to New England.
Peepers, little half-inch tree frogs, announce the arrival of spring by their call, a lovely high-pitched melodic whistle, repeated every second or so as the sun goes down, on into the night. Peepers are small and difficult to find, so when I saw the Audubon notice for an outing that (almost) promised we would find spring peepers, I was intrigued and deeply curious to see this elusive little frog. How wonderful to have a nature expert do the hunting, while I stood quietly, ready and waiting to admire the elusive little things. My children were equally interested and grabbed their flashlights, ready to set off on an adventure.
The naturalist greeted us, explaining that he needed our help to locate the tiny swamp critters. Our job was to stand along the boardwalk and shine our flashlights where we thought we heard a peeper. He would slog through the swamp and attempt to locate a peeper at the spot where our flashlight beams crossed. He sloshed into the shallow water, while we stood on the boardwalk, warmer (and drier). Our instructions were to stand quietly and listen.
Our steps on the boardwalk silenced the peeper chorus. But once we stood still, the peepers soon resumed their song. Flashlights at the ready, we hoped someone else picked the same spot we had.
With groans and squishes, the naturalist slogged to the spot where two of our flashlight beams crossed. Assuring us he had done this many times, he dug through the swamp grass—nothing. He promised that this method had not failed him.
We gamely listened, shone our lights, and peered into the swamp, lit by numerous flashlights all seeking the tiny amphibians. Crashing through bushes and mud, the naturalist kept up a cheery patter, but I had the feeling we were having much more fun than he was. We were dry, and he was becoming getting wetter by the minute.
My children began to nudge me. They were cold and ready to head home. When flashlights began to focus more on the stars than the swamp, the naturalist gave up. He was a man who knew his audience. All of us had had enough. No peepers, no apologies. It was all part of the uncertainty and wonder of the outdoors.
A few months later I went on another outing in mid-summer with different folks and different goals. We were exploring an upland forest looking for signs of porcupines. Since I had no idea what we were really looking for, never having seen a porcupine, or signs of one, I looked all around, wondering what exactly we were supposed to see.
Suddenly someone called, “Come look!” The woman held up a clear plastic box with a magnifying glass built into it. There, in the box, was a spring peeper. Not peeping. Not ready to swim away. Not in the spring or even in the dark. This peeper had been sitting under some hemlock trees, minding its own business when suddenly it was swept up, put in a box, surrounded by a bunch of people who had nearly stepped on it. But one person noticed. We all looked, examining the identifying black lines that crisscrossed its tiny back, then gently returned it to the hemlock needles where it had been.
We spent the rest of the outing wandering the woods, looking for hints of porcupines in the neighborhood.Since porcupines chew bark off tree branches, most people peered upwards through the tree limbs as we walked the woods of the sanctuary.
But I stared at the ground. If there was one peeper nearby, there just might be another.
By the end of the day we had seen no porcupine signs, nor porcupines, just one spring peeper. Well, we had spotted cedar waxwings, cardinals, and bluebirds. We heard hawks calling as they wheeled in the sky. The bobolinks flew out of the grass as we approached a field. I returned to my car pondering the wonders of a bird-filled sky and a silent little peeper, hiding in the woods.
Sometimes we find what we’re looking for in surprising places. It’s important to step carefully as we travel through life. When you least expect it, what you are longing for may be right in front of you, quietly waiting.
Marjorie Turner Hollman