This story was corrected at 12:25 p.m. on Feb. 4, 2014. An explanation follows the story.
Can you tell the difference between the sound of your neighbor struggling to play the banjo and the call of the green frog?
More than two dozen county residents leapt at the chance to learn and help scientist gauge the health of the area’s wetlands.
Scientists are enlisting local nature lovers to help them collect data on frogs and toads in Montgomery County. The information, which will build upon a nationwide database, helps scientists keep track of population levels of different species and ecosystem health. Frogs and toads are wetland indicator species — the strength of the population reflects how the ecosystem is faring.
This is the first time Montgomery County is implementing the FrogWatch program.
On Thursday, 26 volunteers gathered at the Rockville library for their first training session. Starting in March, they’ll note levels of frog and toad calls they hear at designated locations near ponds and wetlands, where amphibians live. The second training event will be a field session in mid-March. If more residents express interest, coordinators said they might schedule additional training sessions.
FrogWatch is run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit organization based in Silver Spring. The association has partnered with the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection to bring data collection to the county. Volunteers can track a site identified by the department, or register their own.
By partnering with FrogWatch, the department hopes to raise awareness of habitat and species vulnerability.
“Wetlands are a concern, as well as the loss of frog species” from fungal infections, said Jessica Jones, a program manager with the Department of Environmental Protection.
“There’s been a loss of wetlands throughout the country,” she said.
Much of the loss comes when “sometimes people don’t know that they have valuable habitat in their backyards,” and drain or fill wet areas, Jones said.
Staff members explained how to monitor the amphibians — once a week for three weeks, at least 30 minutes after sunset in proper weather — and enter the data online.
If it’s too windy or rainy, they might not hear the calls. It must be above 35 degrees for frogs and toads to be active.
Volunteers note how many frog and toad calls they hear and record the weather that night.
The hard part comes in memorizing the calls of a dozen or so different species, which differ vastly. Wood frogs sound like ducks. They are one of the few species that can live as far north as Alaska, due to a compound in their blood that keeps them from freezing.
Spring peepers make a high-pitched peep. “It’s like the harbinger of spring — let’s you know when it’s going to warm up outside,” said Ken Mack, water quality specialist for the department of environmental protection.
The pickerel frog makes a snoring croak sound and the southern leopard frog “sounds like you’re rubbing rubber together,” Mack said.
For the northern cricket frog: “I like to think of their call as bouncing glass marbles off of each other,” he said.
The green frog — the most common in the area — sounds “like someone who is trying to learn the banjo and not doing a very good job,” he said.
Mack encouraged volunteers to come up with their own mnemonics and comparisons to remember the calls.
Karen Sommer Shalett learned about the program from a Bethesda-Chevy Chase neighborhood listserv and took her two sons, Simon, 6, and Nathaniel, 8. She said that they recently lost an 8-year-old family member, and nature lover, to cancer. FrogWatch is a way for them to honor him while giving back, she said. Plus, Simon and Nathaniel love animals, too.
“We wanted to teach the kids that you can do something with your passion and still give back,” she said.
An earlier version of this story and a photo caption incorrectly referred to Karen Sommer Shalett’s son Nathaniel. Also, Jessica Jones was misquoted. She said: “There’s been a loss of wetlands throughout the country.” She also said fungal infections are causing a loss in frog species.