Frogwatching in the time of the Coronavirus

Boreal Chorus Frog

The day after I published my post “Birding in the Time of the Coronavirus”, one of my fears came to pass: the NCC announced it would be closing vehicle access to the Greenbelt as of 9 pm on Friday, March 27th until further notice. This meant that all parking lots at trailheads would be closed, and that trails such as Jack Pine Trail, Sarsaparilla Trail, Mer Bleue Bog and others would be inaccessible to those driving in. However, the trails themselves would be open for people who live nearby and can access the entrances on foot. On April 3rd the NCC website clarified that people can still walk through some of the NCC recreational sites, provided that they are not closed (i.e. Gatineau Park), they can be accessed locally, and people respect public health recommendations, including physical distancing of two metres. That same day our local rare bird alert coordinators decided to ban any alerts from being posted to our local RBA Whatsapp channel; this decision was made in conjunction with other southern Ontario RBA coordinators to prevent large groups of people gathering at rare birds sites. In addition, Parks Canada announced that all national parks and historic sites would be closed as of March 25th until further notice, with no vehicular access permitted. Ontario Parks had already closed all provincial parks as of March 19th.

Closure Sign at Shirleys Bay

So how are people in need of their nature fix supposed to cope?

I am lucky in that I can easily incorporate a walk through the Eagleson Storm Water ponds into my neighborhood walks, and that there is a trail entrance to the Stony Swamp trail system within biking distance. But as someone who needs a change of scenery every so often to maintain optimum mental health, I began searching for other alternatives. While trail hiking is my favourite way to bird, since it gives me the chance to get up close and personal with nature, I couldn’t see how a drive out to the Trail Road landfill or pastures around Dunrobin by myself would pose a problem. I usually only go birding by car when I’m on my way to another destination or looking for something in particular, as car birding doesn’t usually allow me the opportunity to see other creatures, particularly butterflies and small reptiles and amphibians. However, it seemed to be the only option left if I wanted to go somewhere other than the Eagleson ponds or Stony Swamp. And as Saturday, April 3rd promised to be the nicest day of the spring so far (sunny with a high of 14°C), I was looking forward to getting out to take my mind off the stressful work week I’d just had and the pangs of grief that still hit me whenever I think of my cat Phaedra.

My goal was to look for raptors, bluebirds, and other new arrivals; and the day got off to a great start when I found two American Kestrels on Marchurst Road and a Northern Harrier flying over the marsh at Constance Creek. I also added Ring-necked Duck to my year list when I spotted a handful diving along with a couple of Bufflehead and Common Goldeneyes. Although I looked for bluebirds along Fifth Line Road and Berry Side Road, I wasn’t able to spot any. It was turning out to be such a gorgeous day that I parked on Berry Side Road, got out of the car, and walked along it for a while to search for the bluebirds on foot.

Berry Side Road

This was a great idea and the change of scenery I’d been craving. I saw a female Purple Finch perching on top of a spruce tree, a couple of Turkey Vultures, and best of all, a Rough-legged Hawk soaring overhead. The Osprey and Wilson’s Snipes hadn’t yet returned, and I didn’t see any reptiles, amphibians or butterflies, but a few flies had come out, enjoying the long-awaited warmth of the afternoon.

After my walk I continued my way up Berry Side Road with the windows rolled down to listen for birds, and as soon as I crossed Fifth Line Road the wall of sound hit me: a deafening chorus of Chorus Frogs emanating from the water-filled ditches on both sides of the road. I pulled over and got out of the car, hoping to spot one of these tiny, elusive frogs. Anyone who has followed this blog for a while has read about my frustrations in trying to see these tiny frogs for a few years now, mainly at the Rideau Trail where a large number gather in the vernal ponds there each spring; the last time I’d managed to photograph one was way back in 2010 in the marsh behind the former Nortel campus. Since I had nowhere pressing to be, I decided to sit on the shoulder at the edge of the ditch to see if I could actually spot a frog. And I did – swimming in the water. It was so small that I thought it was a tadpole at first. A few seconds later its head popped out of the water, and I started snapping photos.

Boreal Chorus Frog

If actually managing to see one of these frogs is my biggest frustration, knowing what to call it is my second biggest. Both the Ontario Frogwatch page and the Ontario Nature websites indicate that it is the Western Chorus Frog (also called the Striped Chorus Frog) that is found in southern Ontario and along the Ottawa and upper St. Lawrence river valleys in Quebec. As this corresponded with what I’d been told by my herp friends in the past, I thought the identity of the chorus frogs in the Ottawa region was settled.

It turns out I was wrong. When I posted my observation on iNaturalist, I was told that this was a Boreal Chorus Frog, and that there is research into determining the exact genetic difference between the two species. A range map was also provided, although this appears to be based on iNaturalist sightings rather than any formal DNA studies. I did some further internet research, and found that according to the Canadian Herpetological Society, the Western Chorus Frog is limited to southwestern Ontario – only recently have the populations in eastern Ontario and western Quebec been identified as Boreal Chorus Frog (no date is given on this change). This conclusion was further confirmed by a paper found on the Species at Risk Public Registry website which states that there are two genetic lineages, based on mitochondrial DNA, within chorus frogs found in southern Ontario and Quebec. Research has shown that the genetic lineage found in southeastern Ontario and southwestern Quebec corresponded to that of Boreal Chorus Frog, while the lineage from southwestern Ontario corresponded to that of the Western Chorus Frog.

Unfortunately the morphological differences are so slight that it would difficult to identify one on the basis of appearance or sound alone, especially as they do not occur in the same geographical range for a direct comparison – the two species appear much the same except that the Boreal Chorus Frog has slightly shorter hind limbs than the Western Chorus Frog, and the call of the Boreal Chorus Frog is shorter and faster than that of the Western Chorus Frog. So there you have it – Western Chorus Frogs do not occur in the Ottawa region; what we have is the Boreal Chorus Frog.

Boreal Chorus Frog

I also heard a single Wood Frog and a few Spring Peepers in the background, while three ravens flew back and forth overhead almost constantly. A bee landed on the ground in front of me, checked out my shoe for a bit, then flew off. I could have stayed for hours, but was satisfied with the photos I got.

When I got home and checked a few social media sites I found that the gorgeous spring weather had triggered a lot of local discussion and arguments on what types of outdoor exercise and outings are acceptable. It seems a lot of cars were seen parked on roads next to NCC trail parking lots despite the closures, and people have been quick to post their disgust online. The large number of people using city pathways and NCC trails yesterday, along with the emergency alert blaring on our phones at 2:00 pm and the announcement that by-law officers would now be fining people in violation of provincial orders have all led to discussions about what actions are allowed and what prohibitions are enforceable by law. Some people are under the impression that the only excuse for going for a walk outside is to walk a dog. Others believe that kicking around a soccer ball or throwing a frisbee in a park with just the kids is fine. Some people, like me, feel that going for a solitary drive away from the city is acceptable (and why not, with gas prices down to about 70 cents a litre?!). There are so many questions floating around – Can I drop my dog off at my parents’ house? Can I teach my spouse to drive? Should I walk on the road to pass someone on a sidewalk? – that it is clear that the definition of “essential” means something different to everyone, and authorities are not able to address all potential activities in a list of rules. In fact, all authorities are saying the same thing: stay at home, except for essential travel. Essential travel means travel to work (if you are an essential worker), to the grocery store, to the pharmacy, or to the doctor.

As for driving around, I wasn’t aware of the CTV news article specifically addressing the question of whether people can drive during the pandemic until yesterday. While the chances of getting into an accident or breaking down are slim, if something should happen and you require assistance, you’re likely to come in close contact with a number of other people, including paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and/or tow truck drivers – and each contact increases the chances of transmitting the virus. The thought of getting into an accident serious enough to require medical care such as hospitalization, surgery, or ongoing physical therapy is scary enough, but in the middle of a pandemic it’s downright frightening.

So from now on the car will sit in the driveway (except for grocery and supply runs), and my nature-watching will be done on foot and on bike. While I don’t think this decision will have any effect on the spread of the coronavirus one way or the other, it is great exercise, it is better for the environment, and any injuries incurred will hopefully be minor enough not to require medical treatment!

Closure Sign at Shirleys Bay

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