SLEEPING IN THE COUNTRY
SLEEPING IN THE COUNTRY
BY ROBERT AND JANELLE FEARS
Nothing is more peaceful than sleeping in the country. The day normally ends with a vivid sunset displaying a fusion of bright colors. Color combinations vary depending upon the geographical area and solid particle concentration in the air. Observed sunsets in East Texas have had alternating bands of grey and gold ending with a final strip of pink as darkness settles over the landscape. In West Texas, red sunsets commonly occur with an occasional yellow band, collectively resembling fire, followed by alternating strips of blues and greys and then darkness.
When darkness engulfs the countryside, an auditory gift arrives. Nocturnal insects, birds, amphibians and mammals come to life and unite in a chorus of individual notes while they forage for their nightly meal. The comforting symphony serves as a reminder that we are not alone, but part of an intricate ecosystem where a variety of organisms benefit each other. Learning the calls of these nighttime creatures helps develop a better appreciation for the outdoors.
Frogs provide a majority of night sounds and Texas is home to over 40 species of frogs and toads. Lee Ann Johnson Linam, a biologist formerly with Texas Nature Trackers at Wimberley, sorts frogs into groups by their sounds – moaners, trillers, peepers, burpers, and insect-like.
Moaners are a group that Linam likes to sometimes call “farm animals in distress”. For example, the Sheep Frog found in South Texas mimics an angry bleating sheep, one that bleats for a l-o-n-g time. The Woodhouse’s Toad, found throughout much of the state, has a short, flat, uninspired bleat and the Couch’s Spadefoot’s call makes you think someone might be squeezing a sheep. Hurter’s Spadefoot resonates like a sheep that is giving up. Although considered a moaner, the Eastern Narrowmouth Toad actually resembles the sound of a basketball game buzzer.
“Many of the toads are trillers producing a noise somewhat insect-like,” says Linam. “It helps to pay attention to the pitch and duration of the trill. Gray Treefrogs have a short single trill, while Texas Toads have a short pulsing trill, resembling the sonorous pattern of a rivet gun. Houston Toads, American Toads, and Red-Spotted Toads sing a long, high musical trill, while the trill of the ubiquitous Coastal Plains Toad is lower and much less melodic.”
“Another group on the melodic end of the spectrum is the peepers, named for the clear, high bell-like tone of the Spring Peeper,” Linam continues. “Drop the bell’s pitch a bit and you get the Strecker’s Chorus Frog. Both of these species sing primarily in the winter and early spring, and large groups of frogs singing together take on their own melody – the sound of sleigh bells for Spring Peepers and the sound of an axle in need of grease in the case of the Strecker’s. In the warmer months one might hear the peepers plus the short trills of the Cliff Chirping Frog in the Edward’s Plateau, the Spotted Chirping Frog in the Trans-Pecos, or the Rio Grande Chirping Frog, widely distributed across the state, whose call has been described as sounding like tennis shoes on a gym floor.”
On the less musical, but equally delightful end of the spectrum are the burpers. Plains Spadefoot Toads and Crawfish Frogs give short burps. Pickerel Frogs resonate more like a snore and can sing from underwater. Leopard Frogs take the basic burp sound and add chuckles, purrs, grunts, and squeaks. Proportions of those sounds help you sort between the three different Leopard Frog species in different parts of the state.
Some frog sounds might be described as insect-like,” says Linam. “Fortunately, many of these frogs actually create a readily distinguishable sound. For example, the Cricket Frog’s tone is like two marbles being clicked together. Utterances of the Spotted Chorus Frog are similar to someone rubbing their fingers over the small teeth of a comb, the Cajun Chorus Frog’s call is like you’re using the big teeth of the comb, and the New Mexico Spadefoot resonates like a really big comb. There are also the angry-insect frogs. The Green Toad imitates an angry bee, while the Great Plains Narrowmouth produces a higher pitched angry buzz, resembling buzzers people hold in the palm of their hand.”
Certain frogs and toads have their own unique song. Bullfrogs resemble someone blowing over the top of a bottle and Green Frogs imitate someone plucking a loose banjo string. Green Tree Frogs’ calls are somewhat goose-like, but really sound akin to the alien creatures in the movie, Mars Attacks. Pigs are imitated by Pig Frogs, squirrels by Squirrel Treefrogs, and dogs by Barking Frogs.
Birds often contribute to the nightly concert and the most noted are owls. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife (TP&W), the Great Horned Owl is commonly known as the “hoot owl,” because of its rhythmic hoots that speak, “Who’s awake? Me, too”. The Great Horned Owl is a large bird with varying shades of gray and large ear tufts from which the bird derives its name. It is common statewide except for Pineywoods
The Barred Owl is more common in the eastern part of the state – Rio Grande Plains thorn scrub in South Texas, Post Oak Savannah, Gulf and Blackland Prairies, and East Texas Pineywoods – although it is distributed statewide. Its call is a distinctive “Who cooks, who cooks for you all.” The bird is large, stocky and red-gray without ear tufts.
TP&W describes the Eastern Screech-Owl as a small eared owl, red or gray colored. Its call is a whistled trill and depending upon the year, it can be plentiful or scarce throughout the state.
People living or visiting near wetlands, especially along the Texas Gulf Coast, may hear a nocturnal and noisy heron join the nighttime chorus with its loud, barking kwok or quawk. This bird is rather stocky and looks as if it is hunched over with its head usually tucked down into its shoulders. Its plumage is gray and white with a distinctive black cap and a pair of white plumes extending up from the back of its head.
The Houston Chapter of the Audubon Society describes the nightjar family as medium-sized, long-winged birds with a short bill, short legs, and soft mottled plumage. Some of these birds, such as the whip-poor-wills and nighthawks are nocturnal. Common Nighthawks’ calls are a soft, breezy pzeent. The Chuck Will’s Widow’s call sounds like its name.
Cicadas and crickets, nocturnal insects, get accused of dominating the night noises. National Geographic reports that there are more than 1,500 species of cicada and they are physically distinguished by their stout bodies, broad heads, clear-membrane wings, and large compound eyes. These insects are probably best known for their buzzing and clicking noises, which can be amplified by multitudes of insects into an overpowering finale.
“Female crickets produce a tone to attract males by rubbing their forewings against each other,” says the Center for Insect Science Education Outreach, The University of Arizona. “A resulting chirping sound is picked up by the female’s ears on her front legs. Chirps are different enabling each species to find its own kind.”
A good way to learn how to recognize various night creature calls is to record what you hear. Assign a number to each recorded sound before matching it with an identified sound on a commercial tape. The pairing of sounds will help you enter the creature’s correct name by the corresponding number on your list. The tapes can be replayed until the calls and their contributors are committed to memory. Commercial tapes can be purchased at nature centers, natural science museums, or on the web.
While enjoying nighttime’s orchestra, watch for nocturnal mammals such as the Virginia Opossum, 9-Banded Armadillo, bats, Southern Flying Squirrel, raccoon, and the Striped Skunk. These animals often stray into lighted areas around country homes, but to increase number of sightings, consider using a pair of night vision googles, binoculars, or scope.
Don’t stay up too late enjoying nature’s sounds and sights, because you want to be in bed early enough to awake in time to see the beautiful Texas sunrise.