(Host) Wildlife photographer Ted Schiffman has stalked lions in Tanzania and lemurs in Madagascar. But some of his most enthralling encounters have happened in his own Vermont back yard where he’s focused his lens on a group of amphibians, often heard, but rarely seen: Tree frogs and spring peepers. He recently published a collection of his larger-than-life tree frog images.
VPR’s Susan Keese, who’d never seen a peeper up close, followed Schiffman one night recently to a pond near his Manchester home.
(Peep peep peep)
(Schiffman) "That’s the ubiquitous spring peeper…"(peep) "used to be called the hyla crucifer. They changed it to pseudacris crucifer…."
(Walking and splashing below)
(Keese) Ted Schiffman leads the way to the pond’s edge in the gathering dark. The water is high, and the cat tails are hard to get to, even in our rubber boots. (SFX Slosh)
But that’s where Schiffman thinks the peepers are. He shines his flashlight on the partly submerged reeds.
(Schiffman)" Let’s see if we can go towards some of these sounds…"
(Peeper sound intensifies)
(Keese) The spring peeper is one of two local frogs capable of climbing trees. The other – a little larger and later – is the gray tree frog,
(Keese) "Is that one?"
(Keese) I move my foot and a tiny peeper leaps out of sight into the foliage.
(Schiffman) "See him jump? Come on, little feller, where are you?"
(Keese) After a while Schiffman trains his light on another peeper – a minute, elegantly formed figure perched on a brown stalk.
(Schiffman)" Got one … isn’t that beautiful? See his sac moving?" (Keese, whispering)" Yes!" (Schiffman) "No bigger than an inch!"
(Keese) A translucent vocal membrane inflates over the frog’s chest like a big balloon. The sac deflates. Then it blows back up again. This is where the peeping sound comes from. Only males make it, and they use it to attract mates.
(Schiffman) "And there he goes. He just jumped off. See how far he went? And we’re not going to find him so easily now. But we saw him…. Ha ha ha"
(Keese) Schiffman ‘discovered’ tree frogs in the 1980s. He was living in Long Island.
(Schiffman) "And my wife went out to open up the patio umbrella one summer morning. And as she’s cranking the umbrella open, plop, on the table, a young gray tree frog fell.
(Keese) Schiffman was just back from a magazine assignment photographing the California Condor – an animal with a 10-foot wing span.
But he was mesmerized by this tiny, exotic looking creature and its acrobatic command of its odd, paddle-shaped appendages.
(Schiffman) "To hold on with one hand with the little adhesive discs on their toes and fingers… it just became so captivating!
"So I found some flowers in the garden, put him on there and I took a couple of rolls of film, watched his gymnastics and his climbing about, and I just got hooked by the charm and the charisma of this little animal.
(Keese) The Schiffmans had an above ground swimming pool and peepers would collect each spring in the puddled edges of the pool cover.
Schiffman wanted to help them, and he did. But he also wanted to photograph them.
(Schiffman) "The concept that I had was to take this beautiful captivating gymnastic, musician, the tree frog, ha ha… and then integrate him creatively with a brightly colored flower, and see what he would do."
(Keese) Sometimes a frog would seem to dance on a flower petal, or peek coyly from a leaf.
"And I had lights in my studio that I had all set up in advance. I was very careful to make sure it matched the temperature of the surroundings. And I had an atomizer with clean water I would spray them to make sure they didn’t desiccate."
(Keese) Schiffman started reading about the frogs and their evolution, from prehistory to the present.
(Schiffman) "And the more I read, the more I realized that they are a barometer of the environment."
(Keese) His book deals with the problems of pollution and amphibian mutations. But on this night, under the Vermont stars, it’s all about the symphony…
For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese in Manchester.