The Wilder Side of Oakland County
On December 13th, the temperature soared to a record-setting 62 degrees in Oakland County. Even though the sky was overcast and trails were muddy, that Sunday afternoon was perfect for a nature-embracing hike on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. With camera in hand, a compass in my day pack, and a spare pair of hiking boots in the car, I set off for the Ortonville State Recreation Area. The park is 5,400 acres of wildland managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources that spans Genesee and Oakland Counties. That’s where this tale of bullfrogs and beaver ponds on a spring-like day in December takes root.
The hike, without a particular destination in mind, led over glacial moraines and around small shallow kettle lakes, lakes that should have been laced with thin ice this time of the year. I meandered about in a world of colorful mosses and lichens, fully entertained by the chatter of a grub hunting White-breasted Nuthatch and a few Black-capped Chickadees singing their spring songs. A few tentative peeps from the moist woodland could also be heard. The breeding calls of spring peepers were perhaps stirred to song by the hours of daylight and warmth matching what they find in spring.
An hour into my trek I noted trees freshly cut by beavers. Evidence showed they were taking advantage of the warm weather to add to their winter cache. A few moments of skin-tearing bushwhacking through prickly ash brought me to the edge of a secluded beaver pond. I was about to focus my lens on the beaver lodge when a series of splashes near the shore drew my attention. I walked slowly to the water’s edge and sat on a fallen tree to see what was making the noise. Suddenly, I noticed a shape out of place on top of the massive, prehistoric-looking floating root of a yellow water lily. Bullfrogs were out! There they sat, partially draped in duckweed, sitting patiently, waiting for bugs and flies and other insects that will not come.
The American Bullfrog (Rana [Lithobates] catesbeiana) is the largest frog species of North America, very much at home in the shallow beaver ponds, weedy lakeshores, and the backwaters of slow-flowing Oakland County Rivers. They are able to leap more than ten times their length and will consume almost anything they can catch. Their diet includes newly hatched ducklings, bats, birds, snakes, grasshoppers, small mammals and—other frogs, but on this day they simply sat and waited. Food opportunities are scarce in winter, but without a doubt these frogs responded to the warm temperature by taking to their stealthy ambush perches to wait for prey. I watched for almost twenty minutes and the scene did not change. A light drizzle sent me on my way, but the frogs remained—watching, waiting, perhaps hoping and dreaming of food that will not come.
Normally in mid-December bullfrogs remain at the bottom of muddy ponds, in an extremely sluggish hibernation-like state under the ice. “How will the warm weather affect these frogs when the weather cools down?” I wondered. I posed my question to James Harding, a herpetologist with the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University. I smiled at his answer, “I think they will be fine. They just jump back in the water!” So ends this tale of beavers and bullfrogs on the wilder side of Oakland County.
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks.