Neil Fletcher takes a regular look at the everyday wildlife at Woods Mill, headquarters of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and at his home in nearby Henfield.
You know what it's like when you're waiting for a birth. The interminable waiting. Nothing seems like it's actually going to happen. Another day passes.
Three weeks ago the frogs turned up in my pond. It's a very tiny pond, only about two feet by one foot. There were occasional croaks, and the frogs starting pairing up in amplexus, holding on for dear life really. Females bright yellow green, fat and swollen with eggs, the males clasped around them in their breeding livery of a much darker olive with black blotches.
A spell of warm weather got them really excited, and I thought this must be it, hoping to see them actually laying the eggs - is it really quick, all in a spurt, or much slower and drawn out like it is with toads? Twelve of them were crammed in to the pond, but night after night when I'd go to check, a crescendo was rising in my neighbours pond as more and more frogs were joining in a group chorus. They were having quite a party over there, and I feared my frogs would be lured over to all the action and I'd be left spawnless.
Cold weather and things went quieter again. Frogs are nervy. Mostly when I approached there'd be hopping and splashing and they'd all dive down, I'd be just in time to see the back legs frantically pushing themselves under the weed and leaves at the bottom. But sometimes, if I was really cautious, they'd stay on the surface, and then I'd be accepted somehow, and I could move around or do what I'd like, even move them around a little bit, and they wouldn't mind. Still no spawning action though.
I'd begun to tire of popping out every couple of hours night after night, almost giving up on it, until one night taking the dog out last thing. This is always a fearful and much dreaded operation, as there's always the chance there will be a fox in the garden, in which case the dog will go berserk, and I will most likely end up on my face grimly holding on to the lead. The preparation therefore is to rattle the bolts and crash the door about a bit, to let the fox know we're coming. This also has the effect of shutting the frogs up, but on this occasion the croaking continued, quite earnest croaking. And there it was, a delicious blob of tapioca, gently swelling on the surface.
First thing in the morning I rushed out excited, and almost caught them at it. A couple hopped off and left behind an unrecognisable smudge of black, newly-laid eggs like a spoonful of caviar, unswollen with jelly. I hadn't expected it to look like that, I don't know why, but within half an hour it had grown to ten times it's volume, a wobbly lump of loveliness that filled my soul with delight as a child, and still does.
By the next morning the pond was half-full with swelling clumps of jelly, and the frogs had gone. I mourned their departure, but a week later, once again on the nightly dog-run, all that croaking had resumed. Twelve frogs were on the surface, balancing themselves on the shifting masses of spawn - making more. We're now fast approaching a point where the pond is more spawn than water. I reckon about 5,000 eggs maybe?
There's an excellent course about Amphibians and How to Survey for them on Sunday 25th March at Woods Mill, starting at 3.30 in the afternoon and running on into the evening. It's run by professional herpetologist Liam Russell, who knows just about as much as anyone about our frogs, toads and newts. It's well worth signing up while there's a few places left. Check out the website or phone 01273 497561.