Spring is a season for new life. Lambs can be seen frolicking in fields across the country, gardens are showing the first flush of colour, and birds are beginning to stake out their territory for nesting. But the sign of spring that had me most overjoyed? The humble frogspawn.
Nature’s Calendar, a site run by the Woodland Trust to record seasonal events, uses this as one of the ways of measuring the arrival of spring across the UK. I noticed the first gelatinous mass of eggs on 3rd March, and they were joined by ever more bunches throughout the week.
The frogs themselves could sometimes be seen mating at the bottom of the pond, the male holding on to the female in a behaviour known as “amplexus”. This is Latin for “embrace” and it more or less sums up the process: the male grips on to the female’s back to fertilise the eggs once they leave her body. This position is also a good way to keep away any other potential suitors, which can be numerous. Although the mating of frogs is often described as a roiling, almost violent occurrence, in our pond it was less a sexual frenzy and more a very persistent hug.
The pond itself is rather small, measuring perhaps five feet across and no more than two feet at its deepest. It’s made of preformed fibreglass, and was a gift from my parents. When I mentioned to friends that we were putting in a pond, their first question was always the same, “Are you going to get fish?” And I always responded in the negative: fish need care and eat tadpoles. This pond was strictly for wildlife.
My father actually flew over from Florida to install it in October 2014, and frogs moved in before it was even properly full. However, while I counted seven or eight frogs at any one time, there was no frogspawn the first year. We added a few more water plants, set some rocks around the border to give the frogs a place to hide when out of the water, and waited.
So the appearance of spawn in early March felt like an amphibian seal of approval: they were comfortable enough with our garden and the pond to use it for the next generation. I began an almost daily vigil, watching the eggs change as they elongated from perfectly round full stops to hyphens to the exclamation points of tadpoles.
Most hatched just before Easter, and I was surprised to see them stay in a large, wriggling mass in the centre of the pond. As a child, I had kept tadpoles in a jar to watch the complete metamorphosis of developing limbs, shrinking tails, and the creation of perfect, miniature frogs. Those tadpoles tended to keep their distance from their siblings; I found out why when I noticed that some of the larger ones turned cannibal. With closer inspection, that seems to be what they are doing here as well: they are feeding on the frogspawn that failed to hatch. It is, I suppose, an easy meal and a simple way to recycle nutrients that would otherwise be lost.
Now, about a week after hatching, some of the braver tadpoles are beginning to disperse, finding a place around the side of the pond and feeding on the algae that is starting to grow with the longer, warmer days. The pond is also full of other surprises. While watching the tadpoles today, I caught sight of a newt venturing to the surface for a quick breath before retreating back to the pond weed.
Newts eat tadpoles. But in this case, it seems to be a chicken or egg conundrum: did the newt overwinter near the pond and end up there for the same reason as the frogs, i.e. to breed, or did it turn up recently for a tadpole smorgasbord? Regardless, there are enough tadpoles to support a few newts, and I look forward to seeing how this patch of aquatic wilderness develops.