Amphibian Egg Mass Surveys in Gresham

By Marlee Eckman, AmeriCorps specialist for the City of Gresham

Photos by Bruce MacGregor

Winter is my favorite season in the watershed. When I say this most people groan and protest that summer is superior. However, most people do not see what I see in the winter. Ponds in the watershed during winter are teeming with life… amphibian life.

Winter is when pond breeding amphibians make their way out of the understory and into the shallows. Northern red-legged frogs, Pacific chorus frogs, long-toed salamanders, and Northwestern salamanders can all be found laying eggs in ponds from January to April.

For the last two years serving as an AmeriCorps member at the City of Gresham I have been able to share my love of winter and amphibians with volunteers. Our volunteers make it possible to survey several ponds throughout the City of Gresham and the Johnson Creek Watershed. They head out to ponds every couple weeks sporting waders and polarized sunglasses and count egg masses of our four pond breeding amphibians. The data they collect is part of a regional effort with Metro, Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation District, Clean Water Services and US Fish and Wildlife services to track the presence of the amphibian species in the area.

I had a chance to catch-up with a couple of our volunteers and ask them about their experience surveying amphibian egg masses. Mo and Catherine have surveyed for two years and Phil joined for the first time this year!

Question: Why did you sign-up for amphibian egg mass surveys?

Mo: Saw a tweet for it retweeted by the Sandy River Watershed Council.  Thought like it sounded fun, I love amphibians, and this sounded like a good way to learn more and get more up close and personal with amphibians.

Phil: Living along the Springwater Trail, rarely a day goes by where I don’t walk the dog, run, or bike along Johnson Creek. And while I already held great appreciation for the watershed, my gratitude was only enhanced during the last year of lockdown and quarantine, when a walk along the creek was oftentimes truly the highlight of a day working from home. Egg mass surveys were one small way to give back to Johnson Creek, which has given me so much. And what a fun way to give back!

Catherine: I had a career in water resources and find this to be an interesting project.

Question: What is your favorite part of the surveys?

Mo: I love watching the ponds change even in the short few weeks we are surveying them.  Also, by the last survey there are always tadpoles in the water, and they are SO CUTE!  I also get to see frogs in the ponds too—still yet to see a salamander in the survey ponds though!

Phil: My favorite part of the surveys is watching my partner, who really isn’t particularly fond of mud nor amphibians to begin with, yet after a few minutes into surveying he’s gleefully proclaiming each addition to the egg mass count and formulating hypotheses on the quantitative trends for the different species.

Catherine: I love getting out at that time of year to see early signs of spring. Gearing up for a walk through a pond isn’t something one normally gets to do.

Question: What has been the most surprising thing that you have learned from surveys?

Mo: That these little Red-legged frogs can lay such a LARGE mass of eggs.

Phil: It was interesting to see how selective the amphibians are in choosing a location to live and reproduce. While one of our very small survey pond sites contained many dozes of egg masses, another much larger pond nearby was completely devoid of egg masses.

Catherine: The egg masses themselves are amazing – how they swell in the water and how resilient they were during and after this year’s snowstorm.

Question: What is your favorite memory from egg mass surveys?

Mo: The red-winged black birds that would follow Catherine and me as we surveyed the pond.  I think their nest was somewhere near or maybe even in the pond area.  They were very vocal and always present.

Phil: Finding that very first egg mass felt like finding a hidden Easter egg, or a four-leaf clover. It can be quite exciting to find them once you know what you’re looking for!

Catherine: No specific favorite… I’ve enjoyed myself every time out!

Question: What would you say to someone considering signing up for egg mass surveys?

Mo: Its really fun and you should totally do it!  You will never look at ponds or puddles the same!  And you will get a big smile every time you hear frogs! 

Phil: I would absolutely encourage folks to participate in community science projects such as this.  It’s a fantastic way to aid in collecting valuable local conservation data, and a wonderful personal learning experience to better understand the ecology of your own backyard.

Catherine: Participation is a great way to get familiar with our watershed and efforts by the city to consider amphibian habitat when constructing stormwater features.


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