Barking Tree Frog

One of Virginia’s less common tree frogs has a distinctive call.

After the long, still, silent hours of winter darkness, one of the pleasures of spring and summer in Virginia is the swelling chorus of night sounds that begins with the first few tentative pips from the earliest spring peepers and slowly grows to a crescendo of chirps, croaks, whirs, rasps, and more throbbing in the thick, velvety blanket of an August night. 

It’s a song of many parts, and the performers might vary depending on just where you are in the Commonwealth, from the bullfrog in the pond to the katydids in the treetops to that one really persistent cricket holed up in your laundry room. But only a lucky few of us have ever had the privilege of getting an earful of one of Virginia’s less-common amphibians: the barking tree frog.

According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), Virginia has 28 species of frog, of which six are tree frogs. The barking tree frog—Hyla gratiosa—is the largest of these tree frogs, which admittedly is a distinction somewhat like being the tallest member of the U.S.A. gymnastics squad, given that a real whopper of a BTF might measure in at just under three inches. The frog’s territory ain’t so big either. While barking tree frogs are not uncommon in the coastal south, from South Carolina and into the gulf states, in Virginia they are (mostly) confined to the southeast corner of the state.

More on that “mostly” in a minute, but as to how these mighty pipsqueaks got their common name, you can have a listen for yourself on the Virginia Herpetological Society’s website (VirginiaHerpetologicalSociety.com) and form your own opinion. Does this frog call sound like the distant barking of a hound dog? 

Well maybe, and maybe that’s a stretch, but the thing about frogs is that the best way to find them is with your ears, and by “figuring out what that thing sounds like,” says herpetologist Kortney Jaworski. It’s a helpful mnemonic for remembering what’s your Cope’s or your cricket or your carpenter (“like a hammer on a roof in the distance,” says Jaworski). 

Jaworski is the herpetology curator for the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, which seems like one of the cooler day jobs a person might have; me, I’d happily pass on another round of Slack channel chats and Zoom meetings for a go at whatever “amphibian enrichment activities” might entail. But when she’s not overseeing the care and concerns of the museum’s “herps” collection, one of the parts of her job that she most enjoys, says Jaworski, is education and outreach. In that capacity, she coordinates the local chapter of the nationwide citizen-science project FrogWatch USA, which might more accurately be called “FrogListen USA,” in that it calls on volunteers to learn to identify and monitor local frog and toad populations by sound. That’s where those mnemonics come in handy.

Illustration by Shane Cluskey

While you might think of frogs as aquatic creatures, tree frogs—as their name implies—do actually spend much of their lives up in trees (or occasionally, on a summer night, plastered to one of your window panes). Still, if only for a brief time, they need water, if only a little, to breed. According to the DWR, barking tree frogs might use ponds and swamps but also “ephemeral” sites including roadside ditches, swales, and sinkholes. While most frogs, says Jaworski, typically call from the water’s edge or nearby vegetation, male barking tree frogs descend from their arboreal heights and actually float on the water while calling, like a bunch of dudes drifting on blow-up floats at a spring break pool party. 

Now, here’s your shot at citizen-science glory. Barking tree frogs’ breeding season in Virginia is from May through August, with much of the activity in the late-spring-to-early-summer stretch when we get those nice drenching summer rainstorms. This is the season to listen. And remember that “mostly” qualifier about where they’re found in Virginia? According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR, not to be confused with DWR), “The barking tree frog has been documented in new counties in the past decade, which could be a sign that the species is expanding its range.” 

Could you be the one to record auditory evidence of that new territory?  

There are local FrogWatch chapters around the state that offer training before the start of frog-and-toad season every year. Join the cause, chase the quest, and even if you can’t count a Hyla gratiosa among your finds, you’ll get to hang out in the dark with a nice bunch of amphibian enthusiasts, which in these screen-saturated times, can’t be the worst way to pass a summer evening.


This article originally appeared in the August 2024 issue. 

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