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Southridge student helps park rangers count frog-egg clusters
by: Jaime Valdez Madalyn Boultinghouse diligently counts red-legged frog eggs.

Madalyn Boultinghouse is petite, polite and perhaps a bit more articulate and cerebral than your average 14-year-old girl.

So it jars a bit when she instructs a male schoolmate to step lightly through the shallow, frog egg-strewn pond she's surveying at the Tualatin Hills Nature Park early Saturday afternoon.

'Do not step on them, or I will bend your arm back until you yell,' she says calmly, evenly, looking her friend Garrett Montgomery directly in the eyes.

While physical violence is likely a rare last resort for the soft-spoken Southridge High School freshman, Boultinghouse clearly takes seriously her love and appreciation of nature, red-legged frog-egg masses included.

That passion - and her meticulous approach to counting the masses as a Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District intern - suits park Rangers Kyle Spinks and Sarah Skelly just fine.

They're in the middle of an annual egg-mass survey of park district ponds and wetlands. The more red-legged frog-egg masses - which the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife list as 'sensitive-vulnerable' - they come across in mid winter, the healthier the district's ecosystems likely are.

Water quality, air quality and native vs. invasive plant life are among the measures used to determine the relative health of wetlands and surrounding habitats.

Interconnectedness

'Red-legged frogs are an indicator species, on the same order of what a bald eagle or peregrine falcon indicate of things happening in an ecosystem,' Spinks says. 'They are pretty affected and pretty noticeable' when things fall out of balance. 'We select a group of ponds every year. We see if anything's there, then we check different locations to get an idea of what's happening. It informs our decision on what we want to do with the ecosystem.'

Actions may include new plantings in some places or removing weed species in others.

'If we do something to help frogs, we're more likely helping a wide range of animals at the same time,' Spinks says.

Variables that can affect the proliferation of egg masses and determine the ecosystem's life-supporting ability include seasonal weather patterns and variations, storm-water and downspout runoff, manmade contaminants and encroaching development.

'Red-legged frogs breed in ponds that typically dry up,' Spinks says. 'Because they're seasonal, they're very susceptible to droughty conditions. There's storm-water runoff. Many of the ponds are collecting sites for downspouts.'

Wading, the hardest part

With Spinks leading the charge, he, Skelly and Boultinghouse are counting and recording the number and location of the egg masses - yellowish-green jelly-like masses interspersed with small round bumps and attached to reeds just below the water surface.

As far as computer technology has come, there is no digital application for this particular task.

The counting entails stepping into chest-high rubber waders and heading out into swamps and ponds. Taking care not to disturb or damage the egg masses, the surveyors tread ever so gently, moving in a zigzag pattern to avoid redundant counting. They pause occasionally to examine or lightly touch the bedding for what will become the tadpoles of tomorrow.

'You move slowly,' Skelly says, 'and try to get a fairly accurate count.'

'We're physically counting the egg masses,' adds Spinks, describing a typical mass as grapefruit-cantaloupe sized and containing '600 to 900 eggs in a jelly bowl. They attach to vegetation coming up through the water column. They don't flow around.'

Like many outdoor activities, egg-mass counting is best on clear, calm days.

'It helps when there's good sun,' Spinks says. 'If it's raining or real windy, riffling the (water) surface, it's not a good day.'

In between rounds of wending through the pond with her friend Garrett, Boultinghouse, working as an unpaid intern, discusses her unequivocal love of nature.

Well, OK, she's not so crazy about those invasive, domineering bullfrogs.

'I can't really have sympathy for them,' she says, then reversing herself. 'You either love all nature or you don't.'

Like most human beings, Boultinghouse is not without conflict in her relationship with nature and survival of the fittest.

'Bullfrogs eat ducklings, anything they can get their mouth over,' she says. 'Why not help animals by getting rid of some that shouldn't be here?'

Going with the flow

The Beaverton native got her first taste of wildlife while visiting a 12-acre farm her grandfather owned in rural Oregon.

'When I was young, I was always in creeks, collecting salamanders,' she recalls. 'It was just something I did in the summer.'

Boultinghouse has applied for a 2012 Youth Conserve Energy Grant, an opportunity she discovered through the Planet Connect Organization website.

Meanwhile, looking for more biology field experience than her school could offer, she thought of the park district and wondered what its programs might offer.

'I got this crazy idea to see what I could do at the nature park,' she says.

Calling Boultinghouse a 'very passionate and motivated teen,' Skelly feels lucky to have her on board.

'It's great to be able to have this opportunity. To have her enthusiasm and time commitment - it really captures what are goals are,' she says. 'Madalyn is just a really exceptional volunteer. She's taken this opportunity and run with it.'

In addition to her role in the annual egg-mass count, Boultinghouse is helping Skelly with a tadpole-ponds project funded through the $100 million park district bond measure passed in 2008. The ranger hopes to determine why the tadpole-survival rate is low compared to the proliferation of red-legged frog masses.

The hope is by improving these crucial breeding areas, we will begin to see increasing numbers of egg masses in all ponds.

Boultinghouse says she didn't need to be asked twice. 'Now I know what I'm doing during spring break.'




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