While working in a garden at Columbia's new Hickory Crest development, landscaper Dawn Eareckson saw a toad hop by and wondered how the amphibian managed to avoid being trapped in the window wells of some nearby homes.
She peered into a nearby well this month and "four little frog faces were looking up at me."
Since then, Eareckson has been volunteering to put screens on the window wells, where she has found nearly 100 frogs and toads alive -- about equal the number of dead ones discovered. Tiny brown frog carcasses can still be seen in some wells at the 18-acre community, built by Patriot Homes, next to Hickory Ridge Village Center.
While scientists worldwide are reporting frog population decreases -- with development contributing to the decrease -- Eareckson, 37, is trying to save just a few in Columbia.
It is an irony of development, experts say, that the frogs that Eareckson is seeking to rescue may first have thrived in temporary sediment ponds created by the builder of Hickory Crest.
As development alters ecosystems across the nation, wildlife populations are decreasing and, locally, the problem is "as big as the number of new houses going in," said Sam Droege, a biologist at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Laurel.
Development shifts the environment from complex ecosystems that are home to many species to simple systems that may be unstable. That can result in endangered species, removing a crucial link in nature's food chain, Droege said.
A developed environment usually attracts green frogs and bullfrogs which are easily adaptable. The uncommon species, such as gray tree frogs or spring peepers, won't survive, he said.
Sue Muller, a Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks natural resources technician, said the destruction of habitat by construction is especially prevalent in metropolitan areas along the East Coast because populations are so concentrated here.
Eareckson -- who runs a gardening and oil painting business called Eareckson Art -- is trying to alleviate the problem one frog at a time at Hickory Crest, an 88-townhouse development.
She estimates that she has placed screens on almost all of the nearly 40 window wells, with consent from homeowners who sometimes reimburse her for the $3 she spends on each screen.
"If we're not sympathetic to the little creatures of the world, then there's little hope for the human race, " said Eareckson.
Hickory Crest resident Martha Wiedel lauded Eareckson's efforts. "It's a good thing she's doing," she said. "She's doing it out of her own love of nature."
But Rick Kunkle, president of Patriot Homes, said he has not fielded any concerns from Hickory Crest residents about dead frogs in the window wells, and he has "never heard of that in my whole building career."
"If we have a problem, we try to look at it and be responsive," he said.
Droege said contraptions similar to window wells are sometimes used to trap animals in the wild for scientists to study.
"Animals don't have the same kind of senses that we think they would -- they just blunder along and fall in," he said.
The frogs falling into the Hickory Crest window wells could be those recently displaced from the development's four temporary sediment ponds constructed by the builder about 2 1/2 years ago.
Most frogs favor shallow, murky ponds with standing and floating vegetation for breeding, Droege said. They found such a home at the ponds designed to retain sediment and water runoff during construction. The ponds prevent the sediment and water runoff from flowing to nearby creeks and rivers that run into the Chesapeake Bay.
"If you make a place that's a frog breeding spot, whether you intended to or not, they'll often colonize it," Droege said.
Droege said the temporary sediment ponds could have helped the frog population because they gave the creatures a prime breeding ground. But when the ponds were drained, that left the frogs and tadpoles no place to go and many of them likely died.
"If you come into a development with a bulldozer, you're not just pushing dirt around -- you're pushing animals and plants around, too," Droege said.
Before one of the ponds was bulldozed on a blazing hot day this summer, Eareckson and a friend tried to save the hundreds of frogs and tadpoles living in it. Armed with buckets and covered in mud -- and yelling at the construction workers, "How can you sleep at night?" -- they frantically tried to scoop up the creatures.
"You could just grab without looking and come up with tadpoles -- I felt sick," said Eareckson, who dispersed about 300 recovered tadpoles and frogs to area streams.
Kunkle said temporary sediment ponds are not unique to the Hickory Crest development, and the company is developing the site in accordance with proper engineering and county approval. "Issues like that should be addressed at the public hearing and approval process stage," he said.
Around the world, the populations of more than 200 amphibian species have declined in recent years, with 32 species becoming extinct, according to AmphibiaWeb, created in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley to record the status of amphibians.
Habitat destruction, atmospheric changes and contaminants are among the reasons for the population losses, according to the AmphibiaWeb database.
There are no precise measurements to show population declines over time because amphibian monitoring programs have been established only within the past few years, said Robin E. Jung, a herpetologist at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
Jung said historical data show that some species of amphibians that were reported to be in the Baltimore metropolitan area in the 1940s have not been found since. Population data need to be collected for at least five to 10 years to offer better theories for the disappearance of certain species, Jung said.
"Now, finally, people are beginning to collect this population data on a long-term basis in order to get at these questions," said Jung, who has been studying populations and malformations for two years through the Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative.
In Howard County, frog populations are tracked through Frogwatch USA. Started in 1999, the program recruits volunteers to report information on frog populations throughout the United States.
Muller coordinates the Howard program, which has about 100 volunteers who visit a pond or wetland twice a month and record the types of frog sounds to document the various frog species.
"Worldwide, amphibian populations are declining, and scientists basically want to know why," Muller said. "And one of the first steps is getting out there and seeing what you have."
Eareckson says she will periodically check the window wells once she has placed screens on them all to ensure no frogs have slipped in.
"It's an empowering feeling to feel like you can make a difference in your community, no matter how small," she said. "It's not a matter of people or frogs -- we can all live together."