Jeepers, creepers, Martha’s Vineyard loves its spring peepers

For decades, Lambert’s Cove residents have listened for the first pinkletink call of the year.

Also called chorus frogs or tree frogs, peepers can make quite a racket considering they are barely an one inch long. —Lisa Vanderhoop

You may have heard them, even if you didn’t know it. Spring peepers, known as pinkletinks, are a favorite herald of spring on Martha’s Vineyard, with a chirp that sounds less like a frog than a birdcall, perhaps crossed with a whistle and a fire alarm. As the weather warms, their calls become the soundtrack to rural Island life, a fact noted in published reports.

Whether because of the marshy ecosystem that pinkletinks prefer, or simply because the residents keep a closer ear out than most, the first pinkletink reports of the spring often come from Lambert’s Cove in West Tisbury, where bragging rights are at stake.

“I’ve been in competition with Alex Goethals for years,” said Nancy Abbott of Lambert’s Cove, who holds the honor of this year’s first pinkletink report, called in to The Times at 7:20 pm on March 20.

“Every year I call in an hour after him, or 15 minutes. We’ve been hearing them since my husband and I built our house here in the 80s, but after the papers started publishing the pinkletinks I started seeing Alex’s name in the papers and I thought, I want to beat Alex.”

“I’m surprised to hear about it,” exclaimed Mr. Goethals in a telephone call with the Times. “We’ve never met!”

Nonetheless, he quickly rose to defend his title. “Most years, I report them first. I heard them March 20 this year, right here in the yard, but I was a little slow calling in.”

“Uh huh,” Ms. Abbott chuckled in a subsequent call with the Times. “Sure he did.”

The perfect place, or the perfect listeners?

Thomas Goethals, Alex’s uncle, was once the listener to beat. “I started following the pinkletinks in the 1940s,” he told The Times. “I heard them every year. I’ve moved a little farther away from the ponds, though, so I don’t hear them as much anymore. Nancy lives next to a pond;  that’s probably why she heard them first.”

Ms. Abbott had a similar opinion. “The pinkletinks are probably heard first on Lambert’s Cove because there are a lot of cranberry bogs here that have been let go,” she said. “They’ve become streams and ponds and kettleholes, little wet spots that the pinkletinks like.”

Ms. Abbott’s neighbor, Sandy Fisher, was the second caller to report pinkletinks this year. She hoped the honor would go to her daughter, Connie Toteanu, who heard them on the morning of March 21.

“She came running in shouting, ‘Mom mom mom, pinkletinks!” said Ms. Fisher. “We used to compete with Anthony Silva. He always used to win before he passed away. He was at the top of Seth’s Pond Hill and his whole backyard was a swamp.”

Ms. Fisher had thoughts on why all the calls come from Lambert’s Cove.

“I used to caretake near Felix Neck, and I didn’t hear them there, like here. I couldn’t tell you anything scientific, but we do have a lot of swamp here. We also keep an ear out, though.”

Alex Goethals agreed. “I have a vibrant swamp outside my window, so I can’t avoid them,” he said. “I’ve been paying attention about 10 years, but it’s unavoidable, I can hear them through the walls.”

Folk wisdom is backed by spring peeper ecoscience. Times Wildside columnist Matt Pelikan, a restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, said that the marsh and wetland aspect of Lambert’s Cove certainly contributed. “They can become almost deafening when you’re up close,” he said. “Physically painful.”

Another reason he hypothesized was the lack of fish, which eat pinkletink larvae.

“But I actually have more questions than answers, like whether blackbirds and redwing blackbirds feed on pinkletinks,” he said. “We forget that how we perceive a species is not how other species perceive them. Hey, they’re a good source of protein.”

Finally, he touched on perhaps the heart of the issue.

“Lambert’s Cove is also where people expect to hear them,” he said.