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October 27, 2005

The fabulous frog woman of Ferndale

by  AMY STEWART


photo of Ellin Beltz. Photo by Beti Trauth.Ellin Beltz is seriously into frogs.

That's right, I said frogs.

I first met Ellin at a meeting of the Ferndale Garden Club, where I was giving a talk about earthworms. My book on the subject had just come out, and I was warming up for the book tour by traveling around to nearby nurseries and garden clubs with my worms. I gave a little talk, people petted the worms and said nice things about them, and we all went home. At that meeting, Ellin came up to me and introduced herself. She said something like, "You do worms. I do frogs."

"OK," I said. When people get together and talk about warm-blooded creatures --- cats or chickens or children --- there's a certain amount of gushing that goes on. But a wormologist and a frogologist (that's actually an oligochaetologist and a herpetologist) get together, they can cut through the small talk pretty quickly. Damp. Slimy. Moss. Shade. Dirt. Got it.

Left: Ellin Beltz. Photo by Beti Trauth.

Since that first meeting a couple years ago, I've been waiting for Ellin's book, Frogs: Inside Their Remarkable World. It's just been published by Firefly Books and no matter what your current relationship with frogs is, this book is bound to improve it. There are male frogs wrestling for territory, lone, contemplative frogs hanging from a blade of grass and --- yes, it's on p. 97 --- even a very small bullfrog eating a very large earthworm. Ouch.

Ellin's relationship with frogs began almost 30 years ago when she bought a house in Chicago. Her daughter, who was 3 at the time, said that she wanted a pond in the backyard. "Then she wanted flowers," Ellin said, "and she wanted frogs --- she wanted nature, basically. She'd been watching too much nature TV."

They took a trip to the country in search of nature. "We found some frogs," Ellin said, "and some turtles, and some water lilies. Very irresponsibly, we brought it all home and dumped it into the pond, and only the turtle survived. I felt really guilty about those frogs."

To learn more about frogs, she took her daughter to a couple meetings of the Chicago Herpetological Society. She learned a lot, her daughter got along with the other kids and pretty soon they were regulars. The society asked her if she'd like to write a column for them, and she agreed. For the last 18 years, she has written a monthly round-up of amphibian-related news --- a kind of "News of the Weird" for the cold-blooded crowd. Recent features include this Quote of the Month: "[Reptiles] are wonderful pets for a busy lifestyle. Plus, they don't bark and wake up the neighbors." There was also a story about a German man who was arrested at an airport in Lima with 450 tropical frogs in his luggage. He claimed he wanted to start a zoo back home. Ellin's headline read, "Noah Only Needed Two of Each."

Her work with the Chicago Herpetological Society led her back to school, where she completed a master's degree in geology and studied the decline of the amphibians and the rise of reptiles 250 million years ago. That led to a guidebook for a museum exhibit, and that led to a phone call from a publisher --- Firefly Books --- who asked her if she'd like to write a book about frogs.

The result is a big hardcover book full of brilliant photographs of frogs and Ellin's clear and useful explanations of their lifestyles and habits. You'll learn about the world's smallest frog, which can perch comfortably on your fingernail and still have room to stretch out, and you'll meet green tree frogs with ruby-red eyes that you can't help but fall in love with.

You'll also meet a few Humboldt County frogs. "We have toads, we have tree frogs, we have red-legged frogs," Ellin said. "We included a photo of a local toad and a bright green Pacific tree frog that's just glorious." But she notes that there aren't a lot of native frogs in Humboldt County. "I couldn't do a book on Humboldt frogs," she said. "It would be more like a bookmark."

Ellin is an advocate for frog-friendly landscaping. She says that there are only two things gardeners need to do to attract frogs in our area. First, stop using chemicals. (Let me repeat that for emphasis: Stop. Using. Chemicals.) Second, think like an amphibian. That means asking yourself some basic frog questions: Where can I hide? What do I eat? Will I mate on your property or somewhere else?

Once you know the answers to those questions, you've got a frog garden. Create frog hiding places like upturned pottery or low-growing shrubs, and for tree frogs, hang little plastic tubs (like butter tubs) from the shrubs and keep a little water in them. If you're near coastal toad habitats, just leaving a few inches of water in a plastic tub will give toads a place to breed. As the water level drops, little toads will hop out. (Toads reproduce in five to six days, so if eggs don't appear right away, you can dump the water so you don't attract mosquitoes.)

"I love gardening for frogs," Ellin said. "That's what got me into it --- gardening for animals in the middle of the city." If you'd like to garden for frogs, or even admire them from a distance, pick up Frogs: Inside Their Remarkable World wherever books are sold, or meet her in Arcata at HSU's Natural History Museum on Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m. She'll also speak to the Fortuna Garden Club on Wednesday, Nov. 9, at 1:30 p.m. at the Monday Club on Main St. in Fortuna. Also, check out Ellin's frog-oriented website at www.ebeltz.net.

Send garden news to amystewart@northcoastjournal.com, or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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